Matthew Rolston photographed by Davis Factor
While still a student at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California, Matthew Rolston was ‘discovered’ by artist Andy Warhol, who immediately commissioned portraits for his New York-based proto-celebrity publication Interview magazine. Thus began an extensive career; over the last 30 years, Rolston’s photographs have been published in numerous magazines, including Interview, Vogue, W, Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine, and over 100 covers of Rolling Stone. Along with his friend Herb Ritts, Rolston was a member of an influential group of photographers, among them, Bruce Weber, Annie Leibovitz and Steven Meisel, to emerge from the 1980’s magazine scene. Rolston’s photographs from this era are notable for their distinctive and glamorous lighting style, surrealistic tableaus, and detail-rich sets. His imagery has helped define the contemporary aesthetics of American portrait photography and truly embodies modern glamour. Robert Sobieszek, the former curator of photography for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), compared Rolston’s work to the “four mega-greats of the ‘50s and ‘60s: Avedon, Hiro, Penn and Skrebneski… I think Rolston is one of the foremost editorial, glamour/fashion photographers working today,” he said, “giving us immensely sophisticated, exciting, glamorous shots and portraits that surround us daily.” Matthew Rolston is also a filmmaker who works in video. Known for his distinctive lighting techniques, Rolston has helmed award-winning music videos for artists as diverse as Madonna, Janet Jackson, Beyoncé Knowles and Marilyn Manson, as well as both print and television campaigns for a wide variety of internationally recognized brands including L’Oreal, Revlon, Esteé Lauder, Elizabeth Arden, Gap, Polo Ralph Lauren and Burberry. Rolston has been the subject of numerous institutional and gallery exhibitions throughout the United States and internationally, which have led to a series of publications authored by the artist. Rolston has shown work at institutions including The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA; Annenberg Space for Photography, Los Angeles, CA; Barbican Art Gallery, London, UK; Greenville County Museum of Art, Greenville, SC; Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK; and The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY. Rolston has exhibited at leading galleries including CAMERA WORK and CWC GALLERY, Berlin, DE; Diane Rosenstein Fine Art, Los Angeles, CA; Fahey/Klein Gallery, Los Angeles, CA and Ralph Pucci International, Los Angeles, CA. Rolston will have his first solo institutional exhibition on the West Coast in Summer 2021 at Laguna Art Museum, titled Matthew Rolston, Art People: The Pageant Portraits. Four monographs have been published of Rolston’s work: Big Pictures: A Book of Photographs (1991), a collection of early work with an introduction by film director Tim Burton, published by Bullfinch Press, New York; beautyLIGHT: Pictures at a Magazine (2008), a survey of twenty years of Rolston’s celebrity portrait photographs, published by teNeues, Germany; Talking Heads: The Vent Haven Portraits (2012), a fine art project comprised of monumental portraits of ventriloquial figures, published by Pointed Leaf Press, New York; and Hollywood Royale: Out of the School of Los Angeles (2017), a mid-career retrospective, published by teNeues, Germany. In 1998, Mr. Rolston endowed the “Matthew Rolston Scholarship for Photography and Film,” at his alma mater, ArtCenter College of Design. He remains actively involved in this program as a mentor and lecturer on the subjects of modern communication techniques, fashion aesthetics and luxury brand strategies. Rolston’s production offices are located in Beverly Hills, California. He continues to divide his professional time between photography, fine art, publishing, filmmaking, creative direction and arts education. Rolston’s fine art photography is represented by the Fahey/Klein Gallery, Los Angeles, and Camera Work Photogalerie, Berlin. Explore Rolston’s celebrity portraiture and fine art projects at the following dedicated links: beautyLIGHT: Pictures at a Magazine (https://www.matthewrolstontalkingheads.com/) Hollywood Royale: Out of the School of Los Angeles (https://www.hollywoodroyale.com/) Art People: The Pageant Portraits (https://www.matthewrolstonartpeople.com)
LACP Interviews Matthew Rolston
LACP asks Matthew Rolston ten questions about his background, career in and beliefs about photography.
