There is a certain messy beauty to photographer Matt Monath’s CHROMA series. Queer faces covered in rainbow dust, textures, and extreme close-ups fill the shot. There’s a vibrancy and intimacy in a way we haven’t seen these celebrities before. It is undeniably PRIDE in artistic chaos that reflects our history, and this past year’s rollercoaster of isolation in a social and political time of unrest.
CHROMA started as a photographic study on color and texture, in relation to portraiture. It has since grown to become a celebration of queerness and pride, and I’ve been exclusively shooting queer subjects for the series over the last few years. It’s a passion project, and I want to share the experience with as many beautiful queer people in the community as possible. The process of creating CHROMA is one that is intimate between the subject and me and has led to the most significant connections I have had throughout my photo sessions.
Whether it is for his own photographic series or for his editorial and commercial work, his style is instantly recognizable. Commanding his bold aesthetic, he has shot some of today’s most notable talent for iconic brands and platforms with features in Elle Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Seventeen Magazine, People, and the list goes on and on, not to mention the billboards coloring the skyline all over New York.
One of my first portraiture gigs out of college was shooting Rita Ora for iHeart. She came through the iHeart offices for a day of press, which included a 15-minute shoot with me. Even though it was a quick shoot, I was given full creative freedom and had her pose in front of a wall that I scribbled ‘Rita’ all over, which perfectly juxtaposed her (accidentally dyed) rainbow hair. Within the advertising space, my first professional shoot was for L’Oréal Paris, where I transitioned from photo assistant to photographer in a hectic shoot for The Emmys that ended up needing someone eager to pick up a camera and start snapping. That was the start of my commercial photographic career, thanks to my producer buddy, Will. My first advertorial was an exciting accomplishment, especially because the feature was created by an all-queer team. It was for their ‘Master of Style’ series, presented by Cadillac, and this one featured Charlie Carver. I first saw it in print at the issue’s launch party, and you know I scooped up as many issues as I could get my hands on.
How does he stay creative when given a client assignment?
It’s a balance! First and foremost, a happy client is what is most important to me, especially because I have the luxury of shooting passion projects like CHROMA on the side when I am not wrapped up in a commercial project that involves specific client-driven creative direction. However, I know I have been awarded a particular project because the client, producer, and creative director believe in my abilities to execute their vision through my point of view, and it’s a collaboration. I will often propose some extra shots where I can have a bit more freedom while being sure I have hit the agreed-upon shot list beforehand, so the client has the option of extra content that feels more authentic to the creator.
It is no surprise that Matt’s inspiration comes from Annie Liebowitz, the patron saint of the American portrait. They share that intimate style that, in any other scenario, the closeups would be considered too close, but in their work, it is art.
I use levity and laughter to help loosen up my subjects. I let them steer at first until they are comfortable, and I will then start to give some direction. I let them feel their emotions, be honest about their possible insecurities, listen to them, and I always end up saying lots of ‘YAS’s and ‘WERK’s to get them to a point where they are really feeling themselves. I have gotten to a point where my body of work speaks for itself, and I show past work of mine as inspiration for an upcoming shoot.
I dive all in and stalk them out. I will study their work, scroll deep on their Instagram, and make a game plan for what I want to say with the images we will shoot. I love to utilize what the viewer may already know or love about the subject and use that as a starting point for a concept – that is the fun of shooting someone that already has a platform.
CHROMA has been a decade in the making, and a learning curve for Matt.
CHROMA has seen some very experimental failures throughout its ten years in the making. But experimenting is how it all started, and how it continues to evolve. I found the perfect medium to apply, in the way that photographs best, through lots of trial and error.
I have learned that, while CHROMA is messy, the subjects often feel their most beautiful when covered in this colored powder. It’s a mess, but an empowering one. The series has taught me that my work can hold power, to both the subject and the viewer.
You can literally see the evolution of Matt’s pride working up into a fervor. It’s his visual Pride march.
I want a queer viewer to see a CHROMA shot and wish they could be the subject. I want them to take the time to study the image because, with all that texture, color, and emotion, it invites the viewer to take the time to let it absorb.
It is his statement to the world, using familiar faces from our community that are sharing their stories and inspiring youth, are a reflection of his own coming out.
I was outed to most loved ones by a friend, but still had the experience of being able to come out to a few special people in my life. And while it felt earth-shattering now, and as if an important growth opportunity had been taken from me, it made me realize that I should not have been hesitant, to be honest with myself or those around me. Despite it happening out of my control, I still share my coming out story because I want to assure young people that no matter how or when you come out, it will open the door to living your truth, authentically and freely.
Ten years of CHROMA hits at a particularly interesting season of Pride, with the uncertainty from COVID and the healing from the last administration.
Pride feels, to me, like being a part of a whole – it’s the energy of the queer community and the camaraderie within it. After a polarizing and challenging past year, Pride this year hits different. I’m ready to get sweaty on dance floors in our safe spaces, exchange joyous glances with queer strangers, and share the energy of celebration.
During this last year, most of our stories were being told through selfies and filters. Love them or hate them, they are a part of our culture. What is Matt’s take on the filtered selfie movement?
Go ahead and feel yourself! Get that selfie but find that good light!
I pride myself on my work being recognizably mine from a quick glance. That has been the goal throughout my editorial work. My images involve a great deal of post-production prowess – I am often adding color effects and glowing flares in post, mixed with in-camera lighting tricks. With that said, my post-production is an extension of my lighting techniques yet may invite comparison to certain colorful in-app filters. I think it’s cool that the average person has tools like in-app filters to enhance their images, and I’m always ensuring that my work looks ‘unfiltered’ yet holds true to my signature aesthetic. Maybe it is time for a Monath filter, though?
Besides Annie Leibovitz, Matt’s other inspiration comes from his husband, also a photographer. His husband will often support and assist on a day of a photo shoot.
I love the artistic dynamic between me and my husband, Matthew (yes, we are both Matthews). Shoutout to Matthew James Ortiz! Our photographic styles vary enough that it feels like we are on different parts of the creative spectrum, yet we can talk for hours about shooting and editing, and often critique the other’s work. We also get to tackle jobs together, which really is the dream scenario. He will be my assistant on some shoots, and I will be his on others. He has a fine art background, and even his commercial work is rooted in that, whereas my work largely revolves around the advertising workspace.
When not in artistic mode, Matt is still mingling with his celebrity friends.
I get into super competitive Mario Kart tournaments with my gaymer friends. I am forever losing to Jonathan Van Ness, but forever beating Johnny Sibilly. That’s right, I said it.
CHROMA continues to thrive, leaving its mark on photographic history as well as Matt’s legacy.
I hope that, through all my work, whether it be editorial or commercial, my audience sees my passion. Some of my work is made to be glossy and polished with a particular viewer or market in mind, and some is made to be personal and emotional with an invitation for anyone to receive it. When it comes to CHROMA, I want the viewer to feel that these moments with the subject are complex, and are those of personal power, profundity, and pride.
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(Featured Image: Chroma XVIII – Matthew James Ortiz – by Matt Monath)
Last modified: June 12, 2021