Adobe: Stock Photographer Matelli Graves on Creating Opportunity and Telling Multigenerational Stories

Adobe Stock photographer Matelli Graves talks about creating opportunity and telling multi-generational stories


Credit: Adobe Stock / Matelli Graves.

For Adobe Stock photographer Matelli Graves, it all started with his mother’s Canon AE-1 camera.

Born in Ohio and raised in California, Graves remembers it vividly. “When I was about two years old, I was introduced to photography by my mother,” he said in a video interview for Adobe Stock’s Spotlight series. Throughout his childhood, Graves said, his mother shared her SLR camera with him so her young son could take pictures as they roamed San Diego neighborhoods together. “It definitely sparked the passion in me, obviously, years later,” Graves said.

His passion was aided by an unwavering dedication to networking. Whether it’s taking masterclasses with top photographers or taking to social media (Graves recommends both), getting his name out there was what launched his journey as a freelance creative, he says. “I’ve learned over my career as a photographer-slash-cinematographer that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” Graves said. “Because you can shoot yourself into oblivion, but if you don’t know the right people who are going to give you those opportunities, people won’t know who you are.

Turn connections into opportunities

Graves credits photographer Clay Cook, with whom he took a course, as the catalyst for his attitude towards constant, consistent connection. Cook told him, “Hey, you gotta start reaching out to art directors, creative directors, marketing directors, this, that, and the third, show them your work and let them know what you’re doing,” Graves recalled. “Let them know that you yourself to exist.”

The advice paid off – Graves began to find work based on the relationships he forged via direct messaging on Instagram. “Even these have been slow to seize opportunities,” he said of his outreach efforts. “There were times when I was just DMing someone for a year and a half, just talking, and then all of a sudden, ‘hey, you know, we need a photographer for this campaign’ or, ‘hey, we need this video here on this project.’ These little opportunities have started to present themselves.”

Brands took notice of Graves’ sleek cinematic style – he has since shot still and animated campaigns for Express, Dior, a DSW collaboration with Gucci, and Ohio-based Abercrombie and Fitch (Graves lives in Columbus). In 2019 her work appeared in Vogue Italia.

According to him, one of Graves’ biggest advantages of working with bigger companies is that he can focus solely on photo composition while filming.

“When you start out, you’re on your own and you’re just — you do everything,” he explained. “From producer to art director, you’re the creative director – you’re everything. With these big shoots, we had a team with me, and the only thing I had to focus on was framing. We talked about the idea , talked about the concepts, and after that… I just focus on framing, I just focus on shooting, directing the models. It was amazing… Every time I shoot, I try to to learn something.”

A deeply personal project for Adobe Stock

In 2021, Graves applied for funding through the Adobe Stock Artist Development Fund, part of the Adobe Stock Advocates program. He was selected as one of 40 recipients that year. The resulting photo set is an evocative and intimate portrait series that focuses on cornrow hairstyles, an idea Graves came to organically.

“There are two things you remember growing up in the black community, and those are the cornrows and the hot comb,” he said. “You’ll never forget these two because you’ll never forget the smell of a hot comb burning your hair, and then you’ll never forget the cornrows because everyone has them in our community.”

Graves — who, like many black applicants, had been denied opportunities because hiring managers considered his cornrows “unprofessional” — knew he wanted to reframe the hairstyle in a festive light.

“I see it as hair positivity,” he told Adobe Stock. When his mother gave him a book on the history of African hairstyles that belonged to his mother, Graves became even more passionate about the importance of cornrows. “They were used for warfare, and also for hunting,” he explained. “They were used to transport food – for example, slaves brought here from Africa, they had food in their hair, braided, because they knew the journey was long.”

Cornrows has always been deeply personal to Graves, who has strong memories of her mother styling her three sisters’ hair as they grew up. Now Graves watches his wife do braids for her five-year-old daughter – who is also carrying on the tradition. “My daughter taught herself how to do cornrows,” Graves said. “She literally just started doing them on her doll’s hair – she literally knows how to part the hair.”

Graves’ daughter is featured in her Adobe Stock photo series, where she’s pictured stretching and performing ballet routines – although that wasn’t her original plan. Before he could finish the series, Graves came down with COVID-19 and the family became entirely housebound, eliminating any chance Graves had of scheduling any shoots. But, at a suggestion from his curator, Graves decided to work at home until he recovered – a perfect opportunity to team up with his favorite young collaborator.

“She’s amazing,” Graves said of her daughter. “She even gave me ideas. There’s a photo of her doing the splits with her hands on her head – it was his idea.”

Embrace the slowness of the movie

These days, Graves’ experimental nature has drawn him back to film – 35mm, medium format and, on the film side, super-8. Brands have started asking him to use physical film alongside digital, which Graves incorporates into his estimated rate for shoots.

Although his mother’s AE-1 was long gone, Graves added a Mamiya RZ67 to his rig and bought a Contax T2 (a deluxe point-and-shoot made in the early 90s) before the Kendall Jenner’s interest does not inflate the price. Super-8, which brands have also dreamed of, Grave shoots with a Nikon 512 XL. “It allowed me to slow down my process a lot,” Graves said of the cinematic experience. “It’s been really fun.”

Explore Matelli Graves’ portfolio on Adobe Stock and meet other Adobe Stock Artist Development Fund recipients.

Share your own personal stories and viewpoints, through photography, vector art, illustrations, and videos inspired by Adobe Stock’s creative briefs, then offer your best new creations for sale on Adobe Stock.

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