Q&A: Matthew Joseph – BikeLife

Supplied: Matthew Joseph
Emmanuel – showing why he’s known as ’The Bronx Surfer’. Image supplied: Matthew Joseph

Fresh from his win at the 38th AOP Photography awards we speak to London-based Matthew Joseph – judge for our inaugural The Capture Awards and photographer extraordinaire. We talk about his career, his love of the 50mm lens, how he blurs the lines between passion projects and commercial, his move into directing, and the amazing images featured in the following pages from his award-winning BikeLife series.

I’ve been going through your work and it’s so inspiring to see the range of images you have created over the years. So let’s wind it back to the beginning to find out how you started life as a photographer? Who/ what was your inspiration?

My story is not that unique, though my family had a manual SLR (Pentax ME Super) with a 50mm prime lens which I fell in love with. But my main reason for picking up the camera, was that I realised that taking the photos on holiday meant I didn’t have to be in them. That was the goal.

I suppose if I’d have to choose my source of inspiration – it was my Dad. I didn’t know any photographers, we didn’t have the online access we do today back in 98/99, but my Dad was always there, always documenting (and he was way more committed than the other dads). From that point on, I carried on shooting more and more, it came very naturally to me. I shadowed some old-school wedding photographers at family weddings and ended up documenting reportage wedding photography before it really became a thing – I just wanted to chase the ‘real’ and ‘caught moments’.

Little did I know that those factors would shape me and the way I shoot so much. Today, nearly everything I shoot is on a 50mm prime lens and I’ve even switched back to manual focus vintage lenses!

Your latest project Bike Life is very compelling. Tell us about this project, your process in finding talent, locations to shoot and some technical hints perhaps. Also – do you ride yourself?

Supplied: Matthew Joseph
Emmanuel – taking a break on our ride through Lower Manhattan. Image supplied: Matthew Joseph

I do ride myself – but my experience, skill-set and interest on bikes is quite different to the BikeLife world. It actually wasn’t about that for me – it was initially inspiration from a film called ‘Charm City Kings’ which is an incredible film documenting the ’12 O’clock Boys’ in Baltimore. Watch it!

I’m drawn to people and their stories first, that’s what gets me. So I eventually started to research that and the BikeLife wider community (push bikes as well as dirt bikes) and made some in-roads using Instagram. It takes a while to build trust and for people to take you seriously. The people at the top of their game are not short of media and photo requests, so it’s not as easy as stating “I’ll take some nice pics for you”.

I always knew it had to be more than that. I needed them to know that I understood them, their craft and I wanted actually to get to know their world more.

The first ‘in’ eventually lead to another and things slowly snow-balled. But it’s not easy. Access is always the hardest part of shooting personal projects, but it does get easier once the project is in motion and you have evidence of your intention, sample images etc. When you’re on the ground meeting these people, it’s then a lot easier to get in conversations with others to build out from there.

It was only when editing the project and bringing it all together that I realised how integral bikes have been throughout whole my life. So I think I’ve naturally always been championing the word of two wheels and I firmly believe it’s the ultimate class-levelling form of transport we have in the world.

The ‘slideshow’ may seem like a long lost format, but you use it very successfully on your website by melding music and audio interviews. Tell us more about this idea and format.

Supplied: Matthew Joseph

Emmanuel – showing me his special spot  with Manhattan bridge in the background. Image: Matthew Joseph

I’m glad you ask! I prefer to think of them as ‘photo-films’. But yes, essentially it’s a fancy slideshow. I just feel it’s such a great way to tell a story using still frames – great care was taken over the edit and music, splitting and splicing to the beat. The aim being to move the viewer, to draw them in.

Looking at still images with a soundtrack really elevates the experience to me. I wanted to build a story with them, and experimented using GIFs within the cut. Thanks to the 20fps RAW capability of the Nikon Z9 this was possible. Stills get so lost these days – especially on social media. The platforms have massively encouraged the movement of frames, nothing static seems to get traction so there’s always an element of staying relevant. But I do really love the format personally – it’s the perfect mix of my love for stills and moving image.

