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|| News Item: Posted 2005-09-06

Intern Diaries: Black Star
'I'm expected to shoot very focused and very often…'

By Matt Lutton, Black Star

Photo by Scott Brauer

Photo by Scott Brauer

Matt Lutton in the Black Star offices editing his Spanish Harlem project.
It is true that my intention and goal going into the application-period for summer internships was to land a job at a newspaper, hopefully one in my hometown of Seattle, WA, and work my butt off in the position in learning more on how to be a newspaper photographer.

As it turned out, I did not receive any offers from papers - luckily I had been doing some research on 'alternative' internship opportunities and was in contact with Black Star, in New York City. Before long, the Special Projects Director at the agency, Jason Pagan, was telling me to hop a plane out to Gotham for a summer in the city.

Now, 9 weeks through a 12-week stint at the Black Star Photo Agency, I can say that my "loss" of not working at a newspaper this summer may turn out to be my best opportunity yet for advancing my career and my photography to where I want to go.

Over the last two years working at the University of Washington's newspaper, The Daily, I've had the opportunity to work in a newsroom, as staff photographer and photo editor, while also working on stories big and small in Seattle alongside many of the great newspaper photojournalists from the local dailies.

I have come to realize that my ultimate goal is not to work in newspapers, but rather to be a photojournalist working the magazine circuit. Longer-term stories and breaking world events are my goal, and with the history of Black Star behind me (think current and former Black Star shooters Charles Moore, W. Eugene Smith, James Nachtwey, Anthony Suau, Christopher Morris, Joseph Rodriguez, and so on) my experience as an intern here is providing me with a context and guidance particularly suited to working in this vein.

An internship at Black Star comes in two parts: first is a commitment to work three days per week at the offices of the agency at E 27th St. and Park Ave. in Midtown Manhattan.

My responsibilities in this post have been varied, from carrying boxes and filing cabinets (the agency is currently in the process of consolidating two floors down to one) to editing collections of photographers' work (including the Amazing work of John Launois and Robert Ellison - two amazing Black Star photographers I hadn't really known before coming here) to high-resolution scanning of work for publication and archiving.

The highlight of my time in the office came in early July: in the midst of cleaning, a long-lost stash of W. Eugene Smith prints was found. To my luck, and that of my friend Scott Brauer (another Daily photog interning here), it was assigned to us to scan. I'll always be able to say I worked directly with Smith's work now - too cool!

The second part of my internship, and by far the more personally enriching (no offense to the Joyce at the research desk!), has been developing concepts and shooting my own stories in and around New York City under the guidance of Jason Pagan.

From starting off small, like my one-day story of venders at Ground Zero, to my summer-long project on the rapidly-changing neighborhood of Spanish Harlem, I'm being forced to develop skills, vision and experience in working on self-generated ideas with the intention of marketing my final-product to magazines. Harsh and productive edits, advice and enlightening anecdotes come from Jason every day I'm in the office.

Photo by Matt Lutton

Photo by Matt Lutton

Spanish Harlem
I'm expected to shoot very focused and very often; Jason explains that his goal for the interns is to learn exactly what it takes to conceptualize and produce stories that are marketable to the magazine industry (and the major papers that dabble in more than one-off spot news images) … and then to actually submit the work.

The pressure to shoot so in-depth and devote so much time to issues and ideas has been a difficult challenge to overcome, and I'm definitely still working on it. I've been learning to work myself into situations: meeting people, gaining trust and access, and staying around long enough to allow pictures to happen.

It's a whole different ballgame when you don't have assignment sheets with story info or writers with contacts made before you head out in the field - I've been learning to do all these things plus take productive photographs.

In so far as these projects are concerned, my most successful work came from spending 4 consecutive Thursday afternoons with a group of men and their families, who get together to play a community softball game on a local concrete ball field. I first stumbled upon this group, who gather at E 119th and Pleasant Avenue in the most north-eastern corner of Manhattan, while wandering the Spanish Harlem neighborhood on one of my first forays into the area at the start of my project.

I found a group of people, of all races and creeds, getting together on a corner in their own neighborhood; where the men and older boys play softball, the kids play in an open fire-hydrant and the women sit in lawn chairs talking and watching their husbands, boyfriends and children play.

The first day, I shot maybe a single roll of film through my 2 _ - spending the bulk of the time just being there, observing and eventually interacting with the people. Over the next few weeks I came to be 'one of the regulars' and everyone greeted me with joviality and respect.

As my relationship, and credibility, grew with them I was able to work more efficiently and focused, and produce some of my better portraiture. This series, within my greater Spanish Harlem project, has taught me the most about interacting with my subject, putting the time in and gaining their friendship and trust: all areas that will transfer and inform the rest of the work I'll be doing this summer and beyond.

Frankly, I never would have been there, nor had the confidence and sense of purpose enough to stick around, had I not been pushed toward working this project (and others) under the tutelage of Black Star.

I can't say enough about my time in New York so far. Photographically, there is nothing quite like this city - stories around every corner! To boot, one of my passions in photography, to the side of my "serious work", is to shoot in the street; I've never been in a place so rich for these kinds of photos. Interesting light and millions of interesting people walking by every day.

Living here has been a trip, too - dealing with surviving in a big city and learning to live as a poor photographer through and through (this is an unpaid internship). Hardly anything about living in Seattle has prepared me for the pure scope and experience of living in New York City.

Photo by Matt Lutton

Photo by Matt Lutton

Times Square
Nothing terribly serious has befallen Scott or I: my worst, besides some swearing and yelling by people not interested in having their picture taken by me, was a kid at the ball field in Spanish Harlem who threw a half-bucket of water on me after he changed his mind about having his picture taken.

Scott, however, was actually punched in the jaw by a teenage boy, who then immediately ran off, in a Chinese restaurant he was shooting in -- a random act of violence that he overcame quickly. As Jason has said time and again, it's going to happen… especially if we as photographers pursue stories people don't want told.

While I do not feel I've produced my best work for the stories I've worked on so far during my internship, I have made some pictures I'm quite proud of through other ventures in the city. And certainly, the foundation learned will remain long after my pictures from these early stories.

At this date, the best thing I have taken from my internship is an understanding of how important great research and working hard for access is - it pays off ten-fold. There is so much more to being a successful photographer than being able to take good pictures - sometimes we fail to realize that great pictures have to come from time and research; and to get them published, a good marketing strategy!

I'm going to leave New York in the middle of September with a lot of experience working in a new city, under a different kind of pressure than the student newspapers and freelance work I've done in the past. The people I've met, stories I've shot, the risk I've taken and the advice given to me would not have come through any other internship.

Additionally, I've had the opportunity and blessing to continue to experiment and develop styles and ways of seeing while shooting here, something that I'm sure in my case would have been much harder or impossible to have happen in a newspaper internship position.

Being forced to work for myself, with some handholding, is a valuable lesson that I'm still learning the hard way; it will provide the tools I need to exist in the market as the photographer I hope to be.

I have new expectations of my work and myself - and am more confident in being able to achieve some of my goals in the near and far futures. It has been a challenge, and I haven't achieved all that I would have hoped, but I know I'll be leaving here with terrific new knowledge and, most importantly, ideas and guidance on how to continue to grow in my time left in school.

(Matt Lutton is a student at the University of Washington. A sampling of his work can be viewed at his member gallery: His Spanish Harlem portraits can be viewed on his PhotoShelter page:

Related Links:
Lutton's member gallery
Lutton's PhotoShelter page (Spanish Harlem Portraits)

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