Experimenting with Light, Shadows, Forms, and Reflections:

An Interview with Featured Artist Matthew Fertel

By Kristin LaFollette

“I am drawn to anything that stands out from its surroundings. Damaged cars, rusty metal, defaced surfaces, trash, blemishes, and other imperfections are all grist for the mill.”

-Matthew Fertel

You refer to the images in this portfolio as “abstract photographs.” Talk about what this means and how you became interested in abstract photography.


Abstract photography can be practiced in many ways, but as a general principle, it rejects the notion of the camera as a tool that captures an objective reality and instead seeks to present its subjects in a nonrepresentational manner. Shapes, textures, patterns, and colors become the subject, regardless of the object being photographed. I became interested in abstract photography when I moved to San Francisco in the late 1980s and took art and photography classes at San Francisco State. Up until then, I still thought of photography as a means of capturing a moment in time. In particular, the photos and writings of Edward Weston and Minor White opened my eyes to new possibilities in what could be accomplished with photography. That was when I moved away from documentation and toward experimenting with light, shadows, forms, and reflections in my work.


What does it mean that you use the “details of [your] surroundings to create imaginary landscapes filled with the strange characters that live inside [your] head”?


I try not to take myself too seriously, so after using the same staid bio for the last year, I was being a little facetious with that description of my work. Ironically, it is one of the better descriptions of my process that I’ve come up with. I don’t usually go out and look for images so much as discover them while going about my daily life and focusing on the usually unnoticed minutiae that I encounter. Passing by the same locations over days, months, and years allows me to photograph my subjects under different lighting and weather conditions and to observe the changes in these objects as the environment interacts with them over time. Small details get framed in ways that draw attention away from the actual object and focus on the shapes, textures, and colors, transforming them into landscapes, figures, and faces. My desire is to use these out-of-context images to create compositions that encourage an implied narrative that is easily influenced by the viewer and is open to multiple interpretations.


You mention that these photographs are of “a pair of trash cans that [you] came across this summer on bike rides along the American River.” Why were you drawn to these specific objects?


I am drawn to anything that stands out from its surroundings. Damaged cars, rusty metal, defaced surfaces, trash, blemishes, and other imperfections are all grist for the mill. In the case of these trash cans, they were dented and defaced and chained to a fence on the edge of a cliff that was overlooking a scenic vista. They looked so incongruous with the beautiful view that presented itself as I rode by them on my bike, yet the colors of the spray paint they were tagged with were lovely shades of blue, green, and purple. I immediately saw the potential for beautiful images in what most people would consider eyesores.


How did you determine the titles for these photographs? How do the titles contribute to their meaning?


These trash cans evoked a sense of delicate beauty and sadness in my mind. As I worked on the images, they told me a story of a relationship that had evolved over time. For me, the titles reference the various stages of relationships. Each image tells its own story but can also be tied together to tell a larger tale (or not).


Do you work as a professional photographer? What is it like to do photography professionally while pursuing it creatively?


Starting in the early 1990s, I worked professionally as a fine art auction house catalog photographer and did that for over ten years. The knowledge I gained in lighting the highly reflective surfaces of guns, silver, porcelain, jewelry, etc. was invaluable to my development as a photographer. Even more important was the exposure to the paintings, prints, photographs, sculptures, and other art forms of so many different artists from around the world. My creative work was certainly inspired and influenced by this access. While I no longer work as a commercial photographer, I am involved with photography at my day job at Sierra College, where I am still exposed to all different forms of art and creative people who help to keep me inspired and motivated.


You are based in Sacramento. What is it like being a creator and photographer in that area?


What I like about the edge of unincorporated Sacramento County where I reside and Placer County where I work is the easy access they provide to both urban and rural areas. The flowing waters of the local creeks and streams were the initial inspiration for all my current work. Over time, I noticed that the strip malls, industrial parks, parking lots, and alleyways I passed through on my way to the water were also constantly evolving sources of material, and eventually they became an integral part of my work.


Where can we find more of your creative work?


You can find more of my work on Instagram @digprod4 or on my website.

By Kristin LaFollette
Kristin LaFollette is the Art Editor at Mud Season Review. Her artwork and photography have appeared in Armstrong LiteraryWest Trestle ReviewThe West ReviewThe Magnolia Review, and others. She is the author of Hematology (winner of the 2021 Harbor Editions Laureate Prize) and Body Parts (winner of the 2017 GFT Press Chapbook Prize). She received her Ph.D. from Bowling Green State University and is a professor at the University of Southern Indiana. Learn more about her work at