Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Focus On: mattallen

Enthusiasm and passion for life and art is infectious. Think about the people you've met who project a sense of joy and discovery and make you feel the same way when you talk with them. Please meet Matt Allen -- he's a father of three, a husband, a photographer, and he fits in a day job with all those roles. Matt's love of photography shows in his skill set, and it also is reflected in his attitude and tone. Etsy is made up of some pretty fine individuals, and Matt stands at the top of the heap. You are sure to find some inspiration here.

Here's our talk, and although I was sitting in Utah, and Matt was in Boston, we kind of felt like we were just sitting around having a coffee and shooting the breeze:

Ann: What got you into photography?

Matt: It's hard to say what initially got me into photography, but I can say without a doubt it was having kids that got me back into photography after a long quiet period. I had taken a class in college on digital photography (using a borrowed Canon AE-1 and scanning the negatives into a Mac), and I really enjoyed it, but one reason or another I never kept up with it.

When my first daughter was born almost 4 years ago, I knew I wanted to document her first years on film, but after being frustrated with the point & shoot camera we had, I picked up a Canon Digital Rebel dSLR. From the first time I took it out of the box and started shooting with it (I picked up a 50mm f1.4 lens along with it), I immediately remembered how much I loved photographing things. I started to expand beyond just taking photos of my daughter when I signed up for a few classes at a community center in San Francisco. I learned how to shoot, develop and process black & white film, how to shoot for the abstract and how to handle night photography. The classes also served as a way to get me back into the "photography as an art" groove, and it's something I've been building on since.

A: You mention in your Etsy Profile you seem to wait for things to materialize to photograph rather than seeking them out, and you are trying to change this. Why do you make this distinction?

M: I like the spontaneity of stumbling upon a scene and making an image of it. That's not to say that I don't do some setup shooting, especially when taking photos of people and objects inside my house (like a flower, for example). But one thing I have trouble with is dedicating the time necessary to wander with my camera. So even though I think the best photos are the ones that appear in front of me, I am finding that I need little "projects" or "concepts" to shoot to. In a sense I am still just going out and capturing things that appear in front of me, but the difference is that I am going out with a subject in mind. I find it easier to dedicate time to photography when I have certain themes or concepts to shoot for.

A: I like how you describe your photographic process and how the classes you took helped you find your creativity again. What's your idea of the perfect photography class?

M: In my mind, any photo class is the perfect photo class. What I like most of all about photography classes is that they give you the opportunity to make images. It gets back to my point about having a project to shoot to. If you're signed up for a class you make it a point to dedicate some time to photography. I find that my hobbies are always what end up on the chopping block when I'm pressed for time, so being involved in a class forces me to commit time to my hobby. Beyond that, I'm also learning how to further my abilities as a photographer. For example, I signed up for the abstract photography class mostly for the chance to meet other photographers and so that I could dedicate one night a week to photography. I got more out of it than I expected though -- some of the techniques I learned from that class I may have never come across had I not signed up. So, not only was I able to devote time to photography, but I also picked up an appreciation for a new way to make images that I had never experienced before.

A: Your Etsy shop shows you based in Boston. Did you move from San Francisco to Boston? What's that like, and are you using photography to make discoveries in your new city?

M: I actually moved from Boston to San Francisco and then back. I grew up just north of Boston, then moved to Burlington, Vermont, for college. Just after college I relocated to the Bay Area for work and spent two years living in the city, then the remaining six living down on the peninsula in Palo Alto. My wife and I decided to move back to the East Coast to be closer to my family when we learned we'd be outnumbered by our kids -- we already had an 18-month old daughter when we found out we were going to have twins. We knew we'd need reinforcements so we decided to head back here.

While Boston isn't technically new to me, it had been such a long while since I spent any time here, it's like a new place. I am definitely rediscovering the city when I can, either coming in on weekends with the family or alone with my camera on my lunch break. The cold weather and snow has put a damper on my exploration, but with spring around the corner I am looking forward to spending more time walking around the city. Boston is a great city for photography -- there is such a diversity of neighborhoods that you can walk for less than 10 minutes from one part to the next and see a completely different landscape.

A: So, you are rediscovering your hometown. Pretend you are taking a group of photographers on a day-long tour of Boston. Where would you all go?

M: There are a few key neighborhoods I would definitely want to hit. First up would be the neighborhoods in the back bay -- the brownstones there have such incredible character. Also, the area around Beacon Hill has some incredibly beautiful small streets and alleys that are quiet and perfect for photographing, either early morning or just at dusk. Another neighborhood that would be great to photograph is the North End. Now that I think of it, taking the Freedom Trail through Boston, starting in Boston Common and ending either in the North End or continuing on across the Charles River to the Bunker Hill Monument would give you a huge variety of things to shoot along the way. Also, I personally would love to take a tour of the underground T-stops and put together a book of photos from there. But even though it sounds touristy, if I had to limit it to a single day trip, I'd say following the Freedom Trail would be a great way to see a lot of Boston.

A: Night photography is a challenge. Can you give some tricks and tips you've learned that have helped you take successful shots after dark?

