Part of the Seeing the Scene Series
Justin Matthew is energized by the individual and collective features of DIY photozine production. He is primarily interested in using photography to document street scenes that are hidden in plain sight. But he is also excited by the design and production process, thinking about the zine itself as an extension of the creative process. Justin first discovered photozines through a network of skaters and graffiti artists and those urban activities have provided important foundations for seeing and representing urban environments. We talk a lot in this interview about his production process, which I think can inspire people making their first zine as well as zinemakers with a wealth of production experience.
Daniel: What was the inspiration to start making photozines?
Justin: In the early 2000s I was involved with graffiti, skateboarding, and punk rock. I grew up in Philadelphia. There was a great hardcore scene. There was a lot of that DIY mentality in Philadelphia. You’d go to parties, or you’d be skating, and someone would pull a zine out of their bag, photocopied at the library or in the lab at their university. And it would get passed around, so it was hard not to get excited, whether it was writing or graffiti or interviews with punk bands. It just got me really excited at a young age.
Then when I was in high school, I took this design and print program. They had these really old Ryobi offset printing presses. I had this great teacher, and he was like, “Do whatever you want.” I was collecting graffiti magazines with a friend at the time and there was also a lot of pressure from the police. I don’t know if there were people snitching on writers. So, we were trying to find an outlet because we had spent so much time photographing graffiti.
I had access to a press and I knew design to a small scale. And I was like, “Hell, let’s just make our own zines.” My buddy Ray, who has since passed away, he and I were the ones who were the driving force in the beginning. We’d go out and shoot photos at these spots and just collect all these images. When that heat came from the police raiding friends of ours, we thought, “Maybe we can store them through these zines and then they wouldn’t be lost.” We would spend so much time out there making pictures; you don’t want to lose it all in a raid or something. That was the steppingstone. The first zine I put out was called Dirty Art Magazine in 2005. It was an off-set printed zine. It was all graffiti and I’d say that the first five issues were all graffiti: freight train graffiti, monikers, and things like that.
Daniel: Were all the photos from Philly and the region or were you also traveling to other cities?
Justin: I was traveling a bit. I didn’t have a car, but I would take the bus to Baltimore and DC, skate a little bit, and shoot photos. We would take the train to New York and shoot photos and just collect everything. For me it was really great because I’ve always had an interest in design. This was a great way to put it all together. I collected books and zines and I got to play with design a little bit. So, that’s the origins of how I get started with making zines.
Daniel: Have you been consistent with a release schedule?
Justin: I do everything by myself: all the design, the print work I do right here, and assembly. I’ve basically limited the runs in the past few years to about fifty. It’s just a little bit easier for me to handle. I’ll talk to people and if they want to do a project, I’ll work with them. I’ve been doing these group zines with three, four, five other photographers. I’ll reach out to them and curate something based on what they send me and some of my own work, which has been really fun.
Daniel: Can you talk a bit about the production schedule?
Justin: I spend a lot of time mulling it over in my mind. If I’m lying in bed, before I fall asleep, I’m working things out. I have two of my own zines I’ve been working on. And I have other very small ideas for zines. Of course, I’m going to do group stuff. And I did a project—Mexico Lindo y Querido—with a friend of mine named Matt Tucker, who has been traveling back and forth to Mexico for a long time. His wife is from Mexico and they travel down there quite a bit. He has this great collection of images. In terms of quality and me pushing myself in terms of layout, I think it’s the best zine that I’ve done.
Daniel: At what point did you move from shooting graffiti and putting out graffiti zines to putting out what we might call more traditional street photography zines?
