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Interview: Photographer Jordan Matter Shoots From the Hip with "Dancers Among Us"

Jordan Matter | Photographer | Stated Magazine Interview

Photographer Jordan Matter

(All photos: Thomas V. Hartmann)


By Thomas V. Hartmann, Photography Editor & Contributor

New York photographer Jordan Matter may be the quintessential “people photographer.” Matter specializes in headshots and comp cards for a large client list of models and actors that includes Alan Cumming, Michael Gaston, and other notables, but he also shoots fashion, weddings, and more. “If you’re breathing,” Matter says in his Twitter profile, “I want to photograph you.”

While his day job keeps him plenty busy, Matter also makes time for personal projects. For his 2009 book Uncovered, he photographed over 100 New York City women, all of whom agreed to pose topless. Not a big deal, you might say, only Matter also convinced his subjects to pose IN PUBLIC, in the middle of some of New York’s busiest and most familiar spaces. The resulting images succeed in both underscoring the beauty of the female breast and challenging taboos on nudity—specifically the notion that, in public, a woman’s body is something to be covered up.

For his latest project, “Dancers Among Us,” which will culminate in a book to be published by Workman in Spring of 2013, Matter once again is taking his subjects out into the street—but this time he’s also dragging himself across the US, to shoot elite dancers in every region of the country. As with “Uncovered,” Matter’s aim is to challenge viewers to think differently about his subject. Also, by depicting dancers well outside the walls of the rehearsal studios and concert halls in which they are typically photographed, Matter says they come to symbolize the possibility of “joy in the everyday,” which, he feels, too many of us fail to recognize.

Matter spoke with stated’s Thomas V. Hartmann about the unique challenges of shooting dancers, the cameras and other gear he depends on, and why location scouting is highly overrated.

Photographer Jordan Matter Photographer Jordan Matter

stated: Tell us how the idea for Dancers Among Us took shape?

JORDAN MATTER: It was two things: first I met the dancer that inspired it for me, and then I came up with the idea by watching my son play. So, I was photographing a dancer with Paul Taylor. His name is Jeffrey Smith, the first dancer I ever photographed, and he was just so beautiful I wanted to find a way to photograph him that hadn’t been done a thousand times already. All I had ever seen from passing knowledge of dancer photography were beautiful photographs taken in the studio or beautiful photographs taken outside, but I hadn’t seen any photographs that put the dancers in an everyday environment in order to humanize them in a way, and I hadn’t seen anything that used humor. So I was watching my son play—he was three at the time and he had this incredible imagination—and it was all about the little things in life, and I started wondering why, as we get older, we don’t take joy in the everyday little moments as well, why they just pass us by.

The idea of using dancers to embody joy in everyday moments came to me, and I asked Jeffrey if he could get me access to the Paul Taylor Company, which, incredibly, he did, and 10 of their dancers volunteered their time over the summer in 2009 to walk around with me as this idea was formulating itself. I didn’t really know what it was at first, and then as we would shoot over and over it became more clear what the direction was—it was really them, their immense talent that allowed me to use my imagination and then they could do what I saw in my head.

stated: How has Dancers Among Us evolved since you shot the very first pics in the series?

JORDAN MATTER: It’s gotten clearer in my mind about what I’m trying to say, and it’s become a much broader series. Initially, I thought it would be a small series for the Paul Taylor Company to use for themselves and then it became something where I’m traveling all over the country and shooting dancers in every region and incorporating all kinds of different environments. Initially it was all about dancers among other people, but now…well, it’s very clear that we don’t spend most of lives around other people—a lot of our lives are spent in private moments—and so I’m trying to photograph those as well. And I’ve also started, I think, as the series has progressed, I started to look at the humor in life more. Now the new turn it’s taken is towards finding less joyful moments to photograph because there can be beauty in those moments as well. So when I went to Chicago I photographed in a cemetery and I photographed in industrial areas trying to embody beauty there as well as in more obvious scenarios.

