Photographer Matthew Xavier Praley on the romantic world of retouching

New York-based photographer and retoucher Matthew Xavier Praley talks us through his sonic inspirations, and finding a sense of calm between “what’s real and what’s fake.”

30 June 2021


Step into the ambient world of photographer and retoucher Matthew Xavier Praley and you find calming, romantic, illusory reworkings of portrait photography. Harmoniously saturated colours pair with languid facial expressions and subtle, detail-focused retouching that elevate Matthew’s work to a unique point of view. Originally from Maryland, Matthew tells It’s Nice That it wasn’t until attending Bard College in New York that he was “pushed to think differently about photography.” As a visual person growing up, Matthew excelled in photography. “But, Bard opened me up to new possibilities and thought processes that I never would have imagined,” he says. The lasting impact of Bard’s classes has certainly helped Matthew as an artist, both in the digital and physical world. He’s mastered the uncanny talent of maintaining a cohesive vision that stays distinct throughout changing compositions, lighting, and models.

It took a fair few steps for Matthew to reach this point though. “I’m a super introverted and shy person,” he says. “Only until my last years in college, photographing people was out of the question.” In his final year at Bard, Matthew finally began reaching out to friends and acquaintances to photograph them. “It was a way to hold these people dear to me and convey my own view of portrait photography that felt sincere and loving towards these people.”

Matthew eventually relocated to New York City with his newfound love for portraiture work, which is also where he began to experiment with retouching and found its most rewarding facets. “Retouching and post-production are at the core of my photographs now,” he explains. It has become his signature visual language, and one which carries the weight of reflective emotion found across all his photographs. “My style of photography is very personal, it comes from memory, isolation, and a feeling of longing for a person or place.”


Matthew Xavier Praley: I could see him on the shoreline. (Copyright © Matthew Xavier Praley, 2021)

Since his work is so deeply ingrained in the personal introspective state of mind, it’s to no surprise Matthew finds his process to be “mostly in the moment.” More often than not, Matthew takes rough, half-formed ideas and then builds on them when he’s behind the lens. “The real part of my photographs comes from the post-production,” he adds. “I feel like I can stream my creativity more effectively when I’m isolated in my room and focused on the computer screen. I can spend hours drinking green tea and just playing around with the images I took and seeing what I can do.”

These hours of post-production pay off. A flick through Matthew’s work often feels like a journey into something more realised than its 2D digital form; sometimes evoking the oeuvre of cinematic icons such as Gregg Araki, and other times working in the same realms of PC Music’s futuristic-based utopian visuals. There is an undeniable cinematic and musical quality. “For me, when I listen to music there’s this visual connectivity that makes me want to create something that visually represents the feelings that are involved in the sounds I hear,” Matthew explains. “It was when this ambient album came out, Mono No Aware in 2017, when my thought process and creativity shifted.” The journey into the beautiful soundscapes of the ambient genre led him to French electronic artist Malibu, and her NTS radio show, United in Flames. “She has since directly affected the way I create images these days,” he says in admiration. “There’s something about the choice of music and sounds that she curates that makes me feel like I’m on the beach and the waves are just pushing me back and forth gently.”

It’s these wholly immersive feelings that Matthew draws on, letting them permeate his retouching process so as to create something of another world in proximity to ours. “I think the blend between what is real and fake is what I’m really interested in as well,” he says of the surreal nature of his portraiture work. “For some reason, we still believe that photographs are the most realistic artistic form.”

As he goes on to make more eye-catching and masterfully retouched work, Matthew hopes to keep finding inspiration in the people and artists he holds near and dear. “Photography is almost like a game to see what someone can do next with Photoshop or their camera,” he says. “It’s really enjoyable to me when people like the photos I take of them”. Now, he has his sights set on potentially doing album artwork (especially for Malibu) and continues to reach out to those he admires artistically. “After losing this last year to isolation, it’s fun meeting new people and catching up.”


Matthew Xavier Praley: CREATION DEVASTATION DOMINATION. (Copyright © Matthew Xavier Praley, 2021)


Matthew Xavier Praley: Sam throwing a sponge at me. (Copyright © Matthew Xavier Praley, 2021)


Matthew Xavier Praley: Joshua bearing the blazing heat. (Copyright © Matthew Xavier Praley, 2021)


Matthew Xavier Praley: I like it better when you’re on top of me. (Copyright © Matthew Xavier Praley, 2021)


Matthew Xavier Praley: Soon your face will fade away. (Copyright © Matthew Xavier Praley, 2021)


Matthew Xavier Praley: Zach. (Copyright © Matthew Xavier Praley, 2021)


Matthew Xavier Praley: Sam brushing his teeth. (Copyright © Matthew Xavier Praley, 2021)


Matthew Xavier Praley: I remember the light being barely there that night, darkness is what I fear. (Copyright © Matthew Xavier Praley, 2021)


Matthew Xavier Praley: It was just a dream, you were there, but you don’t call me mine. (Copyright © Matthew Xavier Praley, 2021)


Matthew Xavier Praley: Dominic. (Copyright © Matthew Xavier Praley, 2021)


Matthew Xavier Praley: Magnus. (Copyright © Matthew Xavier Praley, 2018)

Hero Header

Matthew Xavier Praley: As my memory fades, so does the sound of the birds at dusk. (Copyright © Matthew Xavier Praley, 2021)

Share Article

About the Author

Joey Levenson

Joey is a freelance design, arts and culture writer based in London. They were part of the It’s Nice That team as editorial assistant in 2021, after graduating from King’s College, London. Previously, Joey worked as a writer for numerous fashion and art publications, such as HERO Magazine, Dazed, and Candy Transversal.

It's Nice That Newsletters

Fancy a bit of It's Nice That in your inbox? Sign up to our newsletters and we'll keep you in the loop with everything good going on in the creative world.