Matt Plaks

Interview by Kristy Carpenter

Kristy Carpenter: Were you interested in photography before coming to Harvard?

Matt Plaks: Yeah, I’ve always kind of been interested in art in general, but photography as well just because (well, now I know this is untrue), but coming into it I was thinking that anyone can take a picture. Like it takes a lot of skill and technique to do something else, but with photography you just press a button. I’ve recently learned otherwise [laughs], but that is kind of what drew me to photography. I just always found what you could do with it really interesting. I had a point and shoot and used to take pictures wherever I went, but this course was the first in depth photography course.

KC: What do you normally shoot with and why do you prefer that? I assume film?

MP: Yeah, before the class, I just used my cheap little Pentax point and shoot, like 6 megapixels or something like that, but for this entire class I’ve been shooting with a Pentax K1000, 35 mm. I like it just because it is a super basic camera, a tank of a camera really – it’s not going to break and it doesn’t really have technical issues. It’s definitely a good tool to use for teaching someone who has no experience because there’s nothing to distract you with, which I think is good.

KC: So overall, what is the focus/theme of your work?

MP: I found that I was drawn more towards people. While sometimes I would see a cool landscape or image, I wasn’t quite able to capture the thing that interested me in it. But with people it’s more fun – you can talk to them. I often shot friends, or friends of friends and it was actually a great way to meet people. It was also nice because I was getting work done, but at the same time I was able to have a conversation with a friend that I might not have been able to hang out with had I been reading a course book.  So definitely people.

KC: Could you tell me about your final project?

MP: It’s transitioned somewhat. I’m taking an English course on Shakespeare and it’s really been interesting. That’s kind of where my final project started, because in Hamlet, I don’t know if you’ve read it, but the character descends into madness, though there is a lot of debate about whether its in his mind or his physical portrayal. I thought that idea could be really cool – the whole tension between ‘is he really mad’, ‘what is madness’, ‘what is sanity’. So originally it was going to be an investigation of madness and sanity, but I found that grew boring after only ten or so shots and left me with a bunch of deep and broody pictures, full of angst. It didn’t feel like it was accomplishing anything really, like I could capture that one mood, but it never felt like it was enough. From there it has branched out to be more of an investigation of the mind I guess and I’m kind of doing that through how the background portrays that with the subjects.  For example, one image that was about anger and frustration shows a guy with shattered glass in the background and another is of an open doorway with an “all are welcome” sign that to me speaks of an open mind. It’s a bit hard to describe because the topic is sort of vague, but that’s what I’m trying to explore.

KC: So how do you choose your scenes? Are your backgrounds constructed or stumbled upon?

MP: Definitely just stumbled upon. I mean- I wish I had that kind of thought process and ability to create some crazy still life and then bring someone into it and have it work perfectly. Instead, my friends and I, we’d just go wander, maybe take the T to Central Square or walk to Inman Square, looking for back alleys, or things I guess you wouldn’t normally see unless you were just wandering.

KC: Where do you see your photography going in the future?

MP: I’m planning on taking another photography or VES course. I definitely want to continue on with photography. One semester just isn’t enough to hone my skills or really do what I want to do, even though I might not be aware now what it is that I want to do.  I definitely think there are a lot of different ways, a lot of different mediums to shoot photography that I have yet to discover. I want to stick with film – there’s just something about it. It might be phasing out as far as mainstream goes, but there’s something about it that you just can’t get with digital.

KC: Are there particular photographers that you feel have really influenced the way you work?

MP: Duane Michals is really cool and I think his way of constructing narratives is awesome. While I may not do that as aptly as he does, I’m drawn his ability to capture such emotion and humanity, and think it would be awesome if I could even come close to that.

KC: Any final thoughts?

MP: As long as other people find my photographs interesting, that’s all that really matters to me.

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