The Man Behind the Lens │ Photographer Matt Licari Shares His Story Along With Tips
There’s an ever lasting beauty to moments captured on film.
From a photographers angle — it’s always interesting to learn their interpretation. One of my favorite photographers is Matt Licari → as he has a captivating way of capturing beauty found in rare moments. This gift of his — the ability to freeze a second to reveal its richness — goes beyond words.
So we got personal with Licari to find out how he got his start in the industry, what inspires and continues to motivate him, as well as that one time a man fell through the ceiling as he was shooting in an NYC apartment → classic New York.
What I like about photographs is that they capture a moment that’s gone forever, impossible to reproduce.
— Karl Lagerfeld
There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.
— Ansel Adams
Who: Matt Licari · fashion & editorial photographer.
Doost: How did you get your start in photography and what made you transition it into a profession?
ML: I was huge into skateboarding in middle school and high school, but I knew I wasn’t good enough to make a career of it. My uncle, John Rooney, was a photographer who’d studied fine art and worked commercially. So I asked him to teach me to shoot action photos of my skateboarder friends. After a year of that, I fell in love with the craft and the art. And while I continued to skateboard, photography started to take the front seat in my life from about 2003 on.
My uncle and I spent a lot of time together — working, hanging out, listening to music, talking about art and life. He introduced me to a lot of my favorite photographers’ work, and turned me onto a lot of new music and ideas too. His work was and is still an important influence. Particularly a group of pictures me made in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1985 during what the Irish call “The Troubles”.
A brief history of what followed my high school introduction to photography: I went to SUNY Purchase College in New York and studied fine art photography there. Working fully analog, mostly with large format view cameras on location. After college I spent a year in the Bronx with my family, working and trying to be recognized in the fine art world. I then moved to Richmond, Virginia for almost 4 years and transitioned to commercial and then fashion photography through a series of events.
During that time I learned studio lighting and did a lot of assisting and freelance work. After getting into fashion, I quickly came to understand I needed to be back in my home city of New York, so I moved to Brooklyn with 3 other photographers in a loft / studio space. By that time I was already shooting for magazines and designers so my transition was pretty fast (also because I knew the city well from growing up here). I still live in Brooklyn, not far from that loft space actually, and love it here.
Doost: When it comes to working on a project, where do you find your inspiration?
ML: Ah, all over. Mostly just walking or driving around, on the train, in life. My emotional inspiration, meaning my drive – my energy – usually comes from a few places. Music is a major emotional motivator / energy provider. I’m really into music. I used to play it for a long time, and many of my friends are musicians, so is my father, etc.
Another influence is family and friends – stories I hear, things I see, emotions I experience in relation to friends and family, or even just other humans. On a more translatable, direct level, my inspiration for many of my pictures comes from just walking around, driving around – real life. It happens all the time – I’m walking down the block, and something (usually the sunlight or street light mixed with a scene) just grabs me. If my mind then takes that and can create a narrative, I often jot it down on my idea list.
Doost: How do you define/see beauty?
ML: My definition for what is beautiful is ever changing. If something is unique, fresh, unexpected, elegant, improvisational, inspired – it has the potential to be beautiful.
There’s certainly some percentage of beauty that is magic …
… there are some tangible and explainable parts, parts that we can dissect and say ‘ok yeah, that’s why it’s beautiful.’ But then, there’s that very crucial bit that has to move me, often it’s a physiological response – a twitch, a sensation, a jolt … the best way to describe it is the feeling when a truly amazing song is playing and you have that sense of being carried by the music. That really profound sensation that you are alive, maybe even more alive because of this music.
Well if you translate that to a still image, or a persons body or face, or a painting – that is beauty to me. I think it has a element to it that makes me feel alive. A good painting, a stunning face or gesture – these things are beautiful to me often when I feel especially alive by them.
Doost: How do you capture that beauty through your camera lens?
ML: If you think of it like a science experiment, I try to consider the constants and variables. The constants change from shoot to shoot. But whatever the constants are, they have to be aligned with the vision and narrative of the shoot. Then the variables are really what I focus on.
Let’s say, if the clothing is going to be all black for a shoot and its indoors with a white wall, those are constants. I can’t change those while I actually click the shutter – those are set. So what’s next, hair and makeup, etc. Once it comes down to the variables – maybe on a particular shoot the variables are the model’s movement and expression. Maybe it’s the light (for location shoots) etc. That’s when I really try to leave room for things to happen. Like the unknown – maybe someone on set makes the girl laugh and we have a funny face but it’s gorgeous, it’s silly, it’s unexpected. Maybe it’s conventionally an unflattering pose but maybe it is beautiful in it’s strangeness and freshness – you know?
Once the constants are set, the variables are there to allow me play time. And then I need to revert to my child-like self and just let things happen, guide them, or follow them, etc.
Doost: What are your 3 essential go-to tips for models posing for the camera?
ML: Be a good listener and try to really understand what the shoot is trying to communicate. Don’t pose – just be. Rest before the shoot and eat and drink enough water so you feel energized. Nothing worse than a tired and cranky model haha.
Doost: There is something very captivating about B&W photography — what does it mean to you?
ML: I’ve grown closer to black and white in the last 4-5 years. Funny because I started shooting BW and then went to color. I really fell in love with that process of analog color printing. But I’ve come back to it and prefer it, at the moment.
The easy answer is that it is an abstraction of reality, so immediately it creates a fantasy land. Light also becomes a little more of a driving factor when color is removed.
Doost: What’s the funniest thing that happened to you (on set) while shooting?
ML: I was shooting in the East Village in a small apartment and all of a sudden this man fell through the ceiling. He was just dangling by both legs. He must have been holding himself up with his arms because both legs were completely in the apartment we were in. It was surreal and hilarious. He almost fell on the makeup artist, thank God he didn’t, but it was insane. There was dry wall and debris everywhere. That’s New York for you.
Doost: What’s the best advice you ever got?
ML: People would tell me to quit, that the industry has gone to shit. That was great advice, because I love doing the opposite of what people tell me. I mean, when I was younger I did haha. Now I listen a little better. But yeah, that was really motivating. Hmm let’s see … I like the idea of making pictures that make you feel excited. It’s not about if other people are doing similar work.
I’m not a revolutionary photographer – I’m not reinventing how people see. I’m just trying to use my camera as a conduit for joy and wonder. And luckily when I do that, very often the results are desirable to others, so I’m lucky.
Doost: What advice do you have for future photographers?
ML: Quit. No I’m kidding. Honestly, my advice is to take care of yourself, not just your art, but your body, your mind, your spirit. Because you can’t make shit without those things in good health.
Keep up with Matt’s adventures ↓