Matthew ‘s work doesn’t stem from any anticipated circumstances, or ‘project’. The fact his photography exists today owe as much to his long cocooned artistic identity as to chance and an unlikely turn of life just a few years back. Matthew probably never ambitioned to become a photographer growing up, he rather happened into the medium picking up photography as a life raft of sort. As a means to reflect upon himself and his surroundings and better understand, after the fact as is common with photographs, what tumultuous stream of life got hold of him since taking up heroin at age 16.
‘Graceland’ thus tells us a much different story, one disencumbered with the artifice of objectivity and the usual ins and outs photographers have to deal with as outsiders coming into a newfound reality. Matthew didn’t have to research, nor negotiate his presence to settle his eyes into this beautifully squashed together ‘photography vérité’ which he both breathes and pictures. It should come as no surprise then that Danny Lyon, the juror of this 6th SOLO edition and one of the most formidable proponent of New Journalism since the late 1950s, would immediately recognize and admire that lack of documentarian distinction between subject and imagemaker in Graceland. Although doubted from the start by mainstream, orthodox photojournalism as a biased, ideological encroachment on accurate reporting, Lyon’s radical embedment of life onto photography where one becomes an active participant to the photographed has proved immensely seminal and relevant to today’s social documentary practices.
Unlike Danny Lyon’s strong advocacy for the underrepresented, the overlooked or the repressed, Matthew’s work, in its enmeshment of the autobiographical within an open social observation, appears closer to that of Nan Goldin or Larry Clark as rightly noted in Lyon’s few comments. So while not quite documentary in its intent or purpose, Matthew’s personal story of close friends entrapped in an emotionally complex broken circle of life in Binghamton, New York, beautifully tenses for the viewer however the powerful and universal conflicting realities of addiction and freedom, youth and loss, becoming and existentially wasting away.
On this bleak narrative background it’s not all drama though, as there is a tender togetherness that emerges from picture to picture, from a laugh or a smile at the camera, a paused dance move legs up in the air, a certain care and camaraderie walking the streets at night back from a pickup. Things somehow drugs just can’t change or break entirely. Those punctum like moments drive our onlooking of the work searching for more remnants of a life that could still be had, for other blinks of hope unexpectedly caught between a high and an empty wintery street.
Read on to find out more on Matthew’s Graceland series as we ask him a few more questions pertaining to both his work and developing practice as a young photographer. For more work from Matthew visit his SOLO VI Exhibition page here.
FotoFilmic: Congratulations again Matthew, we’re really pleased juror Danny Lyon chose your work as the award recipient for SOLO VI and look forward to a great exhibition next May & June! We’d like to start the conversation here by asking how it feels to have your photography receive Danny Lyon’s seal of approval: a nod from such a giant in the field must be no doubt quite overwhelming for any photographer! What are you thoughts today now that you’ve had a bit of time to digest the big news?
Matthew Barbarino: Well it’s an incredible honor. There have been so many obstacles to the making of this work and one of them is the simple fact that you always doubt yourself. Getting a nod from someone like him is just incredibly encouraging.
F/F: I’m curious to know if Danny’s prolific 50-year plus career represents any kind of conscious influence in the making of of Graceland, or even in the decision process that lead you to first embrace the medium then devote your time to that long term ongoing project?
MB: It’s funny because when I started to take the medium seriously I was drawn almost entirely to photographers of his generation, when a lot of others on campus were not. Danny was definitely one of those influences, no question. As far as a conscious influence, I’d say he played a role in my moving in the direction of documentary work, so it’s really incredible to be recognized by him.
Initially I had little interest in documentary. That didn’t come until I went away to school. There was a time when I was really embarrassed by all this. Obviously, a lot of this is stuﬀ you would ordinarily hide, stuﬀ you get used to covering up and everything. In fact when I applied to school I didn’t disclose any of my history at all because I had no idea how they were going to respond to it, and of course I really wanted to get in. College was supposed to be a way out of the whole thing, not a chance to dwell on it. But people like Danny or Larry Clark, their stuﬀ changed my perspective on everything I’d been through and convinced me that what I was living through had value, or that if I could make something out of it, that was worth doing. But by most ordinary standards I was just sort of a screw up.
F/F: Do you have a favorite body of work or book from Lyon that you feel closer to for any reason? And are there other notable ‘influencers’ you would consider instrumental to your photographic practice today (also outside photo)?
MB: The Bikeriders. That series was relatable, and it had a realism that you don’t often find, and that he’s sort of known for. I think that kind of realism is one of the things that you sacrifice when you’re striving for objectivity.
One thing is that by the time I made it to RISD I’d already spent a lot of time in 12 step circles and so on, and that’s really where I learned how to look at things. And there, emphasis isn’t placed on objectivity but on “experience,” on sharing one’s experience and describing what things were like and so on. That became very important to the way I take pictures. And I think that’s why I relate to people like Danny or others from his generation, because there too it was about experience, about immersion in the thing, not detached objectivity. It’s a completely diﬀerent way of getting at truth.
