PHOTOGRAPHER FOCUS: Neil MacKenzie Matthews
22 May 2019
Neil Mackenzie Matthews is best known for his highly influential work as a fashion, beauty and portrait photographer, boasting over 30 years of experience in the industry. His portrait photography has seen him working with many iconic celebrities from the worlds of cinema, TV, music and sport. Alongside his portraiture, he has shot advertising campaigns and promotions for clients. In June a book and exhibition titled 'SNAP' will showcase his music photography to date. Read on to take a trip down memory lane.
© Neil MacKenzie Matthews
Interestingly you fell into photography by chance was it a case of being in the right place at the right time?
It really was a question of being in the right place at the right time. The story of how that happened is in the book actually. I friend of mine who I had gone to school and university with was managing a band from our old school, and he had got them a residency in a club in St. Tropez for two weeks. Part of the deal was a large apartment above the club and he asked me if I fancied coming down for a bit of a holiday. I persuaded another mate with a motor bike, that it would be a bit of a laugh and we followed them down there. I took my camera. I had just taken up photography as a hobby, and took loads of pictures of the band playing in the club. The band were Spandau Ballet and when they signed their record deal two months later I sold the pictures to the record company and the music press. So it was very much ‘right place, right time’.
© Neil MacKenzie Matthews. Boy George.
Your career has seen you shoot many iconic celebrities, headline acts alongside portraiture for advertising campaigns and editorial, you must have some very memorable shoots in interesting locations that you can share with us?
It is always funny to think of some of the odd places that I’ve taken pictures, it’s not always obvious from the image. After all as photographers we only let the viewer see what we frame through the lens and I think people would be surprised to know that some of the locations are not as exotic as they seem. I think I got so used to shooting very quickly when I first started on Flexipop! Magazine, as I quite often only got ten to fifteen minutes to come up with an idea and shoot it after sitting in on the interview. For example the shot of Richard Butler of Psychedelic Furs in the book was shot up against an Andrex toilet paper ad on a billboard in Soho Square, the pink of the ad matched his shirt. One of my favourites though was from a fashion shoot in I did in Tobago. We went to a lovely beach, with a pontoon out into the sea. We started nice and early, no one around, but as the day went on it filled up with people, which was a problem, people everywhere. But at the entrance to the car park they had built a small round-a-bout with a fake lagoon and bit of jungle in the middle. I managed to finish the story on the round-a-bout with people coming in and out of the car park, the model looked like she was in this deserted lagoon in the middle of the jungle complete with fake waterfall!
© Neil MacKenzie Matthews. Meatloaf.
You have also directed music videos and commercials. How did your career expand to include directing and for you does it go hand in hand with photography?
I fell into directing in a similar way to photography, it wasn’t planned. Some friends in a band asked me to shoot a video for them to help them get a record deal. I had worked on a lot of video sets shooting stills and watched what the lighting camera man did, so I knew the mechanics of how to shoot moving image. I borrowed a super 8 camera and shot the video in a friends apartment, however I had no idea about editing. I was lucky that flatmate of a friend of mine had just finished film school and started a small production company and he introduced me to an editor and handled the post production. They signed a record deal off the back of the video, which was seen by Pete Wylie who asked me to shoot his next video. This was even by Feargal Sharkey and before I knew it I was in Barcelona shooting one for him as well. “Right place right time” again I guess!. It’s funny that now photography and video seem intrinsically linked, but this wasn’t the case back then. People tended to think it was a step up and you did one or the other, they liked to pigeon hole you. It wasn’t so bad in the music industry, but I remember having to play down the directing to my fashion clients who assumed I would have moved on and stopped shooting stills.
© Neil MacKenzie Matthews. Sade.
You have a book ‘Snap’ and exhibition coming up that summarises your music photography career. Can you tell us how this came about? And was it always an ambition to be published?
I guess it has always been an ambition to be published and have my own book. I have provided pictures for quite a few biographies and documentaries over the last decade, Gary Kemp, The Spandau film “Soul Boys Of The Western World” and the recent Bros documentary. So was nice to be asked to put one together of just my stuff.
The first magazine I worked for was called Flexipop!, which had a bit of a cult following - it was a little anarchic. About 3 years ago I got together with Barry Cain who was the editor an co-founder of the mag and published a book called Flexipop! The Book, we crowd funded it and sold out the initial print run (it has been re-printed since by Cadiz). Mark at Red Planet, who had published a couple of books by Barry, saw the Felxipop! Book and asked Barry if I would be interested in doing a book of my archive of music photography. So after 18 months of trolling through boxes of negs and trannies, hunting down lost images in picture agencies and a marathon of scanning and re-touching we have a book! In fact we have two, there were so many pics we couldn’t fit in Mark wants to do a second volume later this year.
© Neil MacKenzie Matthews. The Jam.
What inspires you?
My biggest inspirations when I started were always old Black and White movies, and the Hollywood portraits of the golden era, people like George Harrell, Angus Mcbean and the lighting techniques of Walter Nurnberg. I’ve always loved tungsten lighting and Black and White photography. But I think you can draw inspiration from anywhere really, be it art exhibitions, movies, the theatre, architecture, nature. I always say there is a picture to be had anywhere, you just have to look!
© Neil MacKenzie Matthews. Wham.
You have been a member of the AOP for some years now. What made you join and how has being a member supported your career?
I joined the AOP along time ago, about 1985 I think. I had a studio in Old Street and the AOP or AFAEP as it was called then, was in the street at the side of the studio. I used to pop in to the gallery for a cuppa and a chat with Valerie who ran it. I had my first exhibition there in 1986 for a BW calendar I had shot called “Blues Boys”. I joined so as to be part of an organisation that would look after the interests of photographers and help them develop. It has been invaluable to me over the years, especially in giving me the framework to develop a professional approach to dealing with clients and in being able to support me when I have had usage and copyright issues. The usage calculator was a great tool when it arrived on the website! Also providing connections with production, assistants, labs etc. When shooting abroad in places for the first time.
© Neil MacKenzie Matthews. PJ Duncan.
Neil’s photographs will be on show at Jealous Gallery, 53 Curtain Road, London EC2A 3PT from June 27-30 (Free Admission) where prints will be on sale and Neil will be signing copies of the book.
View more work from Neil here