Matthew Turley is an advertising and editorial photographer based in Salt Lake City, Utah and represented by Bay Area agency Marianne Campbell Associates. In the six years he has been shooting professionally, he has built an advertising and editorial client list that includes The Home Depot, RAM Trucks, IHG, and Bollé, as well as Men’s Journal, Outside, SKI, Bicycling, Entrepreneur, and Discovery Channel Magazine. I’m learning that there are no coincidences, especially when it comes to how I find the next person to interview.
At the time I contacted Matthew, I was training to climb Mt. Whitney. I’m not generally an outdoors person and the weekly training hikes took me to an experience to which I had not given much thought—that by getting out of my car and heading out onto trails and up mountains, I could visit places to which I wouldn’t otherwise have access. And, aside from the memories, this simple act of discovery was the experience and it was finding its way into my daily life which started to feel like as much of an adventure as climbing a 14,600 foot peak. At the heart of this though was the awareness that the Earth was vast and that in my time I would be privileged if I only saw a small part of it.
When I saw Matthew Turley’s work, I recognized something akin to this in his images of the mountains, of which there are many. And when I spoke with him, I learned he was also planning a Mt. Whitney ascent, albeit up the much more demanding climbing route after a 150-mile bike ride. But back to his photography. I also recognized a love for the medium—he often shoots with vintage cameras and lenses—and despite having twenty+ portfolios of work on his site, has an unmistakable visual and conceptual vernacular whether he’s shooting at the top of a mountain, the fjords of Norway or in a pool hall in rural Nevada. His images hold power and acquiescence in balance, a confidence born of knowing one’s right place. They have wisdom and I sensed a depth and deep intent.
I had interviewed Andy Anderson just a few months prior and didn’t realize Matthew Turley had worked for Andy as his assistant and retoucher. I saw some of his influence, but I was interested in the point of departure, the quiet humility and a relationship to vast spaces and our relationship to them (and man’s place in them) that traces its way through his outdoor lifestyle and travel images and also finds its way into his portrait and lifestyle ad work. And how he is able to bring the experience he has at the top of a mountain peak down onto the pages of adventure magazines and into the world of advertising. And where in a Home Depot ad, this same humility and sense of man’s place in the world is transformed into light, expression and gesture.
In the introduction to his portfolio Man and Mountains, he writes “I am fascinated by our terrifyingly vulnerability and relative insignificance as we travel afoot within a brooding natural world.” When I spoke with Matthew, he was deeply thoughtful and kind and at turns serious and funny. A true craftsman, he brought a level of care and respect to the interview that one would need to slowly make their way up a sheer cliff at 14,000 feet or to capture ten shots of the last space shuttle launch on a 4×5 to how he answered every question.
This was one of those interviews that could have lasted for months. I still have questions for him. It was such a pleasure to meet him and get to know his work. And like so many of the best photographers, he shoots what he loves and beauty, inspiration and a little magic are the result.
POP: What is your background and how did you come to photography?
I went to Brigham Young University, initially as a pre-med student for three years studying physics and astronomy. I finished with a BFA in photography and a minor in chemistry. College was hell because everything around me was so fascinating. It took me almost seven years to get one degree—not so much because I was messing around but because I kept taking classes for fun—geology, astronomy, humanities, side classes. The library was the worst place to study because it was full of interesting books. Whether it’s more of a strength or weakness, that same quality follows me today. I’m constantly distracted by things and I like to think it keeps me well-rounded. I love learning new things and mixing it all together.
POP: After college you moved to New York. What were you shooting when you were in New York? Was this a time when you were trying out different styles? How did you narrow down your understanding of who you are and how you wanted this to come through in your work?
Well, actually after college I ended up working for Andy Anderson in Idaho for a while, which was where my real photo education took place. It was after leaving Andy that I ended up following a girl to New York and getting married. Honestly, I had no business living in Manhattan. It just wasn’t me. I had gone from living in an isolated cabin in the mountains to a noisy apartment in Spanish Harlem. Unfortunately, our marriage didn’t work out very well either and I found myself back in Utah less than two years later. That said, I totally appreciate the time I spent in New York. It was there that I really got my business underway—I had my portfolios made, developed my website, and developed some great client relationships.
