PHOTOGRAPHER + ARTIST
I SPEAK TO MATT PAUL, A PHOTOGRAPHER AND ARTIST - WHO I'VE BEEN A BIG FAN FOR A WHILE. DIVE IN FOR A TREAT.
How was it growing up in New Jersey in the 80's and 90's?
MP: It was awesome, the 80's and 90's were a great time to be a kid in general. My friends and I were a bunch of skate/surf rats and during the summers we used to take over the local surf beach. In the winters we'd go snow tubing down the golf course hills and play pond hockey, only to be chased off by the local police. we were fortunate to have all four seasons. As the seasons would change, life would change dramatically as well, from the sports we played, to the amount of time we spent outdoors.
It's hard to generalise the NJ experience because it is so diverse here; I think we were lucky not only to grow up here, within an hour of New York City and its bustling economy, but also to have had the opportunity to do so within the little bubble on the Jersey Shore that we found ourselves in. We had a sprawling coastal community, and the ability to choose to learn or become whatever we wanted.
Most of my life, I have lived across Scotland, but usually never far from the ocean, and I think that was the kernel really for my love of photography, design + film. How important has it been for you, to be near the ocean?
MP: The ocean has been very important for me, and I probably wouldn't have become a photographer without it being so accessible to me. It is the subject that drove me to hone my craft and evolve my perspectives and approach. When you have something in your life everyday you tend to take it for granted. It wasn't until I left NJ that I realised I had an opportunity to share my perspective in life not only at the Jersey Shore but also of the ocean in general. I was amazed with the idea of showing people the view of being amongst the surf and the energy and motion of swells, a view which most people tend to avoid being caught in, especially in winter. The act of being in the ocean for me seems to be universal no matter where you are on the globe. The color, temperature, and the smells might change but the ocean itself is all connected and gives you a similar feeling of being on the border or two worlds.
I think I picked up my first camera, thanks to my dad particularly, how did you get started?
MP: Similarly, my father was an amateur photographer and I remember him teaching me how to use his Canon EOS 35mm film camera. He used to have shelves filled with 35mm slide carousels in the basement he'd break them out during family gatherings and holidays. He also had old 8mm motion picture reels, which were just as nostalgic to look back on. I never had the money to develop a ton of film, so my early days practising were some what limited. I used to buy those cheap disposable cameras from the local drugstore from here and there. Composing a photo was a lot more special back then and getting the film back was great because usually it was random moments over the last few months you'd forgotten about.
It wasn't until I was about 15 or so that I became more interested in pushing photography. When I went college in North Carolina, I joined the yearbook photo team and learned a ton with all the free film they gave us. We were primarily shooting on film then, around 2001. The first pro DSLR capable of matching the resolution of the 35mm were just hitting the markets, and we got to test them out. The breakthrough in photography allowed many people including myself an affordable way how to be a better photographer exponentially faster and affordably. But I didn't go professional straight away, I held down a corporate job for the first few years.
Getting started in the ocean with a camera wasn't easy back then either. I shot in the ocean the first time with those waterproof disposable film cameras, as a kid. Years later I eventually found a heavy duty clear bag, to bring my dads 35mm in the ocean which opened up the door for making lens choices, a game changer. I also started shooting video in the water around the same time after having found a housing for my handicam. I spent a few years making a few surf videos with a friend who was on tour and it helped set me up for a long adventure trying to navigate the surf industry which was still in it's golden years as far as funding photographers were concerned. Finding a proper water housing for a still camera was tricky as you had to know a guy who could make them. They weren't really advertised and it wasn't a big thing yet, so you had to really want it, and have the ambition to figure it out. I eventually housed my first digital SLR, a Canon 5D, using a guy I had heard about in California. It was crude and bulky but it got the job done.
I absolutely adore your work, your aerial and ocean work is spectacular, did you always want to go down that road in terms of subject matter?
MP: Thank you! I actually used to be a huge fan of science and traveling and couldn't get enough of National Geographic growing up. Like many, I had always wanted to be a photographer, just to be able to travel the world and have a reason to get to those hard to reach places in mountains and jungles and to connect with other cultures. Before the internet boom I think the feeling of living those journeys was more special since the only option to connect the experience to the general public was through print or a select few TV channels. As the internet and social media came into play it brought insane amounts of content out of the woodwork, and I wanted to document something out of the norm which would still give me the ability to travel and connect with other cultures.
