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Q&A: Matt Sartain, San Francisco

Matt Sartain photography

San Francisco based Matt Sartain is a photographer and visual storyteller. His photos, which are whimsical compositions of fairytales and imagination, have been featured in many outlets including appearing on the covers of both CMYK and HOW magazines. He has worked with clients such as Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, BBDO, The New York Times Magazine, & HOW Design. Additionally, Sartain’s ‘Misadventures’ series has been exhibited in China and throughout the US.

Matt Sartain photography

Can you talk a little bit about the project you’re currently working on?
‘The project that I’m currently working on is a photographic storybook that unveils an entire new epic narrative from beginning to end. Unlike my old work that only gives us a snapshot into an implied larger story this will be the entire scope of an adventure following characters as they journey through a mysterious world learning of life and death, love and loss and their dreams, pains, and experiences along the way.

‘The scope of what I have written for this project is enormous (in terms of production) so I’ll most likely approach this one chapter at a time, continuing to add to the story episodically as time goes on. The final format will be printed like a textless graphic novel as well as a gallery show – the prints laid out on the wall mimicking the page layout of the book so that the project is cohesive from print to wall.

‘The first chapter in the story that I am producing is the story of a desperate father’s journey to save the life of his dying boy. The journey, the sacrifices, and the outcomes are not at all what the father imagined’.
Matt Sartain photography

Your work very much utilizes digital manipulation and composites. Do you think this method of creation adds to the narrative strength of your work? If so, how?

‘Besides the color and toning in Photoshop I would be happy to do all of these things in camera. Truth is it’s often not practical and sometimes not even possible to do what I want in camera. Often times the use of compositing and manipulation is a more accessible way to get something that would otherwise be out of my budget. I hope to do more practical in-camera imagery as the budget for my work grows. The less compositing the better as far as I’m concerned, so when I use that technique it’s because the decision has been made from a production standpoint. Before any shot goes into production I consider what I have (time/money/location/crew) and then decide what I can do in camera and what I do in post. Often times images that would require an enormous crew, rigging, permits, etc. are just me and one other person – compositing allows for a lot of freedoms.

‘The role of compositing has had a remarkable effect on my photography. I remember when I first began to construct images – I started small and went bigger and bigger and bigger. I was excited when I discovered that my work was only limited to my imagination. There’s something really empowering about feeling like there is nothing I can’t create – I don’t mean that in a cocky way, I mean only to say that I’ve discovered my strengths and weaknesses and I know that if I can concept an image I can create it’.

Matt Sartain photography

There seems to be a real sense of dream-like imagination throughout your images. Where does the inspiration for these concepts come from?
‘My work is inspired by a number of things and dreams are part of that. The image of The Shipwreck came from a dream I had where I was lost on a series of tall floating islands over the sea that were guarded by giants. I jumped over the cliff into the water and found an oak barrel and floated along the currents until I woke up.

‘Besides my dreams I my aesthetic has been shaped by tons of stuff. Illustrators like Shel Silverstein, Arthur Rackham and Winsor McCay. The great imaginations of Frank L. Baum, Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis and Tolkien were inseparable to my developing mind. Video games like Zelda took me on epic quests as a child and when I went to study English for my undergrad writers like Poe and Melville showed me the “darker” side of the American Romantics. Movies are an enormous influence. Filmakers like Terrence Malick and The Cohen Brothers and screenwriters like Charlie Kaufman have been inspiring me for years.

‘All of these things mush together to form some idea of my aesthetic. I have a lot of influences that are in the “fantasy” genre but I’ve always believed that, when concerning my own work, it’s important to cement fantastic events within a real world so that the impacts of these events matter to the characters involved. If everything is a fantasy then nothing really matters. There has to be the cement of reality somewhere within the scope of the work so that the events have meaning’.

Matt Sartain photography
The panoramic nature of the photos in the ‘Misadventures’ series you did a couple years ago, really makes the whole project feel quite cinematic. I especially love how as much as the single images tell a story they also seem to inspire the viewer to make up their own story – was this intentional?
‘Definitely. Though, that body of work developed very naturally I began noticing opportunities to explore the mystery and intrigue of untold stories. I wanted to show a piece of some character’s larger journey without revealing too much of it. If the imagery was beautiful enough and the events unfolding intriguing enough I hoped it would inspire the viewers imagination to create their own beginning and end. I’ve had some great responses from people who have described their feelings about the work and I love it because the reactions and responses can be completely unexpected and can often show me a way to look at the work that I hadn’t ever thought of’.
Matt Sartain photography

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    lovely :-)