New York-based photographer Matthew Tammaro developed an appreciation for the intimacy of photographs when he was a kid while poring over his parents’ albums when they weren’t around. He’s now known (age 28) for capturing colourful and dreamy portraits, many of which document his own personal relationships.
Though he’s photographed for a number of prominent publications and clients including Monocle, Bloomberg Businessweek, and The FADER, he feels most comfortable documenting those close to him.
Since moving to New York last fall, Tammaro has turned his lens toward still life and flowers, creating dark and moody images. His recent work is a departure from the airy photos he had taken while he spent two years living in Los Angeles where the lighting and colours provided a striking backdrop.
I chatted with Tammaro about his cross-country move, source of inspiration, and recent shoots.
Marina: You often photograph girlfriends and that gives your work a certain intimacy. How does your relationship with the person you’re shooting influence your approach?
Matthew: My parents were older and had been previously married, and they had all the relics of those relationships in photographs. I would wait until they left and I would bring out all the photo boxes. It was a kind of a voyeuristic thing. I just had this guilty pleasure. So that is kind of how I started liking photography and that is what I jump to first when I’m photographing somebody I know, especially if I’m in a relationship with them. I really like documenting who I’m in a relationship with.
Do you think that the move has influenced your photography in any way?
Yeah for sure. In LA, the light is so nice. I’ve been in New York only since the winter so everything I’ve shot has been indoors. I’ve been doing more still life and more soft light. So yeah it’s definitely changed, out of circumstance but also I’ve been finding inspiration in different things. I feel like my work has gotten darker, which is maybe something I wanted to do in L.A. but just couldn’t.
There’s similarity in mood and lighting to Robert Mapplethorpe’s flower photos. Is his work something you had in mind when you were shooting?
I think my photos of flowers are coming from a very similar place as Mapplethorpe. He was shooting these in relation to the male figure and beauty, which I’m not directly referencing, but I do believe that photographing these very classic tropes of beauty is important today.
You had studied painting and drawing before you moved into photography.
I did it for a bit at OCAD and I had done it in high school at one of those regional arts high schools. I think ideally painting would be what I would want to do, rather than photography.
Yeah totally. It’s like a way better art, I think.
In what way?
I mean photography is great because it implies a certain truth, right? It’s like, “it happened”. But painting, it’s a more honest take on like how to portray your world.
You shot Tyra Banks recently. What was that like?
She was interesting. You have like 15 minutes if it’s a just a small portrait. It’s all about the power dynamic and she held most of the power. But it was weird, she was styled really badly. And she was nice but she was really bad at posing, like all the contact sheets she was just giving some really fucked up looking faces, which was so funny. She would turn and “smize” at the wall but never at the camera. I was like telling her how to pose which I found really weird. She’s lost it.
Have you shot anyone else really interesting?
When I was in L.A. we were shooting all these pop stars from Disney, the ones that turn 18 and get remolded into somebody else. The most notable one was Demi Lovato. It was interesting to see somebody who’s been a celebrity or for so long, manipulated by outside forces, and see how they relate to normal people and all the mechanics.
What do you mean how they relate to normal people?
They have people doing things for them, which most of us don’t have, right? And so they think that’s normal and they don’t realize that other people don’t have that. It’s just like walking on set and having somebody like boss people around. There is a lot of expectations. Minor inconveniences are big deals to them. You know what I mean? So shooting those types of people is always really interesting. It’s just like a view into the mechanics of that world. Usually you only see what’s put on TV.
Is there anyone in particular you’re looking forward to shooting?
I’ve always wanted to photograph my parents but I’ve never had the balls to. I don’t know if it’s something to do with it being the closest thing to what I started with. I tried photographing my mom once and it was like a half-assed effort to do it but, that would be cool. I’d love to do that in earnest.
Are there any photographers who you follow or anyone you take inspiration from?
Yeah, a bunch, but I don’t live by any one person. If I had an inspiration or was a devoted fan to an artist, it would be to painters, like Lucian Freud and Marlene Dumas. Photography, I look at it more for the individual photo.
Versus a body of work?
Yeah. And I’m constantly lIke “oh I really like this” then I really like something else and then I stop liking it and just go back and forth. But I’ve always been in love with Lucian Freud’s work. You should check him out, it’s figurative and portraiture. And there are a lot of nudes, but very ugly. It’s a great way of capturing intimacy, I think.
What are you working on now?
I recently did this series of portraits for The FADER magazine that profiled a handful of trans-identifying people, and their interaction with the fashion world. I’m really happy to be a part of a photo shoot that shines a light on this issue in fashion. But at the end of the day, I think I see these shots not as fashion photography, and simply as portraiture.
Check out selected series of his photos here.