A top entertainment photographer, Mary Ellen Matthews has photographed a Who’s Who of the celebrity world, ranging from U2 and Justin Timberlake to Tom Brady and John McCain. For two decades, she has also served as the official photographer for Saturday Night Live, helping to craft the look of the show each season through her work.
On Nov. 17, the New York native will headline InVision Festival, offering two presentations on her work photographing SNL. We recently caught up with this iconic photographer to get her thoughts on her work and career, as well as what aspiring photographers should focus on when starting out. Here’s what she had to say.
ArtsQuest: Mary Ellen, you’ve photographed so many artists, people and celebrities over the years. Is there anyone who’s the most memorable and why?
Mary Ellen: Well, you know it’s funny, I just happened to run into him about an hour ago – Paul McCartney. There have been a lot of memorable ones and I’ve photographed all these people (over the years), but he’s one I was really taken back by. He made me feel comfortable when he came up to the set. He was like, ‘You know, my wife was a photographer too’ and went on to talk about Linda. So, you know he was putting me at ease more than the other way around.
AQ: Have any of your shoots been particularly challenging for you, maybe due to circumstances in which you had to photograph under or something like that?
ME: Sure, you know think of it as ‘time.’ It has to do with how long we have with the subject, the space that we have or where we are shooting from. I do a lot of movie posters, so shooting on a production set we have to be able to grab the cast in between the takes for what they’re doing. It’s just the coordination – mostly the timing and you have to be quick on your feet, know exactly what you’re doing and be focused.
AQ: What’s the most unique shoot you have done in your career?
ME: I have done a lot of weddings, but (also) a lot a lot of celebrity weddings, which are very unique. For weddings there’s a lot of pressure for having to catch the bouquet and stay out of the way and you know doing something very special. But, to add it to that pressure of getting something for a publication just ups the game a little bit, as you can imagine.
AQ: You’re approaching 20 years with Saturday Night Live as their photographer. What keeps you going?
ME: It’s a family that I’ve lucky to be a part of and to be on this team. We are all trying to keep copying the year before, the show before, the week before. Nowhere else can you have such a creative job, like I have, and have such amazing people surrounding and supporting me in that job.
AQ: Who’s the most memorable person you’ve photographed as part of Saturday Night Live?
ME: Boy, you know I can only say that they are all memorable in their own way. There have been politicians, there have been sport figures, movie stars, television stars, rock stars. You have people like Neil Young, Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger, the legends, right? The legends, I’d say.
AQ: Who are your primary influences in your career; what other photographers do you respect?
ME: Not to be sort of broad here, but I get so much inspiration from all across the board. I love Ryan McGinley, I love Richard Avedon, I love William Kline. It just goes everywhere because in every different direction you can become inspired. I just keep looking and keep going back and going to gallery shows and seeing new talents. I’m a big art history buff and that influences me as well.
AQ: What advice do you give to younger photographers who want to break into the industry? Obviously, it’s very challenging and very competitive.
ME: It is, but you think about the days of Instagram now. There’s so much exposure one could get now. I am blown away by what you can see, and it’s such a great platform for us all to have. I think it’s knowing what your style is and being committed to that. We (all) need to be flexible for whatever comes our way, but I think you’re going to be known for what your voice is and what your style is.
AQ: Last question. If you could photograph any person in the world, whether it’s someone here today or maybe someone who passed, who would it be and why?
ME: Well, again, I’m going back to the artists. Could I photograph Vincent van Gogh? Or Monet? Any of these great artists would be up on my list. But among those living today it would be Ai Weiwei, Gerhard Richter or Julian Schnabel. I’d go for the artists and, of course, Barrack Obama and Nelson Mandela. I don’t even know where to stop with this question.