The tagline on Matt Rainwaters’ photography website is ‘shoot pictures, not people’, which is luckily a mantra he manages to uphold quite well. From burly bearded men to emotionless convicts and tired-looking doctors he’s shot a selection of striking subjects while working as a freelance photographer. “Lately I’ve been getting a lot of really good work… my joke is that I shoot convicts and doctors… that’s it,” he laughs.
His attendance at the 2009 World Beard and Moustache Championships in Alaska launched his delightful ‘Beardfolio’ project – a collection of photographs of men with beautiful beards and moustaches who were all competing in different categories of the championship to claim the title of ‘best facial hair’. As a side note, 2009 is the first year that Australia has ever entered a team in the championships.
The Beardfolio project was inspired by ‘awesome facial hair’ and was rather well-thought out by Rainwaters, taking almost two years to develop. “I also talked an art director friend into growing his beard out as long as possible and then competing in the competition,” Rainwaters explains.
In fact not only did his friend manage to grow the required facial hair, but he went on to compete in the competition. This in turn allowed Rainwaters access to photograph the contestants. Yet it turned out to be a bit of a challenge to convince the contestants to actually sit for Rainwaters, so that he could take the photographs. “There were a lot of other photographers there as well, and I think that the contestants were pretty overwhelmed by everything”, he reflects.
A further obstacle was arriving in Alaska with his gear intact. “Travelling with a minimal amount of gear and getting a quality picture is the balance I’ve been struggling with for the last two years. For this job I used a single light and a portable background. I also bought a computer to store the images on and actually bought a camera there.”
There’s no denying the end result is fantastic, and Rainwaters has plans to turn the images into a glossy coffee table book in the near future.
Rainwaters found his passion for images early on while roving around as a skateboarding teenager in Los Angeles during the 1980s. “I started skateboarding some time when I was 12 or 13, which led me to buy a video camera and make skate videos,” he says. “It was the first time that I really felt good at something and filming on the weekends just became an extension of that.”
His initial plan was to study film, but by the end of high school he didn’t have the grades to transfer directly into the school at which he wanted to study. He then dabbled in still photography and soon went on to study at the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara in the US. “The upside to still photography is that it doesn’t require the amount of people involved in film production, so it’s much more accessible,” he says.
Technically his degree is in industrial and scientific photography, though that doesn’t dominate the images that he chooses to take today.
After completing his degree Rainwaters taught at a high school for three years, while simultaneously exhibiting his work on the west coast of the US. He was pretty busy during this time, also owning and operating a hotdog stand to make extra money on the weekends. All of his hard work paid off, however, as three years ago he moved to Austin, Texas to begin a full-time career as a photographer. He now has an office at a friend’s studio where he keeps his computer, and stores some of his photography gear. “Because I travel so much my equipment has to be compact and very portable, and even the shots that may look as though they’ve been shot in a studio were most probably shot in the corner of someone’s office. Mostly I use one light and a 35mm SLR,” he says.
Richard Avedon’s portrait work is a huge inspiration for Rainwaters, especially since making the switch from shooting landscapes to people. “Avedon has great insight into his subjects,” he explains.
Rainwaters also lists Dan Winters, Robert Frank, Michael Kenna, Ralf Horn, Keith Carter and Nadav Kander as sources of inspiration. Of the latter Rainwaters says, “[Kander] has an amazing ability to shoot everything from portraits to landscapes, and then change gears and shoot high budget commercial jobs.”
A recent project, titled ‘Offender’, began after he was involved in publishing two stories on convicts held by the Texas Department of Justice. It all started when a friend of his was writing a story about Steven Russell, an escape artist who managed to escape from prison four or five times. As there is a soon-to-be-released movie about him called I Love You Phillip Morris, they paid him a timely visit at the maximum-security prison where he currently resides, to unearth the real story behind the movie.
After capturing Russell’s pictures, Rainwaters was then asked to do a job for Texas Monthly magazine, to shoot a story about a woman who had recently won an appeal that could lead to her being released from prison. She was originally sentenced to 25 years after stabbing her husband 193 times.
The two prison shoots seem to have set a theme for Rainwaters’ future work as he plans to add to the Offender series with a travel piece to a destination prison abroad. “It looks like my career is going to be shooting convicts and inmates for the next few years, which has so far been fun and way interesting.”
Rainwaters likes keeps his finger on the pulse of photographic trends and feels that visual culture is going to keep evolving faster and faster. “I used to watch music videos to try and spot visual trends because the turnaround time in making one is so quick. These days digital photography has got so good and fast, combined with the internet blogging community updating and showing work constantly,” he says. “It’s not like when we had to wait on magazine publishing cycles to see stylistic swings; now we just have to hit the refresh button on the web browser.”
Despite the humorous undertones in some of his work, Rainwaters’ confronting portrait style of shooting can be described as honest and straightforward. “I try to keep the focus of my work on the subject and not so much on the production or retouching. I really try to get the photography out of the way and let the subject speak for itself.”
All images copyright Matt Rainwaters.
From Desktop magazine.