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Remembering Seven Days Photographer Matthew Thorsen


Published January 9, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 21, 2019 at 1:52 p.m.

Matthew Thorsen, 2000 - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Matthew Thorsen, 2000

On New Year's Day 2019, cancer ushered longtime Seven Days photographer Matthew Thorsen, 51, into his next great adventure. His wife, Diane Sullivan, said he passed peacefully at home; she and one of the couple's cats, Darkness, were by his side. Since then, an avalanche of sweet, sad, funny and loving remembrances on social media and in our email boxes has poured into the Matt-size hole in the Burlington community.

Many describe Matt as "magical." It's not a word we typically apply to another adult. But everyone who knew him, even briefly, will understand that, in this case, "magical" refers not to some sleight of hand or deceitfulness but to the ease with which Matt expressed wonder and playfulness. How he was kind and thoughtful and witty and gracious. How he turned a photo shoot into an adventure — even, as one subject put it, "a vacation."

Matt was fearlessly himself, which made it easier for others to be themselves, too. And, as all adults know, that's not as easy as it should be. "I would never pose like that for anyone else," his subjects commonly said. Or, "Matt made me feel, for a moment, like a rock star."

Matthew Thorsen - MICHAEL SIPE
  • Michael Sipe
  • Matthew Thorsen

In contemporary parlance, Matt was a unicorn: a rare creature of beauty and seemingly supernatural ability. To be sure, he was unique, not to mention tall, lean and handsome, with a shock of prematurely gray-going-white Jim Jarmusch hair. Unlike a unicorn, however, Matt was never hard to spot. Over the past couple of decades, he was a nearly ubiquitous presence around Burlington, camera in hand, often dressed in wild outfits that cheerfully rejected both fashion and gender norms. His self-made costumes for the annual Magic Hat Mardi Gras Parade are the stuff of legend.

Matt at Mardi Gras
  • Matt at Mardi Gras

In settings from nightclubs to daycare centers, press conferences to New American gatherings, political campaigns to rock concerts, Matt shot thousands of images for Seven Days and our other publications. But photography wasn't just his job. He made pictures constantly — of friends, family, strangers, himself, animals, inanimate objects. The camera was an extension of his arm, his brain. Matt didn't just observe the world; he was compelled to capture it.

And he wasn't bound by conventional parameters of acceptability; to Matt, roadkill, a severed finger, an autopsied human head were marvelous subjects. Some thought he was attracted to the macabre, the grisly. Perhaps. Or maybe he thought everything should be examined without flinching.

Long before the selfie was a thing, Matt often took pictures of himself. It wasn't about ego; he just seemed to find himself as much an object of curiosity as anyone else. Once he even photographed himself giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to an unconscious guy in downtown Burlington. This image is among a selection of his self-portraits, tiled together like a quilt, that hangs in "the Legion Hall" he and Diane created in their basement. The quilt-picture shows Matt at various ages, naked and clothed, somber and silly, masked and swaddled in blankets.

A quilt of Matthew Thorsen self-portraits - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • A quilt of Matthew Thorsen self-portraits

Portraits of other people, however, were arguably his métier. And you can pick a Matt Thorsen portrait out of a thousand others. He had a thing for symmetry and backlighting. He liked to place his subjects so that they seemed haloed, glorified by light. Every portrait was like an icon. Many of those images have shown up in the past few days as Facebook profile photos, bittersweet paeans to memorable time spent with Matt.

Not everyone "got" him. People too busy, self-important or uptight could find Matt a little weird. Sen. Bernie Sanders once declared he was from "outer space." Who was this guy who showed up in, say, screaming yellow pants, flip-flops and blue toenail polish, who muttered and giggled to himself, who brought odd props and suggested "acrobatic poses," as another politician put it? One and done? No way. For Matt, creating an image was a calibrated process, and ideally the results would confirm his vision.

If some officials had doubts, everyone in the creative community coveted a Matt Thorsen photo shoot. Especially musicians. A pantheon of Burlington's 1990s bands emerges from his atmospheric, black-and-white prints shot on real film. Dozens of these were compiled by Vermont music advocacy nonprofit Big Heavy World into a 2011 exhibition called "Sound Proof," which toured the state and even landed in the Governor's Gallery.

