Featured Photographer, July 2013: Matt Granz
This month, our featured guest photographer is one of our great photography instructors: Matt Granz! We are honored to have him as part of our team, and greatly appreciate that he took some time away from his very busy schedule to answer our questions! Please visit his links to see more of his awesome work, and to let him know you enjoyed this interview.
:: How did you get your start in photography?
Well, I started out as a portrait artist early on in my life till my late teen years, but cameras have held a fascination for me since childhood. The idea of freezing a moment in time, and the visual art that even an informal family portrait could take on, grabbed my interest from very early on.
My family was interesting and always seemed to mug in unusual ways, so I guess that was part of where this perspective comes from. We were pretty poor, so we never had a nice camera, and couldn't afford film or developing, so most of the times spent shooting with a camera was by the extended family on my mother's side.
I was actually introduced to an SLR Canon camera by my uncle, who would show me how to slow down the shutter speed a bit so that when taking pics of him playing the drums, his hands and drumsticks would be blurry. He had a good knowledge and it fascinated me. We would go down to Golden Gate Park and I'd shoot pics of him peeling out in his hot rod and panning the camera as he sped by. Back then you didn't know what you were going to get until the pictures came back from the lab, and it was exciting to see what images worked out… which was surprisingly a lot. He let me take that camera to concerts from time to time back when they would let you bring them in. I remember at a Kiss show losing an entire roll of film because the film didn't rewind as I was getting tossed around in the crowd about three rows from the stage. I opened the back just as some flash bombs went off and lost the entire roll.
Other than that Canon SLR, once I was able to scrape up a few dollars in the mid 80s, I bought a cheap autofocus point and shoot camera and mostly shot pics of my occasional girlfriends, and some interesting scenery. In Oklahoma, I mostly shot pictures of the sky.
I was there from 1985 through 1987 and I have often wished that I had a better camera for all of the weather phenomena I saw. Most of those pictures never made it through all of my moves through the following years, as I lived a quasi-nomadic existence as a struggling artist.
Many years later, after digital cameras came along, I did get a point and shoot Nikon. Immediately everyone thought I lost my mind as I took it everywhere and documented everything. iPhoto had just come out and I fell in love with the mild post processing it allowed me to do.
After a friend had a slight misadventure on Mount Whitney and went down the wrong side of the mountain (his car was parked at the Whitney lot and he went down the Western side) and needed a ride home, I went and picked him up, and as we went through Yosemite and then over Tioga Pass to the East Side and down to Lone Pine and Mono Lake, I was forever hooked and knew I would be shooting this stuff for a long time to come. Later on, one of my pictures from that little camera (which by this time was being held together by scotch tape) got published and my wife had received a signing bonus for a new Job she took on, and let me use a large part of that money to upgrade to a DSLR. My younger brother, Randy, who had taken off as a photographer years earlier, recommended me to get the Nikon D90 with the kit Nikkor 16-105mm VR lens. It's been onwards and upwards ever since then.
:: How did working in a gallery and framing other photographers' work help you with your own development as a photographer?
I am forever intrigued and fascinated by other people's photographs. As a framer in San Francisco, I was exposed over and over to all sorts of art, a large portion of which were photographic in nature. When I was hired in the mid 90s by The Photographer's Gallery in Palo Alto to manage their frame shop, I was still of the mindset that photography, while interesting, and captivating, was still not a form of fine art.
However, because I was kindly and patiently educated over the coarse of my time there by the curator, Amy Saret, in the nuances of what made a photograph fine art, my opinion changed. I was able to meet some of the greats in the industry, such as Steven Johnson and his works in the Saving Mono Lake Project at the time, and Jerry Uelsman. whose surrealisms with double exposure captured my imagination.
We represented all of the greats from Ruth Bernard to Ansel Adams, and many in between. One of my all-time favorite shows was by O. Winston Link, who had documented the end of the steam train era in fantastic dramatic ways. All of this said, I learned mostly by osmosis, in that there was never any formal training, but rather by being an artist, in which I had my eyes, mind and ears open at all times. All of this exposure to photography gave me roots that I didn't know I had until I started doing it a bit later on.
:: Was there ever an expectation from your employer that you would get into the shooting side of photography rather than just the presentation side?
Not in the least. I think she just thought I was a goofy artistic type with no sense of direction… which was in part true at the time.
