I Felt Free to Experiment: Matt Carr Challenges Himself by Art Directing Remote Portraits
Matt Carr’s recent personal project went through a few iterations before the New York-based photographer knew what he wanted out of it. Though the reason for the work — giving himself a substantive creative challenge — never changed, the concept did.
When everything shut down in March, I knew I had to keep myself busy with something creative. Home schooling my 7-year-old and keeping everything else together took most of my energy, but without a creative outlet I go a little crazy. I initially asked some friends to take iPhone self-portraits with a blank stare and clean background.
My thought was a group of these images would be a powerful look at how people cope with crises and lack of control in their lives. But as soon as I started working on them, I had the need to make them more interesting and dynamic.
Then, I started being more specific and asking for background options and talking them through how I’d like them to take the photos. Some of the subjects are photographers and some had no experience at all. It was an experiment to see if I could explain what I wanted well enough to get something usable. Communication is a huge part of my job normally, so the only real issue was describing visual ideas to people without a visual background. Sometimes I got exactly what I wanted and sometimes something completely different. Either way, I accepted the challenge and worked with what came in.
As you might imagine, getting images from all sorts of people means that each shot is going to need its own editing and retouching process. Some of the subjects are photographers themselves, so those shots were easier to edit. Others, however, needed a total overhaul.
I usually spend between an hour to two on each photo depending on what I need to do to them. Some come in just as I want them and just need to be toned and cleaned up while others need extensive rebuilding.
Many times, the crop would be too tight and I’d have to extend the background to make the composition work. Or put in extra light or shadow hits to minimize problems in the background. Many of the backgrounds are completely invented and unrecognizable from the unedited image.
But that makeover was the key to the project because it meant Matt could both challenge himself and experiment freely. Since the shots weren’t his own work, he got the chance to really go crazy with the retouching in a way he would never do for his own imagery. Still, when you’re taking something shot on a phone — and you don’t know how old that phone is — things get quite challenging indeed.
I’ve been retouching my own images for years but this experiment spurred me on to try new things. Techniques I would never try on my own images because I’m more normally a purist. With other people’s images — some taken on phones — I felt free to experiment and get silly. I don’t normally add tigers or UFOs to my work but for this it just made sense. In fact, that became one of my favorites.
That said, I often had to fix lighting issues and technical problems from low quality phone sensors. You can’t push or pull an image around when it’s from a phone as there's not much information there. I often had to draw on a top layer to get the shadow and light hits where I wanted them.
Ultimately, this was a fun way for Matt to keep his spirits up and, more importantly, stay technically sharp. Though he’s enjoyed doing this work, he’s certainly ready to take on more of the kind of commissions he completed time and again before COVID struck.
People seem to like the project and leave fun comments on Instagram so that's encouraging. I'm hoping I can end the project soon. Not that I don't enjoy it. I do, but because I want to go back to normal life and work as before.
Check out more of Matt's work at mattcarr.com.
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