Matthew James Smith sips a chai not far from the fire in Base Camp Coffee Bar, turning his gaze from one black and white photograph on the wall to the next – haunting, mesmerizing, and remarkably symmetrical images of various landscapes, buildings, and objects. Many of the photographs on display were snapped in Door County – though they are not your typical sunsets, well-known landmarks, or cherry trees. “A lot of these are from a couple miles away,” says Smith, who currently resides in Ellison Bay. “I love it up here, but I’m running out of locations to shoot.”
Locations often include abandoned buildings and churches – “Sometimes you just have to trespass,” he smiles – as well as “random places” he discovered with the help of a former coworker.
“When I lived up here a couple of years ago I was landscaping for Mark Sitte. There was a kid working for him – Lars Ribbons. He has really long blonde hair, wears nothing but denim and rides his motorcycle everywhere – he’s like a Lone Ranger and goes to random places and just sits and listens to music,” explains Smith. “He started taking me to these places and through that I would find other places. He was a big part of my photography up here.”
As far as finding the symmetry notable in his images, “It’s kind of a sickness,” he laughs. “I’m too hard on myself – overly weird, but I get it done.”
The soft-spoken 29-year-old, a recent graduate of Brooks Institute of Photography, who hails from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, also admits to a self-diagnosis of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which influences his work. “I’m constantly thinking about [photography],” says Smith. To become a better photographer he “looks at millions of photographs. It’s about training your mind to see,” he says.
Smith’s family also benefits from his tendency to be meticulous in all he does. “My grandparents own Bayview Resort in Ellison Bay – I help them out. The big joke is that once the season is over I should move in over winter and it will be cleaner than ever when the tourists come back.”
Though he helps out his grandparents and in turn has a “pretty sweet deal,” Smith is attempting to support himself solely through his photography, something he never thought possible.
“I took a photography class, just a basic high school photography class, and I liked the instant gratification. When you take a photograph, you see it right away – I fell in love with it,” he explains. “I didn’t think it made sense it terms of making a living – I didn’t think that someone could actually do that, say that they’re a photographer and make a living. But I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
Smith finally convinced his parents to let him attend Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California – but not before he proved his commitment to the art.
“‘Well if you’re going to do this – it’s a lot of money, it’s a big step – you need to go to community college first in Iowa, take a course, and see if that’s really what you are interested in,’ they said,” recalls Smith. “So that’s what I did.”
During his experience at the community college, an instructor’s comments also pushed Smith’s determination to study at Brooks Institute. “I told a teacher that I wanted to go to Brooks and she laughed at me,” he says. “She said, ‘You know, those are the people who take photography seriously.’ So I mailed her a copy of my diploma when I graduated.”
Smith’s experience at Brooks was challenging, educational, and interesting, to say the least – “It was good, expensive, took a lot out of me,” says Smith. “It was important for me to finish but I would take a step forward, take a couple steps back, one forward, then a couple back, but eventually I finished.”
During his experience he studied various photographic methods, styles, artists; and embraced his love of black and white photography. “It sounds stupid, but it’s just something you feel,” he says in reference to his chosen medium of black and white photography. “It’s the closest thing in photography to ‘art.’ It’s challenging; not many people can do it well.”
According to B&W Magazine, who awarded Smith a “Spotlight Award” and “Merit Award” for his work, he does it well. Smith’s work has also appeared and received recognition from Food & Wine magazine, Digital Photo Pro magazine, and National Geographic’s website – http://www.nationalgeographic.com.
Smith’s substantial portfolio will also grow as he has recently returned from photography expeditions in Ireland and Switzerland. Expect many of the images to feature Smith’s signature simplistic symmetry.
“People who are successful have a specific style and then they just multiply – and market themselves,” explains the young artist. “I’m trying to build – set a goal, accomplish that goal.”
To learn more about Matthew James Smith and view more of his photography, visit http://www.matthewjamessmith.com.
Base Camp Coffee Bar will exhibit Smith’s photographs until March. Base Camp, located at 10904 Highway 42 in Sister Bay, is open daily from 7:30 am – 4 pm.