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Portland burlesque and photography: Matt Adamik interview
Frankie Tease sat down to talk with Matt Adamik about Ohio, New Orleans, photography gear, getting that perfect shot, and shooting burlesque shows. You might be surprised that a guy so quiet had a lot to say.
FT: How long have you been shooting cameras?
Matt Adamik: I've been interested in cameras since I was three, since I could comprehend what they did.
FT: Is this an artistic fascination? How would you classify it? Are you a true voyeur of the world?
MA: Techniclly, I'm a gadget freak. I love the mechanisms of cameras like how the shutter works. Especially film cameras, I can sit there and play with broken lenses all day long.
FT: Do you fix cameras?
MA: I fix my own gear as much as I can, if I can't fix it for myself I can walk into a shop and tell them what's wrong.
FT: So you've been using film for most of your photography career and then recently switched to digital. When did that switch happen?
MA: I started shooting digital in 2006, I fought the revolution as long as I could. The more prevalent the digital stuff became the more I pushed back by using vintage and antique cameras, and tried to make that work as much as I could.
FT: What is your favorite shooting environment, posed, live, people as the subject or landscape?
MA: That's really hard to say because for my particular style and what I go after is that 'moment'. It's not something that you can set up and make happen, even if I'm doing a set-up photo shoot. At some point in that photo shoot there is going to be that one look, that one split second, where the model does something. If you snag that, that's the winner. If it's a live thing I'm shooting, I'm looking for that one [grunts] moment. I don't care if it's landsape. There is going to be that one shot where it'll click together.
FT: How do you know?
MA: You don't know until you got it. You're standing there and you click that shutter and something happens. I've been in the Gorge shooting the Columbia River and all of the sudden a turkey vulture pops up and it's like right there, you know you clicked the shutter and you got it. If you're shooting film, you cross the fingers until you get it developed, if you're shooting digital, it's drop everything and review what you got.
FT: Is there a mood change in photography since you switched from digital to film?
MA: Yah I think so, it depends. There is a certain quality to film that you can't capture in digital. It depends, I kind of put moods to my cameras. At one point I had about 30 cameras. If they were film cameras they were always loaded. They have a personality all their own.
FT: It sounds like a dancer and their shoes. If you want to do this you wear these shoes.
MA: Definitely. I would go out and depending on what day it was, or what mood I was in, I would have certain bags that had a combo of a few cameras, and I would grab those depending upon my mood and what I wanted to shoot. If was in this kind of mood like a retrospective, then I would take these cameras because I know they are harder to work with. I knew I wasn't going to go out and click click click click click. I know I'm going to spend 15 to 20 minutes on each shot and I'm going to click the shutter twice and that's all I'm going to do today. Or, if I knew I was going to shoot a lot of stuff I would take cameras that I could be like there's something, click, there's something, click.
FT: Sounds like there are a lot of types of photography and ways to approach photography.
MA: Yes. You try to prepare for what you're going to go out and do. With digital there are so many new tricks you have to choose from. You build your gear bag to accommodate it as much as you can without breaking your back.
FT: I think someone who has worked in film has an edge because you don't rely on the camera to think for you, you view the camera as a medium that is constantly changing.
MA: I see the pictures in the head before I take them. I've sold a lot of film cameras off, and I don't take them out with me anymore. I have my one digital set-up and I try to set my gear up the way that I think. This lens does this, this lens does this. I set my cameras up like, this is the look that I want. Now I just have to go and get it.
FT: I think the newer photographers may not realize the experienced photographer has a vision long before he takes the shot, even though elements of surprise can happen.
MA: Even shooting live burlesque and other events, there are certain images and I couldn't write it down or explain it to you. I don't know if it will happen, I hope it will happen, and I hope I know it when it happens, and I hope my shutter goes off when it happens. That's the stuff I'll take home and say, 'there it is'.
FT: For camera geeks, can you explain what your favorite camera settings are for shooting live?
MA: I don't know if it's the camera settings. I'm one of the few people you know that will go around shooting in bars without a flash. I like the natural available light is what a photographer would call it. I'm an available light photographer, whatever is in the room is what I'm going to use. It's more of a challenge to get that one shot, to wait for the light to hit their face in a certain way, to make that mood happen, you know it when you get it.
FT: I can say as a fan of your photography, that you have a romance with lighting. It's awesome.
MA: I think photography is all about the lighting. Whether you are using flash and strobe, it's all about the lighting. You're either creating a certain mood by setting up your own lights, or you're out there trying to grab a certain mood by using the light that's in there, in that environment.
FT: You're from Cleveland, Ohio. When did you come to Portland OR.?
MA: Born and raised Cleveland, Ohio. I got to Portland,Oregon in 2006.
FT: I understand you are a plate maker by day.
MA: I make plates for a printing company, which is vaguely photographic.
FT: Is that why you got into it?
