Matthew Leifheit is a charming Brooklyn-based photographer and independent curator. He is kind of like a Renaissance Man who holds his time as a student at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) very close to his heart. Alex and I met up with Matthew to discuss his photographic work, curatorial approach, and advice for emerging artists.
LISA: What is the art scene like in Providence?
MATTHEW: The art scene in Providence doesn’t like RISD very much. It’s centered around metal music. People who live in collectives and have metal shows. Lightning Bolt is from Providence. I’m not really into metal, but people in Providence are really grungy. Since there are so many of these broken down factories, they could easily get a work space and live in them. You can be a Rhode Island artists and Rhode Island famous but no body in the outside world will hear about it. RISD was good for me. If I went to school in New York I would have gotten really distracted. Providence has nothing else to do. I think [my time at RISD] was less conceptual and more about how to make stuff.
LISA: What did you not like about school?
MATTHEW: I liked everything about RISD. I like it so much that one of my goals is to teach there. I would like to teach at any place really, but at RISD I can live on the beach.
I think a lot of it is what you make of it. I could have done nothing for four years if I wanted to. But I think, the only thing I didn’t like about school was that I had to bring something in every week for a critique and I’d feel like it perverted the idea to show people that early. Some things weren’t ready for people to comment on. I work better if I can carry something through to the end. My ideas got kind of confused by so much feedback, but how else do you do it? I kind of miss it now. Now I have the opposite problem. I have to make meetings with people. I’m fortunate that I am friends with a lot of good artists. I’m friends with some photographers, but also painters and illustrators. My roommates are fashion designers so I get different perspectives which is good.
LISA: Did you always know you wanted to be an artist?
MATTHEW: In junior high school, I decided I looked really good in a striped shirt and maybe a beret. I fell in love with the idea of being an artist first, which is definitely the wrong way of going about it. I had this dream of starving and living somewhere covered in paint. Painting is the most glamorous art form; it comes with a struggle. However, it turns out that I am not a very good painter. I was a lot better at photography. It came more naturally and I didn’t second guess myself. With painting I just get upset. Honestly I just don’t know what else I would do. It wasn’t really a decision. I can’t do math. What else? There is no other profession. Only artist.
LISA: How did you transition into digital photography?
MATTHEW: I finally got a nice digital camera. I guess I just sold out. I never had a nice enough digital camera I could make quality images with. It’s just so easy. I use it for different things. But in the end I would use the best camera for the project.
LISA: Do you have advice for emerging photographers?
MATTHEW: Do you know Allen Frame? He is the president of the Camera Club of New York and teaches at SVA, Pratt, and ICP. He said something I really liked: rely on your contemporaries to become successful. The way you actually get ahead is to rely on your contemporaries and rise up together. It made sense to me. You go knock on the door of some big, established gallery. And what? My friends don’t have galleries. It’s smart to work with people in the same stage as you.
LISA: How did you get into curating and blogging?
MATTHEW: Editing is like photographing with the camera. It’s the same act of editing; you have unlimited options in the real world. I think the approach is very similar: you choose to take some and leave some out. It’s the same thing with editing someone else’s work. Curating definitely has a negative side to it. Curating, more than often, seems too taste oriented. I like coming up with a concept for a show and carrying it out. You always have to figure out what’s best for the show. On the other hand, I didn’t enjoy making these perfect object for people to look at. There is something fussy about it. At one point I was interested in the photographic object, but there is this unexplored potential of photographs being weightless. I’m currently more interested in images than objects.
LISA: What problem is photography facing? What are your opinions as a photographer and a curator?
MATTHEW: As a photographer, I see video as the enemy. I’m not interested in time. I don’t even deal with the 3rd dimensions let alone the 4th. As a photographer I am interested in compressing things into two dimensions. These days, we’re expected to do video which is the opposite. Video is closer to painting: building over something. Because everyone is a photographer now, you have to be better. Now, I feel like you have to make something amazing for anyone to look at it. There are so many images out there and the bar is really high. I guess as a curator/editor, there is a problem with a lack of sincerity. People are making things completely out of irony. I think that is the most cowardly thing. Rachel Stern, who teaches at RISD and a longtime collaborator, and I wrote this manifesto. It’s about how irony sucks. Say what you mean and don’t hide behind something you want to think you’re saying. People appreciate sincerity.
LISA: Can you tell me a little bit about Around Sunset?
MATTHEW: I just graduated from college and moved to NY and it was an exercise in exoticism. It was completely subjective. I don’t think there was anything truthful about it. It was a little surreal and maybe a little bit slap stick. I gave myself a constraint. The pictures are of anything I could get to one block from my door. It was about looking harder and harder at something until it looses its original meaning. I did it for a year from new year’s day to new year’s day of 2012.
LISA: Was there a reason you set those dates?
MATTHEW: I like to work under constraints. There are so many possibilities for the photograph. It could be actually anything.
LISA: It’s the editing process.
MATTHEW: Yes, exactly. You have to get rid of some things to make anything. So I narrowed the possibilities. I was working for a photographer, William Mebane, and he had a lot to do with it. He really likes on camera flash. He’s like a contemporary Weegee. He shoots with a Graflex 4×5 with a flash on it. Shoots color film. I’m really into that. I like flash. It’s called Around Sunset because many of the photos were happening, well, then. I only had one flash and it was either “on” or “off.” If it was at day it wasn’t powerful enough, if it was night it just looked like flash. The balance was about right during sunset. I got the film processed at a place on my block, and I kind of liked the lab scans.
LISA: So, how about MATTE Magazine?
MATTHEW: How about it? I’ve done 15 issues. Do you want to know who the next 5 will be? This is exclusive: For issue 16, I am collaborating with Trey Wright. He’s in the CCNY show that I curated very recently. Trey is in Denton, Texas. 17 – I’m kind of funny about numbers and 17 is a really good number.
LISA: But your birthday isn’t on the 17th.
MATTHEW: No, It’s on the 12th and my new project is about 12. All about 12s. I like 12 and 8 because it rounds it out to 20. 8 is really good. It’s also a great shape. I also like 3, and 7. But uh, so the 17th will be Michael Bühler-Rose.
18- Dan Allegreto
20- Henry Hornstein. He was my teacher who helped me start the magazine. A special 20th issue.
LISA: Where can I find a copy of the magazine?
MATTHEW: So, I sell them at Printed Matter. It doesn’t really come out on a schedule. It just comes out when its done. In the meantime, they’re selling it at ICP now which is really cool. It’s good company to be in.