Interview with Saturday Night Live’s Celebrity Portrait Photographer

Saturday Night Live has to be one of the most fun places to go behind the scenes, to observe how the cast and crew create the long-running weekly NBC spectacle. It is often hastily thrown together in a very reactionary and impromptu method as there is a mad rush to tie up all the little things that help the show come together – things such as the celebrity photographs that Mary Ellen Matthews is charged with making. In this video, she discusses the process that she has been honing for nearly two decades:

With her set so rigidly and minimally defined – a simple white background with a one or two light setup – the style demands a great incarnation of the subject’s personality. This style teaches the essence of portrait photography – to treat the model as a living, feeling being and not lose their humanness in the background. Those of us who only photograph ordinary (non-famous) people can take that lesson from Matthews -to let the personality shine through; after all, a person is not a prop and ought not be used as one.

saturday night live photography

Part of what how she creates such expressive images is that very element of haste which defines her endeavour; however, it is also a skill to be honed. The ability to make your subject feel open and at ease is an integral part of photographing people. Getting to know the person is important – whether you research their background, as Matthews does, or whether you simply talk to them for a while and get acquainted, a personal connection between the photographer and the photographed has a way of coming right through the lens. A portrait is a social interaction.

saturday night live photography

Matthews has a distinct advantage of course, in that every person coming through the Saturday Night Live studio was essentially born to be there, with extroverted personalities and legendary senses of humour. Still, we can all take a page out of their book. The defining factors of a successful portrait shoot are fun and relaxation, which SNL holds no monopoly over. You can experiment in your own studio with costumes, props, poses, and anything else you can play around with to encourage that perfect picture to rise to the surface.

Mary Ellen Matthews has been shooting SNL hosts since she came on as Edie Baskin’s assistant in 1993, before taking over for her in 1999. In 2010, Matthews began doing videography for the show in addition to her existing duties; she uses a Canon 5D Mark II for both jobs.

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