Office — Where are you at the moment?
Matt Lambert — I’m in Berlin, at my office here. It’s a production office, that’s kind of my primary thing, working as a director. I have a desk and a little team here. I actually just came back from nine months on the road, I’ve been writing and directing a TV series in the US, it’s kind of an anthemic series of short stories of youth, love, sex and relationships in the twenty-first century. It’s sort of a serialized version of the short film work that I’ve been making in Berlin over the past few years, which also deals with coming- of-age stories, contemporary life, and what relationships look like now. So that sparked a TV project with a major network in the US and each episode was kind of like a short, self-contained narrative, part fiction, with elements of documentary, elements of fantasy, kind of like a very hybrid format that’s a format I started building while I was here in Berlin with a lot of my experimental shorts. So I just kind of finished a lot of shooting for that, and I also just released this first book of my photography, Keim. So we had a big launch event here in Berlin, and a big party, and did the same thing in London, so I just came off a little mini book tour.
O — Let’s go back a little bit—could you tell me a little bit about your early life, and when you recognized that you were going to be an artist?
ML — Yeah, I mean I think I was always drawing as a kid, always involved in fine arts growing up. I grew up in Los Angeles, and after I began at university studying art, I immediately started working at graphic design studios, just jumped into that commercial sector. I finished school in Germany, and took a job in London working in animation actually, as an art director, creative director, very commercial work. Then parallel to that I was part of a collective with a group of guys called Bare Bones, it was kind of like a multidisciplinary art collective. So it was this thing of always having a commercial career and doing art projects on the side. I did London for a few years, and New York for a few years, became kind of a full-blown commercial director. Then it got to a point where I became so overwhelmed with my commercial career and realized that it was not something that was really interesting to me. The money was good, but it was really fucking empty, and really depressing. So I decided to take a little break and go to Berlin, and that break turned into being here for four-and-a-half years, and the first few years really struggling to make ends meet through my artwork, finding ways to get commissions that allowed me to spread my wings as a filmmaker. Now, in the past year-and-a-half or so it’s finally coming together, but it was really a couple years of a pretty heavy struggle here.
O — What was it about Berlin that gripped you?
ML — It was just exciting. Part of it was also just LA, New York, London—all these cities are just several strands of these predetermined paths that you can take, generally speaking, whatever creative sector you work in. There are obviously variations of those but it’s kind of the way it’s done, it’s how you climb that ladder. I think in Berlin the path was quite open, there was a lot of room to define what I wanted to do. I wouldn’t say I reinvented myself, but I definitely reinvented the work that I do, it allowed me that space to really break rules. And I fell in love not too long after I got here, so I’m married now to my husband. That was a motivating factor for sure. But I think it was really finding a space where I was able to define what I do and who I was outside of the context of the industry and outside the context of an art scene. There is a scene here, but it’s very freeform.
O — And do you think the work you’ve done in Berlin differs greatly from the more artistic work you were doing previously, alongside your corporate work?
ML — Well it’s interesting to me, the idea of being commercial in the US and really being afraid to be honest with your personal work, and really being afraid to kind to put everything out there. It’s all a kind of constructed illusion, but this idea of ‘What are people going to think?’ Thinking so fucking strategically about everything that you do. Whether you’re an artist or a commercial director who just doesn’t want to let a client know that you published something that was X-rated. The idea of not really having a strategy here, that changed everything. And also being with my husband, and surrounding myself with nothing but artists, all of whom, their work was completely autobiographical, completely honest, they never pulled punches. Fully realizing that until I put my intimate self out there, through the work that I create, it’s not until then that I’m going to create something that I feel good about. And it wasn’t until then that people started to respond to my work— the honesty, and the authenticity, and how I present intimacy has been a big part of what people seem to gravitate towards. People are a lot more open-minded and forgiving than you would expect them to be, as long as it feels like what you’re putting out there is honest, and I feel like the work that I make celebrates intimacy, celebrates love. Before I got here my work was a lot angrier, a lot more aggressive, it was a little more about violence before, and then here it became a little bit more about love. It’s a pretty one- dimensional shift, but I think for me that was definitely a big jump.
O — When you’re working with models or human subjects, how do you gain their trust, to achieve the honesty and authenticity that you seek in your work?
ML — So with Keim, none of them are models and none of them are hired. I would say maybe a half of the book is people that are friends already. People who get what I do, and some of the stuff is completely off the cuff and incredibly improvised, and some of the other stuff is a little bit more constructed, but it’s people who understand what I do, who oftentimes are into my work already, who oftentimes, whether they’ve been shot before or not, are interested in what that experience could be like. It’s kind of a mutual respect before even beginning to talk about a shoot. The whole book is 2011 to 2014 in Berlin, and some of the earlier stuff is photos of me and my boyfriend, or photos of experiences we would have with other people, at after-parties or whatever. The majority of the people in the book are people I’ve not had any sexual relationship with, but it’s trying to channel that delicate intimacy from those real life moments. A lot of that comes from respect and trust. Humor is huge too, after you’ve had sex with someone, being able to laugh about sexuality in a way, ‘Ok, we’ve crossed that hurdle together, sleeping together,’ now you laugh and make fun, to break that awkwardness of ‘We just came together’ or whatever. Just playing with sexuality in a very humorous way, to hear people’s stories, to share my stories. So if I’m casting someone it’s more of a conversation, it’s not just ‘Tell me about yourself,’ it’s much more of an open conversation. Classes and scenes are very open and fluid in this city, so we’re going to have similar references already for places and people. So there’s already a jumping off point. Every shoot is almost like speed-dating, you know? How do you get to know people quickly, how do you break that ice, how do you find some sort of common ground, something to talk about. I don’t really treat them like this is a shoot, a lot of times the shoots are just an excuse to have an intimate conversation, or to get to understand people better. Also the camera oftentimes becomes a safety barrier between the two of us to facilitate a conversation. So a lot of the shoots it would be just a conversation, and then it would be done, and then they’d ask when the shoot was going to start. The camera was a fly on the wall to a conversation between the two of us, instead of me being a fly on the wall to the subject of the shoot.
O — Is that typically how you see the role of the camera in your work, as that of a bystander?
ML — I try to bore people with it, you know? There are times I won’t talk, and I’ll just take a hundred photos and not even really focus, just to not elevate the camera to being this sacred thing, so just kind of get it to a point where they’re just kind of bored with it, or forget about it, and to get to that place where the camera’s not altering the situation. That’s really the goal, to get the camera out of the conversation as soon as possible. To not treat those tools as being precious is a really important way to try and remove them from the conversation.