Welcome to our Creative Spotlight, where we’re highlighting the talented creatives who make up the community here at South 40.

This month’s Creative Spotlight shines on Matthew Simmons, a commercial portrait photographer based in Nashville. He specializes in the music and entertainment industry, with a bit of ad work on occasion. Growing up in the midwest , he moved to Nashville after college to work as a photography assistant. After several years in the industry, he became a regular 2nd or, at times, 1st assistant for photographers who came to Nashville to shoot for Rolling Stone or Billboard. He moved from assisting to full time shooting five years ago and is now represented by Greyland Reps, a boutique agency for Nashville/Los Angeles photographers and directors. Still feeling like a relative newcomer, Matthew calls Nashville home, but has plans to spend time on the west coast or in Europe after this COVID madness is over. He has many goals as a photographer, but more importantly I just want to make meaningful connections with people. We love hearing the down-to-earth background Matthew shared with us, and know you will too!

When did you decide to become–and remain–a photographer? Did you have a lightbulb moment or one day realize you were “still” doing it?
My father is an art director in Ohio and growing up, I always wanted to study design and work at my dad’s studio. I learned Photoshop on my own, with dad having me outline artwork for him and making clipping masks with the pen tool. This was way before the content aware tool. Halfway through college I had sort of a “Come to Jesus” moment regarding my design work. It wasn’t very good, and I didn’t really enjoy doing it. I started feeling anxious, because I had already spent tens of thousands of dollars on my education, and I didn’t want to disappoint my parents and others who helped me get there. Late at night on a weekend I was hanging out in the computer lab in the art building when one of my photography student friends asked if I wanted to see what it was like to use studio lighting for some portraits. We went into the studio and played with all the lights, modifiers and cameras–I immediately fell in love. Using a camera has always felt more natural to me than anything else. From that point I knew I would be doing something related to photography moving forward. I finished out the design degree, shelved it, and moved to Nashville to start assisting.

What is your favorite emotion to shoot? Do you prefer photographing subjects expressing any particular feeling?
In the past, I took a lot of serious and stoic portraits, but that became boring. It is a lot more rewarding for me to try to draw someone’s true personality/emotions out. So that is often what I try to do. A lot of times talent could be in a crappy mood and may not feel like looking cheerful, so you must adapt to it on the fly. It took me a long time to feel comfortable communicating with my subjects in this way though.

What other creative minds inspire you?
My style is a blend of many different photographers and artists, but lately I’ve been very influenced by Benjo Arwas in NYC. His work is very tactile and physical. He has a wonderful way with film and does some excellent short films with Super 8 cameras. I also draw inspiration from other mediums. Music influences me the most, especially shooting as much music photography as I do.

What has been the wackiest request for a photo shoot–whether it be location, attire, purpose, subjects?
Wow I have a million stories I could tell, but one that stands out was an artist who couldn’t afford my rate for the shoot. He offered to pay me with a 20 bottle crate of bootleg moonshine. I refused the offer… I love a drink as much as anyone else, but I don’t think I could drink 20 bottles of moonshine in my lifetime.

What makes rural locations like South 40 so inspiring for photographers and do you have any advice on finding the “perfect” setting?
South 40 is THE location for rural shoots. One thing I hate about doing long outdoor shoots in Tennessee is, more often than not, they’re on properties with one beat up old barn on a gigantic property with no real home base, and you MIGHT get air conditioning. South 40 has golf carts to get around on, the staff is always available, the green room is huge and comfortable, and most areas which you would want to shoot in are close enough to walk to. I could let my talent stay in the green room while I got lights setup, and then just radio for someone to bring him over on a golf cart when we were ready. I always appreciate when the location vendors go that extra mile to help my shoots run smoothly. The South 40 team has allowed me to focus 100% on shooting, which is invaluable.

Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring creatives?
Be patient. It takes a long time to make any progress at all in this industry sometimes. It can feel defeating and exhausting at times. But if you fall in love with your process and create work that engages others and makes you happy, then you’re good to go. Just work hard and be kind and it will pay off in time–and don’t compare your success to others. There’s plenty of creatives on Instagram that “blew up” overnight, but trust me, you didn’t see the years of work they put in before they took off.

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