Justin: I think that came from getting more excited about photographers in Philadelphia. There is a photographer named Zoe Strauss, who I really love. I think her work is fantastic. I’ve had her books for some years. I always go back to that and it got me excited about doing my own work. She shoots graffiti and she shoots things that I wasn’t seeing anyone else do, maybe like Barry McGee, who was working with a mix of street, portrait, graffiti. And not graffiti in a traditional sense but more like a pedestrian graffiti (someone who spray paints some musing on a wall or writes with a Sharpie). I really love that. And I was already photographing that myself. I’d be at FDR skatepark or something and I’d shoot a little graffiti and then I’d see that somebody wrote something like: “I eat ass.” And I just thought it was hilarious. Things like that that were comical and a lot of fun. It just got me excited about my own work and from there I spent a lot of hours roaming the streets.
Daniel: You started photographing graffiti in high school. At what point does your photography expand to include other types of images?
Justin: I’d say that my focus shifted around 2013 or 2014. I was always kind of shooting street stuff, though. If it was a friend catching a tag then I’d take a picture. That feels like it fits in the same realm as street photography. Things like that, it wasn’t really a conscious shift; it just kind of happened. I was more excited about roaming the streets alone, or with my dog. Or just taking the CTA(Chicago Transit Authority) home from work, having my camera, and seeing something great
Daniel: When you were enrolled in the design classes in high school, did the class include photography? Did you take classes in photography, or are you self-taught?
Justin: Self-taught. I hung out with a relative, an older cousin of mine. We hung out for years and years. He’s a graffiti writer and a photographer. And he would just show me stuff. I still have a Canon AE-1. He had the same camera and would just show me stuff when he was young. I never lost interest.
Daniel: How much do you shoot film and how much do you shoot digital now?
Justin: A lot less film now. I would say like eighty percent digital now. A lot less film. I don’t have the same contacts in Chicago as I had in Philadelphia in terms of being able to develop and print, you know.
Daniel: The lines can be very blurry between documentary photography, street photography, portrait in the street. But for you, what are some defining characteristics for street photography, whether you’re making the photos or looking at pictures made by other photographers?
Justin: I don’t know if I’ve ever really tried to define it in that way. I think the range of books and zines I’ve collected contain things that are posed and things that aren’t posed. I don’t really spend a lot of time trying to figure it out. I just know what I like, and I like to try to find humor in things and also tragedy. And you see a lot more tragedy in the city, I think. I’m not really sure if I can define it. I don’t know if I’d really call myself a street photographer; I generally just like to make pictures. I’ve never really tried to group it in that sort of way.
Daniel: I use this example a lot when talking with people about street photography. I went to a street photography exhibit at Kunst Haus when I was in Vienna in 2019. Michael Wolf’s photos of the Tokyo subway system were included. There is certainly no street in the photos. But the photos fit. The boundaries are certainly fluid.
Justin: Yeah, it is a very murky thing. Referencing back to the project I did with Matt on his series of photos from Mexico, not all of them are shot on the street but there’s something about the zine that feels—you just feel like you’re in that environment. You feel like you’re in this busy, beautiful environment in Mexico. There is a photograph of some freight trains and the cover shot is a beautiful cactus, which isn’t the street at all.
I am focused on something that feels cohesive and feels full but not bloated. Interesting.
When I’m curating these things, I try not to focus so much on creating something that would be defined as a street photography zine, but instead am focused on something that feels cohesive and feels full but not bloated. Interesting. And since doing color I’ve tried to work with more vibrant images. But I feel like I have a hard time sifting through it. Someone writing on a boarded-up storefront with a Sharpie, I’m shooting that, really confining that writing into the frame. You can’t really see the street. It just looks like a piece of plywood with writing on it. It could be anywhere, but nine times out ten it’s just me roaming the streets. It’s hard for me to define. I just try to make something that feels cohesive, connected, and engaging. I haven’t tried to define myself at all or the zines we do. When they’re finished, I like to use hashtags like “streetphotography.” It’s kind of hot right now, I guess. It draws attention to the work.
