Otherworldly 

Beyond surfaces with photographer Matt Hayes

Matt Hayes lives in a different world, or at least makes art in one. It’s a world that overlaps with the one we think of as real, but it’s constructed by the artist with the aid of his camera—a world of odd angles and soul-baring expressions, streaky bits of grit and grain relayed in black and white.

“I’m not really trying to…represent reality, really,” says Hayes, a 2004 photojournalism graduate from the University of Montana. “I want the viewers to feel like they are entering into this whole other world—this world of, I guess, black and white photography.”

Hayes’ photographs are neither impenetrably abstract nor straightforward documentary. They tread a line between photojournalism and fine art, says Kerri Rosenstein, executive director of Gallery Saintonge, where Short Stories, Hayes’ second Missoula show, opens on Friday, July 6. (The first, Lost on Highway 93, showed at Saintonge in February 2005.)

One element of the art in Hayes’ photography comes from his insistence on shooting black and white film, resisting the trend toward digital photography.

“For my vision, for what I am trying to reproduce, I don’t think what I am trying to do translates well into [digital photography],” says Hayes. “A print just comes to life. It just has something about the depth and the silver on the paper. For my work, that’s the medium that represents what I am trying to communicate.”

Hayes creates off-center portrayals of everyday events, shooting his subjects to reveal the glinting curiosity of quotidian moments. In Short Stories, Hayes’ subjects range from a high school water polo game and a surfing contest to life as it happens on the Santa Monica Pier and in the streets of other towns, including Missoula. In each case the photos represent the world while diverging from traditional documentary photography.

For example, the surfing sequence portrays a contest at a famous break called Mavericks on the northern California coast, but none of the photos show anyone surfing beneath a towering wave.

“What I was interested in the least was actual pictures of people surfing,” says Hayes. “I really wanted to capture this crazy, crazy world.” And, paradoxically, Hayes says shooting the surfers was not the best way to do that.

“There were 30,000 people there that day,” he says, “all standing on cliffs to watch these waves that are 500 yards out from the shore. It’s this very bizarre, magical, trippy place…There’s a sense that something is about to happen…You’re out there waiting and waiting and waiting and nothing’s really happening and there’s emotion in the crowd and the surfers are tense, just waiting…You don’t really see the climax of the event but you see pictures that hint at it. It almost makes you look harder.”

Hayes, a California native who now lives in Ketchum, Id., describes his blend of styles as “shooting real things, but the end product might not look like it. The way that I meter, the way that I compose, it’s very much in the tradition of photojournalism…I go out there and try to meet people and try to tell their stories, but I don’t have a cause or a social agenda.” Without an ideology driving his work, Hayes says he’s free to introduce ambiguity and force the viewer to interpret obscurity.

“I would like my work or photographs…to make people ask questions,” says Hayes, “and if someone was to go and see my show and be like, ‘What the fuck is going on?’ I would be really happy with that, because I just think that’s what it’s about, just making people go, ‘What the hell?’”

Still, Hayes’ is no nihilist. He aims for a specific aesthetic, valuing the transmission of emotion in his images.

“I’m really trying to take the viewers into a world I don’t think they could see for themselves,” says Hayes. “For me, photography is an emotional response. I’m trying to create a mood or an emotion here. I’m not really interested in what things look like…I’m more interested in what things feel like.”

Matt Hayes’ Short Stories opens at Gallery Saintonge with a First Friday reception July 6, from 5 to 8 PM. The show will be on display throughout July.
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