ARTIST SPOTLIGHT - MATTHEW KEESON
Matthew Keeson is a Photographer & Videographer residing in Cape Town, South Africa. His main focus is on food, but he also shoots some beautiful, yet sometimes haunting portraits. Check out the interview below to find out more about Matthew and his approach to photography.
Mine and Matt's paths crossed around four years ago, while I was shooting bands in Cape Town, and Matt being a drummer in one of the bands I shot at that time. Both of us have a love for music and photography and thus immediately started chatting about our profession in general, our gear, ideas for shoots and ranting about the problems we face as photographers in this country.
Let’s get to the juicy stuff first. Tell me your philosophy when it comes to your work as a photographer.
Oh man. That’s a hell of a first question buddy. Well, I guess it depends on what I’m doing or tasked in doing. For more personal work I like to try tell stories. I love coming up with stories and little scenarios whether it has a deeper meaning or not. I enjoy conceptualizing - I think it’s that moment when you start mentally putting pieces together to make it more concrete that really appeals to me. It’s the same with music, I love that creational genesis - a new idea that takes hold and it’s new and fresh and almost gives life to itself in that initial phase. I love that. If I’m given a brief then I mentally prepare myself to surrender a bit of ‘what I like’ and focus more on what the client wants and needs and in the process weave as much of my creativity in as possible. It’s about finding that balance. A lot of my work is food based and there I go by one philosophy - Make the viewer lick their screen.
I got to know you as a musician years ago, how did you go from being a drummer in a local Cape Town band to specializing in photography & videography?
I think when I was playing in some of my first punk bands, we did everything ourselves...When I say we, I mean there was one guy who did most of the work and it was not me. We were in a pop punk band and Sean the bassist use to take photos of us and videos and do the whole photoshop thing and I thought it was kinda cool. This was back in like 2002 - 2007. I liked the idea of photography but it took awhile for me to get into it. Then in 2007 my friend said she was doing a private short-course over a month or 2 and I decided to join her and that is when I learned about photography. I borrowed her camera for months till I eventually got a Canon 30D. I knew absolutely nothing but I found I really enjoyed it and our teacher said I had an eye for it so I just kept going. I started photographing gigs and girlfriends and kept going doing it all as a hobby. I did a few shoots for band promos etc while I learned about lighting. I looked for working photographers who may needed assistants and managed to find a photographer who paid. He specialised in food photography and interiors. As time went on work was getting less and I started branching out looking for clients of my own and then years later maybe 2013/2014 I picked up one of the clients of the photographer I assisted and that really changed my world. It gave me confidence and also eventually forced me to embrace video as well which I’ve been spending the last 2 or 3 years learning (and still am).
With the industry being in a current sad state as it is, with millions of people running around calling themselves photographers, how did you manage to rise above the rest, obtain clients and create a name for yourself?
Dude, honestly, I don’t feel like I’ve risen above the rest, haha. The industry is so saturated and the technology is becoming more and more affordable with more and more people being able to explore it as a hobby or a profession and it makes people competitive. I’m not a fan of competition so I tend not to enter the race. Some months work is great and abundant - other times its worrying and I still doubt myself a lot. I consider myself very lucky. When I land a client I’m always super thankful and when they decide to constantly come back it feels like I’ve won the frikkin lottery. But for me I was lucky enough to find a photographer to assist and found a “niche” of photography I really enjoy - food. I slowly kept the images I liked over the years and used those as a portfolio. I like to target my potential clients, so I “stalk” them. Check out what their current set of photos they use and if I feel I can add something to their brand I send them an introductory email and hopefully it opens up dialog between the two of us. I’ve sent lots of emails, many without a reply and many not interested and “we will keep you on our records”. The main thing is perseverance. Also learning how to run a business is most of the hard work. Know when and when not to spend money, how to budget, how to price your product/service, how to work with clients and over all just how to conduct oneself professionally. I find clients, more than anything, want to work with someone they feel they can get along with. Someone open to communication and if you can get your client to like you, they are more than likely going to return. And that’s what I want. Clients I can have a good, open, beneficial relationship with. I’m still trying to create a name for myself...I don’t think that game ever ends. Not if one wants to be relevant. Shit, did I even answer your question?!
Who are some of your influences as a photographer?
