British photographer Matt Henry may have grown up in a tiny village in the North of Wales, but American cinema proved to be the escape he needed to discover the world around him. Now channelling this once childhood infatuation into a medium for his art, Henry creates fantastical stories from his own imagination that take place in the cultural revolution that defined mid-century America.
As such, his work features recurring themes from this time period that have penetrated the mainstream of contemporary history and culture including the hippie movement, youthful rebellion and of course, sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Wanting to know more about how this childhood infatuation turned into a full-time artistic career, we had a chance to talk with Matt about the relevance of mid-century American history in his art and how the interests of those times are interacting with the present.
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My first question might be the one that you get the most but how did you get your start in photography?
My mother was a photographer, so I grew up with darkrooms in the house. I went to work in the United States during university and borrowed an old SLR camera from my mum to document my experience, and came back and developed and printed all the rolls of film in her darkroom. I was hooked from then on. I started taking pictures for Nottingham University magazine but still wanted to be a writer at the time, so I left university to study journalism. I began writing for photography magazines before deciding that I preferred taking pictures to writing about them.
Coming from a background in which you first studied politics and then photography, do you find it hard incorporating both disciplines in your work?
I don’t think about either as disciplines that I have to incorporate. I’m a storyteller who happens to use a camera and have political convictions. I tell the stories that build in my head to the point that they’re jumping around and need to be let out! Everything has politics at its core, but it’s a mistake to approach a story through a purely ideological lens – to think of a story as some kind of manifesto or blueprint for changing people’s minds about something. That shuts too many doors as an artist, and I don’t think it is effective anyway.
I start with the gut always. That’s not to say that I don’t think about the ramifications of the story that I’m telling, but that worry or restraint has to be tempered. With regards to photography, yes, I studied it, but I have little interest in the history or culture of photography now. The medium is not the message for me personally. My books contain a lot of written material too, and I may switch to the written novel as a storytelling format one day.
Your photographic style is unique in that it’s almost cinematic in quality. How did you come about to develop this particular style?
It’s not conscious so it’s difficult to say. I’m more influenced by cinema than I am by photography so there are probably a lot of cinematic shots that have taken root in my head. But I always found it strange and limiting that people seemed to focus on a particular type of subject and composition in photography. Like portraiture would be their thing, and the head and shoulders their go-to framing. Cinema is so much more of a varied language in the sense that you have the wide-angle establishing shot, the medium shot, the two shot, the close-up, the point of view, etc. – and the subject matter is infinite. This is why I find the history of photography so problematic.
People put themselves into these little boxes like fashion photographer, or landscape photographer, or photojournalist — all of which have their own forms of language. Even in the looser world of fine art, there’s a rigidity to a degree. If my work feels cinematic, I think it’s likely because of a love of the looseness of the cinematic language.
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Each of your projects is storyboarded, staged across set-builds, and typically features a cast of actors styled and directed by yourself. When you think about it, your process sounds almost identical to the process of shooting a movie. How does film inspire your photographic projects in terms of conceptualizing an idea and then bringing it to life for the camera?
Having never made a film, I’m not really sure how the process would compare, but I can certainly imagine that there are similarities. I have a period of dreaming and brainstorming, then pre-production to organize outfits, locations, actors and all the other logistical elements. And then, obviously, the production itself. I would think cinema works in a very familiar fashion on a much bigger scale with more money and more people. I do tail off the back of it to a degree.
I tend to target cities to shoot in that have some sort of film-industry infrastructure, so I’ll have access to actors and make-up and hair and lighting. But my process is just something that I’ve evolved. So I’m not really thinking about film, or how they go about things. They have to get twenty-four frames per second and average just a minute of footage a day. I’ve got just a single frame to capture and a much more limited way of telling a story so everything’s condensed. I think their task must be a million times harder, but there is something that I love about the stillness of a photographic image and of the limitations that I work with.
What is it about mid-century America that draws you to it as a source of inspiration for your work? Did this start as a childhood infatuation that later expanded into your adulthood?
Yes, childhood infatuation. I grew up in a little village in North Wales so television and VHS movies were an escape really, and the best were American, so I guess you can say that America became the language of my imagination. I used to make little movies as a child with my dad’s video camera, and I would always adopt an American accent! I wanted to be taken somewhere else and British film and television just never really did it for me.
