An Objective Perspective – Interview with Matthew Leifheit by Kathleen Hefty

matt color contact sheet
photo by Brendan Burdzinski

Kathleen Hefty recently sat down with founder and editor of MATTE Magazine, Matthew Leifheit to get a unique perspective on independent publishing and curating. Not only does Leifheit produce each issue of MATTE largely on his own, he is also the photo editor of Vice Magazine and has an active photography practice. Since 2010, MATTE has dedicated each issue to one photographer; the current one—the magazine’s 23rd and largest yet—features photographer Rachel Stern. The following is a conversation on MATTE’s beginnings, what it means to be an “emerging” artist, and Leifheit’s exciting upcoming collaborations.


Kathleen (Blonde Art Books): I think that the people that follow Blonde Art Books are really interested in gaining insight into the inner workings of small press publishers as well as individual artists’ and curators’ practices so thank you for taking the time. Can you tell me a little about MATTE magazine and how it began?

Matthew Leifheit: It started as a print publication; it was my college thesis. I went to the Rhode Island School of Design, and I worked with this agency one summer—a photo agency in New York— and it dealt with photography in a businesslike way, which is what they do. I feel like artists want to work with other artists, and I don’t think photography should exactly be sold as a product. I think there should always be something sacred about it.The program was very hands on. And especially now looking at [how] MATTE deals with emerging photography and so does Vice, and I feel like that’s like my area. So I pay a lot of attention to the schools. I think if I had gone to SVA or Parsons or something like that I would have come out of it with a much glossier portfolio and a lot more connections and stuff. But at RISD I learned to make things, which is important to me.

BABS: How many people are involved in the production of MATTE?

MatteML: It’s been all me the whole time up until this last issue, which I did about a photographer named Rachel Stern. It’s the biggest one I’ve ever done. It’s 50 pages long, which is big for me—usually it’s like 35 pages and staple-bound. But this one’s perfect-bound and bigger. My friend Paul Legault, who’s a poet, wrote for it. Still it was all me making the magazine, I think. Usually it’s designed by me and this was one was designed by my friend Joseph Kaplan. Also, this guy Cameron helped me produce a video for the issue—Rachel, the subject of the issue, was talking about her work. I think it turned out well. [Rachel]’s a good friend from school, actually. So this was her second issue of the magazine. She did one right when we graduated, but I’ve always thought it’d be cool to circle back to people and do an issue if they’ve made new work. I feel like it can be more of a gallery that way, a kind of a roster of artists. But, it’s mostly been just me, which I like because you can get things done faster if you’re not waiting on other people.

BABS: How long does this take, say, from start to finish?

ML: It really varies. Especially on complicated [ones] like this issue. Sometimes it’s just photos, those ones go really fast, usually when you figure out an edit with a photographer and it’s purely visual.

BABS: Then do you pass the torch to the photographer that’s doing it?

ML: We make an edit together. I’m a terrible editor of my own photos—I know that. [Laughs]. But some people don’t know that. Because when you’re really close to something like that and you’ve been working on it, it’s really hard to be objective about it. And I think that’s what I offer in the magazine. Because it doesn’t make any money for me or the artist. It’s sold for the cost of printing, so what I can offer is an editor, an objective perspective on someone’s work.

BABS:  For this latest issue, how did you go about the publishing it? In terms of the production?

ML: It’s done on print-on-demand. It’s also the only way I can do it, because I’ve been doing ten issues a year. I think I’m starting to slow down and make them less [often], but more complicated. But there’s no way I could put up the money to have 10 issues done offset a year. And it would also slow me down a lot having to fundraise for each issue. So this way, I just make the content and design it and upload it. And if people want to sell it, they can. Printed Matter sells it, PS1’s art book store sells it.

BABS: How do you look for new artists?

ML: I treat it like a job. And I think it is kind of like my job. I went to art schools and reviewed senior work. They all have portfolio review days and they’ve been nice enough to ask me to come lately. So, I reviewed portfolios at Parsons and Pratt and SVA and I’m doing ICP next week. I go to critiques and try to make it to people’s senior shows. Because I think that’s where you really find things. I think kind of what I’m doing is like a crystal ball, you know? Part of it is just, do I love the photos? But also, I want to work with photographers who are committed to doing this for their lives. People that are going to continue to make good stuff throughout their careers. So, I can say, ‘I had it first.’ [Laughs]. You can evaluate it by: Are they in group shows? Are they trying to show their work? Are they producing new stuff all the time that’s different and not just this one thing that they’re doing? Can you see their process has a means of developing and is there a way for them to move forward with what their doing? Which is, all, completely objective and guesswork too. But, at a certain point I think you can tell—this person really knows how to hustle and they’re gonna make it in photography and they’ve got vision. I work with some people that are reclusive—and that’s kind of interesting to me too. Like, this person who never leaves their room and makes crazy stuff.

BABS:   Its always nice to encourage a sense of community in art. Yet, photography seems to be oddly antisocial, maybe because you’re behind the camera. It’s as if there is a barrier between the interaction.

ML: People use it in different ways, you know? There’s a very popular mentality in photography of being a lone wolf. [Laughs] Like wandering the streets and being no one’s friend. And then there’s another way, and if we’re talking about street photography then that’s Joel Meyerowitz, but then there’s another way where you use the camera as a way to interact with people, and instead of a barrier, it’s a means of entering into things, like with Diane Arbus or Gary Winogrand. It’s really interesting because I think a lot of photographers are loners. And also it’s a very competitive industry. Even in the art world, photography is a very competitive place. I think it’s really important to try to work with people who are trying to help each other.

