Getting To The Heart Of Landscape With Photographer Matthew White

Why does La Strada end on the beach? This is just one of the many intuitive thoughts shared by landscape photographer, Matthew White.

With clients including Marie Claire, UK and The National Audubon Society, Matthew is an artist worth knowing more about.

“I’m originally from upstate New York. I had a strong aversion to the climate there, mostly the six-month winter, so I kept moving south as soon as I was old enough to leave home. I’ve lived in Richmond, VA; Athens, GA; and I’ve lived in New Orleans for about 12 years. I also hold a Master’s degree in music from the University of New Orleans; I’m a jazz guitarist and play music as much as I do photography. I’m left-handed. I love baseball and cats. I’m married and have an 11-year-old daughter,” he explains as he describes himself.

When sharing his inspirations, he just as openly shares some of his struggles as an artist with an honesty that many tend to digress from.

“I’m motivated mostly by the feeling of what I see. I seek out places that have a calming or soothing effect; most of it I think is some kind of subconscious effort to be in a psychologically safe place. I have a weird fascination with remote locales, borders, or any place that people say is the “end of the line.” A project I’ve been working on for more than ten years documents the end of the Mississippi River (The End of the Great River – portfolio available at my website).

You can’t get there by car, and it’s really hard to reach, but I know a lot about it and have always been fascinated by it. I’ve been shopping it to publishers for I think four or five years now, though I am still adding to it regularly; the book just keeps getting bigger. It’s been turned down no less than three times each by every university and trade publisher in Louisiana. The same thing always happens; the editors like it, and I go through the process, but then their marketers cry poor and veto the thing. I’ve sent the project proposal to many publishers outside of Louisiana, and every one of them said: “I like this, but I think you should approach a Louisiana publisher.”

So what is your weapon of choice for most of your projects?

I use Canon gear exclusively, digital and film. A new project I am working on, however, is being made on 120 film with an antique twin-lens Mamiya donated by a friend from Georgia. I’d love to have a Leica MP but I can’t afford one.

Are you self-taught or were you formally educated?

I started as a teenager, and taught myself using Ansel Adams’ books: The Camera; The Negative; and The Print. I taught myself traditional printing this way, which I used to do, but Hurricane Katrina took my darkroom, and the digital revolution in photography really boomed the following year, so I had to keep up. I followed Adams’ rules about the process of visualization; i.e., about not picking up the camera until you see the finished image in your mind’s eye first, with the camera being the translator or tool used. It’s much more practical to see with your eyes rather than walk around with the camera to your face like a giant egret or something.

What is the message you wish to convey with your photographs?

For me, it’s about how places feel. Sort of the silent sense of mystery and wonder someone might feel being in these places. The more minimalist the landscape, generally the more fascinated I am by it. Not like I don’t appreciate the Rocky Mountains, but the lowlands and wetlands and the coast just soothe me more. I don’t consider myself an activist or photojournalist by any stretch.

It’s like I want the viewer to feel the same way I do when I’m standing in these places. Why does La Strada end on the beach? It could have ended anywhere; in an alley, in the city, on a country road, but it ends on the beach, and there’s something infinite or eternal there that just isn’t any place else, and it gives so much more unspoken meaning to what is happening in that scene; it’s only on the beach that Anthony Quinn’s life changes.

When I was a kid I once filled a big jar full of Atlantic Ocean water and kept it on my bookshelf in some weird attempt to preserve the good feeling I had being on the coast. I kept it for years. Then I discovered photography, which does the job much better. I don’t mind photographing people at all if asked, and I will from time to time, but I think the digital age has caused an over-abundance of anonymous portraiture. It’s all very nice, but there’s so much of it that I admit getting impatient and a little numb wading through ream upon ream of portraits of people I don’t know, all nicely lit with umbrella diffusers and so on. I guess I’d rather go somewhere or someplace when I look at a photo, so that’s why I concentrate more on landscape imagery.

Before a shoot how do you feel? What are you thinking?

I’m usually very excited to get out in the middle of nowhere and just starting looking around for anything that moves me in some way, large or small. It’s a mistake to overthink it. Once you figure out all the bells and whistles on your camera, you can sort of just let it happen. I’ve been really interested in using the twin-lens Mamiya lately. It’s a real challenge to see in square format, and the thing is all-manual. It takes a long time to line up a shot properly, and it doesn’t always work, but when it does it’s pretty awesome, and it shows that film photography can do some things that digital is just never going to be able to replicate.

What would you say is your favorite image at the moment?

Moonrise, Martin Beach, Cameron Parish, LA (2009)
Moonrise, Martin Beach, Cameron Parish, LA (2009)

I’m not saying this is my favorite at the moment, but it’s a decent example of a long-term favorite, and it jumped out while I was sifting. It seems simple on the surface, but there’s a lot going on in it, and it represents the kind of photo I can look at for a long time and get lost in. I remember spinning around to face east and noticing the moon; my first thought was Ansel Adams’ Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico,but recast on the Louisiana coast, which is as empty a place as Adams’ New Mexico. The late afternoon exposure (1/200 at f/9) worked perfectly on the moon, so you can see the craters and features and not the usual featureless white blob you see in most pictures of the moon. The beach houses, moon, and vehicles form a kind of 3D acute triangle shape that keeps my eye moving over it, and that shape was what I saw in the frame of my mind’s eye, so I line it up and got it. One of the trucks has a wheel off and is up on a jack. You can drive on the beach in Louisiana and do pretty much what you want as long as the law ain’t around, and people do camp and spend the night, as the coast here is pretty remote and undeveloped. It’s a good example of what I call an “everything and nothing” kind of photograph.

Here are some additional images shared by Matthew, with plenty more to see at
Toward Constance Beach, Cameron Parish, LA
Port Arthur, TX
The Empty Slab, Cameron, LA
“Standard format pics are digital captures; square format pics are made on 120 color film. The portfolio at my website is LA 120 Film Series.” – Matthew White
Morning, Pecan Island, LA
Gueydan, LA
LA-1 Toward Leeville, LA
Dead Oaks, Lafourche Parish, LA
Gulf of Mexico at Cameron, LA
Sabine Pass, LA/TX State Line
Hurricane Shock, Johnson Bayou, LA
Hurricane Shock, Johnson Bayou, LA
Cheniere au Tigre, Vermilion Parish, LA

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