DPP Home Profiles Mary Ellen Matthews: It's Saturday Night!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Mary Ellen Matthews: It's Saturday Night!

SNL staff photographer Mary Ellen Matthews does the photography equivalent of herding cats every week as she makes cool, quirky and creative images of the show’s guests

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Green Day

Some photography gigs are truly one of a kind. The task of creating celebrity portraits for broadcast to 10 million television viewers on a weekly basis certainly qualifies. That’s exactly the job Mary Ellen Matthews, official photographer for NBC’s Saturday Night Live, has held for a decade.

“I’m so happy that someone paid attention to it for what it is,” she says, “a very unique job, a unique part of television. To have photography broadcast on a weekly basis—it’s amazing.”

For 24 weeks between September and May, Matthews creates portraits of the show’s celebrity hosts and musical guests. The broadcast goes live on Saturday night, and the week before is a whirlwind for the entire production—including the photographer.

“We try to do the host on Tuesday and then the band on Thursday,” Matthews says during a Thursday afternoon break, “but then some weeks, it can be as late as Thursday. So I just finished Dave Matthews Band and Joseph Gordon-Levitt [on a Thursday], and we have to go back and do one more outfit at 6 p.m. while he finishes rehearsal. It moves pretty fast.”

Actor Bradley Cooper
Matthews works fast, too, right from the NBC headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Center. She doesn’t shoot in a photo studio; instead, she creates a makeshift shooting space in Studio 8H, the famed location from which SNL has broadcast for 35 years.

“Today, there’s rehearsal down in the studio,” she explains. “The band comes in on Thursday, so they’re rehearsing and blocking, and we have a seamless setup to the side. So when we’re shooting the host, the band is having this live concert as we’re shooting. It creates this really amazing environment.”

That frenetic shooting space definitely contributes to the feel of Matthews’ portraits. Far from stiff or stagnant, her images are filled with a sense of urgency, of energy. It’s something she targets deliberately, but it does come naturally. Shooting adjacent to a concert certainly helps boost the energy, although it does have drawbacks, too.


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