Seven Days senior multimedia producer Eva Sollberger dedicated a "Stuck in Vermont" web video to the October 2011 reception and concert for the exhibit at Magic Hat Brewing. Guests included Dennis and Justin Wygmans, owners of Club Toast, which was at the center of Burlington's epic '90s music scene. Many of the musicians can be seen studying the photos, examining slightly younger versions of themselves and perhaps marveling at their roles in a historic moment.

Reverend Blonde (aka Diane Sullivan) and Matt - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Reverend Blonde (aka Diane Sullivan) and Matt

Of course, Matt's documentation of the city's culturati continued well beyond the 1990s — up until a couple of months before his death. As a more recent subject commented, "He made everyone he photographed look like badasses, even if we weren't."

A three-month solo exhibit of Matt's work at the Flynn Center's Amy E. Tarrant Gallery opened in December 2015 and featured more personal work, including photos of family members. Matt's dad, in particular, was a favorite subject, sometimes gamely agreeing to pose nearly naked. The gallery was chock-full of pictures and, as former executive director John Killacky noted at the time, Matt brought in many more that simply didn't fit. He had so very much to show.


Last summer, after Matt's diagnosis became public, Seven Days and BCA Center curator and director of exhibitions Heather Ferrell facilitated another solo exhibit at the Church Street gallery. "Thorever" featured dozens of his images in print and a continuous-loop slide show. Matt selected the photos himself, insisting on retaining his quirky DIY frames. To him, a photograph and how he chose to package it were both part of the deal: an authentic work of art, not a commodity.

A reception for the exhibit was packed. Matt was visibly moved, and so were the guests. What went unspoken was that many of them would never see him again.

They can still see and hear Matt in another video Sollberger made last October. In it, she interviews him at home, and although he's more fragile, he talks with remarkable candor about life and death and the wonderment of it all.

Photographs shape our memories of a time and place, and ourselves in it. For Matt, making pictures was his communication with, to and for the world, a literal reflection of how he saw us. As another friend observed, Matt "saw the light in all of us, especially the light we didn't know we had."

Now, maybe Matt really is in outer space. Or, to borrow a lyric of an earlier time: He is stardust, he is golden.

Memories of Matt

Matt in Creston Lea's workshop - CRESTON LEA
  • Creston Lea
  • Matt in Creston Lea's workshop

I was lucky to be photographed by Matt many times and was inevitably disarmed by his unassuming, goofy good nature and habit of talking to himself (or to me, I don't know) while setting up a tripod or framing a shot. On one such occasion, he worked himself into such a contorted pretzel to get the angle he wanted, he lost track of which side of the camera held the shutter button and had to unpack himself to find it. The way he'd let the camera rest on his chest while swimming his fingers around to direct me as his subject was impossible to take seriously but more impossible to refute.

I met Matt within days of moving to Burlington in 1996. Many years later, I had a long conversation with him at a Halloween party, Matt wearing a floppy gorilla mask and telling me about growing up Mormon in Franklin County. (I didn't realize it was him until much later.) He was unquestionably unlike anybody I've ever met and an essential part of what made Burlington a unique place.

Here's a picture I took of Matt the last time he took pictures of me for Seven Days. I pulled out my phone, and he struck this pose. Two seconds later, it was over and he was back to talking to himself.

— Creston Lea, musician, Creston Electric Instruments

Peter Clavelle and family - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Peter Clavelle and family
I had an email exchange with Matt recently, after I'd sent him a card. He said he had a family photo he wanted to give me. It's a wonderful photo — with the sun coming into the room and bouncing off my bald head, Betsy by my side ... the whole family. [When he described the photo, Matt said,] "The dog is really smelling poo on your shoe." He dropped off the photo around the end of November.

I told him, "Barack Obama had Pete Souza as his official photographer. You were my Pete Souza. Seriously, if you google my images, most are photos taken by you."

— Peter Clavelle, former Burlington mayor

Matt and the Implants - DIANE SULLIVAN
  • Diane Sullivan
  • Matt and the Implants

A star of alien light beamed into the body of a Greek god. A flame of white hair and features that looked both hard and soft, carved from stone but infinitely changeable, always hiding a secret you could never catch hold of. He was like a quantum particle vibrating at a speed so quickly that it was only visible if you paid close enough attention.

It's hard to describe Matthew Thorsen. I referred to him as my crazy uncle long before he actually was. But in a family where all the uncles are crazy, he was even more unique. He was Not Of This World.