The main local photographers that stand out for me are Claire Gunn - she is a great food/restaurant photographer and also an incredible artist. Her roots run deep in food and I think that closeness with her subject really shows in her work. I’m really digging André Badenhorst’s work at the moment. I like how he conceptualizes his shoots and puts his ideas together and his style is just cool, which I feel can be spotted a mile away. Russell Smith is another local who just produces amazing work. His lighting is always amazing. It’s going to sound cheesy, but your work (Image Engineer) also blows my mind - not only photography. Your skill set is so wide and deep and I’ve seen you create the most magical images. I hate you (But secretly want to be you). One other local photographer I like is Elsa Bleda . Her night time cityscapes are fantastic and really stirs emotion. There are many who have a style similar to hers, but there is just something authentic with her work that really appeals to me. International photographers I like...The first name that comes to mind is Gregory Crewdson . I love how he takes a cinematic approach to his images and also stirs emotion. I love his work and has influenced me a lot. I also really like Annie Liebovitz. The series she did for the 2007 Vanity Fair Hollywood issue was so rad. I particularly enjoyed her earlier work with Rolling Stone and her personal work. I really like how she conceptualizes her portraits. I always enjoy hearing the thought process behind artist’s work. Mark Seliger work I also really enjoy. I loved his lighting and setup for the Oscars. Every photograph is flawless. All the photographers I mention have one thing in common: They all have their own distinct style, like their personality still comes through in their work.
Give me a rundown of your average day.
It depends, if I don’t have a shoot booked then I’ll probably only get up around 8:30 Have a cup of tea and do all emails and admin things as well as social media - let people know what I’m doing and that I’m still alive. I’ll also track down potential clients - where possible I like to be particular about clients so I often like to be selective. Then I do any errands that need doing and or any meetings that need meeting or any editing that needs...um...editing. Then I’ll sort out lunch and I tend to do some more editing in the afternoon till about 4. Sometimes I’ll take a little 30 - 45 min nap and chill out till 5:30/6pm and make some supper. I’ll do some more emailing or I might have a voice over session (I do voice overs for Hindi tv series for extra money) which can take the whole evening. If I have a shoot booked, I check my gear the day/ night before making sure batteries are all good to go, cards are ready, etc etc. I’ll wake up around 7am have a cuppa tea and check emails etc, then pack my car and get to my shoot around 9am before the stylist so I can set up everything. Once I get to the shoot and I’m in the zone it’s all go. My food shoots will usually wrap around 3/4pm - sometimes later, sometimes earlier. The best part about food shoots is that I do get to eat what we shot. SO good. I’ll break down the set pack my stuff and pack the car. When I get home I pretty much backup my images and make sure all is good. I’ll chill out till about 6pm, do dinner (or take aways) watch telly reply/write emails. A lot of the time I can’t wait to check out the images so I can either feel good about my work or hate my existence. I’ll often get started on the RAW files in the evening and continue editing the next morning. But yeah, that’s more or less how my day goes.
Let's talk gear, what's in your kitbag currently and what's your favourite go-to lens?
At the moment I’m shooting on a Canon 77D usually with my trusty Manfrotto 190X tripod. Lens wise I’ve got a 10-20mm, 24mm 2.8 pancake, 50mm 1.8, 60mm 2.8 Macro and a 70-300mm 4 - 5.6. My go to lens for food is the 60mm macro...But for my personal stuff I like slightly wider frame and find the 24mm is perfect. It’s wide without being too wide. It’s my go-to for video. Like many photographers I like using prime lenses. I also have reflectors, polyboards, a C-stand, light stands and 3 Yongnuo LED lights and a Pixel Mago speedlight and some cheap Yongnuo triggers. I’m editing on an AMD Ryzen 7, 12 gig ram and GTX 1050 with 4gig Vram.
A while ago, you, unfortunately, lost some gear on set, how has the photographic community helped you out in regards to this?
Yeah, my camera toppled over while it was on my tripod. Horrible feeling watching helplessly as you see your gear getting destroyed (in seemingly slow motion). The community is awesome, people offered me cameras to finish my shoot and loaned me cameras that weren’t in use. I think it’s a great community because photographers know the pain. It’s almost like losing a limb. It sucks, but the community really came together to make it bearable and I’m truly grateful for all the offers of help - including yours!
You've been busy in the last while regardless of the unfortunate gear loss, what's your plan for the next 5 years? Is there anything else you would like to pursue in terms of photography and video?
I just want to keep on doing what I’m doing. Hopefully grow my client base more and would like to invest more into video. I’d like to attempt a short film at some point. I often come up with little stories so I try keep a backlog of ideas in the event i’m hired for a music video or something. I’m an ideas guy and ideas are gold! I would like to conceptualize and shoot some music videos. I also want to shoot a well thought out, one-take dance routine. I guess I just want to make stories whether photo or video and explore the imagination a bit more all while making money doing what I enjoy.
Any advice you’d give to up-and-coming photographers?
My biggest piece of advice is be persistent and know your worth. Be persistent with the quality of work, be persistent with the right attitude towards your work and your clients and keep on doing what you do - don’t give up. Understand what you like about certain images and certain films. Learn how to adopt those things you like into your work and keep refining it until you have style that people can identify. Don’t be afraid to charge and don’t undervalue your work. Mostly, enjoy what you do. Change things up to keep things fresh, look what others are doing - be active in looking for inspiration as it comes in the most unsuspecting of places.