Looking for a new take on fine art landscape photography? Look no further. Photographer Matthew Brandt is combining new materials and old techniques to create unique photos unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Brandt specializes in printing photos made from the photo subject itself. For example, in the interview below you’ll find a photo of a tree printed in charcoal on paper, both made from fallen branches from the tree in the photo. Pretty cool, huh?
Keep creating and good luck!
Matthew Brandt: Secret Ingredients, by Luke McLaughlin
Matthew Brandt has made photographic prints with Chinese barbecue sauce, peanut butter and jelly, ketchup and mustard, mole sauce, coffee, circuit boards, inkjets, dust, and even a swarm of bees ground up into a fine powder. “I have pretty much used everything that I can get my hands on,” says Brandt, a Los Angeles-based photographer. While experimenting with various ingredients to recreate the CMYK color spectrum, he filled his refrigerator with sauces. “I was having better meals at the same time, too,” he laughs.
Brandt has been involved in the process of creating photographic prints from infancy. His father was a commercial photographer, and he has baby photos of himself holding up test cards. But, while he was growing up, he didn’t want to be a photographer. Though he often helped his father with the process and learned to set up lighting for his work as a commercial photographer, it took him years to realize that he would be, or even was a photographer. Brandt explains, “I grew up around photography but never really embraced it as an art form. I remember people would ask, ‘Oh, are you going to be a photographer like your dad?’ and I would say, ‘No way! I’m just going to paint and draw.’”
Eventually, he began to think of himself as a photographer. He explains, “Later, when I moved away from home to go to school in New York, I really started to think about and do photography and take it a little more seriously. I studied with some interesting people who used photography in, for lack of a better word, an artistic way.”
While completing his BFA, Brandt realized by watching his teachers and the other students work that he could always improve. He explains, “The environment of always working on something and always trying to push it, the constant critiques always helped, definitely.” He would often incorporate photography into his work for sculpture classes, and started to think about photography in a different way. He became influenced by the tight, conceptual style in New York, and started to think about the responsibility of making objects and putting more things into the world. After completing his BFA, he continued working for Polodori. He was happy with his job and would have continued, if his MFA application to UCLA, the only school he applied to, had not been accepted.
Brandt says his MFA allowed him to focus on his own practice. He had moved back in with his parents and was able to do exactly what he wanted artistically. In addition, he was able to do a lot of networking and learn how the business side of the art market works and learn about the gallery world. “I had no idea,” he recalls, “after doing an MFA you start to realize ‘oh, you sell it for this much,’ and so forth.”
Brandt was also exposed to the different art world in Los Angeles. He explains, “When I was in New York, there was a dominant interest in conceptually tight work. Real estate is scarce in New York, so you make smaller work, and you make it more deliberate and more conceptual.” This all changed on the West Coast. “In L.A., I got a bigger studio space, and you learn to fill that pretty fast. I became more experimental, and I had room to do whatever I wanted,” Brandt recalls. He soon started to fill his larger studio space with objects that he collected, including some Chia pets and a box of dead bees that he had collected one day at the beach.
The Process: New Materials and Old Techniques
Brandt’s work explores the technical process of developing photographs that he first learned from his father. Over the years he has learned to develop photographs with a wide variety of methods, both traditional and modern. Much of Brandt’s work incorporates part of the subject into the development of the image itself. This has led to experiments with a wide variety of photography techniques that are almost completely extinct. He combines these antiquated techniques with high-tech shooting, using a high-resolution digital camera and then stitching together multiple images to form an even higher resolution image.
Brandt does not like to rely too much on technical tricks to make an artistic statement. He says that images should be satisfying in and of itself, though knowledge of some of the process can add to the viewer’s understanding: “I feel like it doesn’t necessarily need a photographic language. I like the ambiguities in the mysteries of photography in understanding my work. Some people don’t know how a silver gelatin print is made, but they know that there is some sort of process. There is some sort of chemistry involved.” He feels that despite, or even because of the digital camera revolution, people now appreciate hand-printing as a process.
Not content with simply printing with substances derived from the subject of his photography, Brandt, for his Trees series, collected fallen branches to make the paper upon which he would print the images of the branches’ parent trees. Brandt recalls, “The trees were my attempt at making paper. I went to George Bush Park and found this … sprawling area of land with trees planted out like polka dots. As I was photographing each tree, I collected branches and tree material that I found on the ground around me.” He later ground up the branches and made paper. To make the pigment for the prints, Brandt burned some of the wood he had collected to make charcoal. Each tree image is made almost entirely of the tree pictured. He observes, “It ended up being a labor-intensive project that took me three or four years to do. The subject of George Bush trees seemed to be appropriate to me. But, in some ways, it just happened to be like that. I went to George Bush Park because I liked the loaded content of the name.”
After working with nineteenth-century techniques such as salt paper and gum bichromate printing, Brandt moved on to twentieth-century technology with his Lakes and Reservoirs series, using chromogenic color prints or C-prints. He explains, “I was interested in using the subject’s fluid to make its own image. It was about the interaction between the subject and the photograph. I guess that is a theme in a lot of my work.”
Brandt had collected water from various places for salted paper prints, and he was learning about the complicated nature and technical genius in color photography. He started making his own C-prints and learning how color photographs are made. He recalls, “It seemed to make sense to deconstruct that, so I tested it out. I took a C-print and put it in lake water, and it just happened to break apart in an interesting way.” Brandt is still making this type of print. He notes, “The exciting thing about it is … I don’t really know exactly what is going to happen, so it is sort of a surprise each time, and I think that is what keeps me coming back to it.”
Imperfections and Layers
Brandt’s work with the layers of C-prints walks the line between constructive and destructive. He says although he often describes the process as destructive, to him, it is ultimately more a constructive process. He explains, “It’s amazing how it looks when you strip away the different layers. It is very much like the principles of regular watercolor. You have the red layer mixing with the blue layer to make purples, and the blue layer mixing with the yellow layer to make greens.” The individual layers of color would normally go unnoticed, but dissolving part of the layers allows the viewer to see behind the facade of the original image.