photographic evidence

Matthew Rainwaters on untangling society's subcultures, one BEARD at a time

Matthew Rainwaters' work is sometimes humorous, sometimes heartbreaking, but always tied together with a thread of cultural significance. His portfolio reads the same idiosyncratic way—jumping from beards to prisoners to in-use operation tables. But what he’s captured within the frame of each photo fits within a very specific theme: Rainwaters’ greater body of work evidences a keen interest in the subtext of society—the untold stories of Americana that might bear more significance in 30 years than the moment in which they lived.


Haiti Earthquake, February 2010

Capturing the right angle is much more than a clichéd textbook term for Rainwaters. An editorial photographer, his assignments have sent him to the likes of Guantanamo Bay, post-earthquake Haiti, Bible boot camp, Texas prisons and, most recently, to death row. How do you depict someone in such a complicated situation? How do you say whether someone is guilty or innocent in a portrait? “You have that kind of power in a photograph,” Rainwaters says. “It’s a lot of power, and it’s a lot of responsibility.” 


Guantanamo Bay, April 2010

Rainwaters graduated with a degree in Industrial and Scientific Photography from Brooks Institute of Photography, a major he purposely chose so he “could avoid all of the ‘people photography’ classes.” But upon moving to Austin in 2007 after a three-year career as a photography teacher in his native Los Angeles, Rainwaters recognized he could make a living as a freelance photographer if he learned how to take portraits and how to take them well. “The irony is the entire time I was going to school, I did everything I could to avoid doing portraits of people,” he laughs in retrospect. 


Okie Noodling, July 2011

When on assignment, he shadows the writers he works with carefully and closely, but he credits Richard Avedon as his fundamental portraiture model, the one that aided his jump from landscapes to intimate close-ups. “I watched a video of Avedon and how he interacted with his subjects…I could always go back and reference [the video] to see how he would talk to the people he was photographing, how he conducted himself on set, and I could also look at his greater body of work and see what he was working towards.” 


Haiti Earthquake, February 2010

Rainwaters’ first big wave of recognition in portraiture came in the form of facial hair—lots and lots of facial hair. He traveled with a friend to the World Beard and Moustache Championships in Anchorage, A.K. in 2009; on site, he set up a simple black backdrop and invited wildly groomed contestants to have their portraits taken. Instead of emphasizing the silly costumes or characters the men in competition portrayed, he employed an intense lighting set-up that would deliver a very forensic, clinical, documentary look. 


World Beard and Moustache Championship, January 2009

Upon posting some select portraits from the trip on his blog back in Austin, the photographic blogosphere went wild, giving the project international play. And within months, he landed himself a book deal for BEARD—a two-year project that comes to a culmination this month with its publication. “In a weird way, BEARD is an homage to Richard Avedon’s photographs on white, except, of course, they’re on black.”



World Beard and Moustache Championship, January 2009

So how do quirky beard portraits stand up against evangelical Christians, death row prisoners, and members of militia? “I can’t really separate it out… [BEARDS] is its own culture, its own thing, its own subculture or genre of Americana,” he says. “While I feel like it’s harmless and it’s lighthearted, it’s still in the same vain of being an interesting subtext to the current time.”


Bible Boot Camp, July 2010

It’s owing to Rainwaters’ adroitness to—on more than one occasion—recognize these sectors of society “on the verge” that publishers and editors are requesting his work at a higher rate than ever in his career. When he photographed the World Beard and Moustache Championships in 2009, the Whisker Wars television series had yet to debut on IFC. When he independently documented an okie noodling competition in 2011, Animal Planet was poised to premiere Hillbilly Hand Fishing.  And after he shot Susan Wright for Texas Monthly, 48 Hours came knocking with a licensing request for a special they wanted to run about her case.


Susan Wright, November 2009

Don’t expect Rainwaters to stop at BEARDS.  “I don’t want people to think I’m a one trick pony,” he says. So he’ll continue to search out and showcase an array of subjects—serious and not—with his photography. “That’s the idea,” he says. “Let’s photograph the interesting parts of now so that in several decades, you’re looking at a time capsule. I want my photographs to have weight in the future.”


Right Wing Extremists, May 2010

DOMY will host a BEARD book release and signing Wednesday, Oct. 5 from 6 p.m. - 8 p.m. More of his portfolio can be viewed at his website.


Stephen Russell, September 2009