stated: You mention the Chicago shoot, and I want to encourage readers to visit your blog to check out the behind the scenes commentary and video featured there and also to find out what the mysterious black substance was that you asked one of the dancers to roll around in…

JORDAN MATTER: (Laughs) She rubbed herself from head to toe in that stuff.

stated: (Laughs) I’m not sure I could have asked her to do that…

JORDAN MATTER: I’ve done about 200 images by now and given some of the stuff I’ve asked these dancers to do, that was pretty mild. There was no risk of personal injury—I mean I’ve done some stuff that was pretty extreme, because I find that the more extreme, the more exciting the image. The dancers have this incredible willingness to do almost anything, and I’ve started telling them all before we start, “be safe, because I’m going to push you, and I want you to be in charge of your body and I want you to tell me if I’m asking you to do something you can’t do.” So, yeah, having tar on her body for a few weeks [laughs] was no fun, but she wasn’t going to get hurt, [as could] someone who’s hanging off of a cannon from, like, 50 ft. in the air or…other kinds of crazy stuff.

stated: You’ve asked dancers to dance in the rain, to play with strangers‘ dogs…

JORDAN MATTER: There’s a shot of a woman in a red jacket and umbrella in front of Macy’s—she was from Paul Taylor—that was my first really crazy scenario, trying something that was very risky. She was jumping in heels in a downpour, a summer storm, and she jumped, I can’t remember the number, but I think 96 times in the course of 10 or 15 minutes.

One of the things [working with] Paul Taylor did for me is they set the bar pretty high. Once you get the best dancers in the world working for you first, then your expectation is that everybody can do anything, and so I had to learn to create an image based on what a dancer’s strength is. So one of the questions I ask when [I begin a new shoot] is, “What is it that you do well, and how can we create an image around your strengths that also makes sense with the scenario?

(Dancers Among Us: In Harlem)

stated: Since you’ve set out on the road and started photographing dancers in other cities around the country, what’s been your favorite location so far?

JORDAN MATTER: Wow. That is almost an impossible question to answer because the location has to do with the scenario and the person in it. I wish I could say that I had one…I know it would be easy to answer if I could say this one place blew my mind, but it’s just getting better and better. I’m finding everywhere I go the pictures are more clear and more informed and more interesting than they were the time before, so I’d have to say Chicago (laughter), but that’s because I was just there. I’m going to Philly next weekend so if you ask me in a week I’ll probably say Philadelphia.

stated: Is there a sort of “off-limits” place that you fantasize about potentially shooting dancers, some place you’re not likely to get access to, for example?

JORDAN MATTER: The New York Stock Exchange. I really want to photograph in the Stock Exchange. I want to have a dancer absolutely frantically crazy running across the floor to make that trade…yeah, I can’t get access there. A jailhouse would be fun. The occasional high-profile location would be terrific.

stated: You talk a bit on your blog about the cameras you’ve used—I know you’re a Nikon shooter—but I’m wondering what other essential gear you bring with you when you do the shoots for “Dancers Among Us.” For example, what lenses do you pack in your bag and what other kind of “can’t do without” gear do you bring along?

JORDAN MATTER: I recently discovered that the 14 to 24 2.8 lens is almost essential. I just started shooting with it, and I can’t believe I spent two years not using it. I love the effect of that wide-open look for certain shots. Also, I use the 85 millimeter and 28 millimeter 1.4 and the 70 to 200 2.8. Those are the main lenses I use. There’s a train shot that’s on my Facebook page of this woman who is jumping over the train and the train is right under her legs and it looks like it’s very close and it was close, but it was compressed because of the 200 millimeter, so it brings it closer. If I want the background to get closer to the subject, I’ll put out the 28 and the 200, and if I want to really get that wide, wide feeling then I’ll use the 14. The 28 and the 85 are also great for interior evening shots when I have to shoot at 1.4 or 2.0 or something like that.

stated: And what ISO’s do you find yourself using most frequently?

