Traci Matlock

Interview 012 • Aug 1st 2013


Traci Matlock was one of the first people I followed on Flickr, back in the day. Her photos are a visceral joy in their exploration of the human body, travel, of her city and friends, and I've rarely seen such work that is both so striking and so innately kind.

This interview has been edited for clarity and content.


How did you get started taking pictures?

I took a photography course simply to fulfill a college requirement — performing or visual arts. I didn’t want to do studio art or theater, so I chose photography out of random necessity. Luckily for me, I had an incredible teacher, who is also a talented photographer, who shared not only his love of image-making but taught us that searching for what you love in any art is what’s important — becoming good at it can come much later, if at all. And he believed in shooting and printing everything manually — no short cuts in the learning process. I was 18 — half my life ago now. That was the beginning.

I first came upon your work… 2005? 8 years ago? You’d already been shooting for a long time at that point, yeah?

Yes, but in random bursts and absences. I left school the next semester and lived on not much more than nickels and bread for a few years. Someone gave me their digital camera, the first one I had ever seen, and then I found a way to be able to shoot without having money. Film is lovely, but it’s a constant expense.

Interview 012: Traci Matlock for The Photographic Journal

Interview 012: Traci Matlock for The Photographic Journal

What was it initially that led you to share work online?

I began sharing self-portraits on when they allowed you to build homepages, and also on yahoo photo albums. Mostly I began doing it as a form of collection for the self, a sort of diary or archive. Then when I showed people they were very encouraging — albeit infrequently — often asking me to shoot photos of them or teach them how to shoot.

Later, when I met Smashley [Ashley Maclean – ed.], we took a vacation to Belize together and shot hundreds of videos and photos. Being home we wondered what to do with so much material, and she found Flickr. We tried it out for a few days and liked being able to see what the other one was thinking about images we both had on our computers. Within a couple of weeks, random people were commenting on our work and returning with regularity. It became addictive, but that was only a small part of the reason to continue. What’s funny is that as you continue you have to work against the addiction.

It’s easy to share when there’s a strong impulse to lead you on, an encouraging mechanism that comes as much from outside of you as inside. These days I find it more important to question the satisfaction of the addictive component and explore other strong impulses to share.

It helps that my work isn’t followed with as much vigor these days. Ha!

The attention is kind of hollow. It’s people you don’t know, whose taste is also unknown… liking and favoriting, but it doesn’t necessarily ‘mean’ anything. I’ve noticed not getting as much attention helps when trying to get away from wanting attention.

Well, I think spectator encouragement allows you to see the gaps in your own work. Yeah, maybe hollow attention has a moment of satisfaction. I think it’s a necessary sense of pride you must build in yourself. But often I know how much I like my own singular image by how I react to it being ‘liked’ or ‘favorited’ online.

Often the photos I love the most go mostly unnoticed, and that makes me feel pretty good. I feel like I’m challenging my audience a bit. If I share something that’s less than what I know I can make, and it gets a lot of positive attention — I kind of laugh off the realization and tend to post something a little riskier next.

So what you post is a kind of interplay with the audience.

Interview 012: Traci Matlock for The Photographic Journal

Interview 012: Traci Matlock for The Photographic Journal

Not all the time, and certainly not on every platform — but yes. That’s what makes it endlessly enticing.

Do you think there’s something specific you’re trying to communicate with the audience? Something you want people to take away from your work as a whole?

Often when I have the impulse to construct an online post, I am in dialogue with one or two specific people, or ideas. I tend to pare down the language to be more open than a single conversation with a single person, but it’s always underneath the surface.

On a larger scale, I am most interested in not generating a specific idea for my work as a whole. I like to pair photographs alongside a particular use of language in a way that gives the viewer an optional tool for looking at the image. But I don’t fathom that they would listen to me, even if I told them exactly what to take from it!

Interview 012: Traci Matlock for The Photographic Journal

Which do you find more satisfying, that dialogue with the audience, or the collaboration involved in making the work?

An impossible comparison.

I hope that I never have to separate the two. I feel incredibly lucky that I get the opportunity to discover and re–invent myself through my work online in a way that can be archived and stable, yet fragmented and contradictory. This is how I imagine memory works. But getting to collaborate is a constant action, a pleasure akin to dancing or swimming. Collaboration is the making of memories.

Which is more fantastic? Having an extraordinary, frenzied night or lazily relaxing in the sun remembering the perfect night?

For me, I want both.

Collaboration is a huge part of your photography?

It’s the greatest gift of making work for me, yes. Constant inspiration, innovative ideas, support and community. I make my best work through collaboration. Even my best work made in solitude stems from the work I’ve made with others, on both sides of the camera.

