Photography by Matthew Brandt
Words by Joseph Delaney
It’s rare for an artist to practice in such a way that makes you question the very nature of their medium. It takes great skill, and an expert knowledge, to challenge the perceptions of one’s craft and put into question the manner in which we receive an image by their manipulation of medium alone.
Born the son of an advertising photographer father, some might say Matthew Brandt was born into his trade; around photography from an early age, it might have been expected his naturally leading to an inheritance of photographic interest and, perhaps, skill. But for Brandt it was much more than mere craft inheritance; where the children of many commercial photographers spend time behind their parent’s clicking camera, he spent his in front. This might go some way in explaining his interest in going beyond the physical nature of his craft onto something more than a visual record: the exchange between artist and subject.
Through substituting developing supplies for everyday (though very specific) materials, his images tell a very literal tale of their conception. His series Lakes and Rivers transforms the medium from a visual record of the subject to that of the physical, by soaking the print in water from each specific lake or river it depicts he allows the physical nature of the subject to alter its record. Similarly Portraits, using the subjects’ own, often very intimate, bodily fluids as a tool for developing their individual portrait. Brandt pushes the intimacy of portraiture and questions the nature of the relationship between photographer and subject.
Having a photographer for a father, and being the subject of some of his commercial work, would you say this has affected your relationship with photography in any particular way?
This has affected me in many ways, and is a big concern to me in the photographs that I make today. As a young child I have consistently been the person/subject of my father’s film tests. I have been collecting these ‘tests’ as they pop up here and there. One particular film test was for Fuji Provia 400 chrome 120 film. Throughout the frames of under/over exposures to minute degrees are pictures of me as an 8 year old, crying on the studio rooftop in vivid and spectacular [colours]… these film stills, like Proust’s Madeline, conjured a plethora of photographic relations for me when I came upon it. I realized that this was a way for my dad to spend time with his son, and photography was a way of bonding. But I also learned the distancing characteristics of photography, ‘why was he letting me cry and feel so uncomfortable,… why was he doing this to me?’ I learned about the sacrifices of getting an interesting picture, and I have to admit that my crying pictures are far superior images than any smiling poses at the beginning of the roll… These types of experiences not only had me submerged in the technical capabilities of photography, but also the psychological dynamics of the medium at a very young age.
Your work is quite technically concerned, why photography over painting which I understand you’ve worked with previously?
I have always been interested in depiction/representation… even my very early paintings were essentially about recreating a photographic moment. It seemed that I was repressing this urge to use photography early on because it was so close to me already with my father. It was very natural when I started using photography after moving away from home. A lot of my current work has stronger characteristics of both painting and photography. But historically, they both have not been so far apart for me. I am continually more and more interested in the mechanical reproduction that is inherent to photography in relation to the hand made.
As both a commercial and fine art photographer, how do you find yourself approaching the two differently?
The commercial work to me is a job, being useful; and is always good practice to undertake because there are always tighter deadlines/parameters to abide by, a place where compromise is always inevitable, but there are still opportunities to make something special. It is often refreshing to have this colder outlet to my personal practice (or at least this is what I tell myself).
What is your biggest source of inspiration?
You place a lot of your conceptual emphasis on the physical nature of photographic production, what is it about the film and develop technique that interests you?
I am interested in the physical index of things. Film for me is a more direct link to a subject in that light touches the thing, which touches the film, which after a few touches reaches a viewer’s eyeballs, like a chain of high fives. 0’s and 1’s is a translation process that has replaced this more direct form of image contact relations. I fully embrace the capabilities of digital workflow in my practice, but conceptually, there are inherent gaps within digital photography. But I suspect everyone will get over it in a few more years. I am personally trying to get as close to a subject as I can through process, to the point of going inside and inverting it.
Your work centres on some of the physical elements of the subjects you’re depicting, what is the significance of adding an element of physicality to a visual representation?
My first conscious decision in physically putting a subject in its own picture was with the project ‘portraits’. This came about with the conflation of two elemental circumstances, academic and emotional. I just started graduate school at UCLA for my MFA with specialization in photography, I also just moved back home to Los Angeles from New York. My UCLA studies were in photography, so it seemed logical to start from the historical ground up, and the earliest form of photography I could conceive of using was salted paper printing, and portraiture. In this respect I was also interested in early notions of photography’s ability to capture a person’s essence. I was also back home and hanging out with a lot of childhood friends and family. The salted paper printing method is such a crude form of photography that all you need is paper, salt, and silver nitrate. I realized salt is in almost everything, so I inevitably made photographic portraits of each person and used their own bodily fluid to chemically produce their own image. I could not have comfortably done this without knowing each person very well. It seems logical for a subject’s physicality to assist its own image production.
The nature of photographic development leaves a lot to chance, and your use of unfamiliar substances must make it entirely unpredictable; how does this affect the way you plan your work knowing you don’t have complete control over every aspect (as perhaps you arguably do in digital)?
Chance-operations is always an important aspect to my work. It only seems natural to let things take their own course. There is always the yearning to control, but it is impossible to have control without force. And force is a very tricky craft because it typically harbors contrivance. And contrivance can be seen a mile away. I typically try and let a material or subject take on its own character and run its own course (with me nudging it every now and again). Though I often have specific ideas for a material and/or subject, half the time it doesn’t work out.
Your choice of subject varies quite dramatically, from portrait to landscape, how do you go about choosing the subject of your work?
It is important to me that my work presents itself like a photographic archive of sorts. I try to be democratic in what is represented.
Do you have any new projects planned for the coming months?
I am currently working for a show at Yossi Milo Gallery, NYC for this spring 2012. There will be some new projects and some reiterations. One of the newerish projects I have been working on since 2009. They are photographs that are made entirely from wood gathered from George Bush park in Houston Texas. There will also be some new ‘taste tests’ IN COLOR! …
Can you describe what it is you have done with the camera we’ve sent you?
I have been taking pictures of my very neat and clean studio