JORDAN MATTER: I use the D3S and I try not to go above 1600, but I’ve shot as high as 4, or 5,000 and it looks pretty good, but we haven’t printed the book yet (laughs), so I don’t know. I feel safe with 3200 with the D3S.

stated: What’s your process like once you’ve finished one of the shoots? For example, do you start editing right away or do you let the images ferment for a bit and come back to them after a couple of days?

JORDAN MATTER: I let them ferment just long enough to make myself a cup of coffee when I get home, and then I go through them all. Usually, I already know. The editing process is incredibly short, surprisingly, because I don’t do any re-touching and I pretty much have an idea in my head which shot it is by the time we’re done shooting.

stated: So you do no tweaking in terms of, say, saturation or maybe a little bit of sharpening?

JORDAN MATTER: Not really because now they’re primarily web-based images. So maybe a tiny bit of vignetting just to bring out the dancer a little and when they’re in a magazine or something I usually do a little bit more. For the most part the way I shoot it is the way I see it and I want to be as close to representative as possible. I want to avoid the temptation to really overdo it because I want it to be raw. Not snapshot-y, but a little more representative of real life and less polished and less perfect.

stated: Which photographers have inspired the work that you’re doing for the series? On your website you mentioned a couple of photographers who have broadly influenced your work, but I wonder if you can talk specifically about people whose work you feel has influenced your approach in Dancers Among Us.

JORDAN MATTER: I feel like I should give you a name so I don’t sound totally self-centered… Maybe Cartier Bresson? His work may be the closest because it’s about capturing everyday moments, which is a kind of work that I love. There are several photographers who did that so well, and I want my work to have a bit of that flavor, even though it is staged… I’ve taken inspiration from individual shots, like that Avedon shot of the model crossing the street with an umbrella which was the inspiration for the Macy’s shot I took, so there are individual photos I try and emulate. I love the work of many other photographers, but for this body of work there isn’t one in specific who’s been an inspiration.

stated: One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about reading your blog was all the behind the scenes content. I’m a bit of a junkie for that kind of stuff, and I wonder, if you could have a similar behind the scenes look at another photographer’s work, who would it be?

Jordan Matter Jordan Matter
Jordan Matter Jordan Matter

JORDAN MATTER: Honestly, anybody—because I would relate to it so directly, it’s so much fun. I would probably want to see people who exist in a world that I don’t exist in, like celebrity portraiture—Annie Liebowitz, for example. Because that world is so foreign to me it would be very interesting to see the high stakes of that and to watch that process unfold from start to finish. I think that’s an incredibly challenging type of photography to do because so many people’s hands are in it, you know?

In a full circle kind of thing, the Paul Taylor Company hired me to do their 2012 campaign for their move to Lincoln Center, and they hired me to do it in a Dancers Among Us style. So, it was the first time that I was shooting that way, but with people I had to satisfy. There were a lot of people there and we would have to review the images, and the dancers could only do a certain number of jumps before they had to stop because they couldn’t be too tired for rehearsal, so it was very creative, but it was a different approach. Photographers who work within that kind of restrictive environment, I admire them a lot because it just adds an extra challenging, stressful element to what is already a pretty stressful experience.

stated: How important is it for you to be part of a community of photographers, and how do you connect with other photographers on a regular basis?

JORDAN MATTER: It’s important to me. There are a lot of lectures and stuff you can go to in New York City and I do as much of that as I can. Also, I’ve been on panels… I was on one panel in particular where the other photographers were so gifted—some were National Geographic photographers—and I’ve gotten to be friendly with them and we have a collaborative relationship now, which is very helpful to me.

stated: How long have you been doing your blog, and what prompted you to start blogging in the first place?

JORDAN MATTER: To be totally honest, I started it for the SEO content. I was told by my web designer, “You should start a blog and make sure you use certain keywords so that people find you when they search,” and so I started a blog about dance photography, but I didn’t find that inspiring. The first six months there weren’t many entries and they weren’t very deep, and then I had this really great shoot and afterwards I wrote about the process, and all of a sudden a lot of people read it, and I realized this was a way that I could connect with people—communicate to them what I do and get feedback on it, and a lot of people responded in positive ways. So now [the blog] is really about, I guess you could say, pulling the curtain back, and revealing my process, revealing what I go through and how I overcome certain challenges. We all face challenges no matter what we do, and if someone reads about my approach and gets something positive out of it, that’s really great.

stated: Have you encountered clients who have read your blog and who contacted you because of the spontaneity of your approach, which is something you write about quite a bit?

