If a picture is worth a thousand words, the gamut of Matthew Cavanaugh’s photographs tells a multitude of stories — from the image of the young newlyweds starting out in their new married life in front of a Hancock Shaker Village to departing President George W. Bush offering a farewell kiss from the steps of his black presidential helicopter, as well as iconic images of everyone from Bruce Springsteen and Sarah Palin to the nine Supreme Court justices, Queen Elizabeth and President Barack Obama.
Life has changed dramatically for the Greenfield photographer since he returned in February 2010 from a fast-paced life as a member of the Washington Press Corps and the board of the White House News Photographers Association. The 47-year-old West Springfield native still freelances for the Boston Globe and goes on assignment as a “stringer” for other newspapers he used to shoot for. But Cavanaugh finds satisfaction using his photojournalist’s skills to shoot weddings as his bread-and-butter.
“I feel like there’s a little luck in every good photograph,” he says, “because you can’t control all the elements, but oftentimes, it’s patience.”
For Cavanaugh, the learning began when he was given his an old 35 mm camera from his dad’s Army days as maybe a 10- or 11-year-old. Of course, it was broken, and it was just to play with, but Cavanaugh remembers pretending to be a shutterbug with it. And that got him to beg for a birthday present of a Kodak 110 Instamatic, which he used to take backyard pictures of birds.
By the time he was 14, his father helped him set up a basement darkroom where he could print his own black-and-white images. He shot photos for his high school newspaper and yearbook. At Greenfield Community College, he took every graphic design and photography course he could from instructor Tom Young. After working in camera shops for years in western Massachusetts and then on Cape Cod, he began stringing for Barry Donahue, the semiweekly Cape Codder’s photo editor.
In 1996, he moved back to western Massachusetts and freelanced for the Springfield newspapers, where he met Turners Falls native Nicole Letourneau, then a reporter. They married in 2000, and when she was hired two years later to work in Washington, D.C. as press aide to Congressman John Olver, Cavanaugh moved, too.
“It was probably the best gig I ever had,” says Cavanaugh, looking at the online portfolio of images he shot working for the European Press Agency, first as a freelancer, and then in 2004, as a staff photographer.
“I didn’t learn to be a really good photographer until I went to D.C. and got to watch them work and see what I was doing wrong,” he said. “Shooting these events under those constraints on deadline, alongside those really talented people who’d been doing it for years, was an incredible education.”
The array of images shows not only a who’s who of national politics, from Rudy Guiliani and Hillary Clinton to Donald Rumsfeld and John McCain, but an eye for portraits and candid shots alike that capture incredible moments with panache and grace.
There’s Senate President Harry Reid, for example, talking on the phone under an office portrait of Samuel Clemens, Bill and Hillary Clinton glowing for the audience between staid paintings of themselves, and a shot of George W. Bush pretending to lose his balance on the steps of a Mexican pyramid.
As fabulous as the job was, when Letourneau became pregnant with the couple’s second son, they knew it was time to leave. Their first son, Jonah, had been born in December 2007, and they had juggled two careers with young child, “but we didn’t know if we could handle two babies in D.C.”
After a five years of fast-paced, high-profile job, freelancing back in rural Franklin County was an adjustment. The connections at the Globe, at The New York Times and at Getty Images helped, and he’s been able to find work as a stringer. Geographically, though, Franklin County is not the best spot for news photography.
“I knew coming back here I’d have to do a lot of weddings, and I’ve always done them,” said Cavanaugh. He enjoys photojournalism, even though it doesn’t pay as much as weddings, because it’s interesting and fun, being “thrown into a situation where you’ve got to come up with good a photo no matter what the assignment is, no matter what the light is. You’re put in some pretty drab situations and you have to come up with something interesting.”
And Cavanaugh, who advertises on WeddingWire online planning site and on his own website, tries to bring that sense of spontaneity to weddings, shooting them as a journalist would. “Clients who hire me are interested in that. They don’t want to spend three hours posing for their pictures. They just want to enjoy their wedding day and have me document it.”
Even a creative job can feel draining weekend after weekend, he says, if you’re creating images you’re not particularly proud of. But when Cavanaugh comes away with even a few images that he feels are “standouts,” he comes away happy. A news assignment, too, may yield a photo that he’s really proud of, though most live for just the 24-hour news cycle.
Yet the grand, intimate images Cavanaugh shot on the world stage — like the one of Obama, in sunglasses, black polo shirt and white pants, walking with the enormous Egyptian Sphinx in the background — leave a powerful impression.
That trip in June 2009 to Egypt, France, Germany and Saudi Arabia was probably the best assignment Cavanaugh ever got, highlighted by a trip on Air Force One and a chance to experience the wonder of the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx, culminating in the Obama photo that was probably his most published. “All that day, I was just shaking my head, ‘I can’t believe I get to do this.’”
Working in the two vastly different spheres are not all that dissimilar, says Cavanaugh. But the constraints differ tremendously.
“I feel like we went from this crazy, fast-paced city to the Valley, and it’s same with my work,” he reflects. “I went from a very fast-paced job to a slower, more solitary way of working. But it’s great. This place is dramatically more affordable to live in, especially as a place to raise children. I love being out and having time to work. I just get better results if I have the time to put in. I feel I’m really benefiting from being in a quiet place, a slower place, in the quality of life, in and out of work. It took a little while to re-acclimate to this lifestyle in every way. We love it here.”