What is your professional to personal project ratio? (it looks 50/50) It must keep you very busy. What are your other interests, and do you try to incorporate into your personal projects?

The ultimate goal when looking through my portfolio is that you can’t tell. I hope that you can’t tell what’s commissioned and what’s personal, I want the two to meld. I want to shoot what I love and I want to then be commissioned to go and shoot similar.

Of course, it’s no way near that ideal but it has to be the aim right? Otherwise you’re a commercial yes-man/woman. I used to shoot more smaller personal projects. I kind of miss that actually and I may start doing more of it, but over the last few years I’ve challenged myself to go for longer projects. I think it’s paid off and it’s elevated what I put out there. I hope that it’s of more interest to people too, because they can appreciate the depth of what’s involved.

Supplied: Matthew Joseph
Daetwon, learning to Bike Surf in Baltimore. Image supplied: Matthew Joseph

In terms of other interests – there are lots. I’ve had so many things in my life I’ve been in to, some to a high standard, but I’ve always never wanted to bring them into my photography work because I like how they live in a different world to the headspace of ‘work’.

Cycling has been the big one for me over the past few years. I never saw BikeLife as a cycling project though, because it’s so far removed from my huge hobby – which some months feels like a part-time career – which is road cycling. The only similarities are two wheels on tarmac!

However, I have another project in mind going forward which is going to potentially start crossing into my cycling world. I’ve realised that cycling is a very personal thing to me and if we’re shooting ‘personal’ projects, then we should be getting vulnerable and most definitely personal with it.

Tell us about your ‘Podo’ project (bringing recognition to elephantiasis sufferers in Ethiopia) and how photographers can use their talents to help others.

Podo was a big thing for me, on so many levels. I almost didn’t include it on my site in the latest edit as it’s quite far from a lot of my other work, but I just can’t let it go and I’m glad you noticed it. I could easily write a few essays on what Podo is, why it needs your help and what it was like to photograph it – but that’s for another interview!

The main thing though is a realisation that yes we can give money, time perhaps – but sometimes it’s worth looking to your skillset which can be even more valuable, because it may be something that other people don’t have.

Causes need all sorts of help and aid to further their success – the creative arts are a very powerful weapon when it comes to getting people’s attention. Think about what you have and how you can use it. I really am thinking about what’s next in this for me, I have to be continuing to give back with more than money. Photography is a privilege and your art is a responsibility – we must use it wisely. For me it was simple – the main thing I wanted to give the cause was the power of awareness. I wanted to go there – see what I see, take what I see and bring it back to wealthy London, the press, media and then ultimately a high foot-traffic exhibition on London’s South Bank. I wanted to use my skills to help spread a message. Simple.

Supplied: Matthew Joseph
Worm – weaving on one wheel, in Times Square. Image supplied: Matthew Joseph

Are you still using medium format cameras? Or do you feel the current mirrorless are good enough, yet give you more freedom to shoot with similar image quality? Or do you feel that medium format has its own aesthetic that is hard to replicate in 35mm?

I got off the Phase One train a few years ago – don’t get me wrong, I miss it greatly! But also not at the same time. Mirrorless took a few years to come of age, but it’s now at this stage where it’s the ultimate answer for my work. I went in fairly early and had some frustrations at first but with the release of the Z9 and Z8 I think we’re largely there. If only they’d put a larger sensor in the Z8 though (happy to concede on some FPS). I don’t quite get why it’s just a mini version of the Z9… I’ve let Nikon know this don’t worry! There are a few jobs I do where 45mp isn’t really enough, but we make it work still. Medium format is such an experience to shoot and I do love it. If I was still dedicating so much time to portraits as I did a few years back, I’d still be using it – but the real-world use/ reliability/ capability and… FOCUS!… is nowhere near good enough to keep up with the very reactive way in which I shoot a lot of my work. It has a look, and I miss it. But I do what I can to ‘de-digitalise’ the modern mirrorless cameras by using vintage lens combos, diffusion filters, lighting techniques and things in post too. I don’t like the perfection of modern digital, but it’s amazing at what is now possible at the same time.

