As the age-old saying goes: a picture’s worth a thousand words, and in the case of Brighton-based photographer Matt Henry, those thousand words come together to tell a powerful story.
In his series’ Short Stories and Blue River Falls Matt places two images beside one another, setting up a beginning and an end, with the gap in the middle just begging to be filled. These simple yet strong images give the audience’s imaginations room to run wild. It might sound like he’s making us do all the work, but it’s extraordinary how quickly these pairings cause a full-length feature film to just spring into your head. Trust me, he’s done all the heavy lifting.
When looking through Matt’s work, his fascination with America in the 60s and 70s is as difficult to miss as Elvis’ pelvis would be to anyone in the front row. But as a 36-year-old, born and raised in a Welsh town amusingly named Mold, it’s safe to say he’s never experienced the swinging 60s first hand. His knowledge comes purely from his education, and he must have been paying attention because he doesn’t skimp on the details. His ongoing project 1964-1974 focuses on people, as well as the things around them, to give a fullfledged impression of America at that time, and it’s a beautiful impression indeed.
How did you come up with the idea for Short Stories?
They developed fairly organically rather than as a story-boarded body of work like my next project, Blue River Falls. I was conscious of the narrative limitations of photography as a medium when set against literature, or cinema, but didn’t want to get bogged down in shooting a full series for each concept. It takes so long to construct staged photographs in this manner, so I had the idea of working in diptych as a way of extending the story-telling potential of a single image without having to move into a full blown series. Then I’d just consider a storyline and try to show some fragment of narrative, usually avoiding the temptation to show the climax of a scene. I think the narrative strength of photography is in its ambiguity – show a little and trust the viewer’s imagination to develop their own thread. Photography, and history painting for that matter, often fails by trying to do too much.
How did you develop your style of photography? Did you do lots of different things as you honed your approach?
I began many years ago with the intention of shooting fashion as I enjoyed the fact that the images were arranged in stories. But I quickly became frustrated with the limitations of having to work with a beautiful girl in beautiful clothes – imagine if every film you saw had the same constrictions. It’s also a genre that’s heavily commodified, and not a pleasant culture to work in. But I learned a lot about hard, directional lighting working in the studio and this quickly became part of my style. It’s a light that gives very even tones across large areas of colour, giving that overtly graphic feel. But yes, of course there was a lot of experimentation, but once you find your eye I think it’s hard to avoid a personal style. It’s not something I ever think about now.
What is it about America that you are so drawn to? How often have you visited the USA?
I’m often accused of being an Americanophile, but really I’m a cinephile, and most of the cinema that I consumed as a child and beyond originates in the States. They really are exceptional story-tellers and are well-practised in working the emotions of viewers on a level that somehow supersedes their geography. So it’s more the imaginary construct of America I’m interested in, rather than the place itself. I love the pioneer mentality that originates from the relative newness of the nation and the vastness of its space and wilderness, and this sentiment runs through much of its cinema and literature.
The classic symbols of Americana are so loaded. Sit a photograph of a manual labourer from any part of the world against a weathered American in denim, lumberjack shirt, baseball hat and logger boots and they’ll set off such different emotions. There’s a conception of freedom that runs through American narratives that makes them hard to resist. I have lived there for a period of months but I’m not sure if I could have a permanent base there. I feel temperamentally European. Visiting the place is very strange. It’s almost like walking onto a film set. It’s an uncanny feeling that brings me an equal amount of unease and pleasure.
Is your 1964-1974 series making a statement about the past or is it relevant to the present?
I don’t think it’s possible to make a statement about the past without also making a statement about the present, coming as you are from a period with a different social lens. But yes it’s a conscious attempt on my part to draw attention to a period that was marked with a real utopian spirit: the belief that people and protest could really change the world. This was a period that gave us the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war or peace movement, the second wave of feminism, and the Free Speech movement. Incredible things were achieved in a very short period of time.
Contrast that with today’s cynicism about the capacity for change. The neo-liberals are currently in a period of great ascendancy. They’ve convinced the world that there really is no alternative to a system underpinned by the idea that greed is good, even after a catastrophic financial collapse, and in full view of impending ecological disaster. We need to re-discover a counter-cultural voice, and one way to do this is to look to successes in history. My photographic project about the period is ongoing though and still in its infancy. It will take one to two years to finish I think.
Who or what has had the biggest impact on your career?
“What” would probably be growing up in a rural environment in North Wales. This has guided a real belief in the power of simplicity in life and a love for the outdoors. But the American outdoors seemed like my own surroundings magnified – a place with actual bears and wolves! Plus the American wilderness is real wilderness. I visited the Adirondack National Park recently on the back of a job in New York and met a park ranger who said: “Son, seven out of 10 people that get lost in this park, stay lost.” Britain’s forest is farmed, landscaped and manicured and if you get lost, you only have to walk an hour or so to find some sort of dwelling. There’s not the same level of romance.
So set this against nature-based American literature from the likes of John Steinbeck, Raymond Carver, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Throw in Bukowski for the stubborn non-conformity. And then mix in some contemporary cinema; especially anything that explores the outlaw, the underdog, those that live on the margins of society. Early work by Jim Jarmusch, Harmony Korine, Larry Clarke, Gus Van Sant and a host of documentaries: the documentary Hobo by John T. Davies inspired me like nothing else. So nature, film, anarchy; generally not too much photography with the exception of the usual suspects – Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld, Eggleston – and some contemporary guys like Bryan Schutmaat, Ari Gabel and Thomas Gardiner. They’re all people that work in a very different manner to me, but they inspire me greatly.