M: The biggest piece of advice I can give is to invest in a solid tripod (don't skimp here) and a remote shutter release. Because you need to have relatively long exposures to capture night scenes, these two pieces of equipment are required. You can improvise the tripod by putting your camera on something solid (hand-holding is not going to yield good results), and a tripod gives you a lot of flexibility -- you might not have a level surface to put your camera on. The remote shutter release will also help keep the camera stable -- alternatively you can opt to use the delayed shutter timer if you don't have a shutter release cable.

Here are some non-photography related tips that will also help:

-- Bring a flashlight, even a small LED flashlight will do. It's going to be dark, so you'll need some help seeing where you are setting up. If you have a headlamp for camping or running at night, that works really well.

-- Dress warm -- make sure you dress appropriately -- you'll cool down pretty quickly just standing around, so a warm jacket is key. Also, fingerless gloves help. Obviously, this doesn't apply during the summer...

-- The most critical piece of advice is to team up with somene when you go out shooting at night for safety's sake -- don't go out there by yourself.

A: What brought you to Etsy?

M: A friend of mine who does some great work with toy cameras (Holga, etc., -- see her here: turned me onto Etsy. She had been selling some of her prints there, and I ended up purchasing two of them. I never really thought about putting my own stuff up there until she encouraged me to. I'm really glad I did, not only because of the ability to earn a little money from my art, but also because of the huge network of really talented people I've been able to tap into.

Initially, I just put up a few pieces, not really knowing how the whole Etsy thing worked. About a month or so after I opened my store, I came acrss another photographer who was part of the POE team. I had no idea that so many photographers have their work on Etsy, and I really had no idea how great a community the POE team is. I put my hat into the POE ring and started browsing through the forum posts from POE members and immediately felt inspired. That's the great thing about Etsy -- it's not just a place where you can put your work up and hopefully profit from your art, it's also a great source for inspiration.

I've added a few prints to my store since I first created it back in November, 2008 -- I think I am up to 29 listings now -- and one of the main reasons why I continue to add to the store is because it has become one of my fundraising sources for an event I am training for. I am currently working with Team in Training, a fundraising group that's part of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. With the group I'm training for my first half-marathon in Lake Placid, New York, on June 14. The Team in Training organization helps individuals prepare for a variety of endurance events. As a participant in T in T, you commit to raise a certain amount of money (it varies by event) to donate to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society to support their cancer research, education and patient support programs, among others. I am using the proceeds from any sales I have on Etsy to help me reach my fundraising goal. It's a great way to share my art with buyers on Etsy and help out a really incredible cause at the same time. You can read more about Team in Training by visiting -- there are chapters all over the US.

A: What do you do besides being a dad, a husband and a photographer?

M: Believe it or not there isn't much time left over after the dad, husband and photographer duties are finished for the day! I do have a day job though -- I work in IT as a project lead. But outside of work, family and my hobby I recently started getting into running. I completed my very first road race last October (a 5k held in my town), and I am currently training for a half-marathon in June.

It may sound strange at first, but my approach to running is very similar to my approach to photography. In order to stay committed to running, and knowing my personality, I need to have something out in front of me to reach for. With photography it may be a concept or a project I am shooting for, with running it's a race in the not-too-distant future. I find that if I have a goal to reach it's much easier for me to stay focused. Another similarity I find between running with Team in Training and shooting and being a part of the POE team on Etsy is that I draw a lot of inspiration from the groups I am part of. Seeing the strength of other members of the same running team pushes me to work harder than I would if I were just on my own. In a similar vein, seeing the talent and work ethic of the POE members and the greater Etsy community pushes meto work harder at my craft and hopefully learn from and be inspired from those around me.

I would say that Matt is a pretty inspiring guy himself! Thanks so much, Matt, for a great interview!

A world traveler and self-taught photographer, look for Ann wandering around city streets and tromping through woods and hiking trails with her camera. After owning an international transportation business for many years, Ann has found her creative spirit again through the lens. See more at Ann's shop and her website, and say hello to her on her blog too.


Anonymous said...

Nice. I like the bridge and paper lanterns.

fosterbk said...

What a great feature on a great photographer! Thanks for telling us more about you, Matt!

UrbanJunkies/zuppaartista said...

what a great interview ann!
matt, you are such an inspiration & your work is stunning! great night tips too! thanks for sharing your knowledge! :)

C. Wade said...

Great feature on a great photographer! I can't believe I'd never seen "Snowy River 2" before- incredible!

TheEye said...

This was a fun read ... nice to learn a little about the person behind the pictures...

great shots too... that pic of the bus zooming past is funky

Matt Allen Photography said...

Thanks everyone! And thanks especially to Ann - she's got a career in journalism for sure... great interviewer!

can't wait to read next week's feature!

Hey Harriet said...

Fantastic feature! I enjoyed learning more about Matt, and his photos are wonderful!

Kerry Hawkins said...

Great feature. These are wonderful photos

Ann Wilkinson said...

aww geez, thanks Matt! It was easy talking with you! Thanks for such a great interview and such fantastic photos.

Julie Magers Soulen said...

Great interview! Loved hearing more about you and your work!

Allie said...

Great feature! All wonderful - paper lanterns are my favorite!