Why do you think that is?

I think I have healthy and unhealthy reasons for it; some are reasons of habit and experience, some are about assurance and risk. I find collaboration to be, above all, about vulnerability. And the work that satisfies me the most are works that examine — or inhabit — vulnerability.

And, less esoterically, when you collaborate with someone you necessarily must voice, in actual words, what you want. And I think we don’t get enough practice saying plainly what we expect from any given situation or person or photograph. In a conversation about making photographs, you’re each brainstorming beyond what you may have done on your own; or at the very least, you’re pushing your own ideas in a new direction.

When you make work with someone, you have to constantly recognize the risk you’re taking. If they are uncomfortable with the outcome, you must reconfigure. If they want to share work that makes you uncomfortable, you either must figure out a way to say no or you must try to battle it with your own ego. Collaboration puts what I think is a beautiful pause between creation and sharing. You can’t just press ‘Publish Now.’

Interview 012: Traci Matlock for The Photographic Journal

Collaboration with Ash Larose


It’s tricky though, isn’t it? If we’re working ‘with’ someone else, the work isn’t ‘Ours Alone.’ I end up frustrated when someone wants me to take something down, or take their name off of it, because it reminds me I don’t really ‘own’ these photos.

I don’t think any work I make is mine alone. I’m not saying my pride isn’t a bit bruised when they say no or want their name or image removed. I battle with it for a few days, feel sore with them, or with myself for not better understanding the situation. But this is where real growth happens. Every time I’ve had to take images down of someone, and it’s happened a lot, I end making much better work very quickly thereafter. The removal of those images becomes a gift — it is a sort of backwards collaboration.

I tend to feel like it’s a rejection, an anti–validation of the work. Do you think the better work is because you’re more conscious in the moment, thinking about the prior experience?

Me too — because it is, at least a little bit. But that gives me the opportunity to become introspective and deeply consider the issues with me or with the work. Sometimes I see why they question my sharing the work, but often their rejection prompts a burst my own self-respect and dignity. If I believe in the validity, strength, and safety of my work, then what I need to do is work only with people who believe in me. It only feels like rejection in that instant. A month later it feels good to not work with someone who isn’t on the same platform as you.

I think my work gets better for two reasons, both which are kind of embarrassing: One, I immediately start remaking the images I had to remove. Of course, you can’t remake an image exactly, even if you wanted to, which I don’t. I want to remake the image — but better — using new ideas and smarter techniques.

And two, I suddenly get the impulse to push my own limits a little harder. If someone wants the work I made of them down because they feel my work is too sexual in nature, honestly, that makes me want to share work that focuses much more directly on sexuality.

Interview 012: Traci Matlock for The Photographic Journal

It’s one of the aspects I love about your photos, they concern themselves with sexuality, but they’re not titillating. Is there a confrontational aspect to that, to doubling down on the sexuality?

Well, I’m not against titillation — in fact, I encourage it.

However, I’m not interested in titillation as the single or strongest component. When I post something that’s in an overt dialogue with sexuality or desire, I will not share it unless it has another aspect that isn’t easy to reconcile in comparison.

For instance, if my image contains explicit nudity, I want that nudity to contain a trap door — a way to make the viewer look at something else the photo is doing, even if they don’t initially see it.

What would be an example of a trap door? I know you’ve been working with double exposures…

Yes. Multiple exposures are a good and obvious example of how the image can simultaneously manifest and negate pure sexual, as you write, titillation. A few days ago I posted an image of me from the waist to the ankles: I’m sitting cross-legged, naked, with blood running down my thighs.

I resisted posting this image for a few days, though I knew I wanted — and would eventually — share it. I took time to consider its implications, not wanting the image to spread across the Internet simply because it contained explicit nudity. And yeah, you can see the nudity for a second, but it’s undercut by the context, an interruption of the sexualized gaze.

Interview 012: Traci Matlock for The Photographic Journal

And what’s the purpose of the interruption? It sounds like you’re trying to make the viewer ‘work’ at the image, engage with it beyond just looking and appreciating.

The interruption is there give more power to the act of seeing. I think it’s quite easy to look casually, especially online. There’s no implication of the viewer in passively looking at images online. I enjoy returning the active role to seeing, exchanging with an image — yes, making it a two-way exchange, not a linear, passive reception. It expands minds to become actively engaged.

That’s what I look for as a member of the audience as well.

Are there themes you think you return to frequently? I feel like your work is this one grand conversation, exploring the same things again and again, from various angles.