The mid-century aspect is more difficult to articulate, but most likely a fusion of parental stories mixed with university study that revealed the 1960s as a time when everything was to play for. An explosion of liberalism and progressive ideas that was without precedent. People believed they could change the world and to an extent, they did. It contrasts with the cynicism of today. We need another injection of utopianism to solve our current problems. We need a vision of peace and beauty, no matter how unrealistic it is. Reach for the stars and you might make it somewhere in between! I think that hope will grow once again, which is why I think this era is still very relevant and of such great importance.
“I’m a storyteller who happens to use a camera and have political convictions.”
While we’re on the topic of inspiration, pop culture plays a significant part in the characterful worlds that you create with your camera. What pop culture moments from that time period have you used to create these worlds from your imagination and make them into reality?
I think of the ‘60s as one great pop cultural period in the sense that it has really become part of the fabric of contemporary mainstream history and culture. Everyone knows about hippies, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the people that smoked marijuana and took LSD, and that there was a real youthful rebellion. So I’m keying into pop cultural references in the contemporary sense, as at the time, much of this was considered countercultural.
In your new book, Night of the Hunted, the reader is taken through a visual journey of three Southern Gothic stories set in 1960s America. What did you hope to share with your readers about the Deep South and its troubled past with your project’s dark romanticized interpretation of its history?
I don’t think my project romanticizes that history unless you consider racially-motivated rape, the Ku Klux Klan, and the lynching of black people particularly romantic subjects. Those images are in there. But yes, the works are fictional and aesthetically considered if that’s what you mean. The stories are influenced by the Southern Gothic genre, which does have elements of horror. There’s darkness, fear, the threat of violence, sexual abuse; all the things that humanity abhors but uses as a form of education, entertainment and excitement. That’s the paradox. But humans are complex beings and can be horrified and stimulated at the same time.
Most of what people know about the Deep South outside of the United States has come through dramatization rather than history books. And that dramatization does not pull punches for fear of exciting some people in the wrong way. You can’t control how your message is received. But there is text in the book that explores some of that appalling history for people who wish to delve further. But I would hope that seeing teens lynching a black man before heading out to the movie theatre to watch a John Wayne film captures some of the dehumanisation that went on. The three stories are quite varied though; Lone Stars has a tangible plotline and solid denouement in a way that the other two stories don’t.
Considering all the photographic projects that you’ve completed so far, which one was the hardest for you to shoot? Why did you feel the need to reimagine that specific time in American history as the basis for the project?
Scene-wise, the hardest was the lynching by a long way. It was a horrible thing to have to put together. Especially with people you don’t know very well, and who don’t really know each other. The KKK scene was awful too. Both left me with a very weird sense afterwards. I needed a strong drink. I don’t think I need to explain why these scenes are relevant given the current goings-on in American politics.
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History tends to repeat itself when people fail to pay attention the first time. Do you believe that the political turmoil in the ‘60s and ‘70s of mid-century America is repeating itself now in contemporary American and even British politics?
It’s not that it’s repeating itself, it’s that it never really went away. All of the issues that came to the fore in the 1960s had a lid temporarily placed upon them but the grievances continued to bubble. One of the best texts around at the time, which I think encapsulates these problems, is One-Dimensional Man, by Herbert Marcuse. It places capitalism and socialism as two-sides of the same industrialised, technocratic coin that neglects the fundamental things people need to thrive: a connection to nature, the ability to create and express and do meaningful work, the need for community, and the need for play.
All the modern political solutions are focused around growth, efficiency, production and making people into tiny cogs in big impersonal wheels, whether left or right. And they are killing the planet in the process. Unless some method of organisation that embraces our authentic needs as humans and the needs of the natural world around us is comprehended, these cycles of turmoil are destined to play out again and again and again.
As you pursue future projects, what moments from American history would you like to tackle next? Are there any already in the works?
The Back to the Land movement of the late 1960s and 1970s really interests me, but I’m currently working on a tale about the occult and rock and roll set in 1968. When that’s finished by the end of this year, back to the land I shall go!
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