Naked and Disfigured: 24 Hours with Matthew Thorsen
Our friend Matthew Thorsen is a pretty interesting guy. Not only does he shoot the majority of photographs for Good Citizen, but he's the main photog for arts weekly Seven Days and he has shot just about every musician in Burlington. Cathleen P. Warren meets the man and we had Matt's old friend Martin Shields draw him.
Matt Thorsen has been described as strange, eccentric, weird, flighty, brilliant, odd, incredibly cool, and out there. But, the reigning king photographer of the Burlington music scene is not a slacker, martyr, starving artist, trustafarian, yuppie, burn out or snob. He has simply had a life far more exciting than most.
At first, Thorsen is a difficult interview subject. "How old are you?" I ask.
"Twenty-six," he answers, straight-faced as a nun at a funeral.
"Are you lying?" I ask.
He spits out non-sequiturs and mumbles, refusing to repeat himself. He resists explaining things simply, such as why his Walkman contains a subliminal tape titled "Productivity."
"It's like...really weird, like...warped-sounding music...I like being productive" he says, his eyes looking far, far away.
He thinks aloud about painting a husky's heart-shaped anus with blue nailpolish that turns pink in sunlight.
He gives me unsolicited hair advice.
He tells stories with very non-specific time-frames.
He avoids questions, toys with his flip-flops, and admits that he likes to scratch mosquito bites.
He is tall with silvery-blonde hair and a deep, almost sporty, tan. His left thigh boasts an impressive bullet scar where he accidentally shot himself with a .357 Magnum when he was twelve. He looks thinner in person than he does in pictures. Thorsen photographs himself constantly. But his self-fascination seems less out of arrogance than convenience: why bother with a model when he can get exactly what he wants on his own?
In his studio, Thorsen comfortably sips a Heinekin and shows a slide show comprised of his and his father's work.
The slideshow is littered with pictures of Deadheads, roadkill, medical-research monkeys, rockstars, Tibetan and Chinese children, and corpses. His work ranges from innocent and playful to macabre and brutal. He is fascinated by dead, twisted, barely recognizable forms. He sings the Jane's Addiction lyric "Show me everybody/ naked and disfigured/ Nothing's shocking." As he flips through the slides, he introduces exotic pictures with "Oh, this is from the Savoie region" or "This is when I was in Kashmir." Thorsen's slideshow ain't your grandmama's vacation snapshots.
"When I take a picture," he says. "I want to stand somewhere no one else has stood. I'm trying to find out something for myself."
Born October 10, 1967 in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, Matthew Grant Thorsen was the youngest of four children. His upbringing spread over three states and can only be described as unusual.
"My parents were selling monkeys for medical research," he said. "My dad worked with Jonas Salk. He worked all over the country. Animals were big then. The first monkeys that went up in space were my dad's."
"I went to tons of labs and saw people with huge-ass grants. I saw what they were doing and seeing and working on. I think maybe that's why I needed a darkroom. All the stainless steel and trays and chemicals and stuff. At first I wanted the chemistry aspect but have since found otherwise."
Thorsen's father, George, gave him his first camera.
"I definitely wanted a camera." he said. "And my dad bought me this Keystone 110. This tiny little pocket camera, like, not even a spy camera. And I totally thought it was crap. But when I saw the pictures from it, I thought 'oh, this is neat.'"
Around 1979, the Thorsen family moved to Enosburg, Vermont.
"I totally stuck out like a sore thumb," he said. "I had this wicked Boston accent. But I was the strongest and fastest kid."
Thorsen's high school years and his parent's 1984 divorce brought a turning point in his personal development.
"I started doing not so good in school. Well...I just never went. When I did my homework I got A's but I used to skip school all the time. I was old enough so, I could write my own excuse notes but, it got ridiculous."
Thorsen was thrown out of Enosburg High School because the administration believed him to be a drug user.
"I didn't drink or smoke!" he laughed. "I couldn't believe they thought I was on drugs. I wasn't into any of that. But...I'd drive kids up to the strip clubs and Montreal. I guess I was just looking for attention. It was just as easy to be bad as good. You could say I did it on purpose. It was pretty easy to be a freak."
Walking around downtown Burlington with Thorsen is like being a rockstar by association. He knows everybody and people are attracted to him like mosquitos. He tiptoes the fine line between laid-back shyness and high-profile celebrity.
While eating lunch on the grass across from Club Toast, we are joined by Steve, a young passerby and acquaintance of Thorsen. Steve proceeds to dominate the conversation with praises for Thorsen's photos. He tells of a particular photograph of a severed arm in a pile of scrap metal.
"That's a sick photo," he says, rolling his eyes in ecstasy. "You gotta take a look at that one."
Steve exits the scene, working his way up Church Street with a feigned crippled strut.
"I don't really know him very well," says Thorsen, engrossed in his tortellini and zucchini salad. "I met him on the bus the other day."
While eating ice cream on St. Paul Street, Thorsen is approached by a middle-aged wino.
"Hey man, you wanna lend me twenty-five dollars," the stranger says in a gravelly whisky-soaked voice. "All I need is twenty-five dollars."
