Interview: Matthew Cohen Photography
Matthew Cohen is an award winning and internationally recognized Nautical Photographer whose travels have taken him across the globe countless times. Be it suspended from the top of a 100’ mast, bombing around in a chase boat, or even shooting from a helicopter, Matthew goes wherever it takes to capture the essence of yacht racing, and the beautiful parts of the world these travels lead him to. Raised in Milford, Connecticut, Mathew grew up around the water and the boating community and was introduced to sailing by his grandfather over 25 years ago . When not capturing light, Matthew has both crewed on boats and been a US Sailing Level II Certified Sailing Instructor for over 15 years. He has also done his fair share of racing—sailing for one of the top varsity teams in the country at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island. Since then has participated in some of the largest and most exclusive regattas in the world. His work has been featured on the covers and double page spreads of numerous nautical editorials and he is acclaimed in his field as one of the top nautical photographers in the region.
When did you know you wanted to be a photographer? Who was your biggest inspiration?
During my “Super Senior” year of college in 2002. Switching majors from Architecture to Psychology my sophomore year, freed up my time and I immediately joined the sailing team for the athletics, comradery, and salt life. Unfortunately, NCAA rules only allow 8 semesters of competition. When I finished my racing stint, I wanted to stay dialed in with the team, so I started shooting the practices and weekend regattas from the dock or support boats as much as I could. Armed with with a 35mm Minolta Maxxum Stsi, a standard 55-80mm lens, and drive for capturing light, I shot everything under the sun. From the moment I developed my first role of 35mm black and white film and enlarged my first print in Photo 101, I was hooked. I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else besides nautical photography. I discovered that one of the best sailing photographers in the world, Onne van der Wal, was here in Newport and I started working for him doing everything from Chase boat driving, to location assisting, gallery representation, and office details. It was an incredible learning experience, but after two years I realized I wanted more challenges, more responsibility, as the itch to go on my own needed scratching. So I grabbed the niche market by the horns and have been enjoying the uphill challenge since then.
What was your longest voyage at sea? What was that like?
After graduating from college, I signed onto a couple yacht deliveries that rapidly developed into a healthy addiction. In less than 10 years I amassed over 30,000 nautical miles and within that decade, I sailed over 12,000 nautical miles with 3 incredible yacht deliveries in a period of less than 4 months. I was hired crew to deliver owner’s yachts from one port to another. With no “real” job lined up after college; an open mind to the world; a camera in one hand; $150/day, all my meals, expenses, and transportation home covered – I was livin’ the dream! I told myself, “this is it!”
The first of those three large deliveries was from Fort Lauderdale, FL to Cascais, Portugal by way of an equipment repair in Bermuda and a “pit stop” in the Azores. When I got the call to pack my bags for this 16-day trip at sea aboard s/y “Paraiso”, I was a pig in you know what. Crossing the Atlantic on this 108-foot private luxury sloop was a very fortunate opportunity.
The 108’ s/v ‘Paraiso awaits at the dock in Horta, Azores for food, fuel, and a wash down with Pico in the back ground.
The next adventure was waiting right around the corner. When I returned home from Portugal, I received “the call” to cross the Atlantic . . . again. I know what you’re thinking, “Wouldn’t you want a break from all that vast ocean?” I said “double down!” and hopped on the next flight to Falmouth, England, joined a crew on a 75’ private luxury motor yacht named ‘Fredrikstad’ (a converted Norwegian Fishing Rescue Vessel that carried supplies among the fishing fleets) and motored to Falmouth, Antigua by way of the Canary Islands. The entire crossing took almost 20 days and we tied up to the Antiguan dock with just under 20 gallons of diesel to spare! I did not want to hear a churning diesel engine for a very long time.
M/V Fredrikstad rolls to her port side with a following rising sun halfway between the Canaries and Antigua!
Both of these nautical excursions were full with capturing amazing photographs, witnessing raw mother nature, meeting interesting people, being tested with challenging scenarios, enduring days of boredom, and expecting the unexpected.
But the most memorable (excursion?) was in January of 2007, when I was invited to help deliver a custom-built research vessel, the ‘Sorcerer II’, from St. Thomas, British Virgin Islands to Colon, Panama. The delivery for this 95’ sloop lasted two weeks. After many stops to collect water samples for research, we made landfall at the Northern part of the Panama Canal. Just prior to making flight arrangements home to lil’ Rhodie, the captain ask me if I’d like to stay on longer. “Does a bear – you know what – in the woods?” I replied. I rang up my boss via a very expensive satellite phone and asked if he wouldn’t mind if I didn’t return for another . . . five weeks? I got the green light and spent the next 35 days exploring, sailing, and photographing the incredible Pacific coast of Central America, finishing in La Paz, Mexico. I was captivated by the people, amazing wildlife, new sea states, diverse weather conditions, various terrain, big game fishing, and much more. When I returned home, I slept for a week straight and spent the next month sorting tens of thousands of photos! Basically, I had logged over 12,000k nautical miles in less than 5 months’ time and added 40,000 photographs to my library.
