Vet to Vet: An Interview with Rich Mattingly

Rich Mattingly has a shaved head and an enormous beard and full-color sleeves and takes photos for a living, of weddings and families and the times in-between. Well, that’s what pays the bills anyway; taken out of context, they don’t look much like wedding photography to me. I say Mattingly takes photos of people at times of extreme emotion, and has discovered how to parlay his skills from military to civilian life: instead of taking pictures of people on their worst days he now captures their best. I’ll let him explain; Mattingly naturally spins an enviable yarn, and the following interview is only lightly edited for length and content. Make sure you read to the end – Mattingly has the best definition of art I’ve heard yet. 

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Photocredit Rich’s partner, Alyssa Mattingly.

What is your military background? Where did you go and what did you see?

I tried to enlist in the Marines in late 2001 after a chance encounter with a recruiter in the mall. It had always been something I thought I’d get around to as a younger man, but throughout college the idea more or less vanished until 9/11, which was on my mind when I ran into the recruiter. I knew then that if I waited any longer (I was 22) it was going to be too late and I was always going to feel like “that guy” who never followed through. I had a hard time enlisting. I was a high school dropout with a bachelor’s degree in religion with tattoos the moron recruiting substation captain thought were from a racist gang. Really. So, it wasn’t until my 23rd birthday in 2002 that I finally got a waiver from the commanding general of the Marine Corps recruiting command and I went in on a contract to be a combat correspondent. Yes, I’m a Kubrick fan. I was emotionally immature for 23 and stupid, and I had read a book called “Two Years Before the Mast” and felt enlisting was some sort of higher path for me to take in order to remake myself. You don’t usually enlist in the Marines because you have it all figured out.

Anyway, after initial recruit and follow-on infantry training I ended up at Ft. Meade for nearly a year doing the basic broadcasting and print public affairs courses there. I was then stationed at Kaneohe Bay in Hawaii and later attached to 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines for about a year and pumped to Afghanistan from ’04 to ’05. I did smaller excursions to Sri Lanka and Thailand and few places like that. After being made the community relations chief when I got back to K-Bay in ’05, I just wanted to pump with 3/3 to OIF but I was denied by my boss because she couldn’t get a replacement for me. So I threw up my middle finger the only way I could and took a hot fill to Buffalo to work as the marketing and public affairs chief for Recruiting Station Buffalo and that’s how I landed here for two years. Alyssa [Mattingly’s wife], in the meantime, finished up her 8 years in the Navy and moved out here and we got comfortable. So I got out.

During my time in Afghanistan I saw sporadic fighting. We were around Khowst and up in Paktia and the Korengal Valley and just generally along the Pakistan border – and occasionally over it, usually due to lieutenants – trying to pick fights and doing cordon ops for Navy SEAL teams and whatnot. I came back pretty different and have a 30% rating for PTSD. I’m doing fine now, but it’s there, you know.

Since you brought up Kubrick, when you are combat correspondent, which is your primary weapon, a rifle or a camera? Do the SEALs take you along to take pictures on a cordon op?

Always a rifle first. The Marines drill you with the “every Marine a rifleman” bit, which is why everyone goes to school of infantry and then more if you are infantry or on to MOS school if you’re not.

Yeah, I shot some stuff, and people, with the SEALs. Like all the guys with no nametapes they aren’t too keen on their faces being shown, but the SEALs I operated with were all good dudes and let me do my thing.

What is ‘your thing?’ How do you describe the job of a modern combat correspondent, in an age of Instagram and YouTube?

I’d describe our job, by the book, as being the link between the civilian media world and the trigger pullers of the Marine Corps.

Honestly, I wish I could do it again, but in 2008 or ’09. Gmail was brand new in 2004, YouTube was barely there and Instagram didn’t exist at all. Facebook was only a thing on college campuses still and we were all barely using any social networking at all. I know now guys have working cell phones over there with sim cards. It’s fucking nuts.

I do think the line between “public affairs” and “information operations” is poorly defined and what the military is doing, based on my experience, anyway, with their internal public affairs troops is way more info ops than releasing real info. We should have shifted to having guys like me in the peon ranks solely aiding embeds and helping “real” journalists do work. However, as long as the AO commanders get to cherry-pick reporters and photojournalists who rely on the military for access and protection, it doesn’t much matter.

So how did that job in the Corps translate to photography in Buffalo?