However, unlike a lot of people, I never felt a lot of pressure to live within a large market like New York. I believe you can be a commercial photographer in today’s world anywhere you have the internet, FedEx, and an airport—something I learned from Andy, who was living proof of the idea by being based out of a tiny town in Idaho. I figured I could continue building my relationships with clients in bigger markets like New York, Dallas, and Los Angeles while living the life I wanted from afar.
POP: Did you have a rep before you moved back to Utah?
No. While in New York I spent a fair amount of time looking, but it wasn’t until I returned to Utah that I got a few offers including one from a particularly large, reputable agency. But as tempting as that was, it just didn’t feel right. I had always liked Andy’s relationship with Heather and decided to hold out for a similar fit. Eventually a friend suggested I talk with Marianne. When I called her up she was very enthusiastic and suggested we should meet up the next time I was in San Francisco so I said, “How about this week?” I flew down a couple days later to meet her and it was immediately apparent that she was the right person to represent me.
POP: What do you think most inspires your work?
I’m inspired by a lot of things, but it’s hard to ignore the influence I’ve felt from the mountains and by being outside. I’m originally from Idaho and spent a lot of my life in the mountains, climbing and skiing, so naturally it informs the way I look at the world. Ultimately, one’s vision comes from your background. I think I’m most successful when I can align my work with who I am. It’s a delicate balance between responding to ever-changing subject matter while staying true to yourself.
It really comes down to a sense of scale for being human. A sense of man’s place in the world. A humility. I have a hard time photographing people in a heroic style. Even in my sports and action work, I am uncomfortable with pure adrenaline. This is something from my experience outside. Mountains are very humbling. You can think you’re something until you spend time in mother nature.
POP: What do people look for in your work?
I have no idea. I’m sure it’s different for everyone, and can only hope they’re finding it, even if I haven’t completely found it yet myself. With art, you do what you do and at some point you relinquish control to your audience and hope that something resonates with them. I hope that they are getting the emotion that I’m feeling, but maybe they’re not. I’m not in the business of controlling my audience’s emotions. All I can do is create something and hope they get something out of it as well.
When I first started out in photography, I was very interested in this idea that I could create a photograph that would elicit the same response from everyone. I gave that up a long time ago. I think it’s a lot less direct than that. Literature is the same way even though you’re using words. People create things and whether they were conscious what it is or not, we take something from it. Everybody is bringing something to it.
POP: In the introduction to your portfolio ‘Men & Mountains’, you write that “…although we may be granted the privilege to stand briefly on a mountain summit, it is foolish to imagine ourselves as conquerors.” I find that this natural reverence and respect is present in and evoked by many of your images. Is this conscious?
Not really. Once I get behind the camera, I’m usually not articulating ideas in my head or making conscious connections between my thoughts and experiences and what I’m shooting. It’s a little late for that I think. It’s probably more like food, you know, as in ‘you are what you eat’, but it’s not like your day is going to be dictated by a bran muffin you had for breakfast. It’s the cumulative effect of a thousand little doses over time.
I actually wish I were more conscious of the process. Occasionally I’ll look back at one of my images and think, ‘I wish I’d thought of that.’ It sounds dumb, of course, but I think it reflects the process inherent in the photographic medium, which allows you to be unconscious behind the camera and then take credit for what you’ve managed to find in the edit.
POP: You’re inspired by the mountains and the outdoors. When did you start shooting people and how do you bring the same sensibilities to your portrait work?
The first I seriously started photographing people was while working on my Men & Mountains project. I certainly wasn’t making portraits in the traditional sense, but I think I was in the middle of some kind of existential realization that the landscape had little meaning outside of a human context. It just exists. Not that it can’t be fascinating on its own, but once man enters the frame things becomes infinitely more interesting. Most of my portrait work has evolved from that same intersection of people and the landscape.
POP: So much of your work is either landscape-based or related to nature and the outdoors. What is your philosophy on retouching, compositing and CGI?
In a way I’ve come full circle. From the beginning I had always gravitated towards photography which was relatively pure—sort of a group ƒ/64 philosophy. But in school I started experimenting with compositing, found I had a knack for it, and ended up working as a retoucher where there wasn’t much of anything left that was sacred.
That background has definitely worked to my advantage in my commercial work where retouching is so often necessary to remain competitive within the constraints of time and budgets, or when concepts push the boundaries of reality. But in the last few years I’ve begun to rediscover the power of straighter, un-composited photography—at least in my personal work—preferring to spend my time in post working with color. Not that my photography is very journalistic, I just find myself craving authenticity in the face of this ever-widening gulf between reality and photography, including much of my own.
