Usually, in my interviews with Catholic artists, I let the artist and his work speak for themselves; but since one of Matthew Lomanno’s photo essays documents my own family, I can’t resist pointing out that his work is gorgeously textured and evocative, and it presents the good, bad, and weird of life with depth, humor, and pathos.
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Matthew Lomanno, 38, hasn’t always been a photographer. He and his wife, Jessica, met while singing in the choir in high school. They married soon after college graduation, and headed to Texas where Matthew started a master’s degree in philosophy and Jessica joined Teach for America, with a short, intensive training in Houston (where the dorm’s “honeymoon suite” included a romantic set of bunk beds).
The couple lived in Houston for five years before heading back to New England, all the while teaching, writing, and continuing their own studies while growing their family. Lomanno was a Liberal Studies in the Great Books major and Ancient Greek minor at Saint Anselm College, and is an ABD Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of St. Thomas in Houston. He also continues to pursue an interest in the philosophy of art.
In his 20’s, he used some birthday money to buy a simple camera, photographing cooperative subjects like his sleeping baby and a vase of flowers. He stayed up late experimenting with the camera, working part time jobs, gradually upgrading his equipment and improving his editing skills. He bolstered his income as a youth sports photographer, and did some work shadowing professional photographers. But, he says, he “kind of backed into” the idea of working full time as a photographer, and was still finding his feet when was first hired by Parable, the magazine of the Diocese of NH.
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In 2011, he went with students from St. Anselm College to work with disabled orphans in Jamaica. (The other faculty member revealed, when they got there, that she was pregnant. Lomanno says he got some photos of her sleeping in the shade.) Blessed Assurance was the first black and white photo essay he had published.
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Here is our interview from October of 2015:
You use mainly film cameras, not digital. What’s the difference?
With digital, there is no frame limit, only what my memory card can hold; whereas with film, I have 36 frames per roll, and there’s a process to change rolls. Each frame costs money. Being a born and bred New Englander, there’s a certain amount of thrift.
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So why use film?
It provides an artistic limit. In the digital world, there are endless possibilities of what we can do with an image. Choose after-the-fact color, manipulate any part we want. Film — specifically black-and-white film — limits me in a particular way. I have to be really committed to making this image. It allows me to focus my mind on what’s happening with the image, and composing the frame.
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I use fixed focal lengths; there is no zoom. I might have different lenses on me, but I don’t have that infinite range of zooming possibilities. I have to make a frame with this lens and this film. By giving myself these limits, I can accomplish a lot more.
Tell me more about what it means to use black-and-white film.
The aesthetics are completely unique. It focuses the eye on the form of things. You see what’s going on in a special way, without distractions, that you don’t see with color. Aesthetically, you’re only viewing it in terms of grey tonality. You see the variance of highlights and arcs and midrange tones much more clearly, and it really allows you to see how the picture is composed.
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It’s so outside our everyday experience of the world.
Is that what you’re trying to do as an artist: trying to take us out of our everyday experience of the world?
Yes and no. One of my favorite photographers says that any time you take a picture of a thing, the resulting photograph is a lie. He’s trying to get away from the idea that there’s some kind of [objective] truth element involved in the artistic act.
The object [that you’re capturing] is two-dimensional: this is what it looks like to the camera. The photographic process, the documentary process, is figuring out how to frame the content in such a way as to make a good picture. I have to make this photograph more interesting than the reality.
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How do you do that?
Say I’m at the March for Life, surrounded by thousands and thousands of like-minded people. If I had a digital camera, I could hold down the shutter and walk around, and that should show what it looked like it some fashion – but it wouldn’t be intentionally made.
I wanted to show the interactions.
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There were maybe a dozen pro-abortion protestors. It’s fun for me, as a Catholic, to show the kind of signs that the pro-abortionists had, versus the anti-abortionists. One group was rather hateful, the other group is not. That’s not the narrative you’ll hear from other sources. It’s always editorialized.
So do you have a particular responsibility to show the world in a certain way, as a Catholic photographer, or as a Catholic artist in general? Do you have a duty to editorialize, or can you even help it?
Any fine artist should have a commitment primarily to form, to making beautiful objects. How do I do this, as a Catholic with a somewhat informed intellectual and cultural training?
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Where do I train my camera? Where do I put that work?
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The documentary world, going all around the world, following famines, wars . . . I can’t do that work right now. What am I going to do now? What’s in New Hampshire?
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It took me a long time to figure out that I don’t have to do just the bad stuff that’s happening. If you look at my work broadly, the Jamaica story or the North Country Priest or the March for Life, these kinds of projects have all been about good things that are happening, good people doing good work. That’s how I’ve allowed my intellectual and faith-filled life to inform my work in terms of content, in terms of where I’m going to train my camera.