His innate kindness and curiosity were improbable and beautiful, like a flower blooming on a volcanic plain. He was the gentlest person I ever met. His soul was gentle. He was hilarious in his quiet moments and expressions and muttered observations. He loved animals. He loved my Aunt Diane. He affected every single being he ever encountered, human or animal.

I picture his camera lens as a quiet and curious touch, like how someone would turn a faceted stone over in their hand to observe the specialness of it. That was his way, to constantly observe and create ... to transmute the sadness and dirt of everyday life into beauty and goodness.

It's sad we don't say these things out loud until after someone has passed on. I like to think in the moments after death that the soul takes on a totality of awareness that encompasses all of the love and warmth and good vibes we send with it on to the next adventure.

Maybe this doesn't make sense; it's hard to explain. Matt was an absolute inspiration to me. His creativity was uncontainable, irrepressible, but somehow never loud. The neon-green nail paint, his wild outfits, the way he walked into the room and the way he left it. The cat kingdom he built in his backyard. The strange wooden podium monument you could climb up and give a speech to no one. The subterranean '70s bar he built out of a bed frame. His photographs blown up and plastered to the sides of his house, not a warning but a proclamation! Disturbing animal-testing equipment magicked into comfy warm beds and tunnels for the cats and squirrels. A secret door in the back of his closet that led into an astonishing hallway covered top to bottom with his weirdest photos. His drum set knotted with rainbow Christmas lights.

Matt taught me something about gender and about being a person. He taught me not to worry too much about what other people think. He taught me to be quiet and observe. He taught me that life could be different than what the world has planned for you. He taught me to listen to and honor my authenticity.

I'm not ready to say goodbye to him, so I won't. I suspect he's still observing from someplace we can't yet know. A star of alien light released from its temporary body and back into the shifting, shimmering realms of beauty and mystery.

— Sarah Cronin, niece

  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Yolanda

Matt Thorsen was the first photographer to take an interest in me as a performer/subject for photos. His photo of me with my four-foot foam rubber dildo and foam tits sparked so much interest and revulsion that it still freaks people out today.

Matt came over to my house in Burlington one day to do a scheduled photo shoot. I was already dressed in sequins, but he asked me where my big foam penis was. So I immediately got it out, and we went up to the attic and staged a "nude" shoot with me in that crazy get-up. We laughed and laughed and laughed. He said he was certain the photo would be a classic, and it certainly is!

— Yolanda, singer-songwriter, Interfaith Minister

Mayor Miro Weinberger - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Mayor Miro Weinberger

I am deeply saddened by the far-too-soon loss of Matt Thorsen. Not only was he a uniquely talented and original photographer — my photo shoots with Matt always involved unexpected props and acrobatic poses — he was kind and generous in surprising ways. I will miss working with him and running into him around town.

— Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger

Natalie Miller and Nathan Hartswick - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Natalie Miller and Nathan Hartswick

I met Matt in 2010 on a photo shoot with the '80s cover band Hot Neon Magic. He mumbled while setting up shots, which was entertaining and endearing. When he got a great idea, he would giggle with excitement.

Matt was there in the nascent days of the comedy scene when there were only eight of us, and he was there the week Vermont Comedy Club opened. Once, he asked us to meet him in a junkyard for a shoot: "Ooh! Squeeze into this (wet, dirty highchair)!" [Giggle.] "Climb up on that rusty bus!"

We did it all without hesitation — but not without fear of tetanus — because he could see things we couldn't. Matt was so cool that he made everyone he photographed look like badasses, even if we weren't. His photos were never what you expected but always exactly what you had hoped.

— Natalie Miller, Vermont Comedy Club

Matt's skateboard featuring his dad, George - JOHN JAMES
  • John James
  • Matt's skateboard featuring his dad, George

I've been a Matt superfan since my freshman year at UVM, when he took amazing shots of my friends in bands like Jesus Nut and Drowningman.

We became friends when we crossed paths at Smugglers' Notch early on. Side note: Matt was a shockingly good snowboarder. We rode the lift together a bunch and had a string of conversations that felt like material for a Whit Stillman movie. Matt was reflective, inquisitive — expressing himself and drawing me out. 

