Like anyone confronting adolescent angst and awkwardness, Matt DeFeo wanted to be himself, even if friends and neighbors weren’t quite sure what to make of him. He yearned to be where he didn’t have to care about what others thought about him: Sweaty clubs featuring longhaired metalcore musicians with tattoos, piercings and no-nonsense glares proved to be just the ticket.
Where sober-minded grown-ups might have felt threatened, he found his identity, listening to bands like the Devil Wears Prada or Underoath. Now, 15 years later, he has returned to those venues and others to do large format wet-process portraits of these musicians, who eagerly sat for the one-time fanboy.
“I wanted to break down the stereotypes of this group of people,” said Mr. DeFeo, 26. “Using large format cameras, I have to be very focused and need to know exactly what I want and how I want to portray them. People see the hard-core community as a bunch of angry, misunderstood kids. That’s how a lot of people perceived me growing up. I wanted to convey something totally different where you have vulnerability and stillness with each portrait.”
The music — a blend of metal and hard-core punk — had been a welcome discovery when he was in middle school in Dallas. He didn’t have a particularly rough upbringing, but adolescence always has its challenges, perhaps more so today in a hyper-connected world. But metalcore’s aggressive sound proved to be a physical and emotional outlet.
Years later, he thought about the scene when he was learning to make tintypes and ambrotypes, processes that are as slow as metalcore is fast. He wanted to do something “purposeful” with the process, he said, rather than just explore it in basic, academic ways. He reached out to a music magazine for which he had done some work in the past, and they put him in touch with some of the bands. He set out to photograph them — in the green room usually — but taking time beforehand to talk about the project and the wet-plate process (which requires a mobile darkroom, which he set up in the back of his Jeep).
“I try to take as much time as I can to explain the purpose of the project,” he said. “They want to work with me. I don’t give them a ton of direction, I just get them comfortable with the camera. It’s a totally different way of shooting. You really only get one attempt to photograph them because it takes 20 to 30 minutes per shot.”
When he photographed Tim Howley, the guitarist for Fit for an Autopsy, he wanted to capture that look of exhaustion and release at the end of a performance. “We were talking on the phone about what we wanted to do for his portrait,” Mr. DeFeo said. “Most of those guys, they have such long hair, they wet it so it flies around a bit onstage. He got this crazy long beard and hair, it would be great to get a portrait as if he had stepped off the stage, so we wet his hair and it drooped on his face so it looked like a fresh portrait right when he came offstage.”
Mr. DeFeo said he was surprised by how eagerly the metalcore community embraced his project. Some of the musicians have even helped cover the costs of chemistry and other materials. And while he has taken a break from the project, he intends to continue.
“It’s hard to put an end to a project after so much time,” he admitted. “I’d like to continue, but in some different environments, outside, with sunlight. I’d like to experiment more with the project and see what I can do with such a limiting process. At least, continue until I get sick of shooting.”
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