Matt was recently in Dubai for a series of food photography and food blogging workshops that have left participants buzzing with inspiration. If you ever have a chance to engage with him or read his mega popular blog Matt Bites, you will understand why. Matt the man, is a humble and affable man in spite of the fact that he boasts a laundry list of dream clients like Food Network, Bon Apetit and Coco-Cola. He crushes every stereotype of the egocentric successful Loss Angeles creative. The former Creative Director for Whole Foods has become a name synonymous with style in the food world and candidly shares his knowledge.
We caught up with the LA based photographer during his trip to the UAE and we are pretty excited to share our interview with you.
This is part of our I Work in Food series where we interview successful members of the industry with the hope of motivating you towards your own dreams.
At what point in your life did you realise you were born to be creative and how did that internal dialogue play out?
Now that I approach middle age (yikes!), I realize that this path I’ve been on started early. As in when I was a baby. I come from a very large Mexican American family that is blessed with the gift of music; everyone plays an instrument naturally and family events come with their own built-in bands! I started music lessons at 6 or so, and it really was my first love. We were encouraged to explore however we wanted, it was a very open home. Around that same time I became obsessed with letterforms, writing, drawing, arranging things, and it wasn’t until my early twenties that I realized what I was doing was basically graphic design. It all made sense at that moment! And also, a childhood visit to Universal Studios also cemented something inside me, as I was so fascinated with TV and movie sets so much that I came home and started building small scale sets in my room. Of course I was just experimenting, but all these things totally related to the field I am in now: photography.
You started out as a Creative Director then branched out into photography, what made you decide to switch from mainstream advertising into the world of food?
Well I always worked with food as an art director and creative director, so I had those building blocks of what great food was all about. And I absolutely loved the time I spent on photo shoots, whether they were on location or in studio. I began to produce shoots, hiring everyone from the photographer to the stylist to the assistants, and it became something so exhilarating to me that I had a hard time going back to my office and just sitting there. Around the same time, I was having creative difficulties with what I was producing, through no fault of anyone’s, really. But as a creative person what I was seeing in my mind was NOT what I was getting back after having spent thousands of dollars producing shoots. I started to realize that I was telling photographers “Shoot it like this please, light it like this please, etc.” and that was NOT cool. Not cool on my part, I mean 🙂 So I realized the issue was with me, and one day I picked up an old camera and vowed to not put it down until I understood the mechanics of it all. At that point I already had compositional skills, I was fluent in the language of proportion, color, shape, space, etc. The missing ingredient was technical agility. I still say I’m learning and not an expert, although I’m pretty comfortable with a camera these days.
What was it like in the early part of your food photography career?
It’s remarkably still the same in relation to the reasons why I began: I love the visual language of photography, I love food, I love telling a story and the challenge of translating someone’s heart and soul into a frame. Those are the benefits I still get to experience daily as a photographer. But if I’m talking about the nuts and bolts of the early days, it was quite different: it was just me learning the business, not being confident enough to say “you really do NOT want to photograph it that way, trust me” and having the experience to know what’s best. I suppose that’s called confidence! But it was just as exciting then as it is today, I seriously mean that!
How did you get your first major gigs?
Gigs came from the blog, surprisingly enough! And it was just 1 job that turned into another, and that led to another job and it just continues today!
You have got an amazing food ethos. How did you come to that?
I’ve been around so many food people in my 24 years in food and I’ve seen every walk of life. I also came from a home where food was everything: love, community, a haven, a way to connect. I slowly realized that food is love, in a nutshell, and who doesn’t want to surround themselves with the warm fuzzies all the time? I know I do! But I also realize food is a safety issue, a poverty issue, an educational issue, it’s everything and affects everyone. I think it’s also interesting as a photographer: I photograph something we all need to survive. It’s instinctual. So my food belief system embodies a very pragmatic approach to it all, with a few dashes of inspiration and fantasy while doing my best to realize the humanity of it all.
The internet has made it easier for people to explore their creativity through blogs and social media. Do you think creatives or born or made?
Born! That doesn’t mean one can’t teach themselves because you can, but I’ve seen so many painters and sculptures move into food styling, writers and musicians take up photography. But I believe creativity is a gift that is inside us all, we just have to have the space to nurture it. Luckily I thank my parents for letting me be creative.
What are your views on the restaurant photography and review debates?
Like everything in life, it has its place. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad. I don’t see it as an absolute. I see the bigger picture though: is a review mean spirited? Is trying to photograph your meal taking away from the experience at hand, which is connecting with friends and family? If it’s negative for negativity’s sake then I don’t agree with it. But if it’s critical for good reason, which is to educate, then I understand. I also understand as humans all we want is to be heard, to have a voice, so I’d never deny someone for trying to achieve that.
How important is it for food bloggers and food photographers to aim for their own style instead of replicating the same kind of shots over and over?
Well, it all depends on the user’s goal. If a blogger is only blogging as an effort to document their meals or recipes for themselves, then nothing else matters. If a blogger has professional photography aspirations, then it’s imperative to develop their own voice. But I have no issue with replicating a style as you begin, as we all learn by mimicking. I mean, it’s how we learn to speak as babies! It’s the same process in my mind. After a while you know the tools and properties of food and photography, and only then can you begin to assemble and process them in a way that is uniquely you.But for bloggers that seem stuck in a certain look or only follow the pack, I say get out of that comfort zone, do something different, don’t be afraid to push forward.
Do you think food bloggers should supply writing, recipes and photos for free to publications for the sake of being published?
When appropriate, yes. We all need to start someone, and for many newbies getting that credit or tear sheet in a magazine or web site is the only way to start. Of course there is that whole “don’t give anything away for free” school of thought, but that deals with absolutes. There are no absolutes in life, EVER. So the $25 I spent on groceries and my time to write a recipe that I ended up giving away to a publication would be the same as spending $25 on business cards that say “I AM A PHOTOGRAPHER” or recipe developer or writer, whatever. It’s a cost of getting your name out there.
But the catch is that you can only do that a few times before you essentially are giving away your work for free. Never do that. I won’t go so far by saying “it devalues you/an industry/your craft”, in the long term as I haven’t seen that happen. Outdated models and technology will take care of that for us, trust me.
So hard to say. I didn’t think it’d turn into this if you had asked me 8 years ago when I began. Trends come and go and are extremely fickle so it’s impossible to say.
What are some of the highlights of the workshops?
So many highlights! For starters, the flow of information is so strong, so robust, because you’re dealing with instructors who know what they are talking about and are so generous with the knowledge. And as an instructor to be able to connect first hand with people and learn is a highlight for me, too.
You generously held a free lecture in addition to the paid workshops, how was the free session in attendance and participation?
It was good! To me it seemed the same as a paid event, people really wanted to be there which was an honor for me.
What are your 5 top tips for anyone trying to improve their photography?
- Get a tripod,
- use natural light,
- start with the best possible products and freshest food,
- ask questions, practice!