Daniel: You talked a bit about curating and design. Maybe we could talk through some of the choices you make. Some of the photos in the zines cut across both pages, which is more common in the street photography zines I have seen and makes sense given the dimensions of the zines. But you also have other pages where you use a single image per page, which tends to be more common in books. Can you talk a bit about design and sequencing? Also, do you work in different ways when putting together a zine with someone else’s photos versus your own photos?
Justin: It doesn’t differ too much. I really put as much, if not more, thought into someone else’s or a group zine as I do my own. And I really enjoy working with other people’s photos. If they’re gonna trust me with their work and give me that kind of freedom, I owe it to them to give them as much attention as I possibly can.
I would say in terms of influence, I tend to flip through books more than zines. I collect a lot more books than zines. That may just be an unconscious thing. I have books next to me now and I’m always buying photobooks and art books. I’m always excited about them. Zines are great. I love them and I love putting them together, but I don’t reference zines as much when I’m working on a zine for someone else. I flip back through Helen Levitt books. I’ve got a few of Ed Templeton’s more recent photobooks, which are really great. I think it comes from that.
And I’ll put things together. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. Like I said, with Matt’s zine I really tried to push myself with the layout. The sequencing was so important to me. And I did a lot of things like having the photo spreads across the page and cutting images (part of image cuts off but then the rest of the image appears on the following page). The wheel of the Volkswagen sets the tone for the next spread. It was me pushing myself and seeing it worked. But I’m making it in InDesign and so I can plug and play.
Daniel: You’ll lay it out, print a dummy, spend time with it? Is that the general move you make?
Justin: Yeah. With the color zines, like Matt’s, I’ll do a full color dummy. I sat with it overnight and came back to it the next day and thought: “Okay, I’m gonna change this and I’m gonna change this text.” And then just print from there.
Daniel: How much do you go back and forth with the other photographer when you’re putting out the zine? Or does the photographer usually leave it to you?
Justin: Matt and Michael Bullard (Up in Smoke) gave me free reign. But I send them layouts and ask, “Hey, do you like this? Are there any photos that you definitely want in this zine?” If they do, then I will work them in as best I can. But usually I have an idea. I’ll flip through the folder and see things: “That to me looks like a good cover shot,” or, “That looks like a good shot for the middle spread.” So, something stands out to me and I work from there. Usually it’s just me starting in the middle with an image I really love that I think needs to be the focus in the center or a cover shot. With Michael’s zine, that image is so different from all of the other images in the zine. I like the idea of taking the zine and holding it so the zine is open to show the front and back cover as one larger image. It’s like two hands with cigarettes (in reference to the look for the cactus on Mexico Lindo y Querido) and then putting the text up at the top of the zine. There is a lot of sitting with it and seeing how it goes in my head.
Daniel: Are the other photographers sending you a lot of images and do you have to leave a lot out of the completed project?
Justin: That’s the hard part, especially with the group zines. Each person sends me twenty, twenty-five, or sometimes thirty images. And, like I said before, I don’t ever want the zines to feel bloated. I don’t want to cram them with images. I just don’t like doing it that way, so I do have to leave a lot of good images behind sometimes. And that’s tough. If you have five people sending you thirty that are incredible, it’s really tough to work through. I’ll reach back out to them. With Matt, I did a group zine with him and Michael as well. After that project, I was like, “Let’s do something else. Let’s do something that’s all yours.”
Daniel: With the group zines, in terms of design and sequencing are you also balancing a percentage for each contributor?
Justin: Absolutely. That’s why I try to tell people, “Send me no less than fifteen. No more than thirty.” I try to balance it out as much as possible. If anything, I’ll retract some of my images to make room for others.
Daniel: Obviously, you can always put your images that you pulled in your own zine. Do you share the design in advance when doing a group zine in the same way you do when doing a zine for someone else, or because it’s a group zine with a lot of cooks in the kitchen, you go with what you like?
Justin: It’s me curating the entire thing. Again, I’m so thankful that people trust me with their work. And to not have any questions or ask for a sample before print. That’s really, really cool.
Daniel: In those instances are you reaching out to photographers or are they coming to you now because you’ve been doing this for a while and have presence?
Justin: I get a little bit of both. But with the last two group zines, it was me reaching out to a handful of photographers I really love. People who I’ve met and become friendly with, or just admired on Instagram or something. We built a small rapport and I asked them to be part of it.
Daniel: Coming out of a DIY world, there is obviously a politics to making zines. People are encouraged to make their own media. Do you see that politics guiding street photography zines in the same way that we’d find with punk zines?
Justin: I’m sure it’s out there. There are so many people producing so much physical, tangible content. If you spend an hour or two at Quimby’s in Wicker Park, it’s incredible. There are entire sections just for politically charged zines. There are a lot more politically charged street photography zines, and books.
Daniel: Obviously, one representation of the DIY ethos in the punk scene is the trading of zines. Have you met people who want to trade zines or does that seem to be a practice that doesn’t feature among street photographers?
I love trading and wish more people were into trading. That’s the roots of publishing: getting the work out there.
Justin: I love to trade zines and I would rather trade my zines than sell them. That’s where I came from. You go to a show and someone is leaving zines around. Or being at a skate spot and somebody would pull zines out of their backpack and hand them out. The first zine I made in 2005, I finished the zine, went downtown with some friends, and I had a group of other friends who were painting a wall. I had this stack of zines and just handed them out to everybody. I’ll post a picture on Instagram and someone will reach out to me: “I still have the zine you gave me in 2005 at that wall,” which is so cool. And sometimes, stores have a free section, and I’ll drop a couple zines there. Zinefests usually have a free table. I love trading and wish more people were into trading. That’s the roots of publishing: getting the work out there. I wish more people would reach out to trade.
Daniel: Mark Murrmann talked about the price of zines. People coming out of punk world tend to use lower prices versus photographers who might come to zinemaking through art school.
I want people to be able to afford the work.
Justin: When I first started making full-color projects, which is a lot more expensive: four cartridges instead of one and I’m using a laser printer. It is more expensive. I had initially priced the zines at $12, but then thought maybe I price the color zines at $15. But I didn’t do it. I couldn’t bring myself to do it, so I priced everything down on the Dirty Art bigcartel store down to $10. It’s so hard for me because that’s the realm I come from. And I want people to be able to afford the work.
Daniel: At the same time, one of the problems in the punk community is a belief that it’s fine if someone works for a corporate pizza company as a delivery driver but not cool if art leads to income.
Justin: I agree. There was a zine in Philadelphia that I was so excited about for about the ten years they were putting it out called, Megawords. I really don’t know about the funding, but they do newsprint size, perfect bound, always something different. And I think a lot of times it was free. That was something that got me super excited in the beginning. They came from a DIY background and were able to find a way to do some of this stuff without needing a ton of money. If there was a way to make the zines free, I would do it.
Daniel: We talked a little bit about books, but to dig in more, the book and the magazine have historically been the main outlets documentary photography. The book world seems to be self-print and then you have the high-end collector books. What influences your decision to do zines instead of books?
Justin: I guess it’s what I’ve always done. Early on, I just had access to a printer. And I kind of kept it moving from there. I would love to have access to a printing press again, but the laser printer quality is awesome. It would be cool to get a perfect bind machine and do something that’s more like a book. But for now, I love doing it. It excites me to put these things together. Work with it, sit with it, be in my own head. I spend a lot of time. I’ll ride my bike to the lake and use a Moleskine journal to sketch layout ideas. And I always sketch it if it were a zine. I guess for now, that’s where I’m at. But if I could get my hands on a perfect bound machine, it would be a little bit more book-like I guess.
Daniel: Have you investigated self-publish sites?
