Editor’s Note: We first published this excellent interview with Matt Stuart in 2016 and his insights and advice are still incredibly valuable now in 2021. Enjoy!
For the past 20 years, street photography has meant everything to me: from the moment I wake up, to the moment my head hits the pillow. It has been an overwhelming obsession and a way of life. I just love being out in the world, observing people, trying to make some sense of it all.
Individuals who are known for their artistic talents often specialize in one field, genre or even subject, but it is rare that the full range of their passions are so narrowly confined. Take Matt Stuart: two decades as a dedicated street photographer.
But before he was driven every day by his desire to hit the streets with his camera, he was pounding the pavement with a skateboard, eventually achieving nationwide success in the sport. For anyone who has tried, becoming a great (or even passable) skateboarder requires an endless amount of patience and determination, since the rate of failure for even the simplest tricks is quite high. Yet for anyone who has practiced street photography, this ratio will sound quite familiar. Stuart, though, embraced both challenges without hesitation.
At the age of 22, thanks to a fortuitous pair of gifts from his father—a Photo Poche book about Henri Cartier-Bresson and an Aperture monograph on Robert Frank—Stuart was “given the bug.” Soon, his board was replaced with a Leica and not long thereafter, a weekend workshop with Leonard Freed served as the clincher. In Stuart’s words, “to see Freed work and explain his photography was a revelation—I will never forget it.”
Two decades later and his passion has not let up. When asked what keeps his fires burning, Stuart replied simply, “I never need a rest,” and then went on to say, “Which is a little worrying sometimes…I’m sure I’ll slow down some time, but it hasn’t happened in 20 years, much to my family and friends’ frustration.”
Despite the constant drive, Stuart manages to bring pleasure and a sense of fun to his photography. As he tells us:
“Be patient, optimistic; remember to smile, both for others, and for yourself. Don’t get depressed when you miss the shot; there’s just another around the corner if you keep your eyes open.”
Perhaps this upbeat attitudes comes to Stuart thanks to another one of his passions: comedy. Although he rarely has time to indulge in the pastime, almost every one of his frames pays some sort of tribute to this deep influence. Throughout his photographs, one encounters a reality filled with touches of humor, irony and dry, British mischief.
On the other hand, his streak of wit is counter-balanced by a deep reverence for the power of the genre; Stuart believes deeply in its ability to show us the world. Although street photography is sometimes dismissed as merely accidental or lucky, Stuart believes, “street photographers who are serious about what they do are existentialists. They like to think about living and existing more than most.”
In the same vein, good, old-fashioned reality is a hallmark of all his pictures. In Stuart’s words:
“It’s nice to know that things actually happened isn’t it? Too much is cheated and manipulated these days. I like to know that the meat I eat is organically certified; same with my photography—no short cuts.”
Today, Stuart finds himself prowling the streets daily, in search of new frames and moments out in the world. Although much of his work is shot in and around his birthplace of London, there is nothing particular to the city, or anywhere else, that draws him. Wherever Stuarts finds himself, he is endlessly fascinated by how, “people inhabit space” and about, “what might be going on right now, what I might be missing.” The attraction, in short, to the medium that has obsessed Stuart across two decades can be put as simply as this: “street photography seems to offer me endless opportunities—every day is different and I love that.”
Skateboarding, comedy, street photography—the highs are high yet rare; the lows frequent and demoralizing. Thus, aficionados of any of these fields would do well to take Stuart’s words to heart:
“You are looking for a single, brilliant moment and 99% of the time, you won’t get it. But remember this: when at last you get that shot you’ve been looking for, in a thousandth of a second, all those frustrations and near-misses will have paid off. So get out there and keep shooting!”
For more on Matt Stuart’s philosophy on street photography, don’t miss this short, yet excellent, video interview with Stuart from 2010: