Photographer Matt Johnston Interview

Holly Constantine chats to Matt Johnston about his work and life as a freelance photographer.

| Professional Interviewed
Freelance photographer and Coventry University photography lecturer, Matt Johnston is mainly based within the UK. As a freelance photographer, he focuses on both documentary and commercial architecture and has completed a number of projects within the UK and North America. He has a high interest in photography within social media and web platforms, which has led to his involvement in Open Undergraduate classes such as Picbod and Phonar. Not only is he involved with the organisation and running of these two worldwide classes, but he has also found the time to set up and run the Photo Book Club.

How did you first get into photography?
Note to self - I really need to invent a great story about having a camera handed down to me from a deceased relative. Instead I began making images in secondary school as part of a media programme, I wasn’t particularly captivated by the medium until studying Media at University, which is where I realised that I wanted to work with images. Interestingly (for me at least), when I look back on snapshots as a kid I seem to have been fascinated with light and structure just as I am now.

Photographer Matt Johnston Interview: Photograph from the ongoing collection “Cat and Fiddle” by Matt Johnston
Above: Photograph from the ongoing collection "Cat and Fiddle" by Matt Johnston.

If you could name one person that has inspired you, either through their work or your relationship, who would it be?
Jeff Brouws. Jeff’s work was, and still is a really important touchstone for me; not only the images but his methodology, his writing, his questioning, and his entire body of work that intertwines into one great narrative.

As a viewer, when looking at your work I see that the majority of your images lack human subjects but continue to show their presence through other included aspects. However, I also feel that your images seem to elicit a sense of emptiness. Is there a reason for this?
Yes that’s certainly true. Individuals have never particularly interested me as subjects for images but the connections they make with landscape, history etc. do. I’m now working more with ‘people’ directly but I doubt they will ever be a focus for me. I sometimes find it hard to relate to portrait photography, difficult to care about the subject, do you find this? Maybe I’m just cold.

Photographer Matt Johnston Interview: West Texas
Above: Photograph from the collection “West Texas” by Matt Johnston.

Among the photographic equipment that you own, is there something that you wish you hadn’t bought? Why?
I own very little, I was lucky in that I was never into buying ‘kit’, it’s a part of photography that I have very little to say about.

You are also involved with the development and operation of two Open Undergraduate classes, Phonar and Picbod. What are these classes and how/why did you get involved with them?
Yes, I was brought in to the degree programme at Coventry University about 3 years ago now to work with Jonathan Worth in setting up and delivering classes that were accessible and open to anyone with an internet connection. Both classes are still very much based on the generative experience of students in class, the online and open aspect enriches this and adds a new and exciting layer to the learning experience. As a result of these classes we have had students assist Annie Liebowitz, put on exhibitions in Spain, have thousands of people visit humble student blogs and a tonne more.

Photographer Matt Johnston Interview: Picbob

Not only are you helping in the organization and running of those two classes, but you’ve also managed to create and run the Photobook Club. Can you tell us more about this club?
The Photobook Club aims to promote and enable discussion around the photobook, that is I think, as brief as I can be but really does very little to introduce someone to the initiative so I might suggest this short Pecha Kucha presentation will do a better job. 

Have you ever turned down a photographic opportunity to later regret your decision? If so, who was it for and what did it entail?
I have turned down work before but have never regretted it - there has always been a valid reason to do so. We could all regret turning down a big-bucks job for a small job with a local company but then we lose integrity and personality, things that are hugely valuable right now.

Have you ever come across a piece of photographic work that you thought deserved more recognition than it received? If so, whose was it, and why?
I am particularly interested in photo books and I have seen so much that is not recognized, in part because there is so much being produced - but this is a great thing, a small price to pay for the destruction of the traditional gatekeeper and the democratization of image making. While there are still big publishing houses who will always get attention, the indie publisher or individual can do so too, plus there are numerous exhibitions, dummy competitions and the like that try to promote the less well known - they do a great job.

If you could give one tip to aspiring future photographers, what would it be?
Read* and make images. Find a mix that works for you but it is essential to understand the world your images and your view fits into. It is also essential to understand the subject you work with - the outsider’s gaze can be witty and astute but this is rarely any match for being well read.

*By reading I refer not only to novels, papers and the like but to YouTube videos, surveys, data, photo books, exhibitions etc.

Photographer Matt Johnston Interview: Building
Above: Photograph from the collection "Buildings" by Matt Johnston.

You can visit Matt Johnston's website for more information on the ideas discussed within this interview, including Picbod, Phonar, and the Photo Book Club. 

For more information on Holly and her photography, take a look at her blog

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