Justin: I love that stuff, but I really haven’t pushed myself too far out of it in terms of zine to book. I’m just trying to make every zine better. And I’m still learning this laser printer, InDesign, and Photoshop to incorporate those things into the zines. To me when you have those programs at your disposal and a printer and a stapler, why not make it as good as you can? I put out a zine a few years ago that was called Cold, Soaked, High, & Guilty. It was a photocopied zine with a bunch of photos that I genuinely liked. It came raw and gritty. This one sold out pretty quick. I only did thirty-five of this one because I didn’t know… I love those gritty, super-contrasted zines that you find at a bookstore in the free section or at the skatepark. But I made it in the same way that I would make some of the more colorful zines. For example, the back page is similar to how I do the Dirty Art stuff.
Daniel: Do you strive to use a consistent design that can be identified with your press?
Justin: Yeah, yeah. And stuff like this still excites me so much. I make these little zines: one page that is folded and it folds out into this little book and then it folds out further into a bigger image, a little accordion fold. I usually send these out as a gift. I’ll include one of these with a bigger zine. It reminds me of the roots of doing this whole thing: photocopied, color paper, playing with type and design. I’ll usually give them out for free. At one point I made three of them and sold them as a pack.
Daniel: On the other end of the spectrum, tied to my question about why you make zines versus making books, would be digital outlets.
Justin: I’m not great with Instagram. I think it goes back to getting so excited about working with print. I’ll make these things and send them to a handful of people before I put them online, friends who I grew up with making zines or being involved with photography. I’ll try to hype it up a little bit; I’m not good at it, but I’ll try. You see other people: “Monday, new zine alert!” I use the hashtags; I think that helps a lot. You look at some people and they have thousands and thousands of followers. I don’t know how they do it. But like I said, I don’t want to get burned out.
Daniel: If you turn the tables and think about yourself as a viewer, not as a zinemaker, does viewing a book, a zine, or Instagram change how you view the photos?
Justin: Instagram is so small. Everything is so tiny, so a lot of details are lost. There are so many photos I have taken that I love but they just don’t translate on Instagram; there’s not enough detail on the tiny screen. A zine is definitely a bit bigger; you can pull some detail out. Books are larger still. But I guess I’d prefer to stand in a gallery and look at large prints all day [laughs]. But, again, I just like doing it. Sometimes it’s just thinking about creating and figuring the rest out later.
Daniel: It sounds like from the conversation as a whole that the photography matters but for you, it’s the total design process.
Justin: Yeah, I think so. But I love the photography. I love to just roam around. And I spend a lot of time walking my dog. He’s high energy. I’ll have a camera around my neck, and we’ll walk the beach or the lakefront, Clark Street, or whatever. I love making pictures, so me talking more about the zines is a matter of circumstance. I wasn’t as motivated with COVID. I just didn’t make as many pictures as I have in the last five years. But if you asked me this question last year, this hour and this date last year, I probably would be talking a lot more about taking pictures. Summer is a great time to shoot. This last year has just been so weird for me, and for everyone. In terms of motivation and shooting, it’s not great.
Daniel: Quarantines obviously made it harder to get out and shoot as well. Then a city like Chicago creates other weather quirks that change how people move through the streets and create some possible challenges when making photos.
Justin: I do shoot a lot in the winter. I keep a zine in my bag now, a zine of photos. If I run into someone on the street who is a little apprehensive when I’m trying to take a photo, I’ll show it to them. I took that from Bruce Davidson. I don’t know if you saw the Everybody Street documentary. He carries a little wedding album, I think 4”x 6” of his photos, and he would approach people to take their pictures who were apprehensive and he’d pull out the wedding album. I’ve been in that position and before that documentary I had wanted to make that image, and I had wished there was a way to get them excited about it. Maybe see it the way that I’m seeing it. Now I tend to carry a zine with me and strike up conversations with people. And if I have my camera around my neck, people tend to talk to me, it seems. This is really cool. I will take the zine out and show them and ask if I can make a picture. I stole that idea from Bruce Davidson but in a different way. So, the zine is handy.
Instagram: @dirtyartpress and @justinmatthew