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Once I figured that out, I could generate a lot of ideas, like, “How do I photograph the pro-life movement in a clear way?” So much of it is office work, working in the legal system. So I went to the March for Life, to get a glimpse of the energy and excitement, at least for that day.
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There was a sign [at the March for Life that] I didn’t photograph. It was off to the side, but it was huge: “If this is the only thing that you do as a pro-lifer, there’s something wrong.” Some people will think that’s harsh, but I understand that point.
In the hospital documentary, the question I was asking myself was, “What makes this hospital Catholic? How am I going to photograph that? If it’s not more than the crucifix on the wall, then it’s nothing.”
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In your hospital series, almost all the shots have people making eye contact with other people (in or out of the shot). Was that deliberate – a way to convey what kind of hospital it was? The sort of “pro-life”ness, beyond the crucifix on the wall?
I’m primarily committed, as an artist, to creating beautiful photographs. At the hospital, what I could photograph was basically either medical procedures, or human contact, human interactions.
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You can’t get away from human interaction in the hospital. It was one of the main things that was happening.
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You include captions and a lot of text with your documentaries. How do you decide whether to say things in words, or say things with the images?
It’s a hard balance. You just have to be succinct. There’s always more to say, and you’re always going to taint the images. You want to amplify the content, not change the form. In Humans of New York, the most popular photo project ever, the success is due not to the photography! The photos are good, not great. He has five or six different ways he photographs a person, and the light is always nice and even. But he’s able to get people to say things to him, as a stranger, that we wouldn’t say to our closest friends. It’s amazing.
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What about when you can’t add a caption, like with a portrait or a headshot? How do you control what you are conveying with an image of someone you don’t really know?
The big thing is being open and receptive to whatever they’re going to give me. When I look through the viewfinder, I see them in a way they may not see themselves.
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I try not to direct people too much, just let them give me what they’re going to give me. I don’t introduce a level of artifice into the situation. With your kids, for instance, my task was more making an interesting frame and composition.
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You have to be careful about the question of knowledge in a portrait. It’s only the people we already know, of whom we can say, “This is a true likeness.” If I present photos of your children to someone with different expectations, they might think they’re miserable kids, because none of them are smiling. People bring a lot of their own knowledge when they’re seeing a portrait.
One of the tests, for me, regarding any work of art, is, “Can I come back to it?” Does it still hold my attention?
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You’ve done a lot of teaching. What kind of ideas did current art students bring to the classroom?
I taught two courses at the NH Institute of Art: Ethics, and The Philosophy of Art. It was a very different culture from what I was used to, not teaching liberally trained students, but art students.
I’ve been trying to get them to think about the art they were pursuing, about what makes it, or any fine art, good or bad. I’ve been trying to get them to think about the dichotomy between form and content.
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A lot of our [current] understanding of fine art is reduced to content. It’s ubiquitous.
When you get them to talk about a specific work, they talk about form, but when they talk about art in general, they talk about content. Artists are supposed to find some insight that no one else has seen before, but they’re not taught to put things together well – they’re just supposed to express their ideas or emotions. That idea has been around since the time of Plato, but I don’t think it’s Aristotle’s view.
What is Aristotle’s view about art?
Plato and Aristotle didn’t write a treatise on art, but if you read closely, especially in Aristotle, they both use art as an exemplum for other ideas. For instance, when Aristotle wants to talk about what nature is in the Physics, he talks about an object in art. There are little bits and pieces like that; you have to kind of hunt.
My goal, through academic writing, is to produce some more popular style piece about art in various forms. In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle talks about two different kinds of human activity: moral activity, and artistic activity. Moral is doing; artistic is making.
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Some artistic practices we do every day are cooking dinner, or stacking wood. Anything that’s not a moral activity is an artistic activity.
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I have the benefit now, which I didn’t have then [before I became a photographer], of intentionally practicing an art and seeing it from the inside.
What’s next for you?
Last Spring, I didn’t teach for the first time in eleven years. I don’t know what the future holds. I didn’t plan on being 38 and being a full-time photographer, so I’m not making any predictions about the future. God’s grace has been good enough, so I’m going to ride that wave.
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Matthew Lomanno and his wife Jessica, who writes and edits for Texas Right to Life, live with their four photogenic children, aged 6 to 11, in New Hampshire. He founded and operates the Amoskeag Studio for visual and performing arts in 2013. Lomanno’s website is matthewlomanno.com, where you can see many of his photos, including wedding photos, documentaries, and commercial photography. He also frequently posts on Instagram and Twitter @mplomanno and Facebook on Matthew Lomanno Photography. His latest photo essay, “Healing Body and Spirit,” is now on display at St. Joseph Hospital in Nashua, NH.
All photos used with kind permission of the artist.