We got ‘In the BUFF’ with portrait photographer, Matt Carr! Shedding light on his inspirations, style, and more, Carr shares with us his influences, creative process, and why he uses Paul C. Buff, Inc.
What sparked your interest in photography?
It was a photography class I took in 8th grade. I didn’t know what I was doing but after an accidental success I was encouraged to keep going. I messed around with photography through high school but just for kicks. It was our guidance counselor who suggested I try photo-journalism at University. Once there I became obsessed, and after taking all the photo-journalism classes. I jumped to the art department and took all the photo classes there as well.
What made you choose Paul C. Buff, Inc. for your studio strobe needs?
A friend introduced them to me when I moved to NYC. Initially it was the power and affordability of the lights that got my attention. The latitude of the power output of the X1600’s was a big plus and made it possible to really finesse the exposure. That, and that they’re made to last and the customer service (when needed) is excellent. And once the Vagabond battery came out it got just that much better!
When did photography turn into a business for you?
During my last year at Ball State University I managed to get a full time job at the local newspaper in Muncie, Indiana. I interviewed with a box of prints not knowing what I didn’t know. I didn’t even ask the salary which ended up being slightly more than I was making at Kmart at the time. It was a great learning experience having to produce photographs for two papers (morning edition and the evening press) on deadline.
Do you have a “Go To” lighting setup?
Yes – It’s usually a Rembrandt 3 point (Key, Fill, Hair light). Unless there’s some specific look I’m after. Most of my work I need to get a ‘safe’ shot that’s clean and can be Photoshopped in any direction. Then, if there’s time I’ll have a second (or third) light set up for something different. If I’m working with an art director I always get the image they want then if there’s time I’ll do what I want and offer both. Your favorite may not get used but at least you’ll have something that’s more representational of your view.
What’s your creative process leading up to a shoot?
I like to know who I’m photographing and think of ideas that have some of their personality in the final image. That can determine the lighting and location, if I have the luxury of choosing that. Mostly, I arrive early to scout out locations and do some testing with my assistant. With celebrity and some corporate portraits there’s not a lot of time with them so everything needs to be ready to go when they walk in. That’s when having 2 or 3 set ups ready to go can save you. If you can switch it up 3 times in 10 minutes you’ll keep the subject happy and the art director happy as well. Both are essential to keeping the job.
If it’s a personal, creative image (where the subject is portraying a character), I think of ways to get the subject to give me the look I want. Sometimes inventing a back-story for the person to internalize will help them with the emotion behind the image. That coupled with the lighting and location can bring a beautiful image together. Sometimes I have a very specific image in mind but other times I’ll bring a subject to a location that I believe fits and work it out. The lighting is key to this, as that’s one thing that I can totally control, the others – people, ambient lighting, location issues are more fluid. If I have lights and an assistant it takes most of the worry out of any job or personal project.
What/who influences you and your work?
There are so many great photographers out there. I follow quite a few on Instagram as a way to see where the industry is going and to learn new Photoshop tricks. We’re so inundated with images it’s hard not to be influenced by the work of others. I’ll borrow some lighting techniques or Photoshop styles and apply it to how I work but at the end of the day I do what interests me and try to keep it fresh. I think it’s important to have a consistent style, at least one element that goes through your work so it’s recognizably yours.
What would be your dream photoshoot?
I’m interested in taking the studio on location. I’m starting to do more portraits on film and television sets and I love it! Even if there’s not much time it’s great fun to work with talented actors who are in character, wardrobe and ready to go. It’s collaborative and can lead to fantastic images.
Is there a photographer, either past or present, that inspires you?
I love so many styles of photography it’s a hard question to answer. I’ve always loved street photography so the obvious names are Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank and the not so well known Czech photographer Bohdan Holomicek. I love the obsessive nature of their work, always saying ‘look at my life!’ or ‘look at your life!’.
Portrait photographers like Dan Winters and Pari Dukovic are doing amazing work. You always know it’s them even when they break style and do something completely different.
Do you have a favorite photograph you’ve taken so far in your career?
My series ‘The Book of George’ are some of my favorites. I took a reluctant 80 year old neighbor and did a set of portraits of him as a sort of icon. It’s fun taking a complete stranger and seeing what you sort of image you can create with them. Also my photo of Raymond with Chickens is probably my favorite. I met him in my local pub in Finsbury Park, London and set up a time to photograph him at the local butcher shop. They had to unplug the cash register so I could plug in the light. We had 5 minutes to work and the image ended up in the John Kobal exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in London.
What advice would you give a photographer that is just starting out with off-camera flash?
I’d start with one of the smaller strobes and use it to supplement the lighting you’re used to. Watch a ton of lighting videos and get out there and test, test, test. I used to gather a few friends and try out lighting set ups all the time. Sometimes It’d work, sometimes not so much. But now with digital there’s no film cost to slow you down. Use your friends and family and try things out.
What are your goals for the future?
I’m happy with the direction I’m headed at the moment. I think the best way to get where you want to go is to do personal work for the portfolio that shows what you can do and that will steer your career in that direction.
PHOTOS BY: Matt Carr
About Matt Carr
Matt Carr is an award-winning visual storyteller with a background in photojournalism and a penchant for delivering honest, believable, and beautifully lit scenes.
His photography has been published in The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, ESPN, GQ, Men’s Health, Premiere, and Rolling Stone among other publications, and he has been recognized by American Photo, Hasselblad Masters, PDN, IPA, and Communication Arts.After 10 years working in London and Prague, Matt now lives in Brooklyn with his wife and their spirited 6 year-old daughter.
(Photo credit: Bill Wadman)