The last time Matt and I spoke was last winter. I noticed someone in the backyard. It was Matt. He was dressed all funky, as usual. We stood out in the backyard, which was snow covered, and watched the sun set over the Adirondacks. He spoke about things that made him happy, even though he was sick.

What I think hurts the most, and his close friends who know him much better than I ever did will get this, is that Matt was so much more than just the handsome, talented eccentric the world saw. He was a really good person. A serious person. A complete person.

— Vermont Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe

Matt mounting an Andy "A_Dog" Williams memorial at "the Compound" in Burlington - MICHAEL SIPE
  • Michael Sipe
  • Matt mounting an Andy "A_Dog" Williams memorial at "the Compound" in Burlington

Matt reached out to the Anthill Collective in the summer of 2016 about collaborating on restoring this faded old photo of Andy "A_Dog" Williams that lived on the wall at "the Compound," Matt and Diane's apartment at the bottom of Church Street. We were familiar with the photo, all of the photos, that decorated the walls at that location for years, during and after Diane and Matt lived there. It seemed like such a great way to celebrate Andy's life: collaging our style with Matt's eye. And the idea that it would live on at that site seemed so apropos. Now it celebrates two brilliant Burlington legacies ended too soon, instead of just one.

— Scottie Raymond, Anthill Collective

Chief Brandon del Pozo - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Chief Brandon del Pozo

Matt took a uniformed chief of police and put him in front of an exuberant, multicolored abstract mural and made it all look like it was meant to be. His final product is probably the pic I'll remember most and the one I send when people ask for a portrait. I really enjoyed interacting with him. I'll miss his positive energy and his immense talent.

— Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo

Amanda Gustafson - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Amanda Gustafson

Matt always reminded me of Jack, the boy who believed in magic beans, who went up the beanstalk and came down different than before. Different, after the sky. He looked at the dark places; he sought them out and brought them back into the light. And he saw the light in all of us, especially the light we didn't know we had.

He was a special kind of curious that sometimes looked like bravery and sometimes looked like folly. But he was always honest, and his willingness to see the everything in all of us is a gift I think we will need some time to fully comprehend.

There are giants in the sky, indeed.

— Amanda Gustafson, musician

Matt and Sen. Bernie Sanders - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • Matt and Sen. Bernie Sanders

Matthew was fearless in his life and in his photography, very often one and the same. He was his own canvas. He helped move me into and out of every apartment, studio and house I've had over the past 20 years.

He was a tireless creator and never ever stopped transforming himself, his work, his spaces.

He definitely liked to feed the animals.

He danced with his hips, played the drums and gave great hugs.

His professional aspiration was to be the White House press photographer for Bernie.

He was the most gracious host imaginable, loved to keep things organized, was incredibly practical and always thoughtful — pretty much an Eagle Scout.

He did chase the light, but mostly he just knew where it was.

On occasion he offended some, never intentionally. He was absolutely committed to exploring himself and his world. Simply put, he was a good citizen, a humanitarian, a lover of all life.

— Michael Sipe, photographer

  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Annie Russell

When I agreed to be photographed with several other comedians for a Seven Days cover story, my expectations were low. I'd been photographed for articles before with disastrous results. I agonized over what to wear until I settled on a T-shirt that read: "Men aren't funny." In my experience, men don't always like this shirt. But Matt didn't flinch. He got my vibe immediately.

After I served up a few awkward poses, he suggested I pop the collar of my jean jacket and glare at the camera. It resulted in a photo that to this day makes me feel like a badass. That's how I'll remember Matt: someone who captured a cooler version of the world than really exists.

— Annie Russell, comedian

  • Matthew Thorsen
  • DysFunkShun

My favorite story about Matt was from 1998. Seven Days sent him to do a photo shoot for an upcoming CD release we [the band DysFunkShun] were doing, and Matt was in full "Matt mode." He came to the house, mumbling about lighting, with a plastic garbage bag plus his usual box of cameras/lighting equipment.

I had told him how much I loved the photo he did with friends of ours (Rocketsled), which had a pigeon in the foreground. Matt announced that he remembered and proclaimed, "RB, look what I found to use as a prop!" He turned the bag upside down and pulled a huge dead crow out, right in the middle of our kitchen!

It was still pretty fresh, and he and I were thrilled. The rest of the band, not so much. It was decided that I was the obvious choice to hold the dead bird. Our bass player was so freaked out, he tried to back out of the whole shoot.

