Photography by Katie O'Neill
Matt Squire is one of the UKs leading film and TV stills photographers. Born and raised in Timperley, Altrincham, He has worked on many of TV’s most iconic productions including: Cracker, The Street, Shameless, Peaky Blinders, Life on Mars, Car Share, Prime Suspect, Happy Valley and The Royle Family.
Matt is also renowned for his iconic images of the The Stone Roses, his older brother guitarist John Squire is a founder member of the band. Matt’s images include early shots of the band from 1987, the sleeve artwork for the single Sally Cinnamon and the classic series of live images documenting the bands 2012 homecoming show at Heaton Park.
The Royle Family
Q & A with Matt Squire
Q: When did your love of photography begin?
A: I left school at 16 and after a spell on the dole followed up an advert in the job centre for Black & White film manufacturers Ilford who were training school leavers as lab technicians at their Mobberley factory. They sent us to college one day a week to complete a basic science course, but I managed to persuade them to switch me on to a photography course instead. I didn't find it particularly inspiring but it was a day off work. More inspirational were the scooter rallies that I'd go on where I'd take a camera borrowed from work and then print everything in the darkrooms at Ilford.
Q: When did you start to develop your photographic style?
A: Five years later and bored of the job I cashed in my work pension, which raised £700, and set off travelling in the Americas for 18 months. With earnings from painting houses and while still travelling I bought my first SLR camera, a cheap Pentax, and began documenting my new and changing surroundings. It was during this trip that I first thought that maybe I could try and be a professional photographer but had no idea how that might be possible. I bought a Renault 5 for $500 which didn't have a functioning starter motor. Every time I stopped I had to remember to park on a slope to make the bump starting easier but nonetheless it completed a 5000 mile meandering trip across the USA all the time photographing everything I saw. I abandoned it on the streets of Jersey City and flew home.
Q: What happened next once you were back in the UK?
A: I converted my bedsit's kitchen into a darkroom and developed and printed all of the photographs from my travels. Around that time the government launched what was known as the Enterprise Allowance Scheme which meant you could start a business and still get your dole and housing benefit paid for a year - I told them I was a photographer, signed up, then bought a used Canon A1 camera and three lenses for £135 from the classified section of the Manchester Evening News.
The Stone Roses - Heaton Park, 2012
Q: What was your first paid job?
A: An act of kindness and serendipity soon followed when a childhood friend, AJ Wilkinson, said that he was going to go back to college to do a degree in photography and would therefore be handing in his notice as freelance photographer at Manchester's listing magazine City Life. He offered to suggest me as his replacement. I showed them my pictures from America and got the position. I might not be a photographer now without that opportunity. I was paid £10 for each photograph that was printed and £30 if one made the cover but the real reward was that it forced me to engage with people and gave me a brilliantly diverse set of subjects to photograph on a weekly basis from plates of fish and chips for the restaurant review section to portraits actors like Tom Courtenay and Penelope Keith when they appeared at Manchester's Theatres.
Q: How did you make the move into stills photography?
A: After about 18 months of freelancing for City Life I was encouraged by a friend, Ric Mellis, who was working on Coronation Street to show my work to Granada's staff photographer, Neil Marland. Neil gave me a chance based on the City Life portrait shots I showed him but warned me that there would be no time to set up lights or consider the shot or the composition for long. It all had to be done fast. I think Neil disliked staying late to cover the light entertainment shows that Granada recorded in the evenings so my first job was to photograph one of those. Nervous, with a live studio audience watching and working quickly the resulting pictures were pretty poor, mediocre at best but Neil kindly gave me more chances while I gradually improved.
After multiple light entertainment shows he eventually put me on to dramas like Cracker and Prime Suspect, at first to take the gruesome crime scene photographs for the art department to dress into the incident room scenes and then later the episodic pictures used to promote the programs.
Q: How has the job of a stills photographer changed in the digital era?
A: My first 10 years of professional photography was all on film. After a day on set I'd have to head to the processing lab I used in Salford from wherever the location was that day and post the films into the night drop. Then another visit later in the week to collect the negatives & contact sheets. If I'd shot medium format transparency film then generally the first frame would be clipped and processed for me to check exposure an hour or so later. The balance of the films being processed accordingly. All very time consuming.
The same time is probably spent editing and adjusting the digital images but with the added benefits of making adjustments on a frame by frame basis and seeing the images full screen rather than just looking through a magnification lupe at a 35mm contact sheet.
The advent of mirrorless digital cameras has also been hugely beneficial in that I no longer have to use a blimp which is a glorified biscuit tin with a tube attached to the front to house the lens. They're lined with sound dampening material and do a reasonable job of masking the clunk of an SLR camera's shutter if there's a bit of ambient noise. Not great for quiet scenes though. They made handling a camera cumbersome and lens changes were convoluted. Plus they cost around £1000... Good riddance.
Student reflection: Katie O'Neill
Photographing Matt was a really enjoyable experience. The specular views from Blackstone Edge overlooking Greater Manchester was the reward after a 45 minute climb. The walk gave us the perfect opportunity to chat and find out more about Matt’s photographic career. The weather was hot and sunny which often makes portraiture difficult. However, we used a pop-up reflector for many of the shots to bounce the light to fill in the shadows.
The shoot went amazingly well, I was able to get a variety of shots, using the landscape to frame my portraits. The rocky outcrops and the strong skies provided wonderful backdrops which reflect many of Matt’s dramatic film and TV stills. His dog Flo who joined us for the walk, featured in a number of images, adding character to the shots.
Matt was very supportive and patient during the shoot and shared his experience as a photographer by suggesting potential creative opportunities. I’m really pleased with the final outcomes... I feel they successfully capture Matt’s personality.