When Matt Stuart, a London-based street photographer, talks about his artistic approach, one could almost mistake him for a member of the paparazzi. “I’ve learnt over the years what works and what doesn’t,” he says. “I keep my elbows in, and after I take a picture I flick my nose—and it’s so quick that people think: Did he just take my picture or did he just scratch his nose? And 95% of people think you scratched your nose.”
The method may bear a whiff of the stalker about it, but Stuart’s intentions are not about invading privacy. Rather, he endeavours to expose the ironic, humorous and serendipitous workings of daily life. The subjects in the frame are merely anonymous pawns in the process.
The world Stuart presents reads as a sort of light-hearted matrix. Each photo points to an overlooked everyday pattern that seems to fit into a jolly masterplan: a dumpster positioned in front of a Harry Winston billboard transforms into a regal peacock with a scruffy body; a trash bag pinned to a fence takes the shape of a battered heart; the yawning gawp of an old man echoes the flashy “O” of a music poster.
Stuart’s vision has earned him attention in Wallpaper* and Dazed and Confused magazines, and a recent solo show at London’s KK Outlet. This May he will appear in the tenth anniversary exhibition of In-Public, a street photography collective, as well as the accompanying hardback book "10". He will also be included in the forthcoming "Street Photography Now" anthology, published by Thames and Hudson later this year.
More Intelligent Life sat down with Stuart over a coffee in London to discuss the need for happier news, how shooting with a Leica is like riding a bicycle, and the ways in which Joel Meyerowitz’s theory of “tough pictures” inform his work.
More Intelligent Life: How did you come to the world of street photography?
Matt Stuart: When I was 12 years old I became really interested in street skate boarding. I did that for about seven years and that was my education—a great education for a very right-brained person. And then I needed to get a job. Obviously I wanted to be something special, like we all do, and I had no qualifications. I got a job answering customer complaints for mobile telephones: totally soul-destroying, but I learned how to talk to people.
During that time my dad [David Stuart, a graphic designer and co-author of "A Smile in the Mind"], who is a big influence in my life, bought me a couple of books, one by Henri Cartier-Bresson and one by Robert Frank. I spent about a year sitting at my desk, answering telephone calls and looking through these two books. I became obsessed with street photography, which I think was a natural progression from street skateboarding: with skateboarding you would try to make a “trick” all day, and then you’d make it, but no one would see it—you couldn’t ever bring it home and show it to someone. With the street photography you could go out all day and try, try, try, and then you could show someone what happened. It’s there, forever, frozen.
MIL: Do you have any rules when it comes to your process?
MS: I do my passion work with the Leica camera, and I do commercial work with the Canon: they don’t mix. The Leica is small, it’s beautiful, the optics are the best, it’s quiet, it’s nice to hold, it’s a great piece of equipment and to a certain extent it has a personality. I shoot digitally for commercial work. It’s the difference between taking the train and riding a bike; taking the train is so much quicker and you deliver everything so much faster and you can shoot the shit out of stuff because it’s free. But … I really like riding the bike: with the Leica you have to be more constrained and thoughtful—it’s almost two totally different disciplines.
I also try not to take pictures that are too sarcastic or belittling, I don’t like the sort of “derisive moment.” I like humour, I like to project my personality in the pictures. There was a newsreader who once said, “we need more happy news.” And he got absolutely panned. People were like, more happy news? We need news. He almost lost his job, but I think that exactly. I’ve tried to be dark and gloomy and atmospheric but it’s not me.
MIL: One of your photographs is of a homeless man with a shadow of what appears to be a cross projected onto the box he is sleeping in. The subject does seem a bit “darker” than most of your other work.
MS: One of my mentors is Joel Meyerowitz, who is a New York-based street photographer, and he often talks about “tough pictures”: pictures that are hard to take. I kind of always have that in the back of my mind—and a sleeping homeless man isn’t very tough. I rarely shoot homeless people, because, what am I trying to say? There’s a lot of sad stuff that we can go and photograph. And lots of people do. I’m not in any way denigrating sad, powerful photojournalism, but my outlook is positive. And that particular picture is, I suppose, a sad photograph. I did feel like, this guy could be dead next year. But the fact that this cross had been projected on the cardboard was amazing. Unbelievable pictures are the things I love to do, and I couldn’t believe that this cross was projected onto this homeless man.
MIL: Your solo exhibition at KK Outlet was titled “Happy Accidents”. Do you believe that your work is a matter of lucking into coincidences, or is there an element of “meant to be”?
MS: If I’m honest, none of them are accidents. They’re all things that I look really hard to find, and you find them and go bloody hell. Sometimes you’re in a zone, it’s like meditation, and you’re walking around hours upon hours and you can almost predict something is about to happen before it happens. I think positivity and happiness and the way I deal with people makes me lucky. Which sounds crazy. I’m not positive the whole time though—that would be ridiculous. Some days, I’m going out and I’m on patrol: I’m making sure that nothing’s going to happen. And generally those days nothing happens. And the days that I pretend that I’ve just landed from Mars on planet Earth and everything is amazing, completely amazing, and I look at things with kid eyes—those are the days that generally, things happen. Some days you have a feeling like it’s following you, which is great.
The first picture that I took that was any good was the weekend that they erected the London Eye. I spent the Friday, Saturday and Sunday there and shot four rolls and most of it was complete crap and I was just about to go home, and a guy turns up: it’s just a guy with a wheel on his back looking up at a big wheel, but I think that was the luck thing paying me back. I put in the time, I spent more time than anyone else there, I exhausted everything that I could look at, I’m so tuned in and then this guy turns up. I didn’t ever actually see his face: I just saw this wheel.
MIL: You’ve said you prefer to consider yourself a photographer rather than artist, but if you had a central artistic goal what would it be?
MS: I’d like to be a mirror. And show people who live where I live what they’re like or what we’re doing or how we act. How we live. I think Garry Winogrand said he looks at people as animals and aren’t we bizarre? It is that standing back and trying to show us how we behave, and isn’t it funny or isn’t it sad or isn’t it ironic? I love how people act in public places. I was on Oxford street a couple of months ago and they cut off all the pavement and there was this little walkway and railings, and people were queuing to walk down this walkway, and loads of people thought, I can’t be bothered with this, I’m going to jump the railing. And I stopped, and just looked at this railing for about 20 minutes: middle-aged men thinking I’ll just jump this railing and then realising they hadn’t jumped a railing in 20 years.
MIL: Can you identify a unifying theme or recurring thread running throughout your photographs?
The only thing that links all of my work is that it’s all taken in London. I don’t go places to get excited, I stay here to get excited. You speak to most photographers and they go to Afghanistan or to China or to the Himalayas to get excited. I don’t really like the idea of going to India for three weeks and taking tourist pictures and bringing them back and going “oooh isn’t this deep and meaningful” because it’s not. It’s your holiday.