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Art Matters to Matt Grigsby: Interview with the Artist

Redding’s Matt Grigsby is well-known to A News Cafe readers, with a staggering 699 contributions to his credit. His columns, including Matt’s Chats as well as personal insights and opinions on a wide range of subjects from politics to Italy to marsupials, garner praise for his writing style, dry humor, and openness that makes the reader say, “I wanna get to know this guy!!” But it’s Matt’s incredibly prolific photography featured in Photo Cafe that is getting attention around town, and has developed into more than a hobby. His work has been featured and sold in several Redding art shows, and his on-the-spot photographs and videos helped ANC illustrate the Carr Fire. Matt graciously agreed to answer a few questions for A News Cafe.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with A News Cafe. I don’t think anyone realized how much you’ve contributed – 699 photos and articles!

I didn’t realize it was 699! I guess I need to add something new to reach the more satisfying number of 700.

San Francisco by Matt Grigsby

Have you long had an interest in doing photography, or did this just sort of grow organically as a means of expression?

I’ve always been interested in photography, starting with all those beautiful images in National Geographic. I wanted to take photos of everything as a kid but the cost of equipment and photo development pretty much prevented that. However, when digital photography came along I could literally take photos of everything and delete anything I didn’t like. There was no more waiting to see if that great photo of a sunset ended up being a blurry shot of my shoes. Digital photography feels like a miracle to me but I still sometimes end up with blurry shots of my shoes. Ain’t no technology going to fix that but the delete button sure will.

Bell Rooms, Redding by Matt Grigsby

Do you feel your eye for subjects is natural or is it something you worked on and developed over time?

That’s a good question. I think for the most part it’s something that grew over time, as the more photos I took the more my “eye” developed and I figured out what I enjoyed the most. I started looking at things more closely, noticing detail and structure and color as I built the photo in my mind. But I also feel connected to the things I take photos of, so I don’t know if that’s a talent that is shared by other people who take photos, or if it’s just part of my style.

What kind of camera are you using?

I use my iPhone for all of my photography, which is currently the iPhone XS Max. There are some amazing cameras out there, but I’ve made a conscious choice to stick with my iPhone for my photography. There’s something about the ordinary utility of a smart phone that really appeals to me, and I challenge myself to take the best photos I can with this basic tool. It pleases me greatly to get a beautiful shot on the same phone I use to order a pizza, or goof around on Facebook. Of course, I have never used the camera to send an obnoxious photo to any of my friends because I am an adult and that foolishness is beneath me.

Louvre Cafe, Eureka, CA by Matt Grigsby

When did your approach to photography change from recording ordinary events to using it as an artistic medium?

I can trace my entire photography adventure directly back to A News Café. When Doni created the Photo Café for the website I approached it with no small amount of concern that I would end up posting blurry shots, or worse, boring photos. But the feedback I got encouraged me to take more pictures and post them, and before long I was constantly on the lookout for a great shot to post on the site. I’ve taken quite a few pictures of events happening in downtown Redding where I work, but I also have found some beautiful things that help me to see our community in a better light. Lately my uploads to Photo Café have dropped off but that’s been because of a glitch with the upload app on my phone that I haven’t been able to sort out so far.

Are there photographers or artists whose work you admire?

I follow quite a few photographers on Instagram whose work make me feel like a child drawing with a broken crayon, but that old line about comparison being the thief of joy is really true. Everyone is influenced and inspired by the work of someone else. My pang of jealousy is always followed by awe and admiration of what can be achieved, and it makes me want to work harder. I can learn so much about lighting and shadow and texture just by studying a photo that catches my eye. Locally, I’m a fan of SJ Luke and her amazing photos. Her compositions are really stunning.

Outdoor Movie in Sherven Square, Redding by Matt Grigsby

It seems to me that your focus is primarily urban oriented with an emphasis on framing the chaotic (such as graffiti) and the randomly-found geometric patterns in the city. Do you go searching for subjects or do they find you?

They usually find me. I can sometimes strike gold if I’m out hunting for a great shot, but my favorites always turn out to be the ones I stumble upon. And to be honest, it’s kind of cool to see beauty all over the place when you start to look for it. I don’t often take pictures of flowers or animals because they’re already beautiful, so I like to look for something offbeat that is beautiful in a very different way. Abandoned rain boots in a doorway, the shadow of a ladder on a wall, wild graffiti on a box car, a building reflected in a puddle; there’s treasure everywhere. (Except the pair of underwear in a tree I saw recently, that’s not really treasure. I did take a picture though, because underwear in a tree!)

Collection of works by Matt Grigsby

Did you experiment with other ways of displaying your photos before developing your current method?

My aesthetic leans towards square, symmetrical work and finding square frames the right size can be a challenge. At my first gallery show, I framed and matted my photos and while I still do those, I wanted to experiment with something no one else was doing. When I found small square canvases I knew I had to find a way to use them with my photos. I tried a bunch of different methods and was greatly disappointed until stumbling upon a process that gave me exactly what I wanted to achieve. It clicked inside me when I saw the finished product and I knew this is what I was looking for. I haven’t seen photo canvases like mine anywhere else, so I feel really lucky to have stumbled upon a way to make something unique.

Without giving away your secrets, describe your process from taking the photo to finished framed picture.

If I see something I want to take a picture of, I’ll take a bunch, usually from different angles. I’ve got long arms, which can be really useful to get the perspective I want. Later, I review the photos (I usually end up deleting most of them), and then I start to edit. I’ll crop, add or remove color, increase contrast or brightness, tweaking it until I bring out the detail I’m looking for and it matches the idea I have in my head. I’m always trying to find a mood in each image, and editing gives me that freedom. I print them at a local drug store, which allows me to try a variety of styles without wiping out my printer ink supply. Next up, I spray paint all the canvases and trim each photo to fit each canvas (a tedious chore, believe me) until I have a stack ready to go. Then I “fix” the photos to the canvases through a complicated process that partly involves magic and unicorn tears, and when I’m done they can finally rest and cure (I don’t really know how else to describe that part). The whole process takes about three days between steps, and even after they’re finished they still might not turn out the way I want. I have an entire box of “seconds” that didn’t live up to my expectations. I don’t really know what I’ll get until they’re completely done, which can be frustrating but also exciting.

People love your work and I see friends asking you to reserve pieces for them. Do you think miniature photos speak to viewers in a way that large-scale photography doesn’t?

I think they must, because they certainly speak to me. My canvases are a small scale, just 4” x 4”, which means they can hang almost anywhere and I think several pieces together make a statement that a single large photo might not. With small canvases, you have to move closer for the detail, which feels more intimate to me. Each piece is individually handmade, which means the same photo can turn out a little differently each time. I love this and I hope that love shows in my work.

Anything else you’d like to say about your work?

People have been really supportive and encouraging of my photography, which I am very grateful for. It satisfies me in a way I can’t describe to think that something I created is out there in the world hanging on someone’s wall. In recent months I’ve been participating in several shows with other artists, each artist different than all the others, and the collective vibe has not only been inspiring but it’s been fun. Art matters. While my work might not appeal to everyone, everyone can find something that does speak to them and I encourage people to support local art and artists. Go to art shows, talk to artists, look at stuff, and enjoy yourself. There are lots of exciting things happening in our art community!