Famed Photographer Matthew Rolston Explores a SoCal Tradition

In an exhibit at Laguna Art Museum, the L.A. native celebrates ”Art People”—and the beauty of imperfection

Back in the ’80s and ’90s, a triumvirate of L.A. celebrity photographers snagged most of the covers of American glossies. This celebrated trio shot major celebs, album covers, and major tour photography: Greg Gorman, Herb Ritts, and Matthew Rolston. But after years of shooting Madonna, Janet Jackson, and the rest of the usual suspects a number of times, L.A. native Rolston decided to diversify his portfolio, so to speak. With a restless mind and endless thirst for culture, Rolston jumped to directing, shooting music videos for Bryan Adams and Christina Aguilera, doing video promos for Sex and the City, and working on a plethora of commercials (the Gap’s famous “Khakis Swing,” Revlon, Visa, Guess, to name a few). Reinvention became a natural part of his process. Rolston’s next move was to morph into a creative director who took on a number of major hotel projects, including L.A.’s the Redbury, the Virgin Hotel SF, the Milford in New York, and more.

But Rolston’s ultimate goal was always to pursue fine art. “I’m motivated by lifelong questions I’ve had about human behavior,” he says, “The answers come to me when I ask them in the work.”

To wit, Rolston now spends his time teaching at his alma mater, Art Center Pasadena, and making art that’s completely self-initiated. And he’s come full circle: some of Rolston’s current collectors are celebs he used to shoot. He’s done four major books of art photography and subsequent gallery shows: one a compendium of Hollywood portraits (“Hollywood Royale”), and three other books of unique pictures: close-up portraits of the famed dummies of the Vent Haven ventriloquist museum; ancient ashen Christian mummies from the catacombs of Sicily, and now, portraits of makeup-slathered cast members at the Pageant of the Masters.

Every summer, big crowds convene under the stars to see everyday Laguna citizens turned into famed works of art in the famed “tableaux vivant.” Rolston’s portraits are on view through September 19 in the exhibition Matthew Rolston, Art People: The Pageant Portraits at Laguna Art Museum. Meanwhile, this summer’s Pageant of the Masters, running through September 3, has an all-American artist theme, “Made in America.”

Los Angeles asked Rolston how he came to be obsessed with so-called Art People—and how he came to be one of them.

How did you come to actually photograph the players of the Pageant of the Masters? The Laguna Festival of the Arts has never allowed a photographer to shoot it, despite many requests.

Seven years ago I went going down to the pageant with friends; we’d all confessed to being Pageant Heads—just obsessed with the yearly pageant! I took Nikon field glasses; we had very good seats and you could see all the very painted faces up close. It came across how excited these people were about art and embodying art themselves. But up close, you see their makeup and clothes—they’re not perfect. The illusion of the show at 50 feet away is uncanny. You absolutely believe it’s a painting. But it’s the imperfection that’s so beautiful to me. I never gave up asking if I could shoot it—and finally, the directors of it caved.

That’s funny about imperfection, because you’re known as the man who created “beauty light” for your celebrity portraiture of Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Annette Bening, and Michael Jackson in magazines like Rolling Stone, W, Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, Oprah, Vanity Fair.

Sure. But fine art is not commercial photography—you’re not selling anything. It’s a subject you choose; it’s not assigned. It’s more about stripping artifice away than perfecting it—creating it. I was stuck on this question in my work: how do we go about investigating art making? The series poses this question: why do humans project ourselves in simulacra, in representation? And is art-making a defining characteristic of being human? This is what I was looking to explore. After we went to the pageant that night in seven years ago, I knew I’d found the perfect subject and the perfect title: Art People.

Inspired by ‘The Dancers’ by Harriet Whitney Frishmuth

Matthew Rolston, 'Frishmuth, The Dancers (#1),' Detail (Right Panel). Courtesy Fahey/Klein, Los Angeles

Can you describe what you mean by “Art People”?

The collectors, the critics, everyone who goes to Art Basel in Miami, Frieze, museums, galleries, auction houses—those are art people. And these people in the Pageant of the Masters – people who take off every night of the summer to be living art. It’s my seventh year working on this project; it took a very long time.

You seem to be drawn to all things SoCal since you grew up here. How did Los Angeles shape your imagination, your work?

It’s true. Mine is such a SoCal, Los Angeles story. One of the traditional thing families do with kids here is take them to the Pageant, take them to the Huntington. Those institutions utterly influenced me. I was eight years old when I saw my first Huntington exhibition. From that point on, I’ve been fascinated with Greek revival statues. Classical shapes. The other big influence was my mom’s magazines, Vogue and Bazaar, which I devoured as a kid. They were much more artistic then, they had [Richard] Avedon and Diana Vreeland.

Is that how you wind up shooting for so many magazines? 

Sure. I started off with Andy Warhol and Interview magazine in New York—I was probably 20. It’s funny, but Andy’s work and aesthetic wound up having a very long-term effect on me. I watched him in the studio, I read all his books. And Andy’s main art was portraiture.

Do you think the things we’re exposed to when we’re young can get permanently imprinted on our imaginations?

Well, I have gone to the Huntington and the Pageant countless times. My meaning with “Art People” is a little sarcastic, but also meaningful. People watch the pageant to see art people. People perform in the pageant to be art people. The show and book are art about art about art —a hall of mirrors. What is photography but holding up a mirror to life? I idealize my subjects always, but this work is not at all photoshopped. Quite the opposite Every mole, wrinkle, acne on a forehead is right there, through the makeup and paint. This whole project is a celebration of the imperfect. Trust me, I could only come to this at a certain age!

Matthew Rolston, Art People: The Pageant Portraits, through September 19, Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach.

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