IDI Interviews Jordan Matter

IDI Interviews

Every so often as I trawl through the web hoping to source something interesting/informative/amusing, I come across something truly amazing.

This can be anything from an unusual or innovative idea, an exciting visual or an example of technical expertise. Seldom do I find something that ticks all the boxes.

As a photographer, Jordan Matter clearly knows his medium; he is aware of his photographic heritage and is confident enough in his own talents to reference his predecessors while adding his own, highly inventive touch to his images. His series, “Dancers among Us” is based a simple concept, take some professional dancers, remove them from their usual context and photograph them in commonplace surroundings.

Jordan Matter Red Umbrella

I say “simple concept” because any art form intends to make us aware, bring something to our attention or enable us to see the subject in a new light; the concept may be simple but the execution upon which its success is based is extraordinarily difficult to achieve.

As a visual artist, Jordan Matter is astute. Taken within their usual context, the theatre or dance studio, his subjects radiate physical grace coupled with athletic prowess; they shine. But taken out of context and captured practicing their craft in a series of unexpectedly mundane situations, they are iridescent; quite literally, extraordinary.

Unfortunately some photography, like a great deal of visual art, can be over-concerned with the provision of narrative; “this is what happened, this is where it happened and this is who it happened to …”

What Jordan Matter does in his images is to demonstrate conclusively the manifestations of what it means to means to be a dancer at this level of the profession; the body shape, the physical proficiency and mental attitude are different from the norm. Evidently, Mr Matter knows his subject. Having established his context, his focus is unambiguously on the dancer, who takes centre stage on his theatre of the streets. This is photography employed to make a statement; and the statement is powerfully made.

Jordan Matter Dancers

Not only do the audience have familiar, comfortable landscapes disrupted by the intervention of these exotic creatures but some familiar photographic conventions are also subverted to good effect.

In terms of composition we see references to David Bailey’s street wise shots from the 1960’s New York sessions to the sculptural, fluid flights of fancy of Richard Avedon, from the dramatic human stories captured by Alfred Eisenstaedt to the subways of Bruce Davidson and the streets of Klein and Winogrand.

But this type of work is not without its dangers. For the unwary photographer, there is the always the risk that the contrast between the professional principal and the amateur supporting players stretches the suspension of disbelieve beyond braking point; that these are images that embody the elements we expect from product advertising photography or worse, a still image version of “Fame”.

Jordan Matter subway

However, Matter achieves an appropriate weighting of the elements that provide the contrast between theatricality and reality. He enables his dancers to assume centre stage by having the supporting players focus on their reality; to provide and populate the context of each photograph. Essentially, everything about these images appears natural; no one is performing or posing for the camera.

Thus the locations and situations maintain their integrity, leaving the principals to take their next, logical step and move from reality into fantasy, revealing the world as it really is … from a dancer’s point of view.

IDI had the opportunity to interview Jordan to find out more about his process, inspiration and future projects.  Read our one on one interview with Jordan Matter:

 1. Does the subject of dance hold a particular fascination for you?

I had no fascination for dance and I had never photographed a dancer.  The idea didn’t come from a deep fascination or love for dance. I was fortunate to photograph a dancer for some portraits and he invited me to a dance performance and when I saw the dance performance I asked if I could photograph him.

I came up with the idea for “Dancers Among Us” by watching my son play with his toy bus.  He is three and he had this level of enthusiasm for the fantasy that he had in his head and was  and I realised in that moment that we lose that as we get older, that thrill with the small moments and the ability to see the joy and the beauty in the every day.  I’m using dance to show this beauty and joy and how small moments can be beautiful; that’s how it began.

2. Does capturing a dancer present particular problems for you as a photographer?

The photographs are not in motion so I don’t have to improvise a dance and photograph it.  I want to mimic real life as well as exaggerate real life, so usually the poses have something to do with what everyday people would be doing in that same situation. The challenges are not about photographing motion and movement but more about photographing leaps and freezing it at the right moment.

Jordan Matter Cafe

There are certain types of dancers that are more difficult to photograph, like tap dancers and hip hop dancers because it is more about movement and fluidity and my shots are more extreme, catching the moment of height or the moment of beauty within a pose.  So to answer that question, yes it is difficult because there are a lot of different elements to match up to make a good photograph.

 3. What do you use in terms of equipment?

In the back of my book I break down all my equipment.  I use all Nikon. Most of everything was shot with a Nikon D3F and I’ve also been shooting with D800s as they produce larger files and as I have been having exhibitions I can blow these files up bigger.  I use a range of lenses everything from 14mm to 200mm.

