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Dean Majd Matte
hurricane kiss (alexis and kat), 2021Photography by Dean Majd. Courtesy of Matte Magazine

Matte, the Publication Spotlighting America’s Rising Photography Stars

As Matte magazine publishes an ambitious 480-page survey of contemporary American photography, we speak with five photographers defining the country’s image

Lead Imagehurricane kiss (alexis and kat), 2021Photography by Dean Majd. Courtesy of Matte Magazine

At the beginning of 2023, Matte magazine announced a simple open call on Instagram for exciting photography now. Founded by the New York-based photographer, publisher and professor Matthew Leifheit in 2010 as a niche magazine focusing on the work of emerging photographers – although bigger names have previously included Collier Schorr, Michael Bailey Gates and Allen Frame – the latest issue of the publication, its most ambitious yet, set out to be a survey of current American photography that is not boring“. “I try to publish things that other publishers might not,“ says Leifheit, who co-edited the Exciting Photography Now issue with Eve Lyons, a photo editor at The New York Times, “and often the magazine is the featured artist’s first time in print.“ The parameters for entry were simple: photographers needed to either be making work in America, or be American, and shooting elsewhere. 

After receiving over 800 submissions, the pair spent nearly a year whittling the entries down. The resulting issue, spread over 480 pages, is a dazzling, unpredictable survey of 80 lesser-known and more established contemporary American photographers. Exciting Photography Now is nothing if not varied; there are the delicate, contemplative portraits and landscapes of Donavon Smallwood, Daniel Arnold’s high-octane, chaotic snapshots of life in New York City, Alyssa Kazew’s deadpan, comic portraits brimming with sexual desire, Dean Majd’s frenetic images of his “chosen family“ – the skating and graffiti community in Queens, New York – and the mind-expanding work of Ottilie Leete, a nine-year-old girl who wants to teach viewers how to see the world from a kid’s point of view“. If a foreigner were to look at the magazine to learn about life in America, they might conclude that it is rife with humour, heartbreak, melancholy, chaos, communion, and intense beauty. “The photographers’ subjects and approaches vary widely, but I hope it contains something of the atmosphere in America today,“ says Leifheit of the issue. “In the end, I think the magazine is about where American photography is today, and how these artists are building on the history of American photography.“  

Below, AnOther spoke with five of the photographers featured in the Exciting Photography Now issue of MatteDean Majd, Ottilie Leete, Donavon Smallwood, Alyssa Kazew and Daniel Arnold – about what it means to be American, their biggest creative inspirations, and the ethos behind their work.

Ottilie Leete

“I’m nine years old, and I really don’t like photography as much as drawing. I remember first taking pictures from the windows in the train going to New York City. My mum and dad do photography. I like to draw. I took the photos featured in Matte at my house and backyard a few years ago. Most of them are also in a book my family did, called IN. They are of my feet and my mum and dad in summer.

“My biggest creative inspirations are Garfield, Peanuts with Charlie Brown, Harry Potter, anime, and graphic novels. Videos, too. When people see my photographs, I hope maybe they laugh. And know what it’s like to be a kid – and see the world from a kid’s point of view.”

Dean Majd

“My mother gave me a camera when I was seven years old and I never looked back. I started taking it very seriously in my late teens and my early twenties, teaching myself everything I could, and taking as many pictures as possible until I began to make images I felt had a perspective. Photography, for me, has always been used as a conduit for connection. I’ve learned so much about the people around me and gotten so close to them through constantly making images of them.

“When I was 18, I discovered Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency and it changed the way I viewed photography as an art form. Her work, her ethics as an artist, as well as her activist work, set the stage for the type of artist I want to be, and she remains my North Star. Mohamed Bourouissa’s work around his friends in the banlieues in Paris has had a huge impact on my work in the last few years, specifically around representations of male friendship and identity. Caravaggio was truly the first photographer in the way he understood light, and I’ve always wanted to be like Caravaggio with a camera. For me, it also always comes back to cinema. A few directors stand out: Andrea Arnold, Gaspar Noé, John Cassavetes, Gus Van Sant, Claire Denis, Jacques Audiard, and Krzysztof Kozlowski. There are too many to list, but my immersion in cinema as a whole helped me become a storyteller and shaped my perspective.

”Love will always be the driving force behind everything I do” – Dean Majd

“The selection of my work featured in Matte comes from two projects, Hard Feelings and Magnolia. Hard Feelings is a photographic record of my predominately male friend group. These are all artists who exist in the intersection of skating and graffiti in Queens, New York, and are people I consider my chosen family. The work has evolved and expanded outward since its inception in 2016, but remains an odyssey of friendship, brotherly love, and immense loss, one that sheds light on a world unseen. Magnolia features scenic images that explore how our connection to our environment shapes our existence.