JORDAN MATTER: Yeah. That was the whole reason why the Paul Taylor Company hired me—because they wanted a fresh, spontaneous approach. They’d been doing their promotional materials in a specific way for years, and they wanted something that was fresh and exciting and maybe a little dangerous in a way, and they gave themselves over to that philosophy. We spent 4 days shooting where I would show up and I wouldn’t know exactly what we were going to shoot—that’s kind of unheard of for a big promotional campaign, to arrive with just a couple of cameras and a couple of lenses and say [to one of the dancers who was to be photographed for the campaign], “Ok, the light’s good over there right now… Hmm… OK, you’re going to jump out of that bus.” And then I’d have to ask the bus driver and give him ten dollars, and then the dancer would jump for a minute and I would shoot, and then we’d wait a minute and then she’d jump again and I’d shoot some more—that’s what the process was like, and the campaign turned out phenomenally, totally different from anything that had been done before in that world—and it all came out of the spontaneity they knew I would bring to the project.

So people who want things really planned and really meticulously thought out and pre-produced probably aren’t going to be interested in me—but then they probably wouldn’t be interested in my images anyway. I don’t think I could shoot the images the way I shoot them if anything was planned out, and a lot of times that stresses me out, because I’m in a spot and I think, “I should have thought about this ahead of time because this is all wrong,” but then I end up finding something better than what I would have thought of, so that’s why I don’t spend a lot of time pre-producing.

stated: And you take a similar approach with the portraits and weddings you shoot?

JORDAN MATTER: Yes, everything. For example, right now I’m doing a comp card—like a fashion shoot—for a model’s portfolio, and once again we’re looking for light, looking for locations, and not knowing exactly what we’re going to do. I just absolutely love working that way, because it’s so exciting when you find it. You have to trust that you will find it and not stress out if you spend 20 minutes and you don’t see it yet. I have a thing where if I’m shooting something, I’ll shoot it until I get it, and then I’ll try a totally different angle, a totally different approach to it, and shoot it again—even if I’m sure I just got it. A lot of times the new approach is even better.

stated: I wanted to ask you about your earlier series, Uncovered, and how, in your mind, Uncovered and Dancers Among Us relate to one another…

Jordan Matter

JORDAN MATTER: Well, compositionally they’re similar—you take the everyday situations and you add a twist. Uncovered deals with much more than just the photographs, it deals with the women’s words and the body image issues that women feel—which is something that relates directly to Dancers, actually. Dancers deal with a lot of high stress and extremely negative reinforcement in that environment, and dancers—both men and women—are always very, very critical of themselves and always think that they could be better. The same is true for many women, so I see [Uncovered and Dancers] relating in that way, primarily.

: Supposing one or both of your children were contemplating a career in photography. What advice would you have for them?

JORDAN MATTER: I guess the first thing I’d say is that if they feel like they always want to be shooting then it’s probably the right thing for them to do. But if they find it laborious in any way, they should look for something else. And if they do love it and want to do it, then they should look to the familiar first. A lot of times photographers feel like they need to go out to the world to shoot, and I would say find what you know the most, what you’re most familiar with, and start by photographing that—your family, your friends, your environment—and find a way to represent those things that are intimate and personal.

I’d also say try and have a sense of humor, because photographers are very self-serious, and we need to have something that’s light, that makes people smile. That goes a long way.

The last thing I’d say is just always be shooting. There’s never a time when you shouldn’t be taking pictures. The more you’re shooting, the more you’re learning.

stated: Jordan, thanks very much.


[Editor’s Note: Jordan Matter was previously featured on the stated daily blog.]


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