Ones to Watch 2019: Molly Matalon

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Molly Matalon, nominated by Daniel Shea, offers a new kind of romance with her compelling images

Each year, British Journal of Photography presents its Ones To Watch – a selection of 19 emerging image-makers, chosen from a list of nearly 750 nominations. Collectively, they provide a window into where photography is heading, at least in the eyes of the curators, editors, agents, festival producers and photographers we invited to nominate. Every weekend throughout May, BJP-online is sharing profiles of the 19 photographers, originally published in the magazine. Discover more here.

There’s a lot of skin on display in the work of Molly Matalon, but not in any way that you might be familiar with. It’s tender and probing rather than exhibitionist – like locking eyes with a stranger. A naked stranger. On a busy train. She photographs men, for example, with a gentleness and a sensitivity that underscores rather than undermines their masculinity. “I’m overly concerned with someone looking good,” she explains over the phone from New York. She moved there from her home town in Florida several years ago to study photography at the School of Visual Arts, and has recently returned, eager to get back to the family she found there, after an interlude in LA.

How does she achieve her aim from behind the camera? “I think it has a lot to do with the kind of person I am,” she says. “Out in the world I’m someone with a big personality. But I feel like when I’m making pictures, I’m a different kind of confident. It’s… fumbling. I’m not overly technical, I’m not ashy, I’m very slow. Talking to the subject, though, is very important to me. It makes them feel at ease because they can tell I’m paying attention to what they look like.”

Image © Molly Matalon
Image © Molly Matalon

Perhaps it’s this care, this slowness, that imbues her images with such a subversion. To her nominator, artist Daniel Shea, they’re completely compelling. “Molly’s work expresses complex issues simply,” he explains. “Impenetrable to the impossible standards imposed by the external world, Molly’s work is an act of blissful, sexual and defiant female gaze.

But recently, at an artist talk, she bluntly said something to the effect of ‘wanting to bang the hot guys she photographs, but they don’t want her’! The counterfactuals make this work engaging in a way that makes me want to continue looking at art.”

Shea refers to an essay by contemporary Canadian artist Brad Phillips to better express the idea. In it, Phillips writes: “Themes and genres provide the audience with a sense of comfort, and if you throw in a traditional narrative, you can’t disappoint. Being able to cause discomfort using forms and structures people are ordinarily comforted by interests me.” Shea concludes: “For whom is pain, pleasure?”

It’s true that these photographs – often portraits, sometimes still lifes or landscapes – seem gently to overturn the established traditions of photographic formats. They’re about romance, sex and desire, constructed out of moments that almost occur, are lightly choreographed, in her day-to-day. “That’s how I approach personal work right now. I’m super into making a false moment, especially in regard to sex and desire,” she says. “Living life with a thought in my head, and photographing things that capture that.”

Image © Molly Matalon
Image © Molly Matalon

Read the profiles of more Ones to Watch photographers hereThis article was originally published in issue #7884 of British Journal of Photography. Visit the BJP Shop to purchase the magazine.