When you think of the iconic late-night comedy show Saturday Night Live, the production’s photography probably isn’t the first thing to come to mind. However, since the show’s inception, attention to detail and fantastic imagery has been a driving force in cementing its public appeal. The woman behind the camera, Mary Ellen Matthews, takes a moment in this clip to explain just what goes into photographing the celebrities who walk into her studio:
After studying photography in college and spending some time as a publicist for a record label, Matthews had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of photographer Edie Baskin, SNL’s lead photographer from 1975 to 1999. Soon afterwards, she took Mary Ellen under her wing as a protégé.
Baskin was the person to bring to life the “bumper” images seen before and after the show’s commercial breaks—they feature the episode’s host and musical guests. Unafraid to experiment, she often implemented unusual techniques, such as hand coloring photographs
To this day, Matthews tries to follow in the footsteps of her mentor by experimenting with burst photography and slow motion video. When creating bumpers featuring some of the biggest names in Hollywood, she puts a lot of consideration into the subject’s personality and incorporates it as best she can into her playful images. She draws much of her inspiration from existing media and has created a massive image bank for ideas and inspiration.
Being SNL’s head photographer means much more than spending days playing around with celebrities in the studio. Matthews has also taken on the responsibility of documentation of the goings on behind the scenes. She also works closely with cast members, doing everything from head shots for newcomers to annual group photos captured on a massive 8×10 camera.
“I just try to have a fun set…and just give it that sort of breathing room that we can kinda just let it go and see what happens.”
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