Natural light or strobe? The majority looks natural light – it seems you work with a top notch ‘reflector expert’ that keeps it so unassuming?

Everything. Though I’ve moved away from strobe over the last few years and it’s now more of a backup on set. I want everything to look (almost) natural and the work goes into recreation of that natural light when it doesn’t actually exist. So a lot of continuous and manipulation/ diffusion/ reflection of natural light sources. Some shoots and sets look like Hollywood, but other times I just walk into a room, with my camera and completely work the natural light to my advantage. It really depends on the brief.

Supplied: Matthew Joseph
Curly – aka ’The Queen of Bikelife’ – Times Square, New York. Image supplied: Matthew Joseph

With your film work – are you still working as the cameraperson, or can you just kick back and play Director now?

More the latter – I want to be as hands-off as possible in terms of fiddling with cards/ filters/ magic arms and swinging lenses when it comes to filming. Though ‘kicking-back’ perhaps it-is-not haha. Saying that, if working with a camera operator or a DOP, they have to understand my very hands-on approach of working. I know what I want, and I know how to frame things and have filmed a fair bit in the past. It’s a balance of not micro-managing of course, but ultimately recruiting well, so that they’re already thinking like you. I don’t think you can realistically direct whilst having to think about the mechanics of a cine-rig. Maybe some can, but I realised it was taking me too far away from the creative and the talent.

You do a lot of lifestyle photography. How important is casting for your commercial work?

It’s ALL about the casting. Though most clients and briefs don’t fully understand that. Cast the right people, crew and location and it should just work itself out for you. We don’t always have that luxury though and it can be a lottery when you start shooting – some you win, some you lose. In a bigger scene with more bodies, you quickly find yourself gravitating to the heroes making your life easy, and demoting the difficult ones to ’shoulders and foreground’. I’d love to be able to live-cast every shoot we do but it’s not possible really. Next step down is a great casting-director and then it’s steps down from there depending on the budget of the shoot. Bottom line is, my job is to make everything and everyone work, there’s always a way and I have to find it – usually under a big time pressure. Some just make it easier for you than others!

Supplied: Matthew Joseph
Maine, bearing his all and showing me what he can do in Baltimore. Image supplied: Matthew Joseph

I noticed your London Sleeps series where you shot usual London landscapes at extremely long exposures to erasethe human elements. Do you still find yourselfexperimenting technically to come up with something different or interesting?

You did well to find that. I like that you’ve done your research for sure… I absolutely loved shooting that series and I have each one printed from the whole series and they’re exhibited across family and friends’ houses and offices. So I see them a lot. But it’s too abstract to show that kind of thing against what I mostly shoot now. In the UK, people like to be able to pigeon-hole you, so you have to think carefully about your brand and style. I enjoy looking back at London Sleeps and others around that time which I shot, because it was a time when I was really starting to push my career, but I really didn’t care what I shot. There’s something in that which I can’t afford to lose sight of, I must continue to keep pushing and keep experimenting. I think though, the key is that just because you’ve shot it, you don’t necessarily have to show it and shout about it. That takes some discipline though. Maybe I need to care less! I definitely think using personal projects and ’test’ shoots to push those boundaries within oneself is absolutely key to career and creative progression.

Supplied: Matthew Joseph
Noel, one-wheel tricks through the steam in Baltimore. Image supplied: Matthew Joseph

If you had to pick one superpower as a photographer – what would it be?

Easy… I’d want the power to move the sun. If not that then, the power to make a 35-85mm f/1.4 lens which stops only at 35, 50 and 85.

What are some of your upcoming projects that you can share with us?

Watch this space. Sorry to be boring… I’ve just taken some time out for baby number two arrival after a busy summer. So I’m itching to get stuck back in to work and creativity again soon. Podo, JUMP and BikeLife were all big projects and took a lot out of me. I need to let the dust settle and then carve out some time for a ‘brain vacuum’ – then I can come up with some new ideas! ■

You can see more of Matthew's photos on his website or on his instagram profile

Supplied: Matthew Joseph
Worm in Times Square New York. Image supplied: Matthew Joseph