:: You started in the fine art side of things with more traditional mediums like painting and drawing. How do those skills transfer over to what you do with the camera? Do you still do much with the painting and drawing side of art?
All of the skills I learned as a photo-realistic artist transferred over into the world of photography. Every single one, from how light and shadow play off each other, to how to frame your subjects. My intention as an artist was always to capture some sort of visual intensity. I was a surfer and spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to represent a wave in such a way as to show motion and reflectivity. I also drew a lot of the iconic rock stars of the day and they just don't look great unless they are in a dramatic pose. When doing portrait work, I would seek different methods to bring out the subject's personality, from high contrast halftone work, to hand done dot matrix style. I would often take hours upon hours to finish, which actually translates to my post processing work as a photographer nowadays.
Something I never enjoyed about traditional art was the long hours of time it took to create anything. It didn't matter what the medium was… pencil and paper to oil paint… it all took more meditative time than I cared for, spent mostly inside the house. Photography is pretty much the opposite of that experience in every way. That has been part of the attraction. The getting out to the outdoors to find and document the beauty of this world is incredibly addictive, and much more soul satisfying for me as a type of artistic expression.
:: You're an avid storm chaser/photographer. What is it about weather that excites you? What, if any, kinds of special equipment do you need to do this type of photography?
The question should be, "what is it about weather that doesn't fascinate you?" because I'm obsessed about all aspects of weather, and try to use it continually to bring life to all of my work.
Clouds bring drama and variety to a normal image and when they have become unstable and are going crazy they become a subject all in and of themselves. I first saw a photo of a tornado in an encyclopedia in my grade school library when I was around eight. I was hooked immediately. It's one of the most visually intriguing things that Mother Nature does aside from an exploding volcano.
It's not just the visual however. It's the experience. When you're out in hot, electrically charged air, with high winds blowing, and clouds moving in all directions above you… it's addictive. It's not just a thrill, that plays a part of this fascination. It has to do with being a part of something very large and amazing.
When out under a meso-cyclonic cloud, it can be two O'clock in the afternoon, but you will have a perpetual sunset happening along the horizon due to the atmospheric disturbance. Clouds take on hues you don't normally see, such as blue, green, or black. The shapes they take on can be incredible to look at. There are mothership cloud formations that look like a spinning flying saucer (also sometimes called stacked plates), and shelf clouds at the front of a storm mass simply look like the end of the world coming at you.
I raced one shelf cloud that was moving at over 60 mph low to the ground, and it was a thrill both visually and otherwise.
When out on the field, I use a heavy Manfrotto tripod. It withstands the winds very well. You need to be quick in most situations, and that effects some choices, such as that I like using Nikons because they are mostly watertight, and they seem to get out of being heavily rained on very well. I rent lenses that are not in my usual kit when I go out, such as the Nikon 80-400mm VR lenses to help bring far objects in close. Truth be told, I'm somewhat scared of getting close to a tornado. A big lens helps there! You really only need a good wide angle and a good zoom to catch the action for the most part. I'll also bring a gradient filter and polarizer with me, though they don't need to be used all too much.
:: Typically the best storms are in places with few, if any, iconic locations. How do you face the challenge of composing images when the subject IS the weather?
Many times the interest in a storm picture is the storm itself if the clouds are organized and doing amazing looking things… but that said, I almost always try to have some type of foreground interest. I have used windmills, farms, and wheat fields. I have also used cityscapes, highways or railroads with a good vanishing point, and natural elements such as trees and hills, etc… A favorite image of mine was of an abandoned adobe house under mammatus clouds. The thing is to not be overwhelmed by the subject in front of you at the moment and to give yourself a chance to look around and see what might be around to add that extra interest.
:: Any scary close calls while out chasing storms? What precautions do you take to avoid any of the risks associated with big storms?
My favorite story to tell is of my first solo chase. I was racing a storm, and it just wouldn't stop. Every time it started to lose power the clouds behind it would explode into a raging fury and so the chaser was being chased. At one point I drove into a cul-de-sac and as I did the front passed over me. That's when things went bonkers.
Tree branches started snapping off and flying all around. Small swirling tornadic vortices about as wide as my car called gustnados were forming all around (large dustdevil like vortecies). The car was also being shaken violently by the violent winds and everything was spinning around me in circular patterns. Trying to escape, I turned a corner and came across a fat guy in a ill fitting T-Shirt standing next to his grill cooking burgers on his front lawn without seeming to notice the complete and total mayhem going on all around him. Suddenly I wasn't quite so fearful as I had previously been.
