“Time…It’s all about time. You need lots of it. If you can afford this most cherished commodity, then you will be well on your way. Apart from that, good shoes, a degree of empathy, optimism and lots of spare batteries.”
Photographer Matt Stuart has been shooting on the street for over twenty years. In June 2016, he was announced as a Magnum nominee. His captivating images are created without staging or digital alterations—Stuart is well-known for spending hours upon hours pounding the pavement of London and beyond in search of compelling compositions. Below, we spoke with him about his Magnum nomination, his recent travels, and the quote by Cartier-Bresson that keeps him going.
LC: We were excited to hear about your Magnum nomination, as we had already been following your work for some time. How did you find out?
MS: I found out via a text message from Magnum photographer Mark Power while driving. I think I almost crashed my car…it came as a big surprise! Since the announcement, I have been warmly welcomed by both photographers and staff. I am learning so much and loving being involved.
LC: I’ve read in a few of your interviews that you like to feel invisible when you shoot on the street—you prefer to observe a scene quietly and then slip away before anyone notices you. Some photographers prefer to meet their subjects. Why do you work the way you do?
MS: I’m quite an extrovert, so I would be happy to confront subjects directly. But in fact, I find it more challenging not to. I also prefer the process of being an observer as opposed to being part of the scene.
Not to say the other approach isn’t valid. This is just my personal preference. Maybe it is part of my childhood dream to one day be a spy, like a photographic 007.
LC: The spontaneous images you capture have elements of humor, but they are also real documentation of pedestrian life in London. Do you consider yourself a documentarian or more of an artist? What’s your view on the boundaries between photography and “art”?
MS: I really am not too bothered about labels. The easy label I have is a “street photographer,” but I’m happy to be called whatever anyone finds convenient. My skin crawls a bit at the word “artist,” but call me that if you want. I’m a photographer.
LC: Some of your shots remind me of Cartier-Bresson—especially his “Children over a Fibonacci Spiral Staircase.” I know that your father gave you one of his books when you were first starting out. What are a few things you take as inspiration from him that you incorporate into your photographic practice?
MS: I’m flattered by the comparison, but Bresson was in a completely different league. I have pawed over many a Bresson book and quote, but the one that I always come back to, which keeps me going (especially on bad days) is: “It takes a lot of milk to make cream.” He’s absolutely right. It also reminds me that even Bresson had to work hard, even though he made it look so effortless.
LC: You work a lot in London, a place you’ve lived for decades. Are you inspired by shooting in the same places over and over again? Is there something about the repeat visits that is integral to your way of working?
MS: These days I’m not working in London as much—although I do feel that a degree of repetition is helpful to truly discover a wonderful place, the flow of people at different times, the light, the seasons.
I am now trying to shoot in different places. I tried Brussels last year, and I am starting to work more in America and other parts of England this year. Ever since Trump became President, I have been fascinated by the United States and the direction it is taking. I have long been inspired by America, but the present political situation has pushed some buttons for me.
LC: I’d love it if you could pick out a couple of your photos (maybe a couple that you haven’t talked about much before) and briefly tell us about them.
The picture of the red boy on top of the post box was taken outside the Cock and Bottle pub in Needham Road, West London.
I always have a camera to hand. When I took this picture, I had a pint of beer in the other hand.
My favorite photo is probably this one, below.
It is about minute detail, so most people don’t take the time to really see it. All I can say is that the colors all match and lots of people are doing things with their index fingers. I like that.
—Matt Stuart, interviewed by Coralie Kraft
Editors’ Note: We also profiled Magnum’s other new nominee, Diana Markosian—discover the work of this innovative visual storyteller.