POP: What influences your color palette?
I know I’ve been influenced by other artists, but color is where I often like to make my departure from reality. I have very little interest in completely representational color, so you’ll probably never see me with one of those white balance color charts. There’s just so much to be said with color. It’s like timbre in music, where the same notes can be expressed and combined in a million ways, and each type of instrument has a unique range of emotional response.
POP: You shoot a lot of personal work. Where do you get your ideas and inspiration?
My personal work usually tends to follow the course of my life, which is more serendipitous than planned. I’m much more of a finder than a producer which probably explains why I never got into studio shooting. It’s almost like my photographer self follows my curious scientist self around, poaching shots over his shoulder.
Inspiration seems to have its own delivery schedule, which apparently I’m not privy to. All I can do is keep asking questions, keep exploring ideas, keep looking around. Ideas are always churning in my head, and most get tossed out, but every once in a while there’s one that resonates with who I am.
POP: How do you bring this level of inspiration to shooting say a RAM truck or Home Depot campaign?
Well, it’s a little different with commercial work where the idea is someone else’s and you have to get on board as best you can, which is sometimes difficult, but you find ways to identify with the concept and to see where your strengths fit in. With both of the campaigns you mentioned it was refreshing to actually have the creatives discuss with me why they chose me.
For instance, I didn’t have a single automotive image in my portfolio when I was up for RAM, but they told me how much they appreciated my sensitivity to the landscape, as well as their familiarity with and confidence in my ability to assemble the composites on a super tight schedule.
That said, I often find that the collaborative process itself is what’s most inspiring—all these talented people working together to create these intricate, calculated scenarios. Even then, however, there’s always a point where I revert to being a finder, since the more I direct the worse it often gets. You’ve got to allow for chance and imperfection to play a role, otherwise things feel too staged.
POP: How did you get the shot of the two climbers at dawn?
That was from a shoot for Fortune magazine. I got the assignment to shoot the owner of Black Diamond equipment. I picked that location because it was striking. It’s on a ridge twenty minutes from my house that we climb quite a bit for training. It’s 2,000 – 3,000 feet, a fun scramble. I shot it on a Speedgraphic, hand-held 4×5.
The editor actually went with another shot for this one. I’ve actually started speaking up more when an editor doesn’t choose what I consider to be the best image. I would love to get to the place where Dan Winters is and just hand in one shot.
The editor knows what they’re going for, but I’ve been pleased to find that when I’m respectful, it’s recognized that it’s not strong-arming or being stubborn, that they appreciate the ability to collaborate. The photographer is telling the story too. For example, they might choose the image with an intense expression when the subject wasn’t intense.
POP: What is on your studio walls?
Just a Bradford Washburn poster for now. It’s an aerial photo of some climbers on a ridge in the Swiss alps. I love how Bradford used photography to bridge mountain exploration, science, and art. Someday I’ll swap it out for a real print.
POP: How did you differentiate from your mentors?
I think you have to trust that as a unique person, you’ll create unique work. There’s little point in being less yourself for fear of duplicating someone else, so it’s more about finding and staying true to yourself. It’s obvious that I’ve been influenced by Andy—I mean, the main reason I wanted to work with him was because his work resonated with me. But we’re very different people and bring different things to the table. In fact, I like to think I’ve influenced him as well to some degree—who knows?
POP: I see a lot of him in your work, but of course your images are very different and your own in terms of subject matter, composition and tone.
An artist gets no satisfaction from simply imitating someone else, but there’s also no such thing as art in a vacuum. Everyone’s related like some massively complex genealogy.
I am more inspired by photographers whose work is outside of what I do. I’ve stopped looking at other photographers who are like me. It’s kind of distracting in a sense and doesn’t bring anything new to the table. I also have no interest in duplicating what anyone else is doing—I look for the differences and work that is different than what I do. I’m inspired by photographers like Christopher Griffith and Nadav Kander.
POP: Are you shooting motion?
Not at all for now. I still have a lot of aspirations with photography and I don’t want to get distracted. Some people can do both, but I imagine many are just doing their work a disservice. The other thing is there’s just so many moving parts to shooting motion – at some point I feel I’d have to give up that sense of sole authorship that got me into photography in the first place.
POP: How is this different from collaborating with an AD?