‘Sorcerer II’ does her best to stay cool in the scorching sun. Golfito, Costa Rica
Tell us about your favorite regatta experience, be it as a crew member or while photographing the event
Tough choice, it’s actually both. The most amazing perk of my job is I get to “eat my cake too”. My favorite regatta to capture AND sail is the very exclusive St. Barth’s Mega Yacht Regatta. One of the poshest rocks in the Caribbean archipelago hosts a super yacht race during the 3rd week of March. The smallest boat allowed is 100 feet and some entries stretch to over 300 feet from tip to tail! I am always thinking outside the box in terms of exactly where to go to capture the best angles. During the 2014 regatta, the captain gave me the green light to climb to the top of the mast for the last 5-mile leg of the race and this is what happened . . .
s/y ‘Altair’ sails through the finish line during the 2014 St. Barth’s Mega Yacht Regatta for the win with the photographer up the mast for the whole leg! What a view and experience from the top of the rig!
One aspect of your work I love is your ability to put the viewer “in the moment” – capturing the energy of a wave crashing over a bow, or the sun setting over a tropical beach. As a photographer, what does it take to compose these kind of shots?
I love it too. I also enjoy inspiring my viewers and collectors to feel. You can’t get sense of texture, light, and experience with a small print of a lighthouse shot from a quarter mile away. I produce a limited edition series of works that’s called “Right There”. The series has three elements:
- The printed pieces are no smaller than 30×40”.
- They are shot with a wide angle lens.
- I immerse myself in the subject. The combination of these three elements evokes the senses as much as two dimensional art will allow without getting you wet!
S/V ‘Lady Tara, an Oyster 53’, roars through the Atlantic as she makes her way North from Fort Lauderdale to Newport on a spring time delivery.
One thing a lot of people don’t know about sailors is they spend a fair bit of time on the road, in addition to on the water. Trailering boats across the country might seem like a tedious task to some, but did any place stand out to you in particular or leave a lasting memory?
Great question! Along with my extensive sea time, I have amassed seven cross country road trips, a number of them with a large boat or box trailer (largest permitted on the road) in tow. Within these country wide tours, I visited (not just passed through) 45 states. There are a couple National Parks that will never leave my heart—Zion NP and Great Sand Dunes NP. The take away that I appreciate the most is the vast diversity on one continent and country. The United States is the “best bang for the buck” in terms of diversity. If you visit Scotland it’s mostly the same gold and grey environment. If you visit Costa Rica, it’s one big jungle. The United States has everything from long Californian beaches, the Utah Salt Flats, geysers of South Dakota, the swamps of the Florida Everglades, the extensive and circuitous rocky shoreline of Maine, to the flat plains and monumental storms of Oklahoma, and all under one flag.
The Great Sand Dunes NP includes; a dry river bed, 13’000ft snow caped mountains, rich evergreen forests, roaming wild horses, flat plains as far as one can see, and massive sand dunes that top off at 755feet tall and 132miles square! The best part . . . There isn’t a billboard, Walmart or McDonalds in sight . . . a true National Park.
What are your essential items when heading off for a trip, and what kind of gear (photography and sailing related) do you travel with on your adventures?
My number one rule, “Pack everything I need and nothing I don’t,” combined with the bringing the most appropriate gear of the highest quality, allows me to exercise the photographic passion that produces the best images. First and foremost – knowledge of the assignment or subject: its free in most forms, weighs nothing, takes up zero space, and can be the delta between a good shot and a phenomenal photograph. Next, an open, strong and positive mind. It’s amazing how a positive, productive and profitable attitude works so well.
As for the gear, I haul four bags. One waterproof duffel for clothes, one waterproof backpack for miscellaneous gear and two Pelican Cases. I’ve dragged them behind me on a rope tied around my waist while crawling in a cave in the sand, slid them down 50-foot rock faces, chucked them into the salty corrosive ocean, and let them bake in the day I bought them. They definitely look a little different though.
My gear (Black Pelican Case and waterproof backpack locked to a tree in the bush behind a maintenance shed in Hawaii). I had one hour to haul over 80lbs of gear to the top of Diamond Head Crater at 800 feet above sea level, on a busy and hot Saturday afternoon. I jumped off the touristy path at ground zero, transferred the gear to lighten the load, locked it up, and hauled the mail to the top for this . . .
I like to custom make some of my gear as well. Sewing, welding, bolting, screwing, sealing, measuring and more. This is a very specific line of work and when you’ve got great reliable gear, it works flawlessly. Plus, it’s an edge above the cut-throat competition in a very niche market.
