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Matt McGraw went to college to become a weatherman, not a photojournalist. But kind of like a perfect storm, the conditions were exactly right for turning a boyhood pursuit into a thriving career, almost spontaneously.

Portrait Photo by Matt McGraw, North Carolina

Self-Portrait of Matt McGraw

Growing up in New Castle, Indiana, USA a relatively small community of 20,000, McGraw spent a greater part of his childhood fascinated by photography. He was always scrutinizing the photos in an ad or action shots in Sports Illustrated. When he got his first camera (a Canon T70) for Christmas during junior high school, he played around with it, taking snapshots of…you guessed it… the weather. However, by the time he entered 10th grade, he had a better idea: learn a real photographic craft while earning some extra money.

He went down to the local newspaper, The New Castle Courier Times, to ask if he could take some photos. The photo editor sent McGraw on a trial run: a girls’ high school basketball game, shooting with TMAX 3200 film. The results were good enough to get him the job. “I was an energetic kid, always asking questions,” McGraw says. “And he liked that.”

McGraw not only got to shoot high school sports, but also attended many of the other local sporting events, including college basketball (Purdue and Indiana), the NBA and NCAA football, sitting alongside photographers from the Indianapolis Star and the Associated Press. He also got to shoot John McEnroe vs. Boris Becker at the RCA tennis championships. One of his biggest thrills was shooting the charity Larry Bird All-Star Game, hanging out with guys like Dominique Wilkins and Michael Jordan in the locker room. He was 16 years old. “It was great experience for a kid,” he says.

“I’d come home at night, and I’d watch the highlights. I’d wear a bright shirt that I would recognize, so I’d be able to see myself on television,” McGraw remembers. Those early days in training gave him confidence behind the camera, while instilling a photojournalistic sensibility. “I was always taught to read between the lines…to shoot different than everyone else was shooting.” McGraw likens photography to reading a book: “Every time you read it, you pull something else out of it,” he says. “I’m always trying to find something in there that someone else doesn’t see.”

He continued his side career as a budding photojournalist all the way through college at University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Not long after graduation, a friend asked him to photograph her wedding. “I pretty much hit the Richter Scale on photography. I shot one wedding for a friend. Next thing I know, I’m shooting five weddings in May.”

“I just kept thinking, I can’t believe I’m making this much money taking pictures,” McGraw says. It came easy to him, because he had been doing it for so long—and he never imagined he could make a career doing something he loved so much. It never seemed like work.

Even now, 19 years later, it’s still fun. “I get in my own little world. I wake up Saturday morning, and I’m all excited.”

His strengths? “I think I am really good at capturing someone’s inner self. The best way to do this just by listening—listening to your surroundings, and not being afraid to ask questions. The photography part of the relationship is second,” he says.

“There’s this spot that I can feel the intensity—where I’m able to capture the feeling, the thoughts and the emotion,” he explains. The more real people are, the better the photographs.

That’s part of the reason why McGraw’s favorite wedding was that of a construction worker and a stripper. Most of the weddings he photographs are traditional and upscale, McGraw explains, and people often feel the presence of the camera and the audience. They’re on their best behavior, and it becomes McGraw’s challenge, and his job, to uncover their real emotions under all the pretensions. This wedding was different, he says. “It was country—all banjo and missing teeth. Everyone was drunk. But it was as real as it got, and I loved it.” There were people dancing in cowboy hats, a fight at the cake table, and a drunken bride, who took over the microphone to give the groom’s family a piece of her mind—all moments McGraw was there to capture. “It was the best shooting day of my life,” he says.

When the emotions aren’t flying as freely and feelings aren’t as raw, it takes a little bit more work to peel away the layers—but McGraw is a natural. He has been a people-watcher all his life, using public spaces like the mall as practice ground for observation. “I’m watching people interact, watching their emotions,” he says.

That explains why some of his best photos are moment shots, winning him WPJA awards in categories like “emotion” and “ceremony.” One of his award-winning photographs captures a bride and her dad right after the wedding, when everyone was congratulating the couple. “All day he had the look of a proud and sad dad, proud that his daughter was happy, but sad his daughter was all grown up. I was looking for the moment of moments,” he recalls. The dad stood back, while McGraw waited for them to look at one another. “When they did, she ran up to him and hugged him for about two minutes. But hugging wasn’t the great moment. It was the two seconds after he hugged her. He takes a half step back and looks at her. Not a word. It told a thousand stories.”

In another of his award-winning photos, a row of bridesmaids are sitting in chairs, their faces obscured by shadow or out of the frame altogether, as light pours through the windows, illuminating their dresses and creating a stark contrast between their formal gowns and casual flip-flops. “Adding the faces in would have taken away from the photo,” he says. Without revealing any facial expressions, McGraw manages to capture the subtle tension that lives beneath the surface of even the most quiet, relaxed moments.

When it comes to the technical, McGraw, self-taught, is constantly seeking out learning opportunities—seminars, continuing education, and studying “many, many” photography websites. “We no longer have cameras; we have computers with lenses,” he says. “We have studied and studied to perfect digital. So far, since the switch [to digital], I think I have scratched the surface. We now shoot with different Kelvin temperatures—we never did that with film,” McGraw says. He has also learned how to use more remotes “to get the feel and ambiance …But we still try not to stray from raw photojournalism.”

So while McGraw never pursued his professional career in meteorology, his ability to capture an image with control and intuition has made him extremely popular with brides and grooms on their wedding day, rain or shine—and that's something not many weathermen can say.

— by Meghan McEwen for the Wedding Photojournalist Association