Finally, once the photos were taken, I threw the carcass at [Jason]Pratt (guitarist) and proceeded to chase Ornan [McLean] (drummer) with it around the churchyard that served as our backdrop. Matt just kept clicking and laughing the whole time.

— Richard Bailey, events coordinator, Burlington Parks, Recreation & Waterfront

Craig Mitchell - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Craig Mitchell

I had the esteemed honor of being photographed by Matt Thorsen several times over the years. Each time it was an experience like no other. To help promo my album with the Orange Factory, he had me dolled up as a naked voodoo priest. For the cover of Seven Days, I was a living scarecrow whose pumpkin head had split in half, complete with seeds and pumpkin goo all over me.

And, among other times he photographed me, there is a shot that I will forever treasure. It's me and my band at the time, Orange Factory, that was taken at either Club Toast or Club Metronome. It was 1998 and it captured everything that we were in one shot. Matt had an eye for who the subject was and the disarming personality to pull it out of them in the most natural — and unnatural — of ways. He will be missed, but he lives on in the eyes of everyone he photographed.

— Craig Mitchell, DJ, Purple: A Tribute to Prince

  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Tom Lawson

I remember Matt developing film in his underwear across the hall from the Pants' practice space above Club Toast. I remember seeing him at everybody's shows, up front or off to the side taking photos, always with this cross between a Cheshire and a shit-eating grin on his face. I remember him shuffling up or down Church Street wearing pajamas under his parka. I remember his little-kid wave he would give.

His photography was just so perfect for all of us. It brought everything together and made it all resonate that much louder. He was so great at what he did and so unpretentious about it. He was such a sweet, talented and unique person. They really broke the mold with him. My life is better having known him. My heart goes out to Diane, his family and his close friends. We lost one of the good ones. RIP, Matt. You will be missed.

— Tom Lawson, musician

  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Jason Cooley

The Fags did a shoot with Matt in spring '96. Until then I had only seen his photos, so I knew next to nothing about him. He took us down to the waterfront rail yard, and we did some shots in a busted-out shack and on top of some rusty trains that were wobbly. I'm afraid of heights and didn't feel too safe up there — whereas he was leaping from train to train like a ballerina to get the shots he wanted.

He wasn't afraid of anything. He freaked us out. He was super athletic. When we were friends later on, he used to scale the side of my apartment building to the second or third floor just because he could — or maybe if I'd lost my keys. He was an amazingly gentle soul and a generous friend.

He asked me to be in his photos a lot in the '90s for various Seven Days articles. He had me in swimming pools, on playgrounds. One time in fall '96, he had me hanging around naked with a girl I didn't know in an apple orchard. We spent hours posing nude while he was artfully obscuring our naughty parts with tree branches and hanging apples. He was going for an Adam and Eve thing. I remember there were bees everywhere, buzzing a bit too close to my ... area. It took forever.

Then, when we were nearly finished, he informed us that he had accidentally left his lens cap on the whole time. I still don't believe him.

— Jason Cooley, musician

James Kochalka - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • James Kochalka

I really loved Matt Thorsen. He was so strange and beautiful. Literally beautiful — I found him to be amazingly handsome. And literally strange — his mannerisms were surprising, unusual and unsettling. But he also got that we're all beautiful and strange in our humanity, and he captured that in his photography. He always made me look intense and amazing, like a force of nature. He made everyone and everything look amazing.

I think he did three or four major sessions photographing me over the years, usually for no apparent reason — he wasn't typically "on assignment." And I would wonder, Why exactly are we even taking these photos? But then I would see the finished work, and it was clear why we took them: because the photos simply needed to exist. I think his work needed to exist so we could see how strange and beautiful we are.

— James Kochalka, musician, cartoonist

Nathan Hartswick and Kathleen Kanz - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Nathan Hartswick and Kathleen Kanz

I met Matthew Thorsen in 2011 at a photo shoot with Nathan Hartswick for the Green Mountain Comedy Festival. Matthew came in with a bedraggled assortment of parts and pieces that he'd be using that day. When Nathan asked if he could help, Matt made the first of his many noises that would orchestrate the day: "Hmm," "errr," "unh." Beautiful. I wish I had a soundtrack of that day.