When you chase storms you sometimes need to "punch the core," which translated means that you have to drive through blasting winds, blinding rain and hail if you want to get to a tornado. It's the most dangerous part of chasing and I've done it only once, and was rewarded with a beautiful tornado. Typically, now that I have satellite, I will try to avoid having to do that.
Storm chasing has become much safer in recent years due to many advances in the NOAA and the spotter network. Being able to track storms on your computer or handheld device and see exactly what they are doing and what direction they are traveling helps a lot in keeping safer in that environment.
By far, the most dangerous aspects of storm chasing are lightning, which can strike anywhere at any time under a storm, and far worse are the weekend chaser style drivers who are distracted while chasing on the same road that you are on. I have seen cars skidding across highway mediums at high speed as novice chasers decide to turn around to get a shot, and some will park their cars smack dab in the middle of a highway. Tornados are tame by comparison.
That said, I lost a friend last May  who was part of a research team who got hit by the biggest recorded tornado in history. It's a sobering reminder of how we need to respect the forces of Nature while documenting them.
:: What about teaching photography workshops do you enjoy most?
It's a blast! Even though many of the workshops I teach are spent in the same exact places as the previous ones, the students and their excitement, plus range of experience, and wanting to learn make it unique every single time. It may sound trite or cliché, but I really enjoy seeing a student suddenly "get it," and how they just light up at that moment.
There is a challenge to this since we have a ratio of about 6 to one in our classes. You want everyone to have a sense that they are not being forgotten or left out, so you really have to keep on your toes. The time goes by exceedingly fast! We joke a lot and have a great time going from location to location. I mean, it's photography… what's not to like???
:: You also spent a lot of time as a musician? What instrument did you play? How has music influenced or been a part of what you do with the camera? Do you still play much?
I have played most of the better venues of San Francisco in my mid 20s to 30s. I have played guitar, mandolin, and bass as well as singing during this time. At present I have a band named Punk Floyd who does punk rock send-ups of Pink Floyd songs. We have a lot of fun.
The way that this translates into my photography is that I also do local concert photography, and like the added skills of working in low light "hand held" to get the shots, and getting intensity in imagery on a lighted stage.
:: What do you find as the biggest challenge to your photography?
Getting out more often. I really enjoy shooting in various locations and it's a big part of what I love about photography. It takes a lot of planning and resources to make these times out happen however. I firmly believe that half of the challenge to photography is access. I am always looking to the future and studying places that I hope to get to. Getting to these places doesn't happen easily.
I am still also continually learning the tricks of post processing images. It is a learning process which shows me daily just how much I still have to learn.
Lastly, as a storm chaser, I am still educating myself on how to read weather maps, but it is as much fun as watching paint dry. I have friends who love the stuff and help me out, but I want to learn to be self actualized in the ability to completely read the storms I get into.
:: What was the best piece of advice you received as a photographer when you were getting started, maybe something from one of the photographers you used to come into contact with when framing?
Jerry Ulesmann told me that it wasn't all about the precision of getting the shot, but the spirit of getting it. I believe those words. He was drinking wine at the time… he might have been drunk.
:: What piece of advice would you like to pass on to beginning photographers to help them with their own growth?
Shoot, and then shoot some more. Just keep on shooting! Get out as often as you can. Take your camera with you as often as you can. Keep your eyes open for those moments. Capture as much as you can. Like I said, just keep on shooting. That's probably 3/4 of the answer to learning photography… just keep on shooting.
"It may sound trite or cliché, but I really enjoy seeing a student suddenly 'get it,' and how they just light up at that moment...."
Photographer Spotlight Interviews
July 2014: Nigel Turner
June 2014: Sarah Marino
May 2014: Peyton Hale
Apr 2014: Marty Knapp
Mar 2014: Nicolaus Wegner
Feb 2014: Joe Azure
Jan 2014: Dan Ballard
Dec 2013: David Thompson
Nov 2013: Michael Frye
Oct 2013: Michael Kenna
Sep 2013: Scott Davis
Aug 2013: Michael Bonocore
July 2013: Matt Granz
June 2013: Scott Donschikowski
May 2013: Koveh Tavakkol
Apr 2013: Chip Phillips
Mar 2013: Dylan & Marianne
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