Apr 30, 2020
Matthew is an American photographer focused on outdoor photography as a way to promote and channel his conservation efforts. Inspired by music, nature and philosophy, Matthew's work is a conceptual exploration of place, experience and time, and the way they interact with the observer. In his series 'Place of the Deer', Matthew captures the essence of the Mazatzal Mountains in Arizona, focusing on symbolic and powerful elements that shape the character of the land.
am - First of all thank you very much for your contribution to our project. Can you please introduce yourself for us?
MJ - Hello. My name is Matthew Jessie and I am a photographic artist and educator currently based in Tempe, Arizona. I am fortunate to have grown up in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and that is where I really came to love both the natural world and photography. I attended East Tennessee State University and graduated with a BFA in Studio Art in 2015. After my undergraduate education I decided to pursue my MFA and after a year of investigating programs I chose to attend Arizona State University. My primary reasoning for moving across the United States from Tennessee to Arizona was to study under legendary landscape photography figures Bill Jenkins and Mark Klett as well as to experience and work in a landscape that was as different from my home in Tennessee as possible within continental US. Now, nearly three years after moving, I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.
am - How did you start in photography?
MJ - I turned 21 years old in April of 2008. During the following summer I would make some of the biggest and most important decisions of my life and many of those decisions would lead to opportunities that have paved the way for me to be standing where I am now. The entire summer of that year I worked as a timeshare salesman in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. My job entailed approaching complete strangers and attempting to persuade them to attend a viewing of one of the properties owned by the company I worked for. I made great money, the job wasn’t physically demanding, I got to see a lot of crazy events, and most importantly to me, I could make enough wages in three days that the other four days of the week I could do whatever I wanted. That is when I really began intensely exploring the landscape that encompasses the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I would stay out for several days at a time exploring, hiking, and just getting into as many random adventures as I could. I had a small point-and-shoot Kodak camera and I began making pictures during my adventures. With little understanding of photography I made pictures of whatever caught my eye; run-ins with bears, rare flowers in bloom, the only Timber Rattlesnake I have ever witnessed in Tennessee up to this point. I felt more alive and free during that summer than any time since. I had no true commitments, a bit of financial security, a lust for exploration and adventure, and a naive conception of photography that I sometimes still miss to this day. Towards the end of that summer is when 'The Great Recession of 2008' hit the country. I can remember driving to work and seeing gas prices spike to over five dollars a gallon and not even knowing why or what was going on. Thousands upon thousands of tourists visiting the region were all freaking out and trying to return to their home states. It was crazy. Obviously, one of the most affected industries was hospitality and this led to a near collapse of the timeshare industry. So there I was with no job, no secondary education, and facing an economic disaster. Having spent so much time in the forests of the Great Smoky Mountains that summer I developed a desire to be involved with environmental conservation efforts and decided to seriously pursue a degree in Forestry. I began my studies that fall and after two semesters my advisor told me that with the degree I was pursuing I would most likely be working for paper companies or related industries; the polar opposite of what I wanted to do with my life. I was pretty bummed and felt as if I had reached another dead end. At this time a family member suggested that I continue taking general education courses, but also an elective that was more for fun than for my degree. I reluctantly agreed and enrolled in an intro to photography class. I was immediately captivated by the magic of the darkroom and quickly found myself working from the time it opened until it closed and even sometimes after that if I could find a way to do so. It was the most experimental time of my practice. I remember slicing up negatives and reassembling them, exposing the paper several times while moving the easel, anything and everything that popped into my head I tried it in the darkroom. By the end of the semester I was hooked. I also came to the somewhat naive understanding that I could maybe use photography in a way that aligned with my desire to help environmental conservation efforts and that is when I decided to commit to learning and practicing the medium like nothing else before in my life. For a few years after beginning this journey my work drifted from centering on the natural world and took on many different appearances. Now, twelve years later, my practice has returned to focusing on efforts for conserving what remains of our seemingly untouched wildernesses in the Southeastern and Southwestern United States.
am - What inspires your work?
MJ - I would say that my biggest inspiration as an artist is the work of musician John Frusciante. My favorite songs of his hit me in an emotional and guttural place that I can only hope my best pictures make others feel. I am a big fan of the writings of the late philosopher Alan Watts, and his book 'Cloud-hidden, Whereabouts Unknown' in particular has really inspired the direction of my current work. In terms of visual inspiration and other photographers I appreciate I would definitely have to mention such late artists as Edward Weston, Dorthea Lange, Walker Evans, Frederick Sommer, and Ansel Adams, as well as my very-much-alive mentors Mike Smith, Joshua Dudley Greer, Bill Jenkins, Mike Lundgren, and Mark Klett. Also, Joel Sternfeld, Linda Connor, Alec Soth, Ron Jude among others. Over the last few years I have really appreciated a lot of work from Belgian artists including Geert Goiris, Nick Geboers, and others. Of course there are far more artists that I appreciate and am influenced by than I can list here.
am - What is 'Place of the Deer' about?
MJ - This Frederick Sommer quote really sums up how I feel about 'Place of the Deer'.
“Everything is shared by everything else; there are no discontinuities.”
When I started this body of work I had just moved across the country to pursue my graduate degree. I knew right away that I wanted to immediately begin making work so every weekend I would leave Tempe with no real destination, making photographs, sleeping in my car, and exploring this new and vastly different landscape. Early on, the Mazatzal Mountains just north of Phoenix captivated me and that is when I really settled on working solely in the Central Highlands region of Arizona. By creating a geographical boundary to work within it actually allowed for a level of creative freedom that I hadn’t expected. This is where I feel the work really relates to the Sommer quote. Each image in Place of the Deer is, for the majority of the work, visually different from the others in terms of subject matter, treatment, composition, etc., but they all work together to express some sort of experiential cohesiveness that alludes to my specific journey through this place. Although they are all visually different they are tied together by other, more metaphoric and symbolic elements. This is where the intentional use of sequencing becomes critical in the process of creating and sharing visual meaning. So in other words, 'Place of the Deer' is “about” an intense exploration of place, time, existence, experience, and an investigation into where the idea of self fits into all of this.
am - What is your favourite movie?
MJ - This is a constantly changing thing, but for the last few months I have been watching and re-watching 'No Country For Old Men'. I love everything about this movie; how it was filmed, location, actors, everything. It has definitely influenced my work.
am - What is your favourite photo book?
MJ - I would say that my all-time favorite photobook is 'A Shimmer of Possibility' by Paul Graham. His use of the book form not only to display the work, but also to be an actively engaging part of the experience of viewing the images is, at least at the time it was first published, a very bold and experimental take on the relationship between photography and the book form.
am - Thank you very much for your time and your contribution to analog magazine.
All images © Matthew Jessie