“I haven’t, until recently, intentionally explored themes in my work. A few obvious themes that pop up are masculinity, brotherhood, and male-female relationships. Over time, I realised I was photographing personal and collective grief, and how unexplored trauma manifests in young men, specifically regarding addiction and self-destruction. I want people to see and feel a deep sense of empathy and care when they look at my photographs. And love. Love will always be the driving force behind everything I do.”

Donavon Smallwood

“My interest in photography grew out of my childhood interest in archaeology. I was always interested in the idea of uncovering truth and that which had been lost literally and metaphorically. After taking a photography class in high school, I realised that photography was the best way for me to explore that.

“My portfolio featured in Matte is a glimpse into a larger body of work in which I followed along the trail of eastern Monarch butterfly migration, photographing friends, family, strangers, and space – the work coincides with my first time traveling and being alone in my adult life. All of the images were made in America and they feel like it to me, a private and timid exploration of freedom and love, the American Sublime.

“My favorite thing about photography is the way it can be used to preserve, shape, or recall memory. The way language is used to create images in one’s brain to form some sort of understanding, photography can do in an instant. My biggest creative inspirations are the musician Jandek, Barbara Chase-Riboud, and every antique mall I get a chance to visit. With all of my work, I like to explore the sublime and capture a similitude of reality and what seemed glorious to me at the time. I want these images to stir wonder and imagination from the seemingly mundane.”

Alyssa Kazew

“Around 2006, when we still had American Apparel, you could get the free copies of Vice magazine. The first issue I ever saw featured Ryan McGinley’s work. I was from a small town and had never seen anything that looked like that before. The photos were so inspiring and liberating to me, and more than anything, I wanted to cultivate a life for myself that looked and felt like those photos. 

“My favourite thing about photography is the ability to tell stories, regardless of whether they’re real or not. I love the idea of making images that leave the viewer unsure if the photo was staged or how it was made, and then what those images say about me as the photographer. The act of making the images is a whole thing too – I love the intimacy of it all. I have a soft spot for Gen X male photographers such as Roe Ethridge, Torbjørn Rødland and Matthew Porter. And even though Richard Kern isn’t technically Gen X, the spirit of his work very much lines up with that era as well. I like the way they all have cinematic influences, in addition to making subtle commentaries on the medium itself. I feel like they’re ‘photographer’s photographers’. Ultimately, I think I’m more inspired by people, music, and life though.

“When I’m making photos, it usually comes from a place of desire, romance, vulnerability and/or heartache“ – Alyssa Kazew

“My photos in Matte are a mix of personal work and commissioned work for fashion and editorial. I like any image I make, regardless of context or purpose, to be part of the same world while maintaining individual integrity. The Abercrombie-esque models featured in some of these photos are from a shoot I did for a clothing collection by Raimundo Langlois – it was a match made in heaven as I had already been wanting to make some Y2K Bruce-Weber-era-inspired photos and Rai had a similar vision for his collection. 

“When I’m making photos or images for myself, it usually comes from a place of desire, romance, vulnerability and/or heartache and is a means of celebrating or coping with these things. And in between all that, I make a lot of work inspired by pop culture, whether it be a still from a movie or a meme I see on Instagram. When people see my photos, I want them to be left with more questions than answers. And the urge to ask me out on a hot date.“

Daniel Arnold 

“My photos in Matte were taken over the past two years. All in all, there’s casual snapshots, screwups, celeb assignments, selfies and girlfriend stuff. There’s a dragonfly by a fence, a bathtub birth, I bury my brother, break the law – it’s all over the map. It’s a few choice seconds of a very consequential stretch. I think the idea was to expose how my whole life, from breakfast to bedtime, gets told in the same voice, with the same curious dedication, even if nobody ever sees it.

“My biggest inspirations are death, lust, depression, doubt, failure, pride, fun, family, shame, faith, clumsy language, love. I found the Vatican very inspiring for example, because it took so long. I look at a lot of photography because I enjoy it, but I don’t feel inspired by it. If anything, it demoralises me. I like to laugh and experiment and see what happens. I try to make the most of a bad time. I’m into indulging obsession and seeing what piles up, making a world, getting a long, thoughtful look at people and things. A camera is an unobtrusive friend I bring around to help me learn and think outside myself and pay attention and be brave and curious. Plus it’s fun.

“The best compliment would be if, after looking at my photographs, people saw more and felt a little more curious in their own lives. I think a lot of people see the pictures and think, ‘Hey, I could do that.’ Well, that’s nice. I hope they do.”

Order the Exciting Photography Now issue of Matte magazine here.