These Seemingly Dark Portraits Convey a Sense of Beauty and Self-Expression

Photographer Mateus Porto walks the line between fiendish and angelic.

by Clara Mokri
Jul 12 2018, 2:29pm

Photographs by Mateus Porto

In spite of the quintessential post-graduate existential crisis that students undergo after being handed their diplomas and thrust out into the the real world, Mateus Porto seems to be doing just fine. The Parsons alumnus has already established himself as a photographer whose work has maturity and sophistication. His portraiture is intricate, blunt, and impeccably choreographed, ranging in tone from dark and disorienting to uplifting and iconographic. As a queer photographer who got his start in New York City shooting drag queen icons, his work gives a voice to his subjects who also embody his artistic vision. We spoke to the young artist about his family, his work, and how he’s adjusting to life as a bonafide adult.

VICE: How did you get into photography?
Mateus Porto: I grew up in a conservative family in Texas. My mom is in the Army, so we used to move around a lot—San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Houston. My family is not artistic at all. I don’t even think they know what I do.

My mom gave me a camera when I was in middle school and I’ve been taking photos ever since. I had been wanting a camera because—this sounds so millennial of me—MySpace was really popular and everyone was taking and sharing photos. The whole first year I shot with it, the photos didn’t come out because I wasn’t putting the film in correctly. I wish I had those photos now.

Texas to New York is a big jump. What brought you to the city?
My mom moved to Maryland. She was all for me going to college while at the same time being closer to her. I went to Parsons and graduated this spring. I’m in this transitional period now, like, What’s next?

And how was that transition for you?
I have definitely grown a lot living in New York, both as an artist and as a person. I think they go hand in hand. All other aspects of yourself get better when you evolve as a person first. My work is like a timeline. I’m constantly shooting photos and creating new things. The people that I shoot—the whole community that I’m a part of, is pretty radical. So I’m constantly surrounded by a lot of different ideas.

What do you mean by "radical"?
I identify as queer. Before moving to New York, I didn’t really have any knowledge of queer history outside of the mainstream media. When I first got to the city, I met these drag queens who were throwing this party called Mall Goth—basically they dressed up and pretended to be these two girls who work at the mall. They asked me to shoot their party and from there I started going out with them and meeting so many other amazing queer nightlife artists. The community was a safe space where anything was allowed and people were just trying to express themselves. Growing up in Texas, I struggled with issues of self-expression and figuring out who I was. Members of this community gave me a lot of advice and helped me grow into who I am now.

What’s the message that you hope your work conveys?
My work stems from being seen, being heard, and not being discounted. I don’t think my images are aggressive, but sometimes kind of… blunt. There’s a lot being presented in one shot, which might be overwhelming at times. The message that I hope to convey with my work is the idea of beauty and attraction in the people I photograph. I love the intricacy and detail of textures, and how they go with or against each other.

What is something in your work that you think is misinterpreted?
Some people say that my work is terrifying. My mom once said it was "dark" and that it wasn’t "me." I personally don’t see it as dark, grotesque, or terrifying. I try to make the work simultaneously soft and dark. It’s not one or the other.

Can you walk me through your process?
With Instagram, obviously, we’re able to find so many people so easily. I would cast people who fit, visually, with these ideas that I had in my head. I’ve always been interested in darker aesthetics and now I’m figuring how to incorporate that into my work while also portraying my subject in a way that’s appealing to them. It’s a collaboration with the subject for sure.

Of the photos you sent me, which one is your favorite?
The trio that I sent you of my friend Sussi is one of my older works, but I relate that photo to [good] memories. During that time, I was really happy. Those images oddly reflect this different side of me. I love the crying one in particular. It’s one of my favorite images. I think it’s also kind of relevant to my life now. [Laughs]

She’s just been spiraling. And I’ve been spiraling lately trying to figure out why I make art and what’s even important anymore in this crazy world. I think the process of confronting those thoughts is really beautiful and it takes a lot of time and introspection. Photography definitely helps me sort things out.

How often are you shooting these portraits?
It comes in waves. I produce work for maybe six months, and then I go into these little spirals where I don’t like anything that I make. I just have to get as far away from the work as possible, and get a fresh start. That lasts for about a month-and-a-half to two months. Right now, I’m coming out of a spiral—I’m shooting two people next week.

So during these spirals, what do you do instead of make work?
I go crazy. This most recent spiral, I went on really long walks—maybe 20 miles. One time I walked from Bushwick to the Met. I felt disconnected from society and trapped in a bubble of the real world, so I tried being this complacent person in society. I lived in Greenpoint at one point, and would stand outside the stores. I wanted to see what people did with their daily lives. I try to harness energy from the city.

How do these images reflect who you are as a person?
I’m on the fence about that. I’ve been feeling like portraiture for me is a little problematic because I want to share my vision, but I feel weird taking ownership over other people. It makes things kind of hard, because I see myself in my own photographs. That’s why I’m focusing more on the technical aspect now. I’m inspired by painters and how nothing in a painting is accidental. I think about that when I’m photographing and editing. Everything comes down to editing and who I choose to cast.

A lot of people want to be a part of my process, but I don’t just shoot anyone. There’s a lot that I go through looking for someone to shoot. But it’s kind of interesting because I came to NY and immediately started searching for something here—a life with people who were different. I got fixated on these amazing and iconic people and I framed them as my heroes because I’ve always been really shy.

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