I first met Quinn Matthews when I went on a boat trip in the Mentawais in 2017.
Quinn was the photographer for the trip and we had a great time together. So great, in fact, we kept in touch despite living a 22-hour flight apart. By ‘kept in touch’ I actually mean I followed him on Instagram and double-clicked on his posts and occasionally slid into his DMs. But then I watched The Notebook and got all nostalgic for writing letters, but figured the 2020 version of that would be to actually call someone, on the phone. So, I called Quinn and asked what he’d been up to, it turns out he’s been up to a lot, like hanging with Voodoo Emperors in Haiti and directing plays on Broadway. Want to know how you end up doing either of those things? Find out from the man himself below.
How’s it going?
Pretty good thanks.
Well, let’s start it off from the beginning. Photography—how’d it all start?
Ah, the whole thing started off when I was pretty young we were living in rural United States, and I just used to shoot a bunch of nature/wildlife stuff. Then in my teens, we moved to Laguna. At the start, I was tripping and kinda over it because there were just buildings and I didn’t really know what to take photos of. But then I started heading to the beach and that’s where I met Yadin Nicol and Andrew Schoener and they showed me around. Then I graduated High School and Yadin offered to let me tag along with him for a year whilst he was on tour.
That’s cool. So, straight out of school and into a year on the road.
Yeah, but its funny the very first session it was a foggy morning in Europe, and I didn’t put my water housing together right, and basically the whole thing flooded. Luckily the camera somehow didn’t break, but Yadin was like, ‘yeah if your camera broke we would’ve just sent you home [laughs].’ So, that would’ve been the end of it before it even started.
So, what happened after that first year?
During that year I obviously met a few people and got to know the whole surf world side of things, and I started doing some stuff for Hurley and also linked up with Kolohe a bit. He was working on his first feature film Brother at the time (2015), and so I jumped on and started shooting for that. And then just rolled with freelance stuff after that, I guess up until now even [laughs].
Yeah cool, Brother was a pretty cool profile piece, especially now seeing as Kolohe’s on tour and most likely won’t be working on something like that anytime soon. You would’ve met a few industry heavyweights through that project surely?
Yeah so that was produced by WhatYouth and through that I met guys like Kai (Neville) and Nate (Lawrence). Which was really sick. They were probably some of the best people you could meet to learn from and be inspired. When I met all of them was when they were all working on Cluster too, so I was able to jump onto some trips for that as a secondary photographer.
How have you transitioned from surf?
Well, when I was working alongside Nate (Lawrence) and Andrew (Schoener), they really taught me a lot about film/film photography. And that got me into shooting street stuff on the side, and I started getting more and more into it and begin some personal projects. I didn’t have any connections or outlets to these other mediums so I could experiment a lot more and I felt like I could come into it more freely. Then that shifted into working on some more art-directed stuff like music videos. And then when I was in Australia last year I got a call from a friend to come work on a job in New York, and I said yes and the next day I was packing my bags back in California to head to New York.
And that job was West Side Story on Broadway. What was the official job title?
My official role was ‘Video Director’. They were starting to put some video elements into set designs and I was there to help out with all of that. It ended up being about a 70 x 40ft LED wall, that was basically acting as a background/context movie behind the cast the entire play.
70 x 40ft is a lot of image. Were there any challenges in directing the video for screening that size?
Well, yeah, it’s a big screen so, it obviously attracts a lot of attention from the audience; the main issue is just making sure it acts as a supplement to the play and not a distraction. The actors are the foreground and the video has to either act as the midground or the background. So just trying to find that balance through the shots we chose. There’s a lot of trial and error.
You went from sleeping on boats in the archipelago and taking photos of guys doing tricks in the ocean to directing video for a broadway play in New York?
[laughs] yeah more or less. There were a few personal projects in-between the two that I had going but yeah I didn’t have a set direction I wanted to go in or anything like that.
Did you have a plan at all of where you wanted to end up or start to veer towards in terms of a career?
I had always wanted to go to New York, but I never really had a specific direction or plan of when or why or how.
If you went back would you keep following the video director role or would you switch back to photography?
I just want to do a mix of everything, really. Right now there are two big projects that have both been in the works for the last two to three years. One is a Haiti project, which I shot photos and a film with Woody [Gooch] and Andy [Gough], and the other is a skate/painting project where I shot photos and also directed video with James Mackel. My main focus, I guess, or headspace is to just keep all doors open. It feels creatively refreshing to go from one medium to the other and bounce back and forth.
Do you find that ‘refreshing’ feel also by looking at other people in those various mediums: photographers, cinematographers, etc?
Yeah, as cliché as it may be, it is really interesting and inspiring to look at someone’s work from one field and try to apply it to another. For example, taking a cinematographer’s eye for video and then trying to apply that to still photography. Or taking an artist’s approach in terms of painting or whatever and trying to apply that to video direction. Just intermixing it all. I think that really motivates me and keeps me thinking about new possibilities.
‘All doors open’ definitely seems like the program you’re running.
[laughs] Yeah, I guess so. Hopefully, it keeps working.
Before you go, let’s fire off a quick Q and A: Top 3 people you look up to in photography?
My all-time favourite would be Peter Beard. Which is crazy because as of right now he’s missing [sadly confirmed dead now after time of interview]. My other all-time favourite would be Alex Webb. He’s an amazing street photographer. And then thirdly would be Bieke Depoorter. She exhibits these photos and then the audience can go and write over the image or scribble over it or whatever which is pretty cool and interesting.
Top 3 people in front of the lens when you’re behind it?
Ian Crane, Creed Mctaggart, Shaun Manners—his new part in Rage3 was psycho. And I’m going to give you two more… Yadin and Kolohe. I feel like I know their surfing really well, and when you know someone’s surfing, you can anticipate it, which helps with shooting.
Instagram: friend or foe?
Ah shit, I’m torn on that one. I’m gonna say foe, but there is an importance to it.
Sunrise or sunset?
Weirdest job you’ve ever done?
West Side Story, Broadway.
Weirdest photo you’ve ever taken?
Oh god [laughs]. Weirdest photo I’ve ever taken would probably have been in Haiti. Someone has a cow skull on their head, a hoof, and they’re covered in blood.
Yeah, that’s pretty weird. What’s something weird that you’ve done yourself?
[laughs] Probably also in Haiti. We were in some voodoo temple and Woody, Andy and I all had to drink this local vodka/alcoholic mix out of a human skull, and the skull wasn’t clean. As in it still had organic matter on it. I watched Andy do it after I did it, and I saw chunks of I-Don’t-Know-What go into his mouth.