The answer was in the ocean. Even though in-water ocean and surf photography had been around for decades, after I shot my first few photos from the water and showed them to friends and family I realised that it was relatively new for many people. It was that feeling of passing the perspective on that, something that ignited my path to shoot the ocean and the waves. Surfing was just a natural progression from shooting in the ocean. Adding that human interaction adds another layer of storytelling, and of course the adrenaline factor when the surf got big. The ocean has unlimited faces and moods. Water is one of the most dynamically changing subjects and it is always surprising me how it can store and release energy in so many ways.
What would be your dream project and / collaboration?
MP: The last couple of years I started to transition back into the world of motion and invested in a cinema camera (and a housing for it). One project I've been dreaming of is a larger film project that captures the ocean in a way to continue to educate the public about how important it is in our lives. We've seen a lot of campaigns about single use plastics over the last year, but the reality is that there are much worse things threatening our oceans and plastics are just a tiny part of it. There are already many projects in this space but it can't hurt to reinforce the message.
How do you find the creative balance in terms of shooting paid work vs non profits? Do you find that keeps your creativity and yourself fulfilled?
MP: I'm still learning how to find a balance but have found that more experience comes the wisdom to make better choices. As a freelancer I have a few regular clients that keep me somewhat busy but when work gets slow, I either put time into personal projects or start pitching new work. The last decade I would section off part of the year to focus completely on ocean + surf photography and I would take a long 1-2 month trip somewhere like Australia and then take up residence in Hawaii or California for the winter season. This was an important part of my networking over the years and it helped to lead to more work. I realised it wasn't sustainable in the long term because I was putting too much time into the personal ocean projects without much return financially. At first this was okay, because I was working two jobs, and I was very fortunate that my one job allowed me to work from anywhere in the world. This gave me financial support and the ability to literally roam just about anywhere within reason. I eventually gave up that job, as great as it was financially, in order to focus on my creative endeavours full time.
As for non-profit work I have to choose carefully on a case by case basis. If I have the spare time and savings and I see a connection between my skillset and what they need then I'll consider it. One of the most important things I've learned over the years is to know what you want also knowing how, and when, to say no. After trying to take on as much as possible, I would eventually come up for air and realise that I would have been better off focussing on a longer project which aligns more with my interests and goals than taking a dozen smaller projects to keep busy.
When I was starting out I'd say my creativity was fulfilled for the most part, but as I evolve I find it harder to stay creative and also stay afloat. It's simply a matter of continuing to rebalance where I put my time and possibly look to taking on different types of clients. Working smarter instead of harder and finding more passive income opportunities to help finance my creative goals. As artists we can't expect anyone to enjoy or hire us to explore our creativity. We have to trust our own direction and fund ourselves and hope it sticks. I've never been very good at self marketing so thats something I'm trying to focus on in the short term.
What's your favourite place to surf?
MP: On the right day my favourite waves can be found in NJ. Although they don't last long, we have world class waves that show up for a few hours at a time and it's often just you, and a few friends on it. There's something to be said about surfing with your friends close to home. Outside of home, I think I've had my best wave in Indonesia because I'm a goofy foot and my longest barrel ever was definitely there. But I still have much to explore and tons of other great memories surfing in other parts of the world.
Any fun future projects you can share?
MP: I'm currently working on a small project about the Hawaiian culture, specifically Hawaiian blooded watermen and women on the North Shore of Oahu. The Hawaiians aren't the only ones losing their heritage though and I'd like to keep trying to document what's left of some other communities around the globe before they're mostly gone.
I am also considering a project about the homeless populations. I think there's still much to learn about mental health and some parallels we can draw between the sub cultures not only socially but also with regards to our oceans and waterways.
For the ocean I have a few concepts in mind, that I am slowly chipping away at. But like many artists I keep changing my approach and returning to the drawing board.
And I have also been working with a fashion brand known as Faherty out of NYC since 2012 on catalog campaigns around the US and in the Caribbean. I don't advertise my fashion work quite yet but am looking forward to launching that part of my portfolio soon. It's not a surf brand, but striving to be more of a classic American brand with an emphasis on an easy going beach lifestyle. I'm always looking for ways to connect the ocean to brand creatively so it should be fun to see where it all leads.
Any locations you are champing at the bit to photograph and film?
MP: I've definitely been shooting too much of Hawaii and tropical destinations the last few years so I'm looking to get back into some cold(er) perspectives close to home in New England and Patagonia. I've also always wanted to get to Cuba soon before all the vintage views catch up to the modern world.