Matthew Murphy, one of the most sought-after photographers in the entertainment business, has been featured in the New York Times, Vanity Fair, and the theatrical website – broadway.com. If you are a dance lover, you must have seen his photography leap across the pages of literally every dance magazine in the country. His company, Murphy Made Photography, is a favorite among performers looking for that exquisite headshot or dance picture to complement their portfolios. He has also photographed Broadway musicals such as Les Miserables, Rocky, Kinky Boots, After Midnight, and The Phantom of the Opera, among others. His most recent work is the ad campaign for Hamilton, the highly anticipated new musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda that is scheduled to open on Broadway this summer.
Matthew grew up in Montana where he studied ballet from a young age. His parents, who were also performers, took notice of his keen interest in dance. They encouraged stronger training with more male role models that led the young Murphy to attend high school at the prestigious North Carolina School of The Arts. During his sophomore year, he was offered a position by John Meehan of American Ballet Theatre (ABT) to dance with their studio company. Matthew didn’t feel quite ready to make the move, as he wanted to be sure to finish high school. Luckily the offer was still on the table after he graduated, and he joined the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company in 2004. He worked for the studio company for a year and was later hired to dance with the main company where he stayed for five years.
I sat down with Matthew to talk about his journey from ballet dancer to a renowned dance and theatre photographer.
At what point in your career did you think about becoming a dance photographer?
“I had just turned 21 and was touring with ABT when I got sick with what I thought was the flu. After weeks of feeling tired and weak I was diagnosed with having the Epstein-Barr virus. For the next two years I was bedridden for a time, didn’t have much energy, and could never make it through a Ballet class.
During all of that down time I discovered a camera while browsing on Amazon. I spent the last bit of money I had on it and was ecstatic when it came in the mail. Using that camera really helped me to get out of the illness rut I was in. I found I could be creative without using a lot of energy. I took shots outdoors in the West Village, and since I was still employed by ABT, they let me photograph rehearsals.”
So you basically learned how to be a photographer by taking pictures of the dancers at ABT?
“In a word, yes. It’s the luckiest gig I could have ever imagined, as the dancers were all so beautiful and talented. I also had their trust, since I was in the company, which helped make the learning process that much easier. I don’t know where I’d be today if ABT hadn’t been so generous to me and “opened the door.”
That’s an inspiring story! How did your new career take off from there?
“Once I thought that this might be a new career for me I began to feel better physically. I decided to run with this new passion and felt good about my decision to move on from performing. All of the connections I’d made in the dance world were incredibly generous to me. I was being asked to photograph dance companies, and the editors that I’d met at Dance Magazine and Dance Spirit were also willing to give me a shot.”
Did you have a teacher or mentor during your early years?
“I never had a photographer that was my mentor but I did have two photographers that I looked up to. Rosalie O’Connor and Erin Baiano are amazing dance photographers and both were former ABT dancers. They were wonderful at giving me guidance and sharing information about the business. Whether I had a technical question or how to negotiate terms, they could not have been more giving.”
What’s your favorite thing to photograph?
“I’d say easiest thing for me to photograph is Ballet because I know it the best. I physically remember what it feels like and if it’s Ballet choreography I’m familiar with, I’ll know what’s coming next. I also find it rewarding to collaborate with dancers to find beautiful ways to showcase their athleticism.
Broadway musicals are the most exciting things for me to shoot because the production values are so high. It’s thrilling to capture that killer dance shot when working with the high caliber dancers of An American In Paris, for example. I’m also working with designers and technical people who are at the top of their game which makes my job that much more intriguing.”
Speaking of Broadway what was your first Broadway production?
“It was Kinky Boots. I briefly met Jerry Mitchell a couple of years earlier while shooting for a Broadway Bares benefit that he was directing. The next summer when I was visiting in California, I saw that he was doing an all- star production of Hairspray at the Hollywood Bowl. Just so you know, Hairspray is one of my all time favorite musicals. I sent him an email saying I was in the area and if it might be possible for me to shoot his show. He not only responded, but he invited me to come the next day to shoot the dress rehearsal. I was totally geeking out when I found myself alone in the house of that huge Amphitheatre taking production shots of Hairspray.”
That’s terrific! You really put yourself out there.
“Yeah, I guess I did. l’ve learned that you can only ask, and the worst thing they can say is no. And the best thing they can say is yes.
Jerry loved the pictures and said that he would have to get me on his next Broadway show. Well, he held true to his word. A year and a half later he contacted me to submit my portfolio to the producers of Kinky Boots. He really went to bat for me and I got the job. I’m forever in debt to Jerry Mitchell for opening a door that could have easily stayed closed for many more years, or forever. Doing Kinky Boots was the biggest learning experience of my career.”
What’s it like to photograph celebrities?
“They actually make my job easier because most of them are so used to it. They walk into the shoot with the knowledge of how they want to portray themselves. Ninety nine percent of the time I find that celebrities are fun and insanely generous on shoots. Let’s face it; everyone wants to create a good picture.”
Do you have a celebrity crush? Is there someone you’d like to photograph?
“If I were to pick a Hollywood star that I would just love to be in the room with, it would have to be Jake Gyllenhaal.”
Calling Mr. Gyllenhaal! He can only say NO, right?
(laughing) “That’s true. I also have a childhood dream to photograph Bernadette Peters and Stephen Sondheim.”
Any new projects coming up?
“Just yesterday I did a photo shoot for the upcoming Broadway production of Allegiance. It’s a new musical starring George Takei (of Star Trek fame), Telly Leung and Lea Salonga, making her Broadway comeback. I’m also excited to be doing the production photography for On Your Feet! I had a blast shooting the cast during their pre-Broadway run in Chicago, and look forward to the Broadway opening in November.”
Thank you, Matthew. I guess it’s safe say that when we see some great Broadway dance shots in the near future, there’s a good chance that MurphyMade ‘em!
To view Matthew’s most recent work please visit: www.murphymade.com
About the Author
Bob Rizzo began The Dance Coach as a valuable resource for aspiring dancers, teachers and choreographers looking for professional feedback on technique, performance and choreography. And for those who aspire to a career in dance, The Dance Coach is a trusted advisor offering career coaching and advice based on more than 30 years of professional experience in the dance world! The Dance Coach Blog focuses on dance related topics and people working in the entertainment industry. It features a mix of interviews, tips for dancers, performance reviews, and training opportunities. Read Bob Rizzo’s full bio here.