Photographic Education: An Interview with Matt MacPake

Photographic Education is an interview series from Loupe. Through conversation with successful photographers, we discuss the merits of photographic education, how to get the most out of it, and where it can improve. Each interviewee shares their advice for aspiring photographers, making the series a valuable resource for students and educators alike, as well as promoting work from the most encouraging new photographers.

Interview by Luke Das

Matt MacPake is a Programme Leader at the University of Hertfordshire and a working photographer. He brings a wealth of industry insight to his role in education to bridge the space between academia and contemporary photographic practice. Throughout his career, Matt’s photographs have documented the identity of communities and the individuals that occupy them with grace and consideration. His work has been featured by The Photographers Gallery, British Journal of Photography and The Guardian.

Luke Das: You have consistently published and exhibited following your own graduation. What were your initial aspirations when you started practice as a photographer?

MMP: University had a huge impact on my understanding of photography. I began the course with fashion photographer in mind, but over the three years I was introduced to photography that I’d never seen before, and came out a totally different photographer. In my first year I saw Cruel & Tender at Tate Modern and for Guy Bourdain at the V and A. It was around 2003. Being exposed to that sort of work had a huge impact on me, I was blown away by the experience of large-scale gallery exhibitions. I began to discover who I wanted to be and what type of images interested me. If I’m honest this took a while but I understand now that that’s nothing to be ashamed of, it’s an ongoing progress throughout your photographic life.

From ‘Whisper City Bones’ ©Matt MacPake

LD: As a lecturer, you have over 10 years of experience and you work at the university where you were a student yourself. What are the core principles that you now pass down to your own students?

MMP: You’d probably be better asking my students what they think about this. The most important thing as a student is that you take care of yourself, both physically and mentally. After this, I would say: Don’t expect perfection: embrace your mistakes – use them, learn from them and expect to make more. Show your work to as many people as you can and ask everyone for help and advice including professionals and your peers. Criticism is more valuable than praise but you don’t have to listen to everyone or anyone, sometimes it’s good to believe in what you think. Stick together. Your friends and peers at university will be the people you rely upon for jobs, kit, advice, help & support in years to come. Make lots of work. Make personal work alongside your uni projects. The more you practice, the more accomplished you will become, it’s important to work on projects that matter to you. Lastly, never give up…there’s been lots of times I’ve thought about giving it up but I really believe that’s one of the biggest challenges and biggest rewards…the more you push yourself through the tough times, the more you learn about your work and yourself.

From ‘Whisper City Bones’ ©Matt MacPake

LD: What are the advantages of a photographic education at graduate and post-graduate level, which allow a student to gain a successful start to their career?

MMP: Education has changed a huge amount, certainly since I was at Uni. The experience of university can be life changing in many ways other than the studying – most people at a graduate level attend at a formative time in their lives.

Uni offers experience in creating and making physical prints, books, exhibitions. There are great opportunities to reach a large network of guest speakers from the industry. At the University of Hertfordshire, we place an emphasis on collaboration, employability and work experience, encouraging and supporting students to develop their commercial networks and build an understanding of business know how. This builds student confidence and encourages people to take more risks with their work. It’s important to think of uni as getting ready for industry alongside the studying, as an integral part of the degree.

Post-graduate level can be studied full time over a year or part time over two years. I took to the part time route as I was working, and it was a huge benefit to me. I came into uni one day a week for lecturers or to meet tutors, and the support I received was amazing. I had already started working on To & from the North Circular, although the project was not properly formed. I think it’s great to have an idea or work in progress to take with you on to a postgraduate course, but it’s not essential.

©Matt MacPake

The MA had great advantages, it allowed me to start putting work out there and to get it noticed for the first time. When I studied my degree there was no social media so this type of personal promotion was all new to me and I was a little unsure at first. The course focused on the practical and contextual sides of photography whilst allowing me to develop the professional level of enquiry, invention, research and project  management.

The most encouraging part for me was that I felt supported, I didn’t always agree with my feedback but it was always constructive, valuable and honest. I think that’s all you can ask for like with any qualification it’s about where you take your work with that information in mind.

LD: To & from the North Circular began as a research project where you collated the photography of others that led to you making your own work. Do you feel a grounding as an academic informs your production process?

MMP: My role at the University of Hertfordshire means that I have some time to work on projects and access to facilities and equipment. I also have a great team and network of people that are always there to encourage, show work to, and give honest constructive advice.

The MA changed the way I approached projects, I learned to be more critical but also to embrace experimental approaches. I found that once I allowed myself to incorporate experimentation, my confidence grew. Even if the result wasn’t successful, I found that it was maybe a result I could use or develop in another idea.

©Matt MacPake

LD: This series will also be released as a photo book. What were the main considerations you made to prepare these images for print?

MMP: It’s been a considerable amount of time now since I paid attention to the North Circular work. I let it go for a while. It was time to do something else but I also wanted to focus on other things with my life. I’ve had a family since then. I now have two young kids and of course having children changes everything. It’s only just now that I’m at stage where I want too readdress the work.

I’m contemplating photographing more images but before that, the first stage for me is to go through a new edit of the project. This will be different from previous edits, I’ve already found new images that are now in my mind. The priority will be to get the body of work together in a new workable format and go from there. It’s important to have people you can reply upon from different areas, who can give you honest feedback. It’s good to show people who have nothing to do with photography but whose opinion you trust too.

I’m in the process of making dummies at the moment, in the past I’ve probably been too precious about it the idea of making books. I’m currently creating layout and edit after which I’ll be showing that to various people and taking things from there. With regards to printing I’ll be creating my dummies on a standard printer and binding them by hand sewing, just to get the project in front of people and to see where I go next.

©Matt MacPake

LD: Medium format colour photography is predominant in your latest social media posts. Do you feel that the craft of analogue photography should be embraced by current graduates?

MMP: Analogue photography offers students a unique opportunity to engage with taking photographs without the distraction of seeing an immediate image. This is a very useful process, it gives you time to think about what’s in front of you and to focus on the relationship with your ideas and the decisions you make. For me it’s a more meditative way of working and feels like a step away from technology that surrounds us.

I grew up using film so I never knew any different, my whole graduate degree was based on photographing with film. Digital was just arriving as I left uni. To & from the North Circular was in part a project that helped me come to terms with creating digital photographs that I could be happy with. Personally, I love photography as a whole. I don’t see myself as anything other than a photographer who uses what I think is the right medium for the right project. I think I take more film photographs because I feel more in tune with that process – being in the moment of taking the picture and winding the shutter is just a natural instinct for me.

I think photography students should try to make the most of their access to equipment. I would say use the things you are intrigued by but also the kit that scares you a little. Turn the fear into a strength while you can – your degree will go by quickly and kit is very expensive. We have a fantastic loan store at University of Hertfordshire, with professional analogue & digital equipment. We’ve recently invested in digital medium format Fuji GFX kit and a Hasselblad scanner. This is equipment that won’t be readily available to students outside of uni, certainly not without cost. We also have technical staff with a wealth of knowledge who are there to support our students throughout their studies. 

LD: Thanks for you time, and best of luck with the book. 

www.mattmacpake.co.uk

Luke Das is a lecturer, writer and photographer with an interest in traditional image making techniques. His works pay homage to photography from the past and present.