BABS: How do you feel that each of your individual practices (curatorial, artistic, publishing) influence each other? Can you talk a little more about how your think about your own work in relation to all the other hats you wear?

matt bw 02
photo by Brendan Burdzinski

Matt: It just makes it harder. Just looking at great photos all day everyday, and then having to make your own can be frightening, you know? Because I have really high standards for other people’s work and I have to have even higher standards for mine. Sometimes it feels like it’s hard to make anything these days. I’ve been working on this collaboration. I think you actually get double the credit [in a collaboration], because someone else is invested in it. When things get busy, if I have a project that I’m working on with someone else they keep me on track with it. I’ve been working on this thing with this painter, Cynthia Talmadge, for the last year. And I’m putting a couple of them in the Vice Photo Issue. She’s wonderful. Her family came here on the Mayflower. And it influences her aesthetic. She is a very meticulous painter. We started making these fruit topiaries about two years ago, and they’re really large, complicated piles of fruit, but they’re also kind of gross. For the first one all the fruit was oiled up and there were gobs of hair and cigarettes put out on it. It’s evolved into this thing where every picture we make has led to something. So we started doing this thing where we paint everything in the photo the opposite color of what it’s supposed to be—according to this algorithm that we made. We started with the fruit picture. Like the apple is red—opposite the color wheel what’s supposed to happen? So, then it gets photographed with a slide with both a positive and a negative. And when it’s reversed as a negative the colors are right again. There are these weird pairs. I’m excited about the direction it’s going. We’re trying to have a show this fall, because we’ve been working on this in secret for two years. I’ve never had to depend on my photos to make a living, so I’ve gotten to do frivolous things like this, that no one would pay me to do.

BABS: It’s an interesting collaboration – painters and photographers – because painters have such a different idea of color. But, the idea of a positive and a negative is probably something that you think about equally.

ML: Yeah, it’s a very photographic process and she also thinks in things in terms of it’s not finished until
it’s in front of us and we’re looking at it the way it’s going to be presented. Because when you finish a
painting, there’s a canvas there. Usually when I take photos—most of the time, really—I don’t make
prints. I’ll have the negatives scanned, or have the files, and if a show comes up or something, then I’ll
produce a print. But working with a painter, it’s like, no we’re going to have this done, and we’re going to
have it mounted and framed and we’re going to have it in a studio space.

BABS: Do you prefer to photograph with digital or film?

ML: I use film. But, I don’t feel like [film] is better. I do feel like it won’t be around for that long so I’m using up all the film that I can while I have that option. And it changes the way I shoot. I’m not looking at what I’m doing. With digital you’re like, well, that one sucked, let’s try something else. It’s almost a little more like drawing, as opposed to painting. With drawing, you’re like, did I like that mark? I’ll make it a little loopier, or something. Or, that line’s a little dark, I think I’ll do something a little different.

BABS: I wanted to ask you a little about your Dope series. How did that come about?

ML: I was an intern at Time magazine, and I kind of hoped that it would lead to a job, or something, and
it definitely didn’t.

BABS: Like all internships…[Laughs].

ML: [Laughs] I learned a lot there. So, my contract ran out, and I didn’t really know what to do because I’d been freelance photo assisting since I graduated college in 2011. I didn’t really know what to do because most of the freelance work that I’d had dried up while I’d been doing this full-time internship. My roommate’s older brother worked on a pot farm in California, which is just a magical place. So, I was like, what’s stopping me from leaving for a while? I went to California for the harvest, and I wasn’t even really thinking about making pictures. I’d just gotten a digital camera and I was trying to figure out how to use it. In retrospect, it was a very important time to think. I would just like trim weed all day, smoke a lot of it, and just sit and think. And I think I figured a bunch of stuff out.

BABS: I didn’t get the impression that you went to take photos of a weed farm from a journalist’s standpoint, or from an outsider’s perspective.

ML: Oh, good. There are so many photos from that that I can’t really publish because I’m friends with the people. And though it’s legal—the weed that they grow—people don’t necessarily want their faces associated with a weed farm.

BABS: What is coming up for Matte? Can you tell us a little about the next issues?

Matte_McNuttMatt: Well, there’s one issue that’s kind of done, but I’m trying to figure out how to draw attention to it. It’s about Ben McNutt, who’s 20 and goes to MICA. The pictures are about wrestling, and they’re really good. It’s a pretty specific idea, but I think there’s a lot of meat there. It’s sort of like a queerish perspective on wrestling—this really meathead sport. That’s the next issue. And Sara Cwynar is doing an issue, that’s the next one that I’m working on. Which is going to be awesome. I’m working on something with Michael Marcelle, he’s pretty great. He’s more established and just shot for the fiction issue of the New Yorker. He’s also in the Vice Photo Issue. Though, I guess he’s still an “emerging” artist. It’s a tricky thing. I think maybe an emerging artist is anyone, when you think about the publication, would they be helped by being published, or would this be a case where publishing them would help me? For MATTE, every now and then I’ll do an issue—maybe one in 10—with someone who’s more established, because I think that in the context of the series it helps the younger artists and gives the series a little credibility.

BABS: That’s a nice way of thinking about it. On a final note, can you tell us the best show you’ve seen recently or a book that you’d recommend?

ML: I feel like I’m more involved with printed stuff. Tom Roma’s new book, called The Waters of our Time, which he [did] with his son, Giancarlo Roma, who wrote the text. He’s incredible; I just love that guy. He’s a really charming person and his photos are just, human. And these are really personal photos. [For] this one, it seems like photos that just happened throughout his life. And as you go through the book, pictures of his son get younger and pictures of his wife get older. So, there’s this weird cross narrative. It’s a really meaningful, sincere thing. I think sincerity is the thing, more than anything else. Good art should be sincere.

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