At first, Thorsen passes him, paying strict attention to his chocolate sundae. Then, he turns back.
"I can give you one dollar," he says apologetically.
"C'mon, I just need twenty-five dollars," whines the stranger, holding his hands out like a third-worlder on a Sally Struthers commercial.
"Well, what are you gonna do for me?" asks Thorsen. "I mean, I've got business on the west coast."
The stranger then grabs a street sign and hoists his body up until he is perpendicular, like some dangerously inebriated sideshow. His dismount almost causes massive bodily injury.
Thorsen laughs and hands him the bill.
"That was worth a buck," he says. "Man, I see the weirdest shit."
After taking a few college classes at the Community College of Vermont and the University of Vermont, Thorsen dropped out and decided to visit China. From there he traveled extensively through Mongolia, India, Tibet, Pakistan and Nepal. He crossed borders hiding in trucks, photographing his journey and companions.
In Tibet, he met Anne, a french doctor.
"She came up to me at camp and asked if I wanted to go to Mount Everest with her," he said. "She was this beautiful, unbelievably smart woman. I was like...okay."
He moved to France to live with Anne in a bona-fide Alpine mountain village. He climbed peaks and looked after local children. His life was a dreamy chocolaty fairy tale.
But, after, two years, Thorsen began having difficulty with his European situation.
"I had to find work and it was almost impossible. Our love affair just burned out. Until then, I really didn't think I was going to come back to the United States."
In 1996, he returned to Vermont and lived with several local musicians. Soon after, he began taking photographs professionally for Seven Days.
"I had a photo in the first issue. It was Slush. Then I didn't get an assignment for like three months. I approached them and they gave me a gig that day. I've worked for them for like two years now."
Thorsen's assigned subjects range from rockstar portraits to politicians to dogs to landscapes to bottles of Viagra.
"It's all fluff but...it's keeping me pretty tame. What I want to do is not pretty and this is teaching me to be pretty. I never would've pursued portraits on my own, taking pictures of famous people because of who they are or who they know. It's really hard to get people to do what you want in a picture."
While shooting photos to possibly run with this interview, Thorsen loses all self-consciousness and wields a Polaroid instamatic like a puppy chewing on a frisbee. He moves about the room with a furious energy, rearranging furniture, changing the lights. He gives simple instructions, snaps the photo quickly, and squeals as the image develops.
He doesn't get tired but wants more film, more chances to take just the right shot. He incorporates a hatchet, a wall-hanging of Buddha, and a television movie about Jake LaMotta. He throws himself into precarious positions, climbing a rain-soaked column on my front porch and dangling himself above a shock of tiger lilies.
He loses himself thinking about each photo. He is somehow able to find something interesting in even the worst pictures. He recognizes the cheap instamatic camera as a completely legitimate tool to create a masterwork.
This is a man who loves his job.
But he claims to have no idea why people ask him to take photographs. Nevertheless, his pictures infest the weekly pages of Seven Days, plaster the walls of Club Toast, periodically pop up at the Firehouse Gallery, and coat almost all surfaces of his studio. He has been published by the Boston Phoenix, Boston Globe, and several deadhead magazines.
Yet, with a strange mix of modesty and general bewilderment, Thorsen dismisses his talent as ordinary.
"I don't know anything about photography," he said. "I took a couple of classes but, all they teach you is how to use the camera as a tool. I don't even know how to use my flash. I mean, I still use my old textbook."
Matt Thorsen is locked out of his studio. He uses what used to be Club Toast's band room. Now, the space is sealed off from the nightclub and features maximum seating, a small bathroom with stand-up shower, refrigerator, and darkroom. Thorsen uses the space free of charge, a fact that he is immensely grateful for.
After trying to jimmy the lock with a credit card, remove the hinges with his fingernails, and screaming through Toast's mailslot, Thorsen stares blankly at the unbudging door.
"This is the first time I locked it," he says. "I can't believe I left the keys inside."
He doesn't take his eyes off the door.
"I think it's locked," he says.
Thorsen has already lived some of the wildest times. Thus, his wants are for simplicity. He wants to continue his career as a photographer, maybe dipping his toes in advertising. But, in ten years, he just wants to be taking pictures.
"In the end, I'm just going to end up being alone with my camera," said Thorsen. "I'll be making my own pictures, the pictures I want. I guess that's what every photographer wants."
Thorsen walks home through a torrential downpour, complete with too-close lightning flashes and raucous claps of thunder. Rivulets of rain stream down his cheeks, running off his jaw. His clothes are waterlogged and heavy, his flip-flops annoyingly collect gravel and sand. He walks a quick pace, shrugging his shoulders forward, wincing at oncoming headlights.
He stops at the streetlight on the corner of Main Street and North Winooski Avenue. The light reflects off his skin and, for a moment, he looks like somebody famous. He remarks that he wishes he had a camera right now.
He turns up Main Street and disappears.
Cathleen P. Warren reviewed Kristen Hersh for Good Citizen in Issue #6.