Liv Albert in Conversation with Matthew Dunleavy

Matthew Dunleavy sits, or so he would have me paint the picture for us all, picturesquely, holding a glass of scotch and smoking a very large cigar, which only seems to make his English accent all the more appropriate (in actuality he’s drinking PBR on a balcony/fire escape—he does have the accent, though). He also prefaces the interview, because it was originally recorded, that when recorded his voice sounds like Grimace. Yes, Grimace the large, purple, blob-like thing from McDonald’s (I had to clarify myself).

Building Mount Royal
Building Mount Royal

Liv Albert: So, Matthew, how about we start with the basics and you provide a little background as to how you got introduced to photography?
Matthew Dunleavy: My dad used to be into photography, pre-the birth of Matthew Dunleavy, and basically his camera went to the depths of a cupboard somewhere for years because the way he puts it to me now is that he had the choice between rolls of film and nappies. I luckily had nappies instead of him having rolls of film.
I was into art growing up, drawing, painting a lot, eventually just talking to my dad about his photography when he was younger and finding some old photos of his. He let me have his old camera to use, but it had a broken light metre. It was relatively old, like early eighties. So because of this what I had to do was carry around a little notepad and write down the settings I used and then when I got them printed up, match the different settings—the different aperture and shutter speed. I wasn’t brought into it in the digital world; I have an appreciation for the actual method of photography.
Then I started working as a photo restorer, doing Photoshop work. I started editing my photos and playing around with the different things I could do, not Instagram kind of stuff. Basically it was then costing me a lot of money because I was developing the film, having it scanned to CD, then printing off the edits again. I eventually bought a used Nikon D70S, which I very much enjoyed. But then I started doing model and wedding photography, so I upgraded to a D300. I actually got one of the first twenty in Canada. I got it before it was released because I worked for a photography company, and that’s what I use now. I still like using film but it’s so costly now.

LA: Your photo “Kerouac”; I think the title is pretty self-explanatory for the subject matter, but where exactly was this taken? Were you just struck by the particular scene before you? Is there a story behind the photo?
MD: I actually chose that name just for the submission to Soliloquies. I never name my photographs because there’s no reason unless you’re printing them and displaying them or something.
That’s one of my favourite photographs because it’s one of my oldest. When I was in that transition from film to digital, I was working at the photography studio at the time and we were able to borrow cameras, which was very nice. It was an official thing; they wanted the staff to know the cameras. Before I got the used D70S, I borrowed a D50 one night. I went out for a drive, so this was between the store’s closing at nine and then I had to have it back by the morning. So I went for a drive just outside the town I moved to when I emigrated, which was Ajax. It’s like most of the GTA east of Toronto, so close to nice countryside. I went for a drive around; it was the middle of the night and completely dead. So I got out into the middle of the road to take the picture, and I just like it because I don’t do scenery usually; I’m especially not a flower guy, things like that. But that scene I liked because it felt very North American, you know what I mean? Like in England we have countryside but it’s all winding roads. This was a massive stretch of tarmac which you just imagine as the road trip kind of thing, and then just the fields. I liked that.

LA: The photo is in black and white; is there a reason for that?
MD: That photo was my test photo, when I was doing all my Photoshop edits, practicing for restoration work, testing things I could do for customers. So that photo, I have so many of them; I have natural colouring which is nice because it’s a really blue sky. I have ones where it’s different monochromes, but I ended up just really liking the black and white. And especially when you get into the road trip mentality. Road trip photos should be in black and white. I don’t know why any time I think of a road trip I think of On the Road, and I think that it was just at the beginning of colour photography, so if Kerouac was carrying around photos on his trip, they would be in black and white.

LA: The current idea of black and white photography as a whole is a funny thing. I hope we all can appreciate my quoting Community (I know for a fact, Matthew, you will) when I say, “just because something is in black and white, doesn’t mean it’s good.” How do you feel about using black and white? Obviously it is appropriate in many cases; it can often add to the effect the photograph has on its viewer that its natural colour would have lacked. But I think that nowadays it means the photo has to have a little extra something that is able to push it beyond its black and white status. You’ve already told me why you chose it for this particular photo, but of the style in general, what do you think?
MD: I used to shoot in black and white film as well, so it’s not like, “oh this photo isn’t good on its own, I’m just going to hit the black and white button.” I don’t do the desaturate on Photoshop, you know? I do manual adjustments to choose how the black and white looks. If it were in a dark room I would choose how it looked: do I want it really contrasty, or do I want the subtle grey shades?
But I think this idea that was brought up very well by Community; it’s great that there’s an access to photography for everyone now, especially because, like I mentioned, my dad had to give up photography for family. Basically it’s that the access is there but people misuse it. You can pick up a Digital SLR and use it for high quality photos, but people think that they should just put it on auto, don’t take it off auto, click it around and then hit the black and white button.
Then you have the issue that started with Facebook and Picnik, or whatever that was called. I remember doing a photo shoot, because I used to do weddings and things, and somebody took my family portraits and Picniked them, and I was so offended, so offended. And then there’s the Instagram thing. It’s amazing that the iPhone has the camera that it has but it’s become, “let’s just instagram this and make it hip and retro.” You can tell that it’s more of a gimmicky thing because Facebook bought it.