Well, I didn’t know shit about photography in 2004 other than how to generally aim a camera at something. DINFOS [Defense Information School] training is intensive, with about a week and a half of photography training if you’re a journalist. So I just kind-of taught myself while I had cooler shit to put in front of the camera over there. I ended up with work in USA Today, Newsweek and won a bunch of different military and related publication awards for stuff I shot over there. When I got here to Buffalo, Alyssa and I just shot everything we could. Alyssa has always been pretty good and I was stringing for a local paper shooting a lot of sports. I started advertising on Craigslist and, no shit, showing people photos from Afghanistan and other places trying to get some people to let us shoot their weddings. A lot of people went for it and I think we shot about 100 weddings in our first two years. Being veterans helped a lot early on, but now we barely even mention it.

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Photocredit Alyssa Mattingly.

Your ‘wedding photos’ don’t look like wedding photography to me, at least not how I traditionally understand the term. Do you think you’re doing something different? How?

As far as I can tell, sometime in the last decade or so, shooting with a more “photojournalistic” style became popular in wedding photography. With the barrier to entry in the field so thin, what with the accessibility of both knowledge and equipment, it’s easy to shoot with a shallow depth of field and make your photos a little more interesting. I think what sets our work apart is that while we do rely to some extent on the gear we use, to shoot at wider apertures, thus giving us more shallow depth of field, we also know where to stand and when to get closer and to what and we do that with a consistent style and thoughtfulness. That said, we consider ourselves less artists and more skilled technicians.

You may consider yourself more technician than artist, but do you think you are doing portraiture on some level? Right now I’m reading David McCullough’s “The Greater Journey,” about famous Americans in Paris in the 1800’s, and among them were a number of noted portrait painters. James Fenimore Cooper, the writer, said the trick with a portrait is to move beyond a skillful likeness to a full delineation of character. Does that make sense to you? After taking so many photos of people, are you now delineating character?

Oh yeah, there’s no question it’s pretty much all portraiture with a message. I just don’t think it has as much to do with me as it has to do with my subject.

The Photograph is an extended, loaded evidence — as if it caricatured not the figure of what it represents (quite the converse) but its very existence … The Photograph then becomes a bizarre (i)medium(i), a new form of hallucination: false on the level of perception, true on the level of time: a temporal hallucination, so to speak, a modest (o)shared(i) hallucination (on the one hand ‘it is not there,’ on the other ‘but it has indeed been’): a mad image, chafed by reality. ―  Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography

Barthes also wrote in Camera Lucida, one of my favs when I like to feel pretentious about photography, that it’s the job of a portrait photographer to overcome the death mask we all project at a camera when we’re overly aware of it and its mechanical ability to reproduce that mask. We all carry around this idea of how we look and how we’re going to look in an image. I think this is probably 100 times as true now as when Barthes was writing about it. It is challenging to overcome those thoughts in your subject, but when you do and you make a connection to that truth about someone in an image, it’s unmistakable and very rewarding. It definitely makes this job more meaningful even though I personally don’t place much value on the weddings that keep us employed.

To directly answer your last question, though, I think every portrait artist in any medium delineates character. Even though photography has, historically, been this somewhat factual and direct medium for describing the world, given that what you see is generally what you get, it’s still the whim of the photographer where to stand, what equipment to use, how to process and how to present the work. I make very deliberate choices when I’m shooting a bride and groom together or even when I’m shooting someone dancing on a wedding dance floor. But I also think photojournalism is 100% editorial and always has been.

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Photocredit Rich Mattingly

If the subject is the main influence on the message, how do they drive your work?

I don’t feel like I bring a great decision or purpose to the table other than my basic style and gear selection. Hopefully I’m not deluding myself into thinking I’m more observant or empathetic than I actually am. Like I said, I consider photography as much of a technical skill with aesthetics as an art form. We try to pay attention to the things people are telling us, both literally – as in a girl saying, “Hey, I don’t like the way my nose looks” – and also what a couple or family is telling us with their body language. When you’re out shooting with someone you have to make them comfortable and then figure out how you think they look best while employing the things we know work and show our style. No one can truly see someone else as they see themselves, though, which is good for photographers as far as I can tell.

I see art as a way to re-describe the world in an interesting way. You get enough people interested in your re-description of the mundane, you get to eat. For us, we’re keeping that small-scale and very personal. Art that people can personally access and feel good about is the best kind for me to be creating right now. I like that what we’re doing is special for that particular person, either their own photograph or someone who loves someone in that photograph. We rely heavily on the emotions people project onto un-moving images. Giving them a vessel for that sort of thing is fun and rewarding, even if I sometimes struggle with the overall societal struggle to “do good” while being a wedding photographer.

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Photocredit Rich Mattingly.