Travis Magazine – Shooting the Shit with Matt Barnes
Things worked out a bit differently for Sheridan photographer Matt Barnes. No graduation ceremonies, no diploma. But even after all that, he still managed to see his work hung up high on the Gardiner Expressway. We got a good kick out of that, and so did he.
“Cow, I need you up here, on the right,” Matt Barnes is directing me. He guides me from my comfortable, hidden place in the crowd into plain view. Right beside the sexy Native-American and the shirtless Mexican wrestler. On the other side of the couch is a fake-tanned, fake-boobed, blonde-Asian who might as well be naked. Barnes is unaffected by any of this as he positions the Halloween partygoers on the set to compose the perfect party. This is all staged. I’m here for the free drinks, cow costume and all. As for Barnes, well he is here to shoot a calendar for Jagermeister.
His hands are constantly in motion, like he’s composing a symphony, one hand is telling me to go right, and left is telling the guy in the caribou costume to come forward. Next he’s telling me I need to look like I’m partying. I don’t party. As much as I tell people I party, I don’t party. But the countless free drinks are loosening me up, I’ll play along a little bit, this is way outside of my comfort zone. Barnes is paying attention and encouraging me. He could just as easily shove me in the back or off to the side, but he wants me up here. So damn it, I’m up here.
A few days later, we’re sitting inside his office, a lofty room inside Westside Studio located at 70 Ward Street in Toronto. The foyer has a few vintage couches, a barbershop chair from the 50’s, and Charles Bronson’s coffee table.
“I don’t even know if that’s true, it was on the tag. They got a sucker like me to pay a couple hundred bucks for it,” he said laughing. It very well could be Charles Bronson’s coffee table.
The walls of the foyer are lined with photos, some of celebrities, some for advertisements, and I even notice picture of Travis photographer, Kevin Bryan. He just happens to work alongside Barnes. It’s all of Barnes’ most recent shots. Spencer Forrest, Barnes assistant and Sheridan grad, comes in and out of the office occasionally. At one point his wife Shelley pokes her head in the studio door. While I look down at my notes, I can tell they are having a silent conversation with each other. I look up and they both realize they’ve been caught and burst out laughing.
Barnes is a likeable guy. He’s down-to-earth, and most noticeably off-the-cuff honest. Barnes is wearing white Chuck Taylor low-tops and horn-rimmed glasses. He’s tall with tattoos. He’s soft spoken, surprisingly. Born in England, Barnes grew up on the East Coast, and moved to Ontario in 1996. He spent his teenage years in Port Dover, that tiny beach town that is home to the Hell’s Angels. It’s rubbed off on him. He’s got a reputation for being a rule-breaker.
“I want to be seen and do things that are cool,” Barnes said. Then he starts musing about what the word “cool” means, it’s a loose term that our society uses all over the place. For decades “cool” has meant something indescribable. It’s a hard word to really define, you either are or you aren’t.
“James Dean, Elvis, Steve McQueen, those are cool guys,” says Barnes. So I asked him.
“Matt, do you think you’re cool?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. Yeah, I do. I’ve got a good outlook, a cool job, I’m easy to get along with.”
Well, he’s right. Barnes is a cool dude. He’s got that 50’s sense of the word cool written all over him. He takes things in stride, and his quiet confidence seems to drive his career. All of this comes across in his photography. How Barnes views the world is reflected in his shots. He’s a rule-breaker who managed to be teacher’s pet while at Sheridan despite failing out.
“I’m not good at following the rules, but I’m not as wild as I was then,” says Barnes about his time at Sheridan. After leaving Sheridan he found a job six months later as a digital re-toucher. Today, Barnes has shot for Air Canada, the car company Infiniti, Alexisonfire, Drake and Will.I.Am.
“When my first billboard went up on the Gardiner for Infiniti, I’d drive with my friends so I could take pictures of it on my phone,” he said. Photography, it would seem is not something that he could give you tips on. Much like being cool, you either are, or you aren’t.
“Shoot everything close to you, or around you,” Barnes says, “show your world, share your world.” That’s what makes Barnes a success. He invites you into his world in a photo and shows you what’s going on in his head.
“I met this guy on Facebook,” Barnes begins, “Leron, he was a good looking guy and I wanted to use him for a shoot. ‘Come in at six,’ I said. The same day there was a casting call for another shoot next door. At the front of the line there was this guy that looked like Leron, I grabbed him and we shot for 45 minutes and then the real Leron showed up. The whole time I’d been talking to this fake Leron about our Facebook conversation and he was going along with it.”
“We had a girl go missing from the Jager shoot. Her mom called us trying to find her. We had no idea, the next day she showed up as if nothing had happened,” Barnes laughs, showing me a picture of Super Mario and Luigi and the blond posing lewdly, “I just think this is hilarious,” he laughs.
These anecdotes are a snapshot into the world of Barnes’ photography. The Jagermeister photo shoots were a series of staged parties, twice a day for a week. The open bar policy lead to a long list of tales that are only somewhat remembered.
Barnes has woven himself into the fabric of the Toronto media network. What’s next for Barnes is of his choosing. He loves his work, admitting that he doesn’t have too much else to talk about outside of photography, but clearly his passion and drive for the industry make him a very interesting person. And maybe, just maybe, an inspiration for all the students here at Sheridan.