Good question. I guess it’s because despite the collaborative process, which I actually love, I’m ultimately responsible for crafting the final image. It’s a lot different from handing a bunch of raw footage off to a chain of people for editing, color grading, rotoscoping, etc. which is too fragmented for me. Maybe I’m a bit of a control freak that way. Which is also why I do my own retouching. I want to have my hand on the image from start to finish. It’s funny, I still do retouching for some other photographers, but I could never imagine doing that myself. It’d be like having someone else raise your kids.
POP: Given this, what is your process for working with other photographer’s photos?
It can definitely be a challenge, especially if the client wants a treatment similar to one of my images. I’ve made it a principle to always give my clients’ work the same attention I would my own, but I find myself volunteering far fewer suggestions these days, at least as far as style goes. It’s much better when they bring their own vision and we go from there.
POP: How much of your work is shot on film and large format?
Nearly all of my personal work is shot on large format film and I still push for shooting large format on jobs when it’s appropriate, but that’s getting harder to rationalize to clients who have come to expect the immediacy of digital.
POP: Have you worked with an AD or client who understood this difference?
SKI magazine hired me to shoot the Canyons Resort in Utah. I called them and told them I wanted to shoot in on 8 x 10. The resort had been shot to death and I didn’t want to shoot it the same. The AD took it to the editor and they approved it. I told them my max shutter speed was 1/125 and that there would be a lot of motion in the shots. I also wanted to shoot on a lens from 1890 that has some very unique fall-off and vignetting.
This is what I like about the older cameras and lenses I use. They’re very optical and distinct. the images a very unique look that is not reproducible in post. It gave these images a very different sense of place.and made the environment seem like the place. It’s this gorgeous motionless landscape with these transitory skiers going through it.
It cost quite a bit more, but they were on board. It was 4 – 5 days of shooting and the selects started coming in and they had the flaws and imperfections of shooting on 8 x 10. They have re-used the images in many Best Ofs and they got a lot of feedback. I think it resonated with them.
POP: Why did you decide to shoot the Space Shuttle with a 4×5? If you can make digital look like film and it’s a fast-moving subject? (The photos are amazing. They remind me of the photos from the 50’s of the atomic bomb tests.)
I think art has a lot to do with how you choose to limit yourself, and I think there’s an element of that, but shooting large format isn’t actually as difficult or limiting as it might seem. The biggest challenge for me is usually dealing with TSA and airline carry-on limitations. In this case I knew I’d have a day and a half to scout locations, and hours to set up beforehand on the morning of the launch. I figured I could shoot one, or maybe two magazines of film (6-12 sheets) before it disappeared into the clouds, but you really only need one shot, right? Even if I’d shot it at 10fps, I’d just end up with a ton of outtakes. I guess I just thought, if I’m going to go all the way out there, why not shoot it how I like to shoot?
And that’s really it, the main reason I shoot large format is how it affects me behind the camera—the effect on the image is, in a way, secondary. I’m more relaxed and comfortable shooting on a view camera—there’s a certain ritual inherent in the process that slows down the pace, alters how I approach the subject, alters how I frame the image. If I were to shoot the same subject with an SLR and view camera, I would come away with very different images. So it’s not so much of a technical consideration like it used to be, as it is a personally aesthetic one. Sure, I end up with incredibly detailed images shooting 4×5, but it’s not much more than my digital Hasselblad—but the experience behind the camera is totally different, which in turn, ultimately determines the look of the finished image.
POP: Dream job/client?
Wow, I can think of a lot of dream clients. Right now, I’d love to be shooting a really clever tourism campaign for some far off place that could really use more visitors, like Tajikistan.
POP: What are you working on or thinking about right now?
In a way, I’m in between ideas right now. I would say I’m on a search for authenticity right now. I’m at a point where I feel like I’m repeating myself and want to do something new. I think I’m burned out on all the post and compositing. I want photography to be more and maybe I’m asking too much.
The stuff that I’m most inspired by right now is Nadav’s Yangtze or Burtynsky’s mines or oil project. I want to shoot something on par with that. My favorite photographers have melded together art, commercialist and journalism. Or at least fine art and commercial and have a career in commercial art. I want my photography to be important in a larger sense of myself. I want it to mean something beyond just a pretty picture.
I’ve been a believer for a long time that there’s not a hard line between fine art and commercial art. So much of what we turn to are commissions—the Medeival cathedral art and Ansel Adams. Art for art’s sake is kind of a modern notion.