Los Angeles Center of Photography: What kind of photographer are you?
Matthew Rolston: I used to identify myself as a photographer, but not anymore. I see myself as an “idea person,” and those ideas could be photographs, but they might also be products, services, hotels, books, exhibitions and so much more.
LACP: How long have you been shooting?
MR: I began my career while still a student at ArtCenter College of Design. I had a lucky break, an introduction to Pop artist Andy Warhol at the time that he was editing his own magazine called Interview. That led to many other clients at the very beginning of my career, among them Jann Wenner (the founder of Rolling Stone), Harper’s Bazaar magazine, and personal commissions from the prominent entertainers Michael Jackson and Madonna.
LACP: Where did you get your training?
MR: I was the “art school” kid in my family, and I studied at a variety of institutions in Los Angeles and San Francisco, including the Chouinard Art Institute, Otis College of Art and Design, the San Francisco Art Institute, and ArtCenter College of Design, where I studied illustration, imaging and filmmaking.
LACP: When did you know you wanted to devote your life to photography?
MR: While I was living in San Francisco and attending classes at the San Francisco Art Institute, I became interested in fashion illustration, which was not offered there, so I took an additional class at San Francisco’s Art Academy. In an early part of the class, they assigned students to photograph different kinds of fashion related fabrics in different kinds of light as a reference tool for rendering textile textures in pencil sketches. So my very first attempts at photography were purely functional. However, my approach to the assignment was not just to photograph fabrics in abstraction, but to actually photograph clothing (on a very fashionable friend of mine wearing her own clothes). This was a revelation. I immediately abandoned the idea of drawing fashion and began to explore the connections between portrait photography and fashion photography. I’d already been an admirer of the great American and European fashion photographers, so it was a natural transition.
LACP: Did you ever come close to giving up?
MR: I wouldn’t say I’ve ever given up on any part of my ambitions, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been significant challenges. For example, at the beginning, I had absolutely no business sense or financial training. I didn’t even know how to send an invoice, I just took on assignments and made the pictures, and I nearly went out of business more than once. Later in my career, I sometimes felt stifled by the niche I had landed in, and the only way out was to learn and expand. This helped me value education as a tool for creative growth.
LACP: Have you sacrificed anything by being a photographer?
MR: There was a long period in my career in which I led a somewhat nomadic life. I was on a plane every few days, bouncing back and forth between Los Angeles, New York, Paris. This was exciting for a while, but after about ten years of it, I began to yearn for a more settled existence.
LACP: What have you gained by being a photographer?
MR: My professional career has always been powered by the things that interest me most. Becoming a successful photographer has been an amazing platform allowing me to meet some of my heroes, explore my deepest impulses, and learn a great deal about the world (and myself).
LACP: What classes do you teach at LACP?
MR: I’m planning to teach a very special one-off webinar at LACP based on the content of my ArtCenter masterclass, which is called The Power of Pleasure. It’s not a photography class per se, it’s a conceptual class that centers around the aesthetics and communication techniques for fashion, beauty and luxury marketing. But more than that, it really proposes a way of life for any artist, regardless of whatever their chosen discipline might be.
LACP: What do you love most about teaching?
MR: When I began teaching about 5 years ago, I quickly realized that the students I was most attracted to weren’t necessarily the ones with obvious talent, nor the ones who “needed” what I had to offer. The students I was most attracted to were those with sincere motivation, those who wanted what I had to offer, and I found that if I could open a door to a new realm of possibility—for ANY student—that was the real reward.
LACP: What advice would you give someone who is thinking about making a career in photography?
MR: Don’t put yourself in a box. Expand your mind and your worldview. Develop a sense of style. Become passionate about the things you’re attracted to, and let that lead the way. Never imitate someone else. Instead, go deep and discover what you’re made of. That’s what will make you unique, and therefore successful.