MA: I got into the printing industry in general because I was pursuing graphic design. A grahic design teacher of mine said the best thing you could do as a graphic designer is go work for a printing company and see what happens to your work when it's done. Shortly after that an opportunity for me to work for the pre-press department showed up, and I took it.
From there I learned the old school way of doing everything. Everything was still waxed and posted up on paperboard. They actually had a giant camera that they shot every page of the newspaper with. That was what sealed the deal for me, circa '93.
FT: I can only imagine how big that thing was.
MA: It was huge. It had giant strobe flashed on it that were blasting the crap out of the pages. You had to go super fast and you have this big piece of film, and you had to cover up all the dots on the page, and then you take the negative and you put it over a blank plate and basically burn it with ultra violet light and toast itself. You have your photograph and you have your plate, which would be your print. I was making 40 inch prints on metal, and it was magic.
FT: So learning how your art looks when it's finished, helps you conceptualize your shot.
MA: It helps to know what you're looking for and have a sense of how it's going to look , whether you're shooting film or digital. There is a lot of stuff to think about as you're shooting. If you go in with a little bit of a plan, it will still get muddled in your head while you're shooting, but some of it will become automatic.
FT: Tell me about how you got into shooting live Burlesque shows in Portland OR..
MA: I did mostly landscape photography, and I had some friends here that were setting up group shoots where we would get a bunch of models together and shoot. We were running around town trying crazy stuff. We tried to do it once a month and it turned out to be bi-monthly. That kind of sparked my interest in shooting models.
FT: Had you photographed models before?
MA: No. That was 2007. I had done street photography, bar scenes, whatever random things were in my life, but I never thought about setting stuff up and working with models.
I started shooting more models and then started shooting at Zoey D' Posey's event. She used to run the Dr. Sketchy branch here in Portland. That's where I met you Frankie.
FT: Right the life-drawing and burlesque performance combination. Those were 1-20 minute poses if I remember correctly. How did you shoot in that environment?
MA: That worked out well for my level. I took time to get what I wanted when they did longer poses. I worked my way around them and figured out what worked. I basically took it as: there are people sketching with pencils and paper, and as much as I'd love to draw I was never very good at it. I was sketching with my camera. I would work my way around the model and use the light that was there, and make something work.
FT: Were you shooting in film or digital?
MA: I'd take film and digital shots.
FT: How do you choose film or digital in those situations?
MA: I would take mostly digital because it's cheaper, and squeak a film shot out every once in a while.
FT: So you've never been a commercially focused photographer, even though people pay you all the time to do work?
MA: Not really. It's my creative outlet.It is something I've done to help me translate my world around me. To take something
back. In every photographer, you have the urge to document, you have to, in order to be a good photographer. There is something in your life you feel a need to document. The more I started shooting the more I wanted to shoot.
FT: When you shoot, do you often get surprised at what you shoot?
MA: There are times when I'll go through the shot I took at a particular day or night, whatever, some out of sheer volume, some you're in the moment and I hadn't remembered what I shot. If I see one shot, I'll recall the entire scene and how it happened and up until the time I clicked the shutter.
FT: Has your work gotten a lot more attention since you started shooting burlesque? What that a surprise if so?
MA: I always got attention online from different people, for a while and some of my landscape stuff has a following of photographers. Shooting burlesque got attention from a different group entirely. Obviously with burlesque, you throw a pretty girl in the frame and you're going to get more attention from people that might not even be photographers.
FT: Has the sensationalism of burlesque changed the way you shoot?
MA: I don't know if it's changed the way I shoot, I look at it as ever-evolving. With burlesque and shooting models and stuff I still pretty much shoot what I want to shoot. This is something that I am interested in, and I just want to document that moment. With the burlesque show it's something that I am interested in, and because of my camera I get to experience it. Not only do I get to experience it, I get to experience it in a different way then an audience member. I try to do justice to what I see onstage that makes me want to be there. I want to take that picture back, and I want someone to take that moment and feel what happened. Look at this routine, look at this person, just look. You should be a fan of this, you should experience this you should go to this show, because it's awesome.
FT: It may sound cliche' but you're capturing the magic for us when you do that.
MA: I try to capture the stuff because I find it exciting. I want to translate that back to somebody else who hasn't experienced whatever it is I'm shooting. I saw something that interested me, and there's a chance it may interest someone else. Here, you didn't get to go to that show with me so here. You didn't go to the Gorge with me and see the lightening, so here.
FT: And you bring us to moments we weren't at. How long did you live in New Orleans?
MA: I lived there for 3 years.
FT: Do you find the burlesque atmosphere akin to the mardi gras and festive atmosphere in New Orleans, is it similar? I've never been.
MA: A little bit. There is always something bizzar and crazy going on in New Orleans. Use your wildest imagination and multiply it by ten. It's it's own entity. There isn't anything that feels like it.
FT: Not even Vegas?
MA: I have never been to Vegas.
