Meet Matt Henry, the photographer with a penchant for mid-century America

Photo: Matt Henry from his series "Counter Culture"

Photo: Matt Henry from his series "Counter Culture"

There is a certain mythical quality - well ok, it’s called escapism - about watching a film. We project our own desires and fantasies onto the big screen, often imagining ourselves as the heroes. And America, or rather Hollywood, has been dominating the scene ever since the early 20th century. As a result audiences across the globe have been fed a diet of American-centric films. Whether they like it or not is another question altogether.

One person who definitely did enjoy this diet, especially consuming old westerns and ‘80s classics as a child, is British-based photographer Matt Henry, whose highly stylized and cinematic photo series is an ode to small town and mid-century America ‘onscreen’. Henry’s photographs blur the lines between reality and fantasy. The hyperrealism and implicit voyeurism of each photo series explores notions of utopia and dystopia, and what separates the two. It’s a viewing experience not unlike visiting the cinema– the very objective of his work no doubt.

We spoke with Matt Henry to find out more about the photographer and his work.

Photo: Matt Henry from his series "Twin Palms"

Photo: Matt Henry from his series "Twin Palms"

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When did you begin to take an interest in photography?

My mother was a photographer so I grew up with a darkroom in our house and prints and loupes and contact sheets everywhere. I wasn’t interested until about 18 when I was due to go to the USA as part of a Work America programme. My mother gave me an old SLR to take out there and a load of film. I came back and made my first print and was hooked from there.

How would you describe your work?

When people ask what I do I say I create fictional stories set in 1960s America with a series of still photographs. I guess that sums it all up pretty well.

Who/what inspires you?

Stories, and these might come from American history, film, or literature. And aesthetically the old photographers of the mid-century period like Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Danny Lyons, Jacob Holdt, Bill Owens, Mitch Epstein, Joel Sternfeld to name a few. And of course travel in the USA and the many people I meet along the way. Gregory Crewdson for his outdoor night scenes; his technical perfection of the cinematic master shot in photography.

Photo: Matt Henry from his series "Born on the Bayou"

Photo: Matt Henry from his series "Born on the Bayou"

How much planning goes into your work?

An extraordinary amount. I work with a cast of actors and storyboard everything in advance, so I have to find locations, source clothing, find makeup and hair, organise accommodation, lighting, permits, and insurance. If it was cinema, these jobs would be done by multiple people so it’s not an easy task - but it is one that I’ve started to get much quicker at. There’s also a research period generally. How much time I give myself to do these things depends on the budget I have that year. If I have money to make three or four stories, I’ll go at it like crazy and get them each down in a month or so. If things are a little quieter financially I might take anywhere between two and four months to get everything together.

What is your first recollection of America?

Sitting with my grandad watching old Westerns and listening to him telling me what the cowboys should have done. Then probably kids television shows like the A-team and The Dukes of Hazzard. Then as I got older films like the Goonies, ET, Back to the Future, Star Wars and the like. All the good stuff!

What fascinates you about mid-century America?

A whole mix of things really. I was a student of politics at university so have always been interested in the human capacity for dreaming about how the world might be. I lived in a commune for a year after University to really try and explore that utopian spirit. The 60s really was a time where everything was to play for. Those dreams and ideals were real; people truly believed they could change the world, and they did to a large degree. It contrasts so sharply with today’s cynicism towards the potential for change. It was a kind of lightning rod moment of the marriage of politics and culture that I hope we’ll see again. Then there’s the aesthetic of course. There’s a lot to play with there from the atomic to the psychedelic to the more 50s inspired influences of classic American locations like motels and diners that were still very much present and unchanged in that period.

Photo: Matt Henry from his series "Born on the Bayou"

Photo: Matt Henry from his series "Born on the Bayou"

What city/state in the US do you have the greatest affinity for/with?

I’d hate to choose a favourite. I love Palm Springs for its modernist kitsch, then the vast deserts of the state of Arizona and New Mexico were pretty awe-inspiring. New Orleans and surrounding Louisiana for the people and its general oddity. Texas I have a huge affinity for; hanging out with real cowboys in West Texas was something special, and Austin was a great city too. Upstate New York I really enjoyed for its Twin Peaks like feel. There’s so much I love. The only places I don’t feel so at home are LA and NYC.

Biggest cinematic influence on your work?

Jim Jarmusch, Harmony Korine, Richard Linklater and Aki Kaurasmaki for their celebration of the outsider (I’ve always felt like one). Tarkovksy primarily for Stalker and its exploration of the existential but Solaris too. David Lynch for his ability to penetrate dream-like states like nobody else. Bergman for the intellectual challenge, Hitchcock and Mario Bava for the suspense, Kubrick and the Coens for pretty much everything and Paul Thomas Anderson largely for Magnolia and Inherent Vice which I’ve watched over and over again.Then Easy Rider, Chinatown, Silent Running, Badlands, Network, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Totall Recall, and Donnie Darko all key into themes that really resonate with me; the utopian spirit, youth and the loss of innocence, corruption, nature and ecological sensibilities, nihilism, the sublime; really the things I talked about politically – the full extremes of human potential. Dreams and how they’re dashed and why!

Song of choice for your American road trip?

Ha. I’ve got a fairly extensive road trip playlist but I’ll open with The Byrds “I Wasn’t Born to Follow.”

What’s next?

I’m going out to Georgia in November to complete my second book, which focuses on the theme of the Southern Gothic. The book will be comprised of three separate stories exploring this genre. The first I’ve shot in Louisiana and Texas, so Georgia will be the third and final story. I’m busy researching at the moment, and not sleeping at all as I’m too excited about it all. The worst part is finishing the story and having to go home. If I could stay on the road and travel from state to state making new stories, I’m not sure that I’d ever go back.
 

To see more of Matt Henry's work and his full photo series' visit:

 www.matthenryphoto.com

Photo: Matt Henry from his series "Counter Culture"

Photo: Matt Henry from his series "Counter Culture"

Interviewed by Emily Freedman