Seeing quickly, moving slowly: the Matt Stuart way

There are probably nearly as many workshops around these days as photographers, but when the chance to visit a nearby capital city I’d never visited before (Brussels) arose at the beginning of October, in the company of Matt Stuart, all tied in with a Street Photography Festival, it was an opportunity too good to pass up.

I’ve been a keen follower of Matt’s work for over a decade now, ever since the genre of Street Photography was reasserting itself in the digital age, as the place where an observant eye could transform mundane everyday surroundings into moments of pure magic and theatre. Even though the label is not one that Matt assumes with any special emphasis – he is an excellent professional photographer per se – the categorization has served him well over the years and he is regarded as having captured a number of urban scenes that have now established themselves as icons of Street Photography.

© Matt Stuart

© Matt Stuart

Having just run a weekend workshop in my home town of Nantes, it was interesting to take on the mantle of student once more and discover what more I could learn about this craft.
Matt is a very astute observer of body language and a great proportion of his skill lies in his ability to pick up signals relating to people’s gestures. Many of his best pictures are testimony to this.

© Matt Stuart

Out with the group in Brussels’ central square, he quickly identified among the throng of tourists, those that were communicating with each other in interesting ways, the ones that were likely to be hanging around and those that would soon be moving on.
He’s also very focused on how photographers behave in public spaces. I consider myself pretty experienced in this regard, but he was quick to admonish some of my brusque movements, over-keen to get the shot. I was transmitting danger messages to my unwitting subjects. Better to see quickly and move slowly.

In the classroom, so to speak, Matt also stamped his experience and authority in relevant ways. When reviewing pictures, he doesn’t shirk from dismissing work as boring or downright bad, all done of course with a smile and a certain degree of charm. He allows only a tolerance of 5% cropping and guides the participants to steer steadfastly clear of known Street Photo clichés. This approach is a reflection of Matt’s own rigorous standards ( “in a great year I’d get 10 good shots”), and at least from my point of view, it was a cue to push myself; not accept easy options, and return to certain locations to try and get more out of the situation.
Overall, I found the time for shooting a little short – it’s difficult when you’re part of ten participants, balancing the needs of the group and one’s own selfish aspirations. I landed a few effective body blows, but no knockout punch.

But frustration can be a positive influence. I saw and learned enough to want to go back to Brussels and nail the place, in the colourist and surreal visual style of one of my heroes, Harry Gruyaert.

These workshops are also about the people you meet and the connections you make. Matt is a genuine guy, generous with his time and advice, obsessed about photography but also a lover of life in the broader sense. A couple of beers (and a bowl of nachos!) shared at the end of the course, were the occasion to get to know a bit more about the man and the photographer, but I didn’t get round to asking all the questions on my mind.

So here goes:

You often take busy pictures, you like to be among the crowds. To what extent is this a reflection of your gregarious nature?
I like to be in the flow of it all, I am an existentialist and like to feel alive. So to a certain extent crowds are something that I am drawn too.

Your book “All that Life can Afford”, is a collection of London-based pictures. To what extent are you happy to proclaim yourself in the lineage of British humouristic photography, descending so to speak, from Tony Ray-Jones, and to what extent are you wanting to move away from this image?
I think there are a mixture of happy and sad pictures in my book. I’m open to the fun of it all and the sadness as well. Tony Ray-Jones said it best with the following quote. “I have tried to show the sadness and the humour in a gentle madness that prevails in people. The situations are sometimes ambiguous and unreal, and the juxtaposition of elements seemingly unrelated, and yet the people are real. This, I hope, helps to create a feeling of fantasy. Photography can be a mirror and reflect life as it is, but I also think that perhaps it is possible to walk, like Alice, through a looking-glass, and find another kind of world with the camera.”

You claim that Anglo-Saxons are a little obsessed with rigid rules of composition. Any South American or other photographers that inspire you with a freer style?
Cristóbal Hara who is Spanish for one, and Sergio Larrain, the Chilean, is an other. I think (us!) Europeans need to loosen up a bit.

Elliott Erwitt claimed that the main difference between a Leica rangefinder and an SLR, was that you see the bigger picture and don’t have your eye glued to the viewfinder. Is this true for you and how does it help composing on the streets?
I use live view a lot with my Leica, I think how we use cameras is changing with new technology. For example Erwitt uses a Canon with autofocus now, I wonder if that even existed when he said the quote above.

You define yourself as somewhat of an obsessive, at least when it comes to getting the right shot. You once waited four hours in the same spot to capture a picture. Can you describe the wait and how it felt when you got your catch ?
I love the wait, almost as much as the catch. Patience and the wait is part of the game for me. Just like fishing.

You’re a member of In-Public, you’ve worked for Magnum and now you’re part of the MAPS agency. What does being associated with the wider photographic community bring to you personally and professionally?
Fame yes, fortune no, happiness (sometimes).

Do you still differentiate between the pictures you take for your own pleasure, and those taken on commission?
I take less and less photos on commission nowadays, although I would always differentiate between the two as a commission usually has a brief, which needs fulfilling.

You’ve shot a lot of work recently in California. Do you find the intensity of the light there easy to handle or does it bring its’ own problems?
The light is glorious in California and I welcome it with open arms. As someone who suffers with S.A.D I never shy away from the light.

When was the last time you shot Black & White (film), any urge to re-discover the potential of the medium, or any projects you have in mind that would be appropriate?
Most of my favourite photographers shot b&w and many of my favourite heroes photographs were shot with it. I haven’t used it for 20 years, some times I dream about putting my toe back in the monochrome water. Then I wake up.

If there was one song that would be the soundtrack to your photographic career, what would it be?
“You can’t always get what you want”, the Rolling Stones.

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