He took one photo of just me, and it became my headshot for six years. I asked him if I could use it as such, and he said yes. I wanted to pay him, and he told me to make a donation to his partner's charity for dogs. I did a shoot with him recently and was delighted to be amid his genius again. I'm very sad now. "Unh."

— Kathleen Kanz, comedian

Kyle "Fattie B" Thompson - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Kyle "Fattie B" Thompson
Matt was the light in any room without commanding the spotlight. He saw the art in every scene and was able to use his creativity to allow you to see into his viewfinder. He was quirky yet gentle, and funny and honest. He was a one-in-a-million soul that the world needs much, much more of.

He will be sorely missed, and I feel so genuinely blessed to have shared special moments with him, as well as being shot by his talented eye on numerous occasions over the last 30 years. He suggested we shoot this pic of me in front of the Beastie Boys mural I had up in Club Metronome at the time because, as he said to me, "You've been deejaying Retronome since you were a beastly little boy."

— Kyle "Fattie B" Thompson, DJ, visual artist, author

  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Rocketsled
I first got to know Matthew Thorsen as an obstreperous member of the 1990s Burlington music scene. Matt saw through my sullen bullshit, and we became friends. He was glowingly guileless and authentic to his core, which in turn gave me permission to be myself. Knowing Matt was like being buddies with a supernatural being — a dashing elf lord with a telescopic lens. It was a privilege to bask in his splendid eccentricities.

When I became music editor for Seven Days, Matt was my partner on many a story. He never took himself too seriously, but when it came to the mission, he was always on point. Matt was sure to ask about what I envisioned for the piece so he could capture an image that reflected its essence. In fact, his photos were often more compelling than the editorial. Great talent like his makes everyone look better by association. I will always cherish our time together. 

— Casey Rae, author, musician, former Seven Days music editor

  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Jim Lockridge

My history with Matt goes back to being housemates in the mid-1990s, occasionally working on projects together since then and always being grateful that he brought lightness wherever he went. His humor was grounded in pathos, and this depth was a foundation for our friendship. He was a pure artist to me, a humble but unstoppably creative conscience that experienced humanity with unusual clarity.

Matt didn't know how meaningful his contributions were to the illumination of our community. His images give us a pathway to the past, to the faces and moments that comprise the literal corpus of our lives. That kind of gift anchors us, feeds our souls. Matt walked softly while shining mightily.

— Jim Lockridge, executive director, Big Heavy World

Nichole Magoon - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Nichole Magoon

I first met Matt during a photo shoot about women in comedy. He buzzed about the room fidgeting with his equipment and muttering to himself, his sentences staccato and half-finished. He had this polarizing, spirited and playful energy about him; you couldn't help but watch his antics with a cocked head and a smile. But his nature shifted when he got behind the camera; he was grounded and intently focused.

During my shoot, between funny faces and poses, I casually flicked my hair up in the air. Matt instantly locked onto it, smiled and told me to do it again. Click. In an instant, he captured not just a photo of me but a photo that captures me — my humor, my style, my personality, my spirit. It was unique, quirky and authentic — a true Matt Thorsen photo.

— Nichole Magoon, comedian

James and Rebecca Haslam - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • James and Rebecca Haslam

Matt was such an extraordinary human being, and I feel lucky for knowing him. He was the photographer at our wedding, and Diane was the bartender and they were awesome. Here is one of the pics he took that day of us.

I had gotten to know Matt when, as a photographer for Seven Days, he covered rallies and events that I organized over the years. I got to know Diane when they became personally interested in the struggle of the Specialty Filaments workers, who were getting screwed by the venture capitalists who were liquidating the company (in 2005). Matt and Diane ... were horrified to learn the company was set to lay off hundreds of people who had worked [there] for decades.

We [the Vermont Workers' Center] had been doing a big push to get the community to rally behind the workers, and Matt had taken photos of the rally by the factory (the building where is now). Matt and Diane teamed up to make an amazing flyer that documented the high levels of injuries experienced by the workers, including photos that Matt took of a worker who had lost a finger and another of an X-ray showing the screws in [his] neck.

I gave a copy of the flyer to one of the union stewards, who showed the bosses and told them how we had planned to go to the CEO's neighborhood in Shelburne to distribute [the flyers] ... Within two hours, the workers got a call about setting up another negotiating session and ended up getting significantly more severance from the company.

