As a high school student in Hayward, CA, Matt Kim never assumed that he was going to do photography for a living. All he knew was that he was captivated by it. He was one of those guys who bought film in bulk and developed it in his bathtub; that is, when he wasn’t walking the streets of nearby San Francisco and Oakland, capturing urban slices of life among their not-always friendly denizens.
Capturing real moments and fleeting, intense emotions is almost always what Kim has been driven to do. And while he has not always been welcome among his subjects on the streets, he is embraced and respected among wedding-day celebrants as he captures those authentic slices of life in churches and reception venues. And that suits him just fine.
Matt first got turned on to good photography at a class he took in high school, but the instruction there wasn’t enough to satisfy his curiosity and desire to learn more. So he did some research on his own, and while still in high school he took some night classes in photography at junior college. “I used to cut classes and walk the streets of San Francisco, dreaming of being Henri Cartier-Bresson or André Kertész in the streets of Paris.”
When you’re 16 you don’t always know exactly what you want to do. “I can’t say that the passion for photography was so strong that I was going to drop everything else,” Matt notes, “It wasn’t so much a lack of drive or confidence, but more a lack of direction, mentors and advisors.”
All he knew is that he was pulled to it and enjoyed it.
Despite his passion for photography, Matt found himself in the position of having to get a job after high school. “It was the early 1990s. The photography work hadn’t really furthered my career at that point; I didn’t know the right people,” he says.
Matt got into the latest technology thing at the time, which was desktop publishing, publication design, and later, Web design. He pursued some freelancing, and worked at a small web development company in Berkeley, while also doing portraits for friends and still taking pictures while pursuing personal projects. He now feels that his work in graphic design ultimately helped his photo composition.
His award-winning photo of two men shaking hands with the bride in the background certainly reflects a refined sense of strong composition, as well as skills developed in his street work. “This happened so quickly, and I kind of shot it from the hip like you might do on the streets…and I happened to catch that moment. I was moving quickly toward them, had my flash on from doing the formals. I saw this scene and got a ‘grab shot.’ The guy in the left is actually the limo driver shaking hands with the groom on the right. I happened to get the good composition with the graphic element of the two faces mirrored and the bride in the middle. I think that’s why it worked.”
When digital cameras started hitting the market, Matt found that they really enabled him as a photographer, as film was cumbersome. “When that happened, since I already had the computer skills, it sort of brought everything together and it let me get back into photography more seriously,” he recalls.
A big fan, Matt tried to get into music photography, shooting at the shows of up-and-coming bands based in the Bay Area. “After a while I managed to get some free passes, so I thought I was really cool,” he says, “but that was about as far as I got with that. When I looked at the reality of music photography and the ability to make money there, I realized that it would be pretty much impossible.”
Matt shot his first wedding in the summer of 2004, tagging along with a friend who was already in the business. “He was shooting more traditionally while I was pretty much doing my own thing,” Matt says. “When I got home I really liked the photos that I got, so I put some ads up on Craig’s List and got some gigs from that.”
Matt shot three weddings during his first winter, and 35 in the next year. “I was cheap and good, and that’s what people like,” he states. But it was still a learning process. He had to learn the ins and outs of running one’s own business. “A lot of [wedding] photojournalists who go into weddings get proper advice, they already have the business skills, and they transition into it smoothly, but I kind of had to figure out everything for myself.”
The street photography that Matt pursued in his early days was not always easy, but it foreshadowed and informed his later work in weddings.
“In street photography you’re dealing with a lot of people, and you have to have a certain kind of personality, a Zen master quality, to do it really well,” he notes. “Like renowned war photographer James Nachtwey— he has this aura— the kind of personality where people submit to his will and they don’t really question why he’s shooting the most agonizing tragic moments of their life.”
Matt’s street work included some strange incidents where he would go into certain parts of town and get yelled at for taking people’s photos without their permission. “Once I took a shot of a newspaper vendor in one of those little huts, and he started chasing me, so I had to run across the street and jog for a little while to get away,” he remembers.
“With weddings, you don’t need that Zen master aura to let you have access to certain situations. The wedding is ideal if you want to do that kind of work because people expect to have their photos taken. I feel like I’m legitimately there, whereas when you’re doing street photography people feel like it’s an intrusion or an invasion of privacy, or they’re suspicious, especially these days. I found the access I have at weddings to be very liberating and really matches what I want to do— people pay you to take intimate pictures of the most important moments of their wedding day.”
Matt doesn’t think he was born to be a landscape photographer, where “things aren’t happening,” or a still-life or fashion photographer. “I like the density of interaction. I like the streets and a lot of people. And that density of interaction is also why weddings are great [for me]. It’s such an intense day with a lot of emotions.”
When shooting weddings, Matt generally uses two Canon cameras fitted with 85mm and 16-35mm lenses, mixing both wide and long shots. He doesn’t put a great deal of emphasis on lighting. “I’ll crank the ISO, use ambient light as long as possible, and then use my on-camera flash,” he says. “I don’t do any lights on stands. I’m not as interested in technically perfect photos as I am in making sure I catch everything that I think people will want to remember.”
Matt notes that he primarily looks to capture emotions. His award-winning shot of the wedding couple amid a crowd of loving friends and family was taken near the end of the evening, when friends circle in around the couple and everybody gives a big group hug. “I’ve had many of those, and just happened to get this one exactly right,” he says. “The best angles are when I’m in the circle, and in this case I was in there. I put my camera up and got the shot.”
He says that he pursues those emotions more intensely than some of the more traditional topics, such as detail and setting. “What I look for is what I think people want to remember— not what they’ll like next month when they have those beautiful fashion portraits of themselves with all of the flowers and the beautiful decorations on which they spend a lot of money. I’m thinking about 20 years from now, when they’re looking back and showing their children and grandchildren what their wedding day was like. What people like immediately after a wedding is going to be far different after a certain length of time.”
Matt Kim is still a young guy, but he’s obviously thinking of his photography in terms of real meaning and permanence. He’s diligently preserving those real slices of life, whether on the street on in the warmer environment of the wedding day.
—by Michael Roney for the Wedding Photojournalist Association