4. How do you choose your locations?

Usually I would get off a plane and go straight to a few dancers that were waiting for me somewhere. We would predetermine somewhere to meet and then I would say, “OK what’s cool about Houston” or “What’s cool about Chicago, where should we go?”

It would literally be that loose and free and the reason why I kept it that way is because when you don’t determine what you are going to do you are much more open to everything around you and then the spontaneity fuels the project; everything feels fresh and new.  If we had pre-planned shots and got actors to be the people it wouldn’t have the same energy.  I love the unpredictability of spontaneity.

5. On location for “Dancers among Us”, how did you manage to photograph your subjects while capturing members of the public behaving as if nothing unusual was happening?

Everything about the majority of the photos is serendipitous, from the clothing, to the pose, to the locations, to the bystanders, it all happened in the moment.

Sometimes I would have an idea like I would like to do something gritty so I would say bring construction-like clothing that you can get dirty and we would drive around until we found a gritty location.

My book is broken up into chapters and as I was trying to shoot more specifically for the book I would say, for example, we need something for the grieving section of the book – something that’s a little heavy, so let’s go to the graveyard.  But once I arrived at the graveyard, I didn’t know what the shots were going to be, I would just say wear black and bring flowers and let’s figure it out.  That would be the most pre-planning that I would do.

6. Do you use Photoshop or other software for image manipulation/enhancement?

I have an art fair next week and last night I printed a big flyer to hang in the front that says, “This is a NO Photoshop Zone”.  Many people that look at the pictures assume that they are photo shopped.  When I was with the printer last night printing these prints for this art fair, I could not convince him that they were not photo shopped because of what the dancers are capable of doing.  It is just too hard to believe that a human being could actually do that so it’s much easier to believe that they are on trampoline in a studio than on a pavement in the middle of Times Square.  But I assure you, there is absolutely no Photoshop used.

There is colour correction of course and occasionally we remove a distracting elements from the background but other than that there is no manipulation with regards to what the dancers can do. There are times when the dancers are unbelievably high but the answer as to how they got up there is always in the photo somewhere.

In the back of the book there are lots of descriptions about how I got each shot and I have a lot of videos on my website to show behind the scenes to make it really clear that it is real.

7. What has been the most unusual reaction you have received to your book?

Jordan Matter Dancers Among Us BookI have one reaction to the book and one reaction from social media. Often social media reactions are different to the book as people are seeing a single image as opposed to the whole story of the book.

The most interesting reaction for me to the book is actually the reaction that people have to the passages of writing that I do at the beginning of every chapter which are basically about about how my children have inspired me to see the beauty in my life.  So every chapter, whether it’s working or playing or loving, is about a story in my life and when people  see the book they are really moved by those passages because they are honest and true and they can relate to them.

On social media, by far the most common reaction is “no way”.  But there are also a lot of people reacting who say that the pictures have given them a lot of joy and make them happy.  One woman said that there’s one photograph of a painter hanging off a fire escape, a very dangerous shot, which hangs in her apartment.  She told me that every time she thinks that something is not possible she looks at that photograph and she’s reminded than anything is possible.

8. Who would you say are your biggest influences in terms of your photography?

My grandfather was a very well-known graphic artist and photographer, Herbert Matter, and was a big influence.  When I was very young he would take me into the dark room and I would watch him make prints.  In terms of famous photographers by far the biggest influence is Henri Cartier Bresson because of his storytelling ability.  Even though he is a photojournalist, in my own way I am always trying to emulate his ability to tell stories with humour and with an emotional impact.

9. What is your next project?

I’m actively continuing work on “Dancers Among Us” and going all over the world shooting.  In addition to that, I do a lot of everyday portraiture in my own life, that’s my day job.  I’ve also begun work on a project called “Athletes Among Us” which is similar but also very different to “Dancers Among Us” and is still in the very early stages.

Whereas ‘Dancers’ was about fluidity and flexibility, a lot of athletes are about strength or speed and trying to capture those elements in a photograph is what I’m trying to do with “Athletes Among Us”.

 10. Given ideal circumstances, what would be your dream project?

I’ve come pretty close to already doing it with ‘Dancers’. I find a great amount of creative satisfaction and personal joy in doing it.  So I think my dream project would be to do it on a larger scale.  I get emails from lots of different places asking me to come out and shoot it and it has just continued to grow.  The book came out in October and did very well – it was on the New York bestselling list for months but I saw the real impact recently this summer when I had been getting a lot of enquiries about student campaigns and having exhibitions and going around the world and shooting it. So I think I’m right in the middle of my dream job.


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