Matthew James: The Prequel

I love prequels and backstories. So much, in fact, that my partner wants it adding to my gravestone when I finally go. I’m always banging on about Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Dark Tower series by Stephen King, and (just the other night) Downton Abbey! What great prequel stories they could create, I keep thinking (turns out a Downton prequel is already in the works!) I’m happy to admit I’m a bit of a nerd who enjoys reading comic books and Googling character backstories to fill in the hundreds of interesting blanks. When I write, I find myself starting the story somewhere in the middle or towards the end, with the following chapters taking a step back in time to bring the reader up to speed with what’s going on.

What 99.99% of you don’t know is my own backstory and how I came to become a full-time photographer here in Copenhagen. It’s long and quite boring, but there are some tantalising moments of courage, dissent and tears. But today I’d like to share a story with you which, in my opinion, describes the moment I tipped over to the other side. And it started ten years ago this very month…

Towards the end of October 2004 I was literally counting down the days. Every day I changed my screen saver at work to display how long I had left, and my boss even told me they’d considered giving me Gardeners’ Leave (a term used when a company thinks keeping you on might be a waste of everybody’s time and money). For four years I’d worked for the internet bank Egg and have to admit I loved it for most of the time. The money was good, the work conditions were fair, and I’d made some great friends. Plus, I was playing in a band called Vinyl Resin, and the 9-5 job kept that band well and truly alive.

But by Christmas 2003 I was getting bored and easily distracted. I would often turn up late, then go for a shower, before finally sitting down to ‘get some work done.’ My friends and I had all been separated because of our antics (which usually involved helium balloons from McDonalds and prank emails and phone calls), and the general mood in the huge open-plan office was becoming sombre.

Egg, Internet Bank, wig, photography by matthew james

Wearing a long wig to give myself a rockstar look whilst working for the bank

Realising I needed some new hobbies, I took up rock-climbing, scuba-diving and photography. The latter was achieved with the help of my dad’s ancient but reliable Olympus OM-1 camera and a home-learning course from the Open University.

On January 1st 2004 I went out with my friend Daniel and a roll of black and white film and starting experimenting with some portraits of him. None of them turned out amazing, but I stuck at it and found myself skipping work more and more so I could just go out and take pictures. All I had to do was stick the job out until October, when I could pick up a juicy bonus for being an Egg employee for four years.

But what should I do next, I wondered. Well, visiting New York City had always been very high on my list of Things to Do, and by August I’d booked a flight for November, and joined a 28-day tour of the entire country from coast to coast, with a company called Trek America.

I had three seats all to myself on the BA flight from Manchester to JFK, so I made the most of it. I slept most of the way, and when I awoke I opened the window blind and peered out. As my eyes adjusted to the brightness, I could see a tall needle-shaped object on the horizon and I said out loud “what the hell is that?” I knew the answer, of course: it was the Empire State Building, and I was over the moon to finally see it, even from so far away.

It was dark by the time I finally ventured in to downtown Manhatten, and I knew nothing about low-light photography, but I managed to take a few shitty pictures with a small point-and-shoot camera I had brought with me. But the next morning was the real adventure. I woke up ridiculously early (due to the jet lag) and grabbed my dad’s OM-1, which I had adopted fully by now. I got some OK B&W morning shots from Central Park at 7am and tried my hand at a bit of street photography, but what I really wanted to photograph was the Empire State herself.

Times Square, New York City, Photography by Matthew James, Travel Photography, art for sale, kunst til salg

Times Square at night. It’s just a bunch of lights and noise pollution really.

Manhattan, New York City, Photography by Matthew James, Travel Photography, art for sale, kunst til salg

Looking a lot like my mum here, and sporting an awesome pair of flares!

Five weeks later I returned and decided to spend what little money I had left printing hundreds of images and creating a portfolio. I told my parents that I was going to get some work experience at the Derby Telegraph and would probably get a job there somehow. Naturally my parents didn’t share my naive enthusiasm, but I felt I had to try and start somewhere.

My portfolio sucked (as Deputy Editor Neil White reminded me by saying “That’s a tree” when I opened it up for him to review.) Indeed, my entire collection consisted of a tree, a bridge, a polecat, a seagull and a desert, and not a single one showcased any photojournalism or camera skills. But, two things did occur: A) I enjoyed the few days I spent there very much and B) I was told to get in touch with Paul Delmar from Sheffield College who was the man to speak to to kickstart a career in the newspaper industry.

Central Park, Tree, New York City, Photography by Matthew James, Travel Photography, art for sale, kunst til salg

The infamous tree in Central Park that got completely dissed at the Derby Telegraph.

Four years later I was an official employee of the Derby Telegraph and so began an intense period of training, learning and creating. Finally getting to see my work in print every day was a huge buzz and I always felt proud when I saw a complete stranger reading the front page with my photo on it.

There’s a huge gap of information here, and I’ll save it for another story for another day. But this month sees my 10th Anniversary of stepping on to the road of becoming a professional photographer, and to celebrate I wanted to share a brand new piece of art with you, dear reader.

Strangely enough, the B&W photo I took of the Empire State never made it in to my portfolio. Instead, I scanned the negative when I started Sheffield College in 2008 and it’s been sitting on my hard drive ever since. So last week I decided it was time to introduce it to the world and had it professionally printed. And it’s for sale, too.

To the interested buyer you should know the following:

1. The image is the first of ten that are to be printed and sold, therefore this is an absolute original and limited edition.
2. The image is signed by myself and dated 14/10/14
3. It comes framed in a 70x100cm silver frame with an off-white mount.
4. For this reason, the buyer must collect in person from Copenhagen.
5. The image was taken on an Olympus OM-1 analogue camera (not digital) using Fuji B&W film ISO 400
6. Due to the uniqueness of this image, the asking price is 3.000DKK

So there it is. A photo; a passion; a story; a beginning; a prequel? I’ll let you decide that one, but I look forward to handing this one over to the lucky buyer, whoever you turn out to be…

Empire State Building. New York City, Art for Sale, Kunst til salg, photography by matthew james

A ten-year-old piece of my soul.