Watching the video of Matt with Eva Sollberger made me understand more why Matt was so committed to helping these folks out; [he] knew how powerful it would be to show in photos the scars from hard work on the factory floor.

— James Haslam, executive director, Rights & Democracy

Valentine's-making party - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Valentine's-making party

I've admired Matthew's work for years. I finally met him when he photographed my daughter for a Kids VT story back in 2016. We were at Megan Humphrey's house for a Valentine's Day card-making project, and he walked in, hugging Megan, probably because they were old friends.

I don't remember Matthew showing up with lots of camera equipment that day, and there was no fuss or stress. He just hung out with us, smiling, chatting and taking wonderful photos of our card-making activity. He was sweet and low-key, and he had a very magical quality about him.

— Erica Houskeeper, freelance writer

Christy Mitchell - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Christy Mitchell

Matthew Thorsen was like a walking vacation. He entered the room in brightly colored clothes and the sweetest shoes, and you just instinctively relaxed and joined in his magic or watched in awe as he did what he did best: take amazing photos. He was the quiet cool; it came easily to him. He may just have been the coolest person in town, yes, but if you were the subject of his pictures, it was your turn for a bit.

So grateful to know him just the little bit I did. My heart is aching with sadness and love for all of his friends, family and fans. Blessed journeys — we'll miss you, Matt. You are incredible.

— Christy Mitchell, artist, owner of the S.P.A.C.E. Gallery

Katie Gillespie - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Katie Gillespie
The only photos I'd ever had taken of myself were more of a "stand in front of this backdrop and smile" situation, so I was incredibly nervous as I watched Matt photograph my comedian friends in a decidedly different way.

When I first started posing for Matt, I heard him quietly whisper, "Weird," and I couldn't help but laugh. The fact that we both acknowledged my awkwardness sort of put me at ease, and I kept trying to follow Matt's unorthodox instructions. ("Pretend you're mad at your neighbor!")

I left expecting to be horrified at what my attempts at posing would look like in the end product, but Matt managed to capture my personality in a way that no other photographs have. I'll always be grateful to him for harnessing my weirdness in such a wonderful way.

— Katie Gillespie, comedian

  • Matthew Thorsen
  • The Pants

When Matt was taking photos of our bands in the 1990s, I don't think I realized how important his work was. In a time before the internet offered everyone the opportunity to represent themselves publicly, Matt did that for us. We wound up looking at ourselves and each other through his eye, seeing amazing people doing cool shit and thinking, Wow, that's us!

It looked the way things felt, so we were right: Burlington really was a strange and enchanted place where you could pull a rabbit out of a hat — or, better yet, out of your ass — and Matt would 100 percent be the guy to take that photo. He gave equal care to the tender and the bizarre. I've been with him in a rowboat, in a shower and with my family, and he was always the same curious, gentle presence. I expect to see him around forever.

— Neil Cleary, musician

Reuben Jackson - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Reuben Jackson

I first met Matthew Thorsen in early September 2012. I'd just been hired by Vermont Public Radio to host the Friday Night Jazz program. Dan Bolles was to interview me, and Matthew was sent to take a shot or two of the guy who wasn't even sure where all the bathrooms were yet.

I am a bit of a ham, but, frankly, I didn't want to be interviewed/featured. I had a bumpy first year [in Vermont] as a teacher at Burlington High School. I just wanted to move into the station's vast music library and flirt with Miles Davis' horn.

Before the interview proper began, Matthew asked if we could take some pictures. And let me tell you, I was about 8 zillion miles from being a happy camper. But this guy with a camera, an infectious warmth and a jerky, frenetic energy, which reminded me of the first time I saw David Byrne with the Talking Heads, sprang into action. I cannot explain it, but I felt ... comfortable. I felt an immediate kinship with this dude who was clearly more than OK with one of the most difficult and necessary things we can do in this 20 minutes on the planet: being himself.

It was Matt who, after asking what else he could do to make me even more at ease, got the coffee cup I am holding in the photograph. I once told a former VPR colleague that Matthew inherited the torrid tempo one often associates with countless recordings by saxophonist Charlie Parker. He would have been a great breakdancer. Maybe he was. He also could have been a damn good therapist.