FT: Get thee to Vegas immediately, or not since you don't drink. Did you got to burlesque shows when in New Orleans?
MA: No. I never learned of burlesque until I moved here to Portland OR 2006.
FT: Cleveland by way of New Orleans?
MA: Cleveland to Alabama back to Cleveland to New Orleans, back to Cleveland, to Portland. Follow that.
FT: What is your favorite burlesque shot of all time, is that a fair questions.
MA: I don't think there is any one. I probably have a top ten if I think about it long enough. The more I've seen the routine, you spend enough time studying it, you know that at a certain point they are going to do this. You have the split second, you know it's coming and you have a chance. One that comes to mind when I caught something was the shot with Lucky Lucy O' Rebel. She is holding the fans at her waist. There is a shot of Angelique De Ville from Holocene's Tease Time Jan. 2010 show. She was on her knees on the floor and ripped her jacket open, bam! The backstage stuff , I just love that.
FT: It's another world backstage isn't it?
MA: Doug Fir Jan. 2010, we got locked in the green room with you guys as you were getting ready. I think that was the first time I did anything backstage. Since then, I think I have a mild obsession with prep stuff. What goes into the making of the performer, the behind the scenes. I was like this is amazing! Nobody gets to see this!
FT: Sure as an audience member not having seen backstage, it is a different world! People don't understand how much is going on back there, there are costume changes every 5 seconds.
MA: There is all this chaos going on and then one performer very meditative putting on her make-up.
FT: Going from landscape, to the figure, to event, and the high chaos atmosphere of burlesque shows... rock shows are pretty high energy, but burlesque shows are super high energy because there is such a group participation element at burlesque shows. Do you find that interesting?
MA: Well shooting the shows is a rush, because you've got to keep up with it.
FT: And variety shows change every five minutes.
MA: To keep up with the pace, you have to show after show, study the routines and get to know them. You can watch and get to know the performer and know by a look that here comes an important moment this is going to be a grand move. Even if you dont' know the routine but you are familiar with the performer's style, you will see it coming.
FT: You've gotten to know a lot by being a photographer. The inner workings of backstage, the rhythm of a burlesque show. There are many styles of shows going on any night of the week in town, but there is a fast-pace to all of them because of the original vaudeville, burlesque format, which is face-paced.
MA: It's a good learning experience and it's great. When it works, it's glorious, to get there you have a lot of failure in between. I would go home with 16 gigs worth of nothing. I can't even imagine all the equipment they had to carry 50 years ago. You would show up with all the equipment and say 'ok you've got two shots tonight, make it count'.
FT: Where do you see burlesque in Portland going? Where do you see it morphing? You go to all types of shows..neo burlesque, classic burlesque.
MA: I think there is something in Portland for everyone. If you don't like the classic backroom stuff, there is a bigger show, if you don't like the large shows, there are smaller shows. If you like modernized burlesque where you hear more current routines, you can do whatever you want.
FT: I think you've seen it grow in the almost 5 years you've been here.
MA: There were times when I would be working shooting working shooting, because everything looks so interesting. I keep trying to teach my dog to shoot shows as back up but it doesn't work out. I've had Veda ten years.
FT: What are your plans, what are some exciting projects you've got going right now?
MA: I'm focusing on portraits and cooling down on shooting live shows, though I shoot Hopeless Jack and the Handsome Devils whenever I can. I'm working on some projects with Ellie Darling and Lucy O' Rebel, doing some projects and collaborating with them.
FT: What would you recommend to photographers who are just starting, or those who need re-inspiration?
MA: The main thing is to keep at it. If your camera is not working the way you want it to, just keep at it. Adjust your settings, try new things. Talk to another photographer that's there. Keep at it, eventually you'll get it, and it will be worth it once you get the shot.
FT: Now you have the confidence to get the art that you were looking for. When you talk about how much time you have spend learning your equipment, this is no fluke.
MA: Knowing your equipment is half the battle, and keeping at it is the other part of the battle. You don't necessarily have to have the most expensive equipment, or fanciest lens. You can make your camera do whatever you want.
FT: Sketching with your camera.
MA: For the longest time I had the lowest end gear. There were photographers that scoffed at me when I walked in and I came in got my shot and went on my way. Learn how to do your craft. Live events can be difficult, but you can make it do what you want, there is a right combination and once you get it, you'll be happy with it.
FT: Who are your inspirations?
MA: I mean yes, Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, Annie Leibovitz. I have a really decent group of photographers around me, just from online just from RedBubble.com. The magic of the internet. There are people in other contries that are doing things like me, just for the heck of it, who's work I see online and it inspires me.
FT: Where can people see your work?
FT: You also do promo work for bands as well as event coverage?
MA: I did some headshot band photos for Hopeless Jack and the Handsome Devils. I do actors headshots, and stuff like that. I've done all types of stuff. You can email firstname.lastname@example.org or catch me on Facebook for inquiring about projects.
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