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Talking Art With Photographer Matthew Peterson


Published April 5, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated April 6, 2017 at 10:50 a.m.

  • Courtesy of Matthew Peterson

Matthew Peterson's first camera was the ubiquitous 35mm Canon AE-1. His mom gave it to him when he was 10 years old, and he's been making photographs ever since.

Now 26, Peterson works as a bartender at Hen of the Wood in Burlington. Most recently, his work has appeared in limited-edition handmade zines he distributed around town. The series — which will soon reach an end — is called Flatlander, the Vermont term for nonnatives. Which Peterson is: Born in Massachusetts, he grew up in Woodstock, Ga. He moved to Vermont in 2012 after graduating from the New Hampshire Institute of Art.

Matthew Peterson's zines - COURTESY OF MATTHEW PETERSON
  • courtesy of Matthew Peterson
  • Matthew Peterson's zines

Each flimsy paper zine has contained evocative black-and-white images from Peterson's life, as well as a large foldout poster. He sold them for $10 apiece at coffee shops and other venues, including the Study Hall co-working space on College Street, where he recently participated in a pop-up sale.

Peterson has shown his work in group exhibitions around the country — two or three every year since 2011, he says. This spring he's in two Vermont exhibits, more than usual.

Former BCA Center curator DJ Hellerman — now curator at Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y. — added Peterson to a lineup of more established Vermont artists for the upcoming "Ready. Fire! Aim." show at the downtown gallery. And in June, Peterson will show work with Brattleboro-based photographer Vaune Trachtman at the Karma Bird House Gallery.

Seven Days met with Peterson in his Church Street studio to learn more about his work.

SEVEN DAYS: You've been working with film since you were a kid. Why that, as opposed to digital?

Matthew Peterson - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Matthew Peterson

MATTHEW PETERSON: There's just something [about that] awesome feeling of getting a roll of film back. You get to hold the images up to the light and look at them. With digital, you can rip through a bunch of photos, you can look at them and delete and edit — but holding something is important to me, especially in my image-making process.

And with film, [I have to be] slightly more selective about the images I do decide to take. If I go out with two rolls, I get 16 exposures. That's 32 images total. That's 32 images I have to be thoughtful about. I have to think about the composition and think about the position I'm putting myself in to get an image.

SD: Where do you get your film developed?

MP: I work with PhotoGarden. They're great. I drop my film off, and it's $5 a roll [for development]. They kill it.

SD: At the recent Burlington City Arts Pecha Kucha Night, you were speaking about your zines. How did that project — the Flatlander series — get started?

MP: I started it in 2013 or '14. It was born out of two trips I took, back and forth from Great Barrington, Mass. My grandmother was in a retirement home. The second trip was for her funeral. She had a huge, influential role in me being a photographer — she used to send me stacks of her photographs. So I went and photographed both aspects of [her passing], but they were really somber trips. I felt like I was losing an inspiration.

That was the birth of the series. I made these photos, [and] I really wanted to get them out into a public setting. So I made the first Flatlander, called "Seasonal Depression." It was nice to have people responding to work again.

SD: You felt like you got a different response to your zines, as opposed to print work?

MP: [Before,] I was convinced that I only needed to make prints. But prints are cumbersome, and you can't just hand one to someone and let it sit with them. And they're expensive to make. So I said, "I'll just make zines." And if somebody says, "Oh, I'll give you 10 bucks for this," then great. Or not. Just give me criticism. Just pick it up and be like, "Huh, I like that. What's this one about?" It prompts conversations that force me to think about my work.

SD: And you're still working on the last one?

MP: Yeah. The one where I went and photographed my [other] grandmother's 80th birthday. I feel like it just bookends the sequence of images.

SD: How many Flatlander zines have you created, and what's next?

MP: It will be seven total. I bought a domain — I just want to make zines for people, but also my own work and not have it be tied to the Flatlander idea. It's going to be called Flatlander Press, but abbreviated [to FLTLNDPR.US.]

SD: So we're not going to stop seeing zines from you?

MP: No, it's going to be a pretty constant thing. I enjoy it a lot, and it's just the way I work as an artist.

SD: You also periodically submit and show in group exhibitions around the country. What's your approach to that aspect of your career?

MP: I follow some galleries whose group shows I really want to participate in, like the Center for Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins, Colo. I've shown with them a few times. And I subscribe to their email list; then they send you the call for entries. And I research curators, themes, past shows by curators. You calculate your risk, because it's not cheap [to submit work]. And it's getting more and more expensive. It's a pay-to-play system. And some curators are missing out on really great work because of that.

SD: DJ Hellerman described your work as "unpretentious." When you're shooting, is that something you consider?

  • Courtesy of Matthew Peterson

MP: It's nice to hear DJ say it's unpretentious. I think that when I'm out photographing, I see something and have this crazy, innate response to act on it in some way. For me, I've just found the language of photography is the best way I can communicate how I feel. But we all have that desire: "OK, I need to share this." And that's where the art-making process comes into play.

For my work, it's presented casually and very open to criticism. I love criticism. I think anybody that can tell me anything about my work is totally valid. I've had a lot of professors tell me that. "Sit down with someone. Ask them about your work. They're going to ask you questions that you've never heard before."

SD: When's the last time you had that gut reaction, like, "I have to capture that"?

MP: The last film I processed was from my [other] grandmother's birthday. My mom's family is awesome — they're lovely people. She's got six brothers, one sister, and she's the oldest. She definitely helped raise them. One passed away in a motorcycle accident when I was 9. They did a musical tribute [at my grandmother's birthday] at her favorite bar in Kennesaw, Ga. My aunt Debbie had [also] just passed away. I took a photograph of my uncle Michael crying during the "Free Bird" tribute. A part of me questioned, "Do I take this photo?" But [I thought,] This is my family. I'm not going to not take this photo. It's very raw.

"Ready. Fire! Aim.," on view April 21 to July 9 at the BCA Center in Burlington.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Best Shot"

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