I’m Matt Lief Anderson, a music photographer based in Austin, Texas. I work mostly for Pitchfork and Vice and travel the world shooting bands on tour and music festivals. I like to shoot landscapes and travel photos when I’m not on assignment. I don’t see myself tied to any specific photographic genre and mostly take inspiration from films. I love shooting portraits of musicians in studio and on location and I feel very lucky to make my living that way, but I also have a need to retreat to nature as much as possible. I have a deep connection with travel stemming from my time living and working as a teacher in Asia and Europe for several years as well as my day job of music photography which sends me to some incredible corners of the world.
I started by shooting film and mostly worked with my Mamiya RZ67 and Contax G2. I currently use two Sony a7r II bodies as well as a 20mm f2.8, 28mm f2, 50mm f1.8, and 85mm f1.8. I also use studio strobes for portrait photography and I’m trying to work artificial lighting into my landscapes and travel photos. I also work in video where another one of my favorite tools is a DJI Phantom 4 Professional drone.
My vision always adapts and changes when shooting travel and landscape photography. I always try my best to go into the field prepared with maps and times in mid to shoot (typically sunrise, sunset, and starry nights). When the light is bad, I like to scout locations and return at the right time. But things like weather, road closures, and strict timelines can sometimes lead to improvising. And a lot of my best photos have come from being at the right place at the right time. And my vision for the series always ends up adapting in strange and beautiful ways. That’s what I like about shooting personal projects for myself. There is no client who is expecting a particular look or style of portrait and there is no real timeline.
Why did you get into photography?
I got into photography because I moved abroad to teach English. I bought a camera with my first paycheck and became completely obsessed. I traveled for months at a time between moving to new countries and lived out of my backpack. In my four years away from America, I lived in Korea, Vietnam, England, and Turkey working long enough to save for another 4 months of living from my backpack. My camera was always with me during my travels and my style adapted from an awful National Geographic ripoff to developing into the style that you see today. It takes an awful long time to find your voice in this world and I’m sure that in two years my work will look completely different.
What photographers are your biggest influences?
There are so many. Ryan McGinley and Sam Abell are some of my favorites. I’d also add filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Wes Anderson, and Terrence Malick. And some of my friends like Reuben Wu and Luke Byrne are incredible. And in the music world, I love Ebru Yildiz, Kristina Pedersen, Jackie Lee Young, and Pooneh Ghana.
How long have you been shooting?
I started 10 years ago, but I’ve been making a living in photography for just over 3 years.
Why is photography and shooting so important to you?
I really don’t know. It’s just become such an obsession over the years. Art is hard and sometimes I wonder if I’d be happier in a different field that didn’t require so much blood, sweat, and tears. I obsess over online tutorials on video color correction and feel like I need to constantly learn new tools of the trade to remain relevant. Other days, I look through some old photos and realize I’m the luckiest person on earth to be able to do what I do. I’m not sure that answers your question.
Do you feel that you’re more of a creator or a documenter? Why?
Interesting question. When it comes to my personal work, I’m definitely a creator. I look at my photos as pieces of art. I really don’t shoot in an editorial or documentary style. My day job is the opposite.
What’s typically going through your mind when you create images? Tell us about your processes both mentally and mechanically?
It depends. Sometimes it’s panic. Sometimes I’m very relaxed. There are moments that the photo doesn’t look right on the back of your camera and you only have a couple minutes of good light. Those moments feel like problem solving. Other times, I’ll be shooting a very long exposure or timelapse. I can walk away from my camera and relax by the fire with a flask of whiskey. In many cases, I’m pushing my gear to the limits of their capabilities (especially at night). I question whether my lens is fast enough, if my sensor is good enough to handle the exposures etc.
Want to walk us through your processing techniques?
My processing is pretty minimal. I use Lightroom and mostly focus on color correction and removing any specs of dust that somehow made it onto my sensor. On long exposures I do a little noise reduction.
Tell us about the project that you’re pitching, or your portfolio.
When I’m not shooting music I travel as much as I can around the world capturing people and landscapes. A tentative title for these photos is “Adjacent Singularity.” It’s based on my need to retreat to nature for solitude as much as possible. I love living in the city and working in cities around the world, but I maintain a balance away from people as well as cultural and political distractions. I live two adjacent lives with photography as the commonality.
What made you want to get into your genre?
Again, It goes back to living in another country. I don’t think I would have ever become a photographer if I hadn’t have left America for what I thought was a year and turned into more than 4 years away.
Tell us a bit about the gear that you use and how you feel it helps you achieve your creative vision.
I actually feel like a lot of the gear I use limits me. Maybe I’m greedy, but I still feel like full frame cameras can’t handle low light situations as well as I’d like. Fast lenses help, but I still feel restricted. I have friends who use Hasselblads and Phase One medium format digital cameras that can achieve so much more than what my cameras allow. I will say that drones are a new tool that has exceeded my expectations in every way possible. They allow me to get angles that I couldn’t have imagined prior to 2013 when I bought my first quadcopter. Prior to drones this type of photography could only be accomplished from an expensive private helicopter. Drones are amazing. Sometimes aerial photography feels like cheating.
What motivates you to shoot?
So many things. Part of it is my love for travel and the fact that I live in a city. Sometimes I just go a little crazy and need to hit the road for solitude. Money is also a motivation. If I don’t get photo work, I can’t pay my bills.