— Reuben Jackson, jazz archive specialist, Felix E. Grant Jazz Archives, University of the District of Columbia

  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Tina Friml

I clearly remember how enchanted I was with Matt the one time I got to meet him, because he caught a photo of it. It was a room full of comedians, and yet he was the one making us all laugh during the shoot. As someone who tends to get nervous in front of a professional camera, those photos are some of the most genuinely expressive of myself I've ever seen.

He struck me as a perfect personification of organized chaos. There was a sense that this guy, who was running around and leaping onto chairs, knew exactly what he was doing. Of course, the confirmation of that came when I saw the photos. I feel incredibly lucky to have spent even just one afternoon with him.

— Tina Friml, comedian

"Charge It" from the Thorever exhibit - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • "Charge It" from the Thorever exhibit

I was introduced to Matt Thorsen in the last year of his truly creative and productive life. While I had seen many of his photos in the pages of Seven Days, I hadn't had the chance to work with him until April 2018 when we began planning his "Thorever" exhibit at the BCA Center.

I worked closely with Matt and Don Eggert to curate an overview of some of the more interesting and engaging portraits Matt had made of community members over the past 20 years. Ranging in genre from artists, the music scene and community leaders to close friends and family, "Thorever" highlighted some of his best work, creating an especially enjoyable challenge to curate from such a prodigious career.

I enjoyed the stories he shared with me, as well as learning more about the community I had so recently joined. What I was most drawn to in Matt's photographs was his brilliant style — sometimes irreverent, often humorous and always revelatory. After reviewing his portfolio of work in preparation for his show, it was evident that Matt's photographs embodied the pulse of the Vermont community.

Matt told us, "Photography has given me many gifts." I would add that his photographs have given our community a greater gift in return.

— Heather Ferrell, BCA Center curator and director of exhibitions

Seven Days cover, April 14, 1999 - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Seven Days cover, April 14, 1999

A little over 20 years ago, Matt Thorsen and I drove to Hyde Park to shoot a Seven Days cover story about the schoolboard there. Jamming out to the Pants and Construction Joe on the way, it was one of those arrival/watershed moments for me, as I was about to turn 30.

After wrangling with [late political columnist] Peter Freyne's editing "guidance" for weeks, I was psyched to hear the piece was going to be the cover story and shot by Matt, whose photos I'd adored for their quirky vantage point and crazy angles.

On the way to Hyde Park, I told him we needed to get a shot of the elementary school and that some folks might give us a hard time, as feelings were still pretty raw from a strike that had just taken place. He nailed it by featuring a stop sign riddled with pellet holes as the school loomed on the far end of the street.

That was a small snippet of the immense work Matt did over the years, but it's a slice of history that helps keep my perspective in check these days. That story helped mend one of the perpetual culture wars we have in this country, and state, making the town a better place for decent people to live. That's something I'll always cherish.

Matt helped weave the fabric of Burlington, from the portraits above the alley at Red Square to ... everywhere else. He was one of the coolest and sweetest parts of us, in this place that so many think is special but don't always know why.

— David Lines, Burlington resident

Sen. Patrick Leahy and Sen. Bernie Sanders - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Sen. Patrick Leahy and Sen. Bernie Sanders

Matt Thorsen was one of our best, and his legacy includes his body of work that has helped to document the culture and politics of Vermont. Losing Matt so early is especially difficult for his family and for all who knew him or were enriched by his work.

Photography informs us and can touch us in ways that amplify a story and deepen our insights. It can leave lasting impressions that live on within us. The thinning ranks in the corps of seasoned news photographers is a loss to us whenever and wherever it happens, and it happens too often.

Marcelle and I extend our deepest condolences to his family and to those who worked with him over so many years.

— U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy

  • Matthew Thorsen
  • The Pants

Matt did several shoots of our band [the Pants], and I knew him from around town. I always remember him as being one of the kindest and most open people I'd ever met. His embrace of the weird and the beautiful led us to dub him "the man who fell to Earth." In the atmosphere of young people I remember — always anxious to say something, or do something, or prove something — he stood out by being content to let things come to him and make the best of it, which was clearly his strength as an artist and a person. I sincerely wish him, his friends and his family peace and comfort, here and now, there and forever.

— Eric Hutchins, musician

Got Your Own Matt Memories to Share?

Leave them in the comments section below or on his obituary page.

Correction, January 20, 2019: An earlier version of this story misidentified the designer of a Yolanda costume.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Thorever and Ever"

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