My life is on the line, literally. I trust 100 feet of 1/4-inch-thick special rope to suspended my life and close to 10,000 dollars of professional Canon Cameras and Lenses. That line is attached to a quality sailing harness, with a backup strop and couple extra carabiners. A Petzl Headlamp, Maui Jim Sunglasses (great lenses that protect my most valuable assets), a Leatherman multi tool, knee pads, a waterproof log book and pencil (paper and pencil will always be the most reliable), Z Blok zinc sunscreen, and a great brimmed hat that all fits into one waterproof backpack.
As for the cameras and lenses, it’s Canon. I shoot with a 1Ds Mark III and a 5D Mark II as a backup. The list of lenses: my work horse – the 300mm f/2.8 IS, USM, L Series, Prime (pictured in the bio shot above). The very versatile 70-200mm f/2.8, L Series, IS, USM Zoom. A 24-70mm, L Series, USM, Zoom. And the fun 16-35mm, f/2.8, L Series USM Ultra-Wide Angle Zoom.
There a few more that I cannot disclose that I will leave up to your imagination. If I told you, I’d have to . . .
Your portfolio includes a great mix of action shots as well as stunning landscapes. How does your technique and approach vary between these two very different kinds of subjects?
I work on three different avenues; interweaving Assignment, Stock, and Print. For example, if I am on an assignment (shooting luxury super yachts in Antigua) I will take an evening or extra day when I am off the clock to build my library of stock photography. When I am back home in Newport, in between assignments, I will explore a new cove in my chase boat and just . . . go . . . capture light – doing what I love and being a photographer – not sending emails or being a salesman “Variety is the spice of life” and I have to constantly think outside the box; conceptually, competitively and technically. If not, it will be twice as hard to get back on track. As the industry standard saying goes, “you’re only as good as your last shot”, especially in these current fast paced times.
What’s something unique or interesting about the international sailor community a lot of people might not know? Any good stories that involved a few too many Dark n’ Stormies?
Haha, yes there “might” be a few. Normally, I wouldn’t disclose this information, but I like to consider myself a straight shooter. I had my gear with me at my friend’s house and we had a few D&Ss, so driving home was not an option. Fortunately I only lived a couple miles away. On my way home I passed Morten Park in the southern end of Newport, where I noticed lamp and fog bank nestled inside a perimeter of trees. When I saw the light diffused through the fog, I sobered up instantly and spent the next few hours capturing long exposures until sunrise! What you see below is NOT the sun. It’s the park lamp blasting incandescent light through the fog bank from behind a Maple Tree at 0’dark 30 in the morning! With long exposures lasting 30 seconds or even 2 minutes, I could pull so much ambient light from the west.
Morten Park in Newport, RI is the setting for this phenomenal shot of incandescent light blasting through a small tree and low lying fog.
Tell us about the backstory of one of your favorite shots.
“Rig Refraction” (pictured below and initially titled “Water Mast”) is one of my favorite and best-selling shots since I started schlepping gear over 15 years ago. Initially, it’s not what you think it is – and that’s what I love about it. At first, everyone thinks they’re looking down at a reflection that is cast from above their head. It’s actually the complete opposite. I am looking up at a REFRACTION. It’s light being bent in hundreds of spots on a massive glass hatch as the ocean spray rushes across the horizontal surface. On a delivery from Newport to St. Maarten in 2005, I spent hours in the forepeak of an 80’ private luxury sloop. I laid on a pile of spinnakers (kind of like a massive bean bag chair) in a pounding sea early in the morning and the low angle sun illuminated the underside of the 100’ tall mast and rigging.
Every shot I captured on my first digital body (Canon 10D) was different due to the amount of water, speed of the wind and how much light was being cast on the rigging. Sometimes I saw all the rigging and little water. Sometimes I saw gallons of water and no rig, but what you see below was the perfect medium of wind, water, and light.
It gives me great pleasure when viewers say, “that is an amazing painting, err um, sorry, I mean photograph! This is a photo?! That’s incredible! How did you do that?” Then when I explain how it was done, they do what I call the Water Mast Dance. They tilt their head 70 degrees to the left and rub their chin, bend at their waist 180 degrees to the right and scratch their temple, then step back a foot and squint their one eye, and lower the left knee and try to envision themselves as I was when I pressed the shutter. When it clicks in their mind . . . “Wow!”. And when it is printed in large scale of 50″x90″ it is ab . . . so . . . lute . . . ly stunning! Viewers and have compared it to Salvador Dali’s “Melting Clocks” or have said “it looks like a cross on fire.” Those are meaningful compliments!
Lastly, where are you off to next?
Not far. Not far at all. Newport, Rhode Island is one of the yachting capitals of the world and with over 20 major regattas on the docket this season, Matthew Cohen Photography is staying right here in town. Although I was just hired to shoot the US Sailing sponsored International Women Keelboat Championship Regatta at American Yacht Club in August. The best of the best women dueling in J70 One Design Sloops with the ever popular European “Stadium Style” Racing for a week in Rye, NY.
See you on the water and enjoy my professional photographic passion at http://www.cohenphotography.com
The high performance class of the Farr 40’s blast off the starting line during the 2004 East Coast Championships.