This week’s Questions with an Educator features Andy Mattern.
Andy Mattern’s recent work engages photography’s aesthetic conventions and physical materials as subject matter. Since 2015, he has served as Assistant Professor of Photography and Digital Media at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma. His work is held in the permanent collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the New Mexico Museum of Art, the Tweed Museum of Art, and others. He is represented by the Elizabeth Houston Gallery in New York. Here, Andy describes how his work came to focus on the medium’s physical materials, his strategies for student engagement, as well as his philosophy about risk taking.
We asked: Please describe how you started photographing physical materials as your main subject matter? What fascinates you about this work?
Andy said: The impulse goes all the way back to my early experiences with photography as a young person. My grandfather gave me a medium format camera when I was a teenager, and I loved nothing more than scrutinizing objects in front of a little backdrop in my bedroom. Years later, in graduate school, I found myself doing something similar, but this time with ephemeral objects such as chucks of urban snow. After I completed my MFA I rented a small studio, but without the structure of school I had to create my own deadlines and push myself to keep working. The project “Standard Size” came out of the frustration of this experience and specifically as a response to all the packages of photo paper stacked up around my studio. Each package has an example image on the front as well as a bunch of text explaining the benefits of the product. Initially, I found myself distracted by this information and decided to remove it from view. So I cut or sanded off the images and covered up the text with colored tape. I then realized I was inadvertently making compositions, which I began to re-photograph. I then printed the images to match the actual size of the original packages, which created a compelling tension between their representational and abstract qualities. For me, this series is both a critique of popular photography as well as a celebration of photography’s strengths. The images are highly detailed and controlled, both formal features of the medium, but they resist the typical pictures that photographers are encouraged to make.
We asked: How do you engage your students int he classroom? Do you find yourself working at this or does it come naturally?
Andy said: Creating an engaged classroom is about knowing your audience and taking them seriously. I consider all of the students to be artists, and I treat them as such. Education is about more than delivering information. It is about creating the conditions for a student to try on ideas and identities. I do draw on my own experience as a student, but as much as possible I try not to impose my tastes on the class. Instead, I try to put the focus on the students’ ideas and their work. The singer-songwriter Josh Ritter has a line in a song, “have mercy on the man who signs to be adored,” by which he means you have to perform for the love of it rather than for the attention. I think the same can be said for teaching. I learned early on that teaching is not about me, it is about the students.
Teaching photography these days is different than when I was in school. The darkroom is not as big a part of the experience as it once was, and I miss the sense of community of that space. So here at Oklahoma State University, I have set up a digital lab that has some of the collaborative and interactive aspects of the gang darkroom. Rather than having numerous independent digital printing stations, we have two large format roll printers that everyone prints to at the same time. Students make tiny test strips, just like they once did in a darkroom, which they display on a large magnetic board together. Everyone sees everyone else’s work-in-progress and eventually final prints begin to emerge on the board. I find this process to be gratifying and I think the students enjoy seeing each other’s work as well.
We asked: How do you recommend people take risks in the industry? Describe a risk that was well worth taking for your business.
Andy said: The most important professional step I took after undergrad was working as a photographer’s assistant. I reached out to every photographer of interest to me in the city in which I lived at the time, asking for a job. I received a lot of polite rejections, but I kept trying. There was one photographer in particular who had been in the game a long time and his work was incredible. I respectfully contacted him every month for about a year. I wrote him hardcopy letters in the mail even though email existed at the time. It was 2005. Finally one day, he called me up and asked if I was available to assist because his regular assistant couldn’t make it. I dropped everything and took the gig. It was just a half day and I had no idea what I was doing, but we got along great and I was able to be useful. So after that, I started assisting him regularly and we worked together for about a year and a half. Following that experience, I was able to build my own client base and work pretty regularly for a number of years. It can be difficult from the outside to remember that these figures in the field are just people! If you are respectful and persistent and you make yourself useful, it will be rewarded.
We asked: What is the difference between young talent these days versus when you were going through school?
Andy said: It has become a cliché these days to cite the impact of social media and mobile phone photography, but I would be remiss if I didn’t do so. When I was coming up in photography, everything was analog right up until the last year or so of my undergrad experience. I think these days, the increased access to cameras and the ability to distribute images has created a sea change. I hear grumbling about this from photographers of my generation and older, but it is just the next evolutionary step in an ever-changing medium. Something we can’t quite predict about this new paradigm is the psychological effect of growing up in this connected time and how that changes the next generation’s relationship to images and image making. Frankly, I don’t think it’s possible for those of us who were introduced to touchscreen photography and social media as adults to fully understand the experience of younger people who have had this woven into the fabric of their lives from the very start. And the effects of that new reality are only beginning to be seen in the images they produce. Of course, there is the traditional idea that it takes hard work and dedication to create a photographic voice, but I suspect we will continue to see surprising new approaches in the hands of young talent.
We asked: What is your biggest accomplishment as an educator or photographer?
Andy said: Here at Oklahoma State University, I was hired to create the first photography program ever in the art department. This has been an incredible opportunity for the past five years, and I have had a great time coming up with all types of ideas. I’m proud of the curriculum and the lab I have set up for the students, and it has been gratifying to see them take advantage of these tools. In terms of my own career, I was thrilled this year to have five pieces acquired by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which were on display in an exhibition for most 2019. Beyond those tangible accomplishments, I like to remember something one of my favorite professors in graduate school, Chris Larson, used to say. Rather than an abrupt peak, which could result in a crash, he hoped for gradual growth in his work. When he would tell this story, he would fly his hand across the air slowly like an airplane taking off to illustrate the steadiness he sought. I like that metaphor because it means that fortune and glory are not the goal, rather the process and staying curious is more than enough.
Find more of Andy’s work on his website.