LA: They did, and for a billion dollars! When it makes no money. What a symbol of its reach.
MD: And that guy’s laughing because he’s taken the basics from a system like Photoshop and made them just buttons, and there you go.
I remember, during the transition to digital, I was in high school and doing photos for the yearbook and they gave me a digital camera not to keep but just to have as mine. And I used to have to carry around two packs of six floppy disks because that’s what the camera took. I could get two photos to a floppy disk and had to carry them all around with me with this massive camera.

LA: Okay, Matthew, you seem to be dating yourself, and incorrectly I imagine, because there must have been better cameras out there then, when you were in high school. You must have just had the worst camera in the school.
MD: Well, I was from not a really small town but just now a really good high school. But that was what I had.

LA: I didn’t even know those existed! But I guess it’s given you a good grasp on the variety of camera technologies.
MD: They were in a really small period, because before that they had disks; Kodak’s first one used disks. Then you had these floppy disks for a while; the whole back of the camera was this floppy disk spot. And then you had the compact flash cards.

Barn
Barn

LA: The other photograph you have published in Soliloquies is “Gale Ferris, Jr.”, which I think is particularly “trippy” (I’m not sure I’ve ever used that word before now) [Matthew then suggests the use of “radical”]. Now, call me a photography amateur, but that effect comes from leaving the shutter on your camera open for a particular amount of time, doesn’t it? What made you decide to try that and did/do you do it often? The effect it gives to the photograph is pretty incredible. I think it really captures the moment; the excitement of a fair and the effect of a Ferris wheel in general.
MD: Yes that is how you do it, with the shutter. And it was a period which I don’t think I’ve left behind fully, but it was a period where I did a lot of nighttime photography because I was working all the time during the day. I really experimented with long-exposure photography. I did try the long exposure like, say, the night scenes, like that perfect landscape of the nighttime with the stars, but I’m so impatient that I couldn’t do that. When I say long exposure I’m talking thirty seconds to a minute; like I think that one was a minute.
I would drive around with a friend who didn’t do photography himself but enjoyed the experience of being involved with the process and seeing the finished product. So he would drive me around and I would hang out the window doing long exposure trying to get the lights of the night going by, so I have a lot of these really trippy ones. Or I’d purposely leave the house while I was really drunk to do long exposure while I’m walking. There’s this one where everything’s really shaken up, but because I must have been swaying the same way as this tree in the wind I kept on level with it, so the world is really fucked up but the tree isn’t.
Anyway, there was this little carnival; you know the ones in the Wal-Mart parking lots? It wasn’t even a real fair but I went there to take photos, but I feel like when you do a long exposure and capture the moment of the ride you sort of get that experience of being there. Because when you’re walking around even in a shitty Wal-Mart fair there’s just so much going on that you never really get anything, there’s just a blur.
So I did it with all the rides but I have so many of the Ferris wheel ’cause I was experimenting with the changes that would come with just a little switch in the shutter speed. I have some that are just blurs of light and some that have a little trickle in and you can still see it as stable. This photo was middle ground: you haven’t lost the Ferris wheel but you’ve still gained the motion. I have a lot of them. I also have a couple photos where I did do regular photos as well so it’s half; half of it is going and the other half is stable.

LA: So of all these photos of the rides you took, why the Ferris wheel over any others?
MD: The reason I picked the Ferris wheel instead of the other rides is because this carny, carnival man, whatever is politically correct, came over to me while I was taking the photos and tried to take my camera. I asked him, “what are you doing?” and he says [putting on some sort of “carnivalesque” accent], “you’ve been out here with your tripod and whatever this thing is.” So he basically started getting on me like I’ve been taking photos of the carnival people trying to capture them. So I went through all of my photos with this guy trying to prove that because they’re long exposure you can’t see anybody. I remember him leaving and he was still trying to be all tough and he just says, “well, they’re pretty good."

stare
stare

Author
Matthew Dunleavy started taking photos when his Dad allowed him the use of his Praktica that he had eyed since childhood. Due to this particular camera being broken he was forced to learn the tools of the trade in the most difficult way. Matthew uses his interest in drawing and painting to influence the way he captures images; from balanced, traditional scenes to abstract light paintings his subject differs as much as his style. His photos were published in Soliloquies 16.1.