We first came across the work of Berlin based American photographer Matt Lambert in 2012 via his video Heile Gänsje. The film was praised for its unflinching depiction of the confusion and brutality of youth. Lambert, never one to shy away from controversial themes, often delves into the alluring and vulnerable world of the young and reckless, choosing to focus on males on the cusp of adulthood.
Having already worked with with fashion powerhouses Gucci and Marc Jacobs, Lambert operates comfortably between the world of filmmaking and photography. His latest creation is a provocative zine created with his husband entitled VITIUM. Here Lambert talks candidly with us about the thoughtful process behind his work and why Berlin is still the most enjoyable place to create.
Your work focuses on young men on the cusp of adulthood, the majority of whom have never stood in front of a camera before. Boys you’ve met online, male escorts, fresh-faced models, each of these interactions creates its own story. What I get a sense of as a viewer is this mystery of youth and a disregard for the establishment.
With my film projects, even if they manifest themselves in a very abstract symbolic form, there’s an incredible amount of philosophical and sociological thought that goes into everything I make. But with the photos it’s sometimes like – this is an interesting person so I’m going to shoot them. A lot of it becomes a way to investigate myself. And my husband is quite a good editor as well so a lot of the thinking behind the shoots come from us sitting together and he’ll say, ‘that doesn’t look like a photo you took’, and I’ll be like, ‘what the fuck does that even mean?’ So sometimes it starts with people analysing what I’ve shot and why. I suppose there’s a desire and a curiosity for me to explore my youth still, as with many artists, and many gay artists in particular.
What are you trying to capture when you’re exploring your youth?
Well I never made work like that when I was at that age. I wasn’t in touch with my sexuality in the same way that I am now and there was also an anxiety from a lot of violence around me. It’s a revisiting of a time when I didn’t have the visual tools, or the voice to explore those ideas. But I think in general it’s a time that’s incredibly magical and exciting in a person’s life. Berlin is a city that is dominated by youth. There’s this sense of wonder that exists here. If you go to New York and shoot people who’re twenty years old, they’re all doing internships and they’re all so fucking serious but in Berlin there’s this sense of unbridled, raw optimism and wonderment and that is really special. It’s an age as well where people. . . they’re pure beings. I get bored when someone becomes entrenched in a subculture. When someone is so defined by a construct around them. I’m just interested in the pureness of how people exist.
Even though you say it’s pure, if another kid watched it who is not into drugs and drinking and promiscuity, wouldn’t they feel that it’s reflecting a subculture?
In Berlin there’s a normalcy to sexual expression and that’s something that excites me. People are more themselves here because they’re so much less defined by the weight of the things they do. For example, if you drink in American culture at the age of sixteen, some people see you as an alcoholic, if you have a lot of sex then you’re a slut. You’re so defined by the actions that are deemed socially unacceptable. But as soon as you remove judgement from all of those things you start to actually see people on a fringe. I did a documentary photo series on male escorts working in Berlin. As soon as you don’t give a shit about the fact that they were escorts, you start to get to the core of who that person is. So yes, there’s drinking and sex and drugs in my work but to me it’s just a background texture that adds a subtext of truth. I’m just mirroring the texture of the reality versus the Hollywood version. People ask, ‘why are people always smoking in your films?’ And it’s because people are always fucking smoking in Berlin! Authenticity is in the details.
You publish a lot of work with channels like I-D, Vice and Dazed Digital. How inetgral are those relationships to your work?
I have very tight, intimate relationships with most the publications you’ve mentioned. They’ve been incredibly supportive, we’ve collaborated in many ways and they’ve been really integral in building my career over the past few years. But I think all of them will admit to you that the landscape has changed for them in the last couple of years in terms of the demand that they feel to create content and put out posts that are a little click-baity. When I first did Heile Gansje it was commissioned by channel 4 in the UK and there was a guy named Ravi who was running a platform there called Random Acts. He was then brought to Dazed. On channel 4 we had only run a 3 minute version of Heile Gansje, so he suggested running the whole thing on Dazed to help launch their video platform. Recently with i-D I did a brand funded project. So that’s when those spaces become more interesting to me as a way to take some of the relevance I have within an editorial video space and have them help me translate that into something that can actually make a bit of money.
Do you ever worry that your art won’t be taken as seriously outside of that niche youth environment?
I watch friends who’ve gone down the traditional film festival or commercial routes and it’s gone well for some of them but others have gotten stuck in it and may potentially be stuck in it forever. Heile Gansje being pushed on Dazed has done such amazing things and this model has proven to be continually successful in releasing my own work that then converts into bigger and more subsidized things. When you ask people where they saw my work, it’s often in these spaces. It’s where a lot of the creative directors, musicians, fashion designers and people who might be in the position to commission work are looking. So it’s effective. There are so few platforms to get the kind of work that I make out there.
Your work reminds be a little bit of Greg Araki and John Waters, these kinds of people who push boundaries.
I’m glad you didn’t say Larry Clark.
I could have. But the comparison’s too easy.
Yeah exactly, and I think when you look beneath the surface we’re fundamentally very different. I Love his work, but I’m tired of the comparison.
Sure. So what do you think is the biggest misconception about your work?
On Instagram people don’t see my films, so it’s very easy to just see the surface of my work, and I wish people would dig a little bit deeper. That’s the knee jerk world of social media though. People want to sum you up in a few images. I’ve actually only been taking photos for about three years and it was born out of a way to develop film projects. Now somehow it’s taken on a life of its own. Particularly in the US people dismiss my work as just sex. Many Americans are so terrified by sex. The blinders go up and they can’t see beyond a nipple or a penis. But to me, my work is about intimacy, identity, love and relationships. I see it as being very humanist and very celebratory of people and not exploitative or objective in any way.
Are you talking about the press or the audience misunderstanding it in that way?
I haven’t had much bad press that I know of. But you speak to people sometimes and it’s clear they’ve written you off as a very one-dimensional thing. If you read one interview or watch one film you’ll understand my work better but if you spend ten seconds on my Instagram then you may have a very different impression of who I am. I definitely play with that though. I don’t avoid that idea of being a provocateur, but I do try to consistently let people know there’s a lot more beneath the surface.
What are you working on at the moment? We’ve heard that you’re developing a TV show for a major US network. Can you tell us anything about that?
Sadly I can’t divulge too much about it. But it’s a cool one. It’s built off of the world of Heile Gansje and some other Berlin shorts, but with different stories taking place in different cities, so very much a franchising of that kind of language. I’m doing some music videos and shorts very soon. Also, I’ve just released a second edition of my first book, KEIM, and at the end of February I’m releasing a new book, more like a zine actually. A black and white punk-rock style zine. It’s definitely a lot more provocative than anything I’ve released before so I’m curious to see what the reception of that will be like. And that’s a collaboration with my husband so it will be less of a Matt Lambert project. It’s called VITIUM.