How I See It – Matthew Genitempo

We asked Issue 3 featured photographer Kovi Konowiecki to choose a photographer we should feature this issue. Say hello to Matthew Genitempo...

By: Jon Denham,   6 minutes

Untitled, Jasper. © Matthew Genitempo.
Untitled, Jasper. © Matthew Genitempo.


Jon Denham: Where did it start with you and photography?

Matthew Genitempo: I took a couple of darkroom classes in high school, but didn’t really take them seriously. In college my focus was in graphic design, but I took on three photography courses around that and that’s where things really got into motion. I was in school, I had my own car, and I was traveling to make pictures. I realised, for the first time, that photography could bring me somewhere, open doors and introduce me to people.

Like a lot of folks, I started off looking at William Eggleston, Robert Adams and Stephen Shore, that whole American road trip thing. I was really seduced by that and went out west. I would head to West Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and make photos there. That’s really where I cut my teeth and learnt how to use the 4×5 and how to approach strangers for photos. I got comfortable sleeping in my car and developed the process of going out, gathering, coming back, looking at the work and seeing what the work was telling me. That’s the quick version of how it started for me.

JD: So are you self-taught?

MG: I wanted to work with musicians, so was looking at graphic design firms doing record layouts. I assumed all those firms took their own photographs and thought I should probably get good at making pictures. I did get my MFA around seven or eight years after my undergrad, but there was no real technical learning there, it was more conceptual, getting me to where I am now.

Untitled, Jasper. © Matthew Genitempo.
Untitled, Jasper. © Matthew Genitempo.


JD: What’s your process with using the 4×5? How do you approach strangers?

MG: That part of it hasn’t changed too much, it feels like casting for a movie. You have something going on in the back of your head, a theme you’re carrying around with you, whether you’re conscious of it or not, and certain people just exude something that attracts you to them. As far as my most recent project Jasper went, one thing would lead  to the next. I’d travel down a road, see a house and knock on a door. In the west I had to  knock on a lot more doors, and meet a lot more people within that community, and rely on them.

Of course, there’s luck to it; some things happen in the moment. Somebody walking along the road at the right time, or somebody filling up their tank in the town who happened to live in the woods.  There was a lot of that, but mostly it was one person leading me to the next.

Stanford has this really beautiful, almost supernatural way of uniting reality, fantasy and history. His poems are totally hallucinogenic; they’re very photographic for me.

JD: What was your motivation for starting Jasper? What was it that interested you in particular?

MG: Jasper was actually my thesis at Hartford, CT. In the months leading up to school I was working primarily in two places. One place is called the Mesa, a tiny off grid community of maybe 200 folks, 20 miles northwest of Taos, New Mexico. And then I was also in Terlingua, TX, a small ghost town on the Texas / Mexico border. Both these places attract runaways, loners, and people that want to be left alone. I was between those two places, making pictures, but I couldn’t really see what I was doing at the time. In hindsight, I was laying a lot of the groundwork for what would ultimately become Jasper.

So I was making the work in the west, and then four or five months into grad school I had this hellish critique. I spun out, I wasn’t making the work I wanted to make and it just wasn’t coming through. I was advised by one of my professors to stay in Austin (I was living there at the time) and attempt to make pictures there. That lasted for about a week. I just couldn’t do it. I ended up traveling south 20 minutes to this small forest called The Lost Pines. It’s a really odd place, they call it a pine island, this disjunct belt of pine trees separated by over 100 miles from other pine trees and the forest it’s actually connected to. I spent a couple of weeks in that forest making pictures. I learnt there were other pine islands that eventually connect to the Pineywoods region in east Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, which all feed into the Ozarks.

I stopped shooting 4×5, I switched to black and white, I was using flash and wasn’t using a tripod anymore. I was trying to make pictures with intuition, reading with my eyes and my instincts. I had a lot of preconceived ideas about the west and it was getting in the way of the work. It was a really experimental time for me. I started meeting the people living in the forest, which was fascinating.

The forest was really close to my house, I thought I could go to these other pine islands and eventually get to the Ozarks, meeting people along the way. So that’s what happened. I hopped around the different woods, and eventually ended up in the Ozarks. I didn’t set out to to photograph people living in solitude in the woods. I would go out, make pictures, come back – and all these same themes kept popping up. I took note of it and just rode that.

JD: Were you shooting film then and developing it yourself on the road as well?

MG: Yes, and no. It was kind of ridiculous and I would not recommend it. I would go to the Ozarks, which is maybe an eight-hour drive from Austin. I would get up say, Thursday morning and haul-ass to get to the Ozarks, make photographs until Monday, come back, then ship the film off. I was staying in my car most of that time. At the same time I was having critiques for grad-school and so I had to have the film. It was just a lot of rushing around, it was a really hectic time, but it worked out.

Untitled, Jasper. © Matthew Genitempo.


JD: Can you tell us more about the inspiration from poet Frank Stanford?

MG: I was going through this small obsession with his work when I was experimenting in the woods. A lot of his work is written in, or about, the Ozarks. Stanford has this really beautiful, almost supernatural way of uniting reality, fantasy and history. His poems are totally hallucinogenic; they’re very photographic for me. When I got to the Ozarks I was seeing everything through his poems, which was probably good and bad. There are a couple of pictures in the book I made where I was unknowingly illustrating sections of the poems. I carried a collected volume of his work with me and was going through it whenever I was making pictures. A month would go by and I’d read a section and I’d go “Oh Shit! That’s so much like this photograph over here”. I didn’t know if that just happened, or if I’d read it and it’d got stuck in the back of my head.

JD: You said Stanford’s work is very visual to you but there seems to be a really nice partnership between poetry and photography in general. Why do you think they work so well together?

MG: Photography and poetry are cut from the same cloth. They’re both capable of communicating a narrative without directing you too specifically or being overly instructional. Good poetry and good photography put forward an atmosphere and an experience, rather than a literal description of what happened. Some poets and photographers can turn observations of the everyday into something miraculous. If you think about Lauren Niedecker, George Oppen, or Robert Lax, their work is comparable to the work of somebody like photographer Walker Evans. It’s a kind of authorless observance. I always think about that one quote by photographer Garry Winogrand “there is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described”. That’s kind of how that fits. I always think about that when I’m thinking about poems and photography that works for me.


All Photographs © Matthew Genitempo. 

Insta: @genitempo

Here’s a run down of Matthews current top picks:

Emma Phillips, an Australian photographer. I went to school with her, and she’s amazing. She’s just had a show at ReadingRoom (Melbourne) called Too Much to Dream. She sent me a few photographs from that, and they’re remarkable.

There’s also Aubrey Trinnaman. I looked at some photography she did about these cowboys in the New York Times and those photographs are unbelievable.

Zora J. Murff. His series At No Point in Between is really thoughtful work about the oppression black people face, particularly in the south.

And then there’s a buddy of mine, Alan Huck, who has a book coming out with MACK at the end of the summer. It’s called I Walk Toward the Sun Which is Always Going Down.  It’s half photography and half writing about walking through New Mexico.

Also in this issue