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Life & Work with Matthew Kauffmann of Lebanon, Illinois

Today we’d like to introduce you to Matthew Kauffmann.

Hi Matthew, thanks for sharing your story with us. To start, maybe you can tell our readers some of your backstories.
Moses is arguably one of the most influential individuals ever to live. His birth was illegal. He was raised in a palace, beaten under a murder charge, and led enslaved people out of captivity, which set up two of the world’s major religions. One of the most famous stories of his life is that of the burning bush (Exodus 3-4). God comes to Moses and says, “Tag, you’re it!” Moses, for his part, throws back every excuse he can come up with of why he shouldn’t be the one. In the same traditions, we recall Jonah, who got to hang out with fish-guts for three days because he tried to dodge what God called him to do. And there are several places where the apostle Paul writes about how God chooses people and equips them; a handy summary being “God doesn’t call the equipped, He equips the called.”

I firmly believe I am living through God’s grace and calling. I honestly don’t remember where my love for photography started. I know my first camera was the one my parents gave me for my sixth-grade class trip. And when I had saved enough money from working at summer camp, that was what I bought one year. And another year I bought one with manual controls and a long zoom lens! I was Ballin (as the hip-cats say). I needed a part-time job when I moved to St. Louis for Seminary. There was a simple ad in the Post-Dispatch about getting paid to take photos at parties. I thought it was a joke, but I replied and surprised myself to get a job with Kabance Photo Services doing high school and college parties on weekends. It made for a pretty sweet part-time gig.

At about the same time, I met Eric Harkins of Image Masters Photography. I constantly gave him grief that he needed an assistant, and I thought I had the skills to do it. I didn’t, but he hired me as an occasional assistant and taught me a ton. Enough, as it were, to send me to Las Vegas in 2003 to be the Official Photographer for the World Series of Poker. I was there when Chris Moneymaker launched the poker explosion. My shot of the final card was of Sam Farha’s defeat (Eric got Moneymaker’s reaction).

I continued to dabble in photography and wanted to call myself a professional. I dreamt of the day I could launch myself into that glamorous world. I look back now and laugh because I realize I wasn’t near ready in the skill department. Life continued, and I held my job as a paramedic enough to feed my family. It also gave me ample time off to pursue photography projects, and I continued to grow on that side. As a quick aside, I believe that was a calling as well; a very practical application of gospel teachings and where I need(ed) to be for a spell, but those are stories for another time and place.

Fast forwarding to my divorce in 2019, with a new bit of freedom, I found myself able to pursue more projects. Through group shoots, I made some friends in the industry and staked a toe-hold. Suddenly I had more than enough people looking for my work, and the learning curve for efficiency got steeper.

One of the reasons I was always slow to jump to full-time photography was that I was uncertain how it played into my theology (you would’ve never guessed me a theologian by my intro, lol). I knew that as a paramedic, I was doing work for God. I didn’t see how being a photographer did that. And then, one day, it flashed (pun intended). Genesis 1:1 starts “God created.” Photography is a creative art.

But it also goes deeper. As a photographer, I have the ability and gift to show someone exactly as they are. A camera does not lie. Deeper. A camera shows the subject just as they are. Deeper. A camera shows the subject just as God created them. Deeper (getting closer). In 1/5000 of a second, light carves away all the fake, and the subject is revealed as God created them. YES! A photograph has the power to show the subject just as they are, and a talented photographer can do so in a way that is flattering to them and reveals them to be their best selves. The photograph is not lying. It is them. They are that beautiful/handsome/sexy/lovable. Or we dip into the land of make-believe: and we make the image of that person as the astronaut they dream of being, and by seeing themselves in the state of their dream fulfilled, they can picture the goal and work diligently toward it. So – that’s the long way of illustrating that the principle of call is important to me and that I’ve figured out how God will use me as a photographer: to love others by showing them who they are in God’s eyes. And that’s where I am today. I’ve accepted that as my calling and am now in the process of putting everything into place so I can transition and dedicate myself more fully to that mission.

