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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As the staff photographer at Saturday Night Live, Mary Ellen Matthews not only creates the highly stylized portraits of the guest hosts and musical acts used during each show, but she and her team also shoot the rehearsals, promotional photos and cast photos. All of this takes place under a tight deadline while the live program is being produced. The harried, dizzying pace of working under such time constraints adds to the high energy of the images, or “photo bumpers” as they’re often called. The shots are playful, sometimes silly, and the subjects always look like they’re having a great time. Matthews has that rare ability to bring out the most colorful side of her subjects.

The New York-based photographer started off working in film production and music publicity before transitioning to entertainment photography. In her career, she has documented celebrities from pop music stars like Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake and politicians like Al Gore and George Bush to athletes such as Tom Brady and Derek Jeter and rock stars like U2 and Mick Jagger. Since 1999, she has been the photographer for SNL.
Above: Actress Anne Hathaway.
“There’s a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to that,” Matthews says, “because sometimes we can’t talk, it’s so loud. That gets difficult. But it’s a great environment and what that brings to the shoot, of course, there’s an amount of excitement that’s there. I like to get people up to that place, that sort of high energy, so it’s part of that as well. I think I have a lot of energy, and also my crew does. I just make that the vibe. I just kind of start [at that high energy level]. Instead of bringing it up there, I start it there.”

Matthews is fortunate, she says, to work with subjects who are generally willing and cooperative. Because they have agreed to be a part of SNL, they tend to be open to the process of the shoot and somewhat less likely to reject the photographer’s concepts out of hand.

“Nothing is ever really out of bounds, ever,” she explains. “There’s a looseness to it. An ‘okay, let’s do it!’ kind of thing. I try to do research before the shoot and get some ideas and try to keep it new and fresh each week. I work with a stylist, and I present some tear sheets or books and ideas, and I’ll certainly work with the stylist to come up with where we’re going.”

The “just do it” attitude is also influenced by the schedule of the production; subjects must feel it, too. There’s no time to waste when working in live TV, and the stills are no different.

“My goal is to make it as quick and as easy as possible,” says Matthews of her portrait sessions. “They’re here to host a show, so I try to make it ‘I’ll fly under the radar’ week. If it’s on Tuesday, we’ll have a couple of hours. Today [with the Dave Matthews Band and Joseph Gordon-Levitt ] was very quick, maybe 40 minutes with Joseph to do four or five different looks. I’ve got to say, it’s the best training anyone could possibly have. I can make something happen so fast it will make your head spin.”

Actor Paul Rudd
There’s a lot of pressure that accompanies shooting celebrity portraits with two-day deadlines week after week. But the pressures Matthews doesn’t feel, she says, are undue stress from herself, from her subjects or from the show’s producers to be something she’s not or to create images she doesn’t want to.

“I don’t feel any pressure at all to be anything,” she says. “I feel comfortable in what I do for the show. The only pressure I feel is to keep it new. The challenge that I have is that because we’re in high definition, the ratio is 16x9, and to put a vertical person in a horizontal space gets difficult. It gets a little frustrating. So [I’m just] trying to come up with different sorts of positionings and orientations and just kind of looking at it differently, if I can, week by week. Just trying to keep it fresh.”


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