I try to. Whether or not it is communicated through the work is another question. Probably another embarrassing truth. I try to expand my themes, but I don’t, as of yet, have plans to leave any of them behind.

Light, corporeality of flesh, awkwardness, the uncanny, tenderness, non-narrative memory, disestablishing common ideas of beauty, language games, and desire…

I think you’re dealing with themes that most photographers eschew for ‘Oooh, pretty!’

Oh I like ‘pretty’ too. I make ‘pretty.’ I share ‘pretty.’ I’m proud when I can communicate ‘pretty’. It’s just that my idea of pretty and others’ idea of pretty is quite different.

There is no such word as ‘imperfection’ to me, especially not in people. I like to make images of people that look how they ‘feel’. And since I mostly shoot people who choose to have their photograph made by me, they’re excited and nervous and charming — and that’s how I want them to look in the photograph.

I’m not against making attractive images — I love it. I have to fight with myself about sharing too many attractive images! I just want to expand what I expect from myself, especially in regard to the word and image–connotation of ‘attractive.’

I think what you make works in a similar way. I’ve often read/heard of your portraits being of only attractive/beautiful/pretty–people. This makes me incredibly happy — because I know that what they’re seeing is how ‘you’ see the people you photograph. Not that your friends aren’t incredibly lovely — they most certainly are. But what a lot of viewers see in your images is your affection and respect for your subject, and even in your ‘prettiest’ image, there’s a level of complexity in the subject that cannot be ignored.

Interview 012: Traci Matlock for The Photographic Journal

Yeah, pretty is kind of a by–product. I’m after what I see people exude — an internal quality that makes me want to take their picture and show than internal quality externally.

It’s almost impossible but the constant attempt is why we’ve both spent so many years making photographs of people. The constant attempt is the source of joy, and struggle… which can be exhilarating. It’s a quest without an achievable goal.

I remember when I first saw your work, I was – and still am – struck by how well you capture that internal quality. I get the feeling that you’ve moved away from capturing it in a concrete or simple way, and are after a more abstract expression of the same themes…

I sincerely appreciate that. But, as you know, no matter how successful the photo, its success is necessarily short–lived. They move on, change, and fluctuate in emotion — and the challenge starts again.

I think I became more interested in a less concrete, narrative–heavy image when I sat amongst three giant boxes of my work and flipped through the contact sheets. I was so overwhelmed at having so much work available to share — and often with one image looking far too similar to the image next to it. I began to feel that I was amassing images as a collector, with no desire other than to achieve quantity and, very slowly, quality.

Also, the total transition out of shooting with a digital camera helped. It costs too much to shoot the same photo, with minor changes, five times in a row. Likewise, I started shooting multiple exposures to save money and, simultaneously, to begin breaking some barriers of portraiture that I’d accidentally built for myself along the way. I stumbled onto creating a few visually stunning and utterly surprising images, but it happened so rarely that I gave it up. A year or two later, I became interested in a more disciplined exploration of the multiple exposure, less out of thrill and more for the lack of expectations that it implicitly carries.

But, you’re right. Even now when I make a simple but beautiful image, there’s a pretty low chance I’ll share it anywhere. Instead, I send it to whomever is the subject; if they post it, I feel quite proud but without that twinge of guilt that it’s not more, let’s say, challenging.

Interview 012: Traci Matlock for The Photographic Journal

How aware are you of your own progression artistically? Because in our conversations there’s always this feeling that you’re constantly appraising your work, exploring it. It blows my mind, all those pictures in BOXES.

The clear, blue boxes that line my hallway! A nightmare. Half the time I want them to be stolen, half the time I want to spend a year detailing them into a real archive. As much as I like to consider and reflect upon my progress — or lack of — I also like to relinquish the need to understand entirely. I go in small bursts of total control and absolute lack of control. For me, having the ability to think endlessly and then having the ability to let go is the most valuable asset in making art. Or life in general, I suppose — though I tend to have a tighter grip on my day-to-day life than my art.

On the other hand, I never would use the word ‘appraise.’ The word has a monetary connotation that I would never think to apply to what I make. What I valued last year is already different than what I value this year. What I find interesting is how those differences in evaluation take place.

I know this isn’t your profession, but it does seem to be a large part of your life. Would you consider photography a passion, or the passion?

I would consider it a craft in the way that kindness is a craft. Some people are naturals; some people, like me, have a bit of innate ability but have to work hard to become talented. It is my passion as much as having a truly authentic, loving relationship with a small handful of people is my passion.

Alongside dancing it is probably the physical craft that gives me the most joy and confrontation. I sound a little goofy saying that, though it’s true.

Interview 012: Traci Matlock for The Photographic Journal