Can you talk to us about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
Has it been a smooth road? Yes and No. I could say “no” because it’s taken me over 20 years to get where I am: and that’s where I am comfortable enough in my work to put it in front of people who matter and know that it will hold its own. I could say “no” because I’m a horrible business person, and despite 20 years of experience, I still struggle to do some of the basic things of running a successful business (but I’m learning!) I could say “no” because my calendar isn’t overflowing (yet). But in reality, it has not been an impossible journey. I have been blessed to have a full-time job throughout the learning process, especially one that gives me the freedom to devote time to personal growth. Additionally, I don’t have the stress of thinking my kids might be hungry if I have a bad month. I’m covered. I’ve also been blessed to have the opportunities present themselves when I was ready for them. This winter, I signed up for and completed a business course that gave me many great ideas and perspectives. As I put pieces from that into practice, I feel more comfortable about what I offer and how I do it and that I’m living up to the value I try to create. I would’ve loved to have this information sooner, but I also wasn’t in a place I could invest in such a course, so it all works out. My biggest struggle lately has been something I’ve struggled with my whole life: confidence knowing that I know what has to be done and having the confidence to make it happen.

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
Like many photographers, I tried to sell myself as a generalist for quite a while. I could fool myself into this because I’ve had exposure (pun!) to many different genres of photography, and I understand how each one differs and some of the rules behind them. But I’ve settled mostly into weddings and portraits, including boudoir these days.

Weddings are an adrenaline rush for me. It is an 8-hour dance to create the most accurate images of the bride’s vision of her day, especially when getting to that vision requires bending reality. What I’ve been told sets me apart as a wedding photographer is my organization and planning. I think this set of skills comes straight from my work as a paramedic. In that life, I can walk into complete chaos, find the problem, and have a plan to fix the problem within the first 15 seconds or so. On the wedding day, it’s about managing the chaos and expectations by knowing the bride’s vision and then executing a plan to create and capture it on razor-thin time margins. I take pride in maneuvering through a list of required formal family portraits in the minimal time while making sure that each one is legible and flattering.

Portraiture is a different dance. It’s much more controlled, but the stakes are also higher. It is usually quieter and calmer in a portrait setting, leading the mind to wander and enter the picture (pun!). This goes exponentially more so in the boudoir. In wedding photography, things move so quickly that there is hardly time for the bride/subject to overthink what’s happening in the camera. If the photographer cannot connect with their subject and relax them, the session will likely be ruined, and if the subject sees themselves in an unflattering image, it can wreak havoc on someone’s self-esteem.

So what sets me apart?
I would say it’s 20 years of practicing interacting with people in a moment of tragedy. It’s the skill developed to be able to walk into chaos and instantly create trust. The skill of reading people to understand not only what they are presenting with, but what is going on that’s causing that symptom, and then having a plan to manage – if not fix – it. That also allows me to stay calm, even when things don’t seem to be going my way. Even if an image doesn’t quite work, the client doesn’t need to know that at the moment:

  • Make the necessary changes.
  • Fix it.
  • Do it right so what they see is what they want.

The other big factor is being a Certified Professional Photographer. I joined the Professional Photographers of America early in my career because they offer great benefits. Because I’m not one to sit still when achievements are made, I started working on the CPP (also the Masters of Photography degree, but that is taking longer). The CPP program is deceptively simple. It’s a written test and the creation of 3 images. Deceptively simple, but despite years of medical education (some well beyond the scope of a paramedic), this was probably the hardest test I’ve ever taken. The images are exactly prescribed and must be 100% perfect; 99% is a failure. Going through this reinforced many technical aspects of photography and taught me attention to detail and the importance of proper lighting. Having a CPP behind my name means I’m one of the world’s top 3% of photographers.

Is there any advice you’d like to share with our readers who might just be starting?
The best advice I could give someone wanting to start a career as a photographer would be to focus (pun intended) on being a business person. Your photography will get there with practice, but a million talented photographers can’t pay their bills while a million other untalented hacks live extravagant lives. The difference is knowing how to be a business person. Thinking you can start by charging less is a race to the bottom. The bad news about that is that someone wins, and even worse, that someone comes in second. The other side is “take time to study art history.” Our clients are investing their hard-earned money with us. They deserve images that flatter them. Anyone can take a snapshot, but an artist intentionally makes a portrait. There are reasons that Rembrandt and his contemporaries are known as the Old Masters, and there are reasons we seek to emulate them to this day.

Pricing:

  • My pricing is set so that I can afford to give my clients a truly amazing experience. I don’t cut corners and my clients appreciate that.
  • Portrait and boudoir packages start at $400, with an average spend of $4800
  • Weddings start at $2400, with an average spend of $7500

Contact Info:

Image Credits
Images Copyright MDKauffmann Photography; All Rights Reserved

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