The Art of the Personal Project: Matthew Johnson

As a former Art Producer, I have always been drawn to personal projects because they are the sole vision of the photographer and not an extension of an art director, photo editor, or graphic designer. This new column, “The Art of the Personal Project” will feature the personal projects of photographers using the Yodelist marketing database. You can read their blog at http://yodelist.wordpress.com. Projects are discovered online and submissions are not accepted.

Today’s featured photographer is:  Matthew Johnson, based in Austin, Texas.

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How long have you been shooting? 
This is just my second year shooting freelance editorial and commercial work, but for the past 15 years I’ve assisted and worked on and off as everything from a staff photographer for a Major League Baseball team to an aerial photographer for a marketing firm.
 
Are you self-taught or photography school taught?
Mostly self-taught.  I have a magazine journalism degree from University of South Florida, but the program was writing based with just a handful of photojournalism classes available as electives.  They really resonated with me though, so I signed up for every one available.  This was in 2000, so I was spending time in both the darkroom and in the computer lab learning some early version of Photoshop, but everything was still totally film based. 
 
Once I had taken all the classes provided in my program, my professor was kind enough to help me out by first recommending me for an internship shooting for the university’s PR department and then connecting me with my first job out of college shooting for a Major League Baseball team.
 
After a season of shooting baseball I ended up putting photography on the back burner for about 5 years as I started a charter fishing business and was working full time as a fly fishing guide.  By the time I came back to photography, things had changed so much I felt like I was starting from scratch again, learning anything and everything I could from experimenting on my own, assisting, and reading everything from library books to blogs and forums.
 
With this particular project, what was your inspiration to shoot it?
This project came about when I was hired for a commercial job shooting a handful of resorts down on the Yucatan Peninsula for a startup travel agency.  Being down in the center of this world-class fishing area of the Yucatan was the perfect opportunity to work on this project with a subject I’m really passionate about.
 
Fly fishing has been a big part of my life since I was a kid growing up in Oregon spending all my free time camping and fishing.  Before moving to Austin and getting back into photography full time I lived down in Key West where I had gotten my Coast Guard Captain’s license and started a charter fly fishing business.  For 5 years I split my time between Key West and SW Alaska where I spent the summers working as a guide at a remote fly fishing lodge.  So fly fishing and outdoor culture have always been favorite subjects. 
 
I have such a romantic idea about the lifestyle of fly fishing so it was exciting to work on a project trying to capture that feeling.  It was really my dream project: spending time on the water with good people, meeting local guides and even setting down the camera long enough to catch a few fish myself.

How many years have you been shooting this project before you decided to present it? 
This was shot on a single trip to the Yucatan Peninsula in about a week.  My projects are often something like this, where I shoot them relatively quickly while on a trip.  On the other end of the spectrum, though, I have some projects going that focus on annual events that I only get a chance to work on for a few days every 12 months.  Right now I have portrait projects focusing on fireworks stands owners and the youth culture at the Texas Relays track meet that both fall into this category.  I’ll keep working on these projects for at least another year since I’m really enjoying them, but I like sharing the work while it’s in progress.

How long do you spend on a personal project before deciding if it is working?
I’m not someone that is shooting a new project every week so I’ve usually put quite a bit of thought into what is interesting to me about a project and how I’ll want to explore the subject before I’m actually shooting anything.  So if I get to the point of taking the first photo it means the subject intrigued me enough that I’m definitely getting something out of it.  In order for a project to turn into a long term effort there has to be some challenge or lingering questions that I couldn’t quickly or easily answer, but every project that I’ve ever started has ended up working for me on some level.

Since shooting for your portfolio is different from personal work, how do you feel when the work is different?
When I first started showing my book around I didn’t have much personal work in there, but I would often pull out some loose prints from my own projects and I quickly realized that people really enjoyed seeing that work.  The personal work is bound to be more inspired and unique, and is the type of work that I want to get more of, so I realized that separating the two just didn’t make sense.  I will have commissioned jobs that I don’t use for my portfolio, but I don’t really ever have personal work that I wouldn’t want to share in my portfolio or on my blog.  

Have you ever posted your personal work on social media venues such as Reddit, Tumblr, Instagram or Facebook?
I’m a big fan of Tumblr, and I’ll post photos on Instagram as well.  I deleted my Facebook account about two years ago and the decision still brings a smile to my face.  It was never a good fit for me, I just didn’t enjoy it.  I felt really uncomfortable every time I posted something, like I was just highlighting the cool things in my life, while on Tumblr and Instagram posts are just about my work.  It’s also really nice to be connecting with and following photographers, artists, editors, etc. rather than having an endless social media feed of weird updates from distant relatives or people from high school that I don’t really even know. 

If so, has the work ever gone viral and possibly with great press?
Nothing too crazy, but I’m always surprised by which images on my blog are shared the most.  I recently posted a set of images from the boardwalk in Santa Cruz that were taken early in the morning with nobody around so the park has an eerie deserted feel to it, and even though I liked the images I was surprised by the response.  You never know what might hit a cord with people. 

Have you printed your personal projects for your marketing to reach potential clients?
Definitely, I sent out around 200 postcards highlighting this project and have tried to send printed promos out with all the projects that I’m most excited about, since they show exactly the kind of work I’m wanting to get commissions for.

Artist Statement:  Fly fishing is often romanticized as a quiet, meditative art practiced standing thigh deep in a mountain stream, but serious anglers have progressed the sport beyond rivers and lakes to the saltwater flats of tropical destinations around the world.  Combining the skills of fly fishing and hunting, anglers stalk the shallow waters looking for difficult to spot game fish like bonefish, permit and tarpon that can be individually targeted, often in water that is only a foot or two deep. 
 
This exciting form of fly fishing has it’s own culture and romanticism: early mornings at the boat dock as the sun rises, the smell of sunscreen and saltwater, gorgeous expanses of tropical water all to yourself, powerful fish jumping into the harsh equatorial sunlight breaking tackle, and the cold beer that invariably waits at the end of the day with labels from places like Mexico or the Bahamas.  This work attempts to capture that excitement and anticipation of the next trip to one of these tropical paradises to chase fish with a fly rod.

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Matthew Johnson is an editorial and commercial photographer based out of Austin, Texas.  Before landing in Austin he grew up Oregon, and spent time in the Florida Keys, SW Alaska and Jackson Hole, Wyoming working as a fly fishing guide.  Prior to his obsessions with photography and fly fishing he spent all his time running, competing as a distance runner in multiple NCAA championships while at USF.   You can see his work at http://www.matthewjohnsonphoto.com


APE contributor Suzanne Sease currently works as a consultant for photographers and illustrators around the world. She has been involved in the photography and illustration industry since the mid 80s, after establishing the art buying department at The Martin Agency then working for Kaplan-Thaler, Capital One, Best Buy and numerous smaller agencies and companies. She has a new Twitter feed with helpful marketing information believing that marketing should be driven by a brand and not specialty. Follow her on twitter at SuzanneSease.

There Are 1 Comment On This Article.

  1. Some stunning pictures! That would be the dream. Someday being a travel Photographer that would take 2 dreams of mine and put them together! Just amazing! :)