Matthew David Powell: Marcelle Turner, Debbie’s Child

The Image

Matthew David Powell

A hilltop in the Bronx, NY, USA

Time / Date:
7:00PM / May 4, 2014

The Technical

Camera Body: Nikon D800
Lens: Nikon 50mm f/1.4G

Camera Settings:

Shutter Speed: 1/1600
Aperture: f/1.6
ISO: 125
Focal Length: 50mm

The Story


My background as a photographer is deeply rooted in street work, I like using the urban landscape as a canvas, and like to keep an emphasis on telling a good story. My goal with this portrait of Marcelle Turner was to create an intimate frame that would be part of a larger ongoing body of work focused around the story behind tattoos. The technical preparation for this shot took some exploring to understand how to best showcase ink on skin, and the person, and where the two become one. I wanted both equally represented in the frame.

The Scene: 

We created this image in the early evening at a hilltop in the Bronx, looking west. I knew I wanted this frame to be strongly backlit, with an open aperture to pull focus to his tattoo and a subtle fade toward his face. I envisioned this image having significant lens flare, some may call it technically incorrect, but I find the look of flare beautiful, and like to include it in my work where I can. I wanted the shot to feel etherial and soulful, and worked to gain that feel through the light and positioning of the subject.


Gear wise, I choose the 50mm 1.4, because it allows me to keep a pretty much 1:1 relationship with the person I’m working with, and when using it wide open it creates this amazing bokeh. 50mm positions me close enough that a subject feels like they are a collaborator in the making of the image. I’ve worked with 85mm and don’t like the sense of distance and compression. 50mm just feels more real and relatable. In general I prefer small fast primes over zooms. Camera wise, the D800 is an amazing tool, it’s my go to body, crisp and clean, and easy to work with. That said, I’m not much of a gear head. My general philosophy on camera kit, is that the camera and lens are only tools, it’s good to have great tools, but greater and more important to have great ideas, more/better equipment doesn’t make your photography better per se. I prefer simple, uncomplicated setups that let the real magic happen in the viewfinder, not in the controls. I almost always prefer natural/available light.

Making the Shot:

My motivation for making this image was to tell a very intimate story of the bond between a son and his mother, a homage that he has paid with words inked in his own skin. I have always had a deep appreciation for tattoos, and an admiration for those who wear them. I think it speaks to a certainty that I have not yet found in myself. I do not personally have any tattoos, perhaps because I have never loved something enough, long enough, to make it permanent.

I like to take a narrative approach when creating portraits with people, capturing a series of images that tell a story of the different facets of a personality, images that when seen together tell a wider view of a subject, and still hold up when viewed alone. In making this frame I allowed him some time to go to a place in his head between the clicks of the shutter. I’d hold and wait for the moment I could see he didn’t feel as though he was “being photographed” and thats when I was able to make this magical frame.

Editing & Processing:

My workflow for this image was pretty simple, as I try not to spend more time in front of the computer than I need to. This image was downloaded from the D800 into Lightroom 5 and a custom base preset was applied, (it’s loosely based on a VSCO Portra 160 base, with a bunch of additional adjustments for colors, ca, shadows and contrast, a mix i’ve perfected and tweaked over the years.) It gets the color and feel to a nice starting point, then can fine tune from there. I don’t try to mimic ‘film’ per se, but I do try to get out of the ugly ‘digital’ looking color palette. I’m usually less concerned with ‘realistic color’ and more interested in setting a mood that supports the story I’m telling in an image. Since I was working in very high contrast light, I’d chosen to overexpose in camera a bit, and dial back in post, keeping plenty of detail in the shadows. I finished this image with little fine tuning in photoshop to balance out the contrast.

Looking Back:

I chose this image because it’s a great example of the type of portraiture I’m the most interested in creating at the moment, work that lets you and a subject go a little deeper than you normally would. I feel it’s a nice compliment and extension to my street photography discipline, working to keep that same depth and unscripted feel, but with individuals. I felt it really succeeded in expressing my style, and telling a great story.


I’d say the best advice I could give on creating my style of portraiture, or really photography in general, is to stay connected and curious. Portraiture is a journey that you are taking with someone, I’ve found it’s very important to be present, open and receptive to the feelings someone feels and how they express those emotions. To that end, I feel I’ve made my best work when I create from a place of being an insider, conspiring with others to feel and express. When you can make the camera disappear, for both you and the subject, thats when the real magic happens.

The most important thing I’ve learned on my journey as a photographer is to always be creating, and make a lot of mistakes. It’s from those mistakes that you learn what not to do, and also clarifies what it is you want to do. Over time you find your voice and narrative, but think in those uninspired or creatively blocked moments, it’s vitally important to keep creating. It will inspire new and better work.


I find most of my inspiration by going out and “seeing” the world around me, everyday situations are really pretty remarkable when you take a moment to stop and appreciate them. I feel grateful to live in New York, where the energy of the city fuels my own. My greatest drive for making images is the desire to be understood, to express myself in a way that I haven’t been able to in words. I strive to make work that is dense and layered, the more time you spend looking at the details in a frame, the more questions you’ll have. If my work sparks a conversation, makes someone think or feel something, then I feel I’ve succeeded.



About the Photographer

Matthew David Powell, grew up in South Eastern Idaho, and by way of Utah and San Francisco has called New York home for the last 12 years. An avid photographer and urban explorer, his work has a steady thread of New York running through it—our people, our places, our challenges and our successes. Telling the story of what it’s like to live here, now. (bio photograph by Richard Burrowes)

Twitter: @mdpny
Instagram: @mdpny

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