Oi Polloi

Interview: Matt Weber — Photographer

Published: Fri Feb 14 2014

The term ‘street photographer’ gets bandied around a lot these days, but most of the time all it means is someone who once took a photograph of a busker. Matt Weber, on the other hand, is one photographer who definitely does deserve that title. He’s been lurking the lesser-seen localities of New York since the early 1980s, and is just as active today as he was thirty years ago.

Using the powers of the internet age I fired him over a few questions, and by some stroke of luck, he answered back. Here’s what he had to say on photography, driving taxis and why New York isn’t quite what it used to be…

Sam: Hello Matt, how’s it going?

Matt: I am OK… photography has been the best thing for me emotionally, but not financially. Most photographers these days are being hard pressed to find a way to make a decent living off of their work. The few who are doing well should count their blessings.

Sam: When was it that you started taking photographs?

Matt: As a kid in 1968, but then I took a twelve year break in 1972 and didn’t really get back into it till 1984.

Sam: What was it that made you pick the camera up again in the 80s?

Matt: I was tired of seeing amazing things and not being able to photograph them. I kept saying, “Man I gotta get a camera!”

Sam: You shot photographs for a long time whilst working as a taxi driver. How did you work this? Would you intentionally take fares to areas where you knew would be better for photographs?

Matt: I took people anywhere and I never refused a fare unless they appeared very threatening. When I ended up in what was still considered a ghetto, I was on the prowl for pictures. Since I had been a wild driver (hot rods) when I was young, I didn’t mind being in any bad area because I would run ten red lights if necessary, and I had a bulletproof partition which helped me feel a lot safer if I had the wrong people in my car.

Sam: Was the bulletproof partition ever put to use?

Matt: Yes, but it’s difficult to be sure if I would have just been robbed or if it also saved my life.

Sam: I’ve always thought being a taxi driver sounded like a pretty interesting job — a good way of seeing things and talking to people. Are my predictions right, or is it just another boring job?

Matt: It is a very boring job, but I found the camera made it much better. I wasn’t only looking for the next fare to wave their arm in the air; I was looking for the next image!

Sam: Where are your favourite places in New York to take photos?

Matt: These days there are few places which haven’t been gentrified. Coney Island is always a fun place to shoot, but it is quickly losing most of its original flavour.

Sam: I don’t know much about New York but I’ve heard a lot of people say it’s changed a lot in the last twenty years — maybe a mix of Mayor Giuliani and 9/11. As someone who’s been there since the ‘80s, how do you think it’s changed?

Matt: The main thing is that before 1985 anybody could afford an apartment in NYC. Now you need to be 100% bonafide with all your papers and money in perfect order. When I was young you just had to hand $150 to a landlord or super and he handed you a set of keys! It was just a handshake and you were a tenant. Therefore the city contained all sorts of characters and was a lot better to document, but it was dangerous too. Now it’s safe and dull. I’m not sure what is better sometimes.

Sam: What was it like back when you first started taking pictures? Do you think people’s attitudes to being photographed are different now?

Matt: No… New Yorkers are still uptight unless you approach them with a big smile, and then a good portion of them can be disarmed. Attitude goes a long way.

Sam: You’ve photographed some fairly wild moments. Has anyone ever turned sour and gone after you?

Matt: Yes, I have been attacked and threatened too many times to count. It can leave me doubting myself for a few hours or even a couple of days, but not longer.

Sam: What is it that you’re looking for when you’re walking around with your camera?

Matt: If I knew I would tell you, but the beauty of the city streets is that there is always the possibility of something coming together at any minute.

Sam: Are there certain things you wouldn’t photograph?

Matt: I avoid shooting midgets and people with terrible birth defects, but I reserve the right to shoot anything. One has to be comfortable with what they do. If I see a person whose face has been badly burned, I would never photograph that person, unless the burns occurred in a newsworthy situation and I was doing a story on that.

Sam: Do you go out intentionally to take pictures, or have you just always got your camera with you anyway?

Matt: I have always had a camera since 1989… I have missed a few potentially epic images when I was unprepared.

Sam: Do you follow other photographers much? Who else do you like?

Matt: Due to the internet there are too many to mention. I watch the work of over twenty people, most of whom I have become friends with. The classic guys from the twentieth century are still the best teachers — Frank, Winogrand and Evans are the obvious ones.

Sam: Is it always New York? Do you take pictures anywhere else?

Matt: I always have my camera with me, but I haven’t had a car lately so my road trips are less frequent, which is a drag.

Sam: Do you ever think you’ll stop?

Matt: Death or a major stroke could do the trick.

Sam: What do you get up to when you’re not taking pictures?

Matt: Watch too much football. Watch too many terrible movies on HBO while I scan my negatives each night.

Sam: Wrapping this up now, have you got any words of wisdom you’d like to share with our readers?

Matt: Shoot what you like otherwise the whole thing will be pointless…

See more of Matt’s photographs over on his website, or if you’re really lazy, scroll down for a few choice selections.

Cheers to Brian David Stevens for the tip-off.