Mary Ellen Mark was also someone I looked closely at. She seemed to have a sensitivity that became more important to me as I went on, and was something that didn’t really come all that naturally, something I sort of had to develop. Also really influential were the Provoke era photographers. I was drawn to them intuitively without knowing why, but I think the reason was because they were also forced to grapple with the trauma of radical cultural change, of the passing of an era and so on. So they became a major influence.
F/F: Where does the title ‘Graceland’ comes from? The first thing that comes to mind is of course Elvis’s mansion in Memphis, but surely that must be only distantly related?
MB: While at school I became obsessed with the idea of “home,”of the location where one comes into the world. I came to see ‘home’ as being this sacred thing that orients people in time and space. Growing up I hated my hometown and always wanted to leave, but confronting addiction meant admitting that much of the problem was really within myself, and facing it. And what you experience when you do that and stop running and look squarely at yourself with all your weaknesses and fears and admit to it all and you can finally say, yes, I see now, well that’s a state of grace. And there too there’s the feeling of a great homecoming.
Anyway there is the combination of sacred space and of redemption, and so I thought, Graceland, that would be the perfect title, except that Elvis already took it.
F/F: In our introduction to this interview we’ve put forth a certain reading of Graceland, albeit not one we would claim as necessarily accurate: is there anything essential there you think is missing or distorted with regards to your artistic motivation, or the meaning behind the work?
MB: Only that I always wanted to be an artist. I had diﬃculty being anything else really. I just never thought it was possible, and that makes recognition by Danny really surreal.
F/F: Can you tell us a little about what’s the situation like for you right now in Binghamton photographing your friends? You’ve grounded a new artistic life outside of the place, has it changed anything with regards to how you perceive your friends still fighting heroin addiction, or how they perceive you as someone who managed to ‘move on’?
MB: Well as for grounding a new artistic life elsewhere, I’ve put that oﬀ for the time being. Right now I work in manufacturing at a factory right here in Binghamton. My friend Steve, who’s in a lot of the pictures, lives right around the corner, and I stop by all the the time. Another friend Jordan also works at a plant nearby and I see him a lot too. We just had thanksgiving dinner at his girlfriend’s house.
Approaching them as a photographer was awkward at first, and still is really, but once they started using my pictures as their facebook profiles or putting them on their refrigerators I relaxed a little.
What was really strange was how my perception changed, not of my friends but of my hometown. At school I realized just how dire the situation is here compared to other parts of the country, and that deeply shook me. The realization that your home is disappearing, that it might never recover or that if it does it will be so changed as to be unrecognizable, that’s proven to be incredibly hard to process. My friends don’t get that part, because most of them have never left. And so one source of motivation is simply to capture things because I don’t know whats going to happen. There’s also the fact that plenty of people close to us have died. It’s a reality everyone’s lived with since we were teenagers. And the thing is that when someone dies the world just keeps on turning. The camera is a way to deal with the futility of it all, by making something that lasts.
Another huge thing was seeing this open-air distain for people from communities like mine, and learning that not everyone is routing for you. Seeing that totally changed my mind about what sort of person I wanted to become and what kind of community I wanted to belong to, and I think my friends can sense that I’m with them.
One other thing that’s changed over time is that, without knowing it, I used to see addiction as being a simple matter of making bad decisions, like they teach you in D.A.R.E. or something. I now see it as being a profound struggle with reality itself. My friends are dealing with things that are as fundamental to the human condition as it gets. To me they are like characters in an epic greek drama, and every part of it is loaded with meaning, win or lose.
Being the photographer means being a witness to that.
F/F: Have you given thought to where you’d like to take your photography besides this long term ongoing project? There is for instance a notoriously large community living on Vancouver’s downtown Eastside subject to drug use, mental illness, sex work, homelessness, and crime. At the same time the area is also known for its strong community resilience and history of social activism. Would you ever consider somehow expanding the scope of Graceland to other places like these where you don’t have any particular connections?
MB: I know that what really drove this project was personal experience and the connection I have to this place. At the same time there are a lot of other places in the same situation right now so it’s certainly possible. We’ll see.
F/F: Most of Graceland is shot on 35mm black-and-white film lending it an organic mood, an energy and vernis of authenticity in the same vein as say classic works from Danny, Clarke, Klein or even Mary Ellen Mark. Yet you’ve also embraced that same material shooting alongside on a digital camera, also in black-and-white: can you share how the two mediums intertwine in your practice?
MB: Honestly I turned to digital largely because my cameras kept breaking. I’d be out on a shoot and the shutter would lock up or something, and I just got sick of it. To me there’s nothing really exciting about digital other than its convenience and reliability. I was really reluctant to use it all, but eventually had to fall back on it because I was losing shots. But I started with film, and now that I’m home and don’t have to rush as much, I’m using it much more.
F/F: What is next for you? Any other projects in the works?
MB: I’ve been working on a film by the same name and am really hoping to get that made in the next year or so, so stay tuned for that. Beyond that it’s sort of one day at a time.
View Matthew’s SOLO VI Exhibition page including a foreword from Juror Danny Lyon and also presenting the works of Runners-Up Rob Hornstra and Deborah Sfez.