Adobe Stock photographer Matelli Graves on creating opportunity and telling multigenerational stories

Photograph by Matelli Graves
Credit: Adobe Stock / Matelli Graves.

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

Ohio-born and California-raised, Graves remembers it all quite clearly. “When I was around two, I was introduced to photography through my mother,” he said, in a video interview for Adobe Stock’s Spotlight series. Throughout his childhood, Graves said, his mother would share her SLR camera with him so that her young son could shoot photos while they traversed San Diego neighborhoods together. “It definitely sparked the passion in me, obviously, years later,” Graves said.

His passion has been helped along by an unwavering dedication to networking. Whether via taking master classes with big-time photographers or reaching out on social media (Graves recommends both), getting his name out there was what jump-started his journey as an independent creator, he says. “I have learned through 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 to oblivion, but if you don't know the right people that are going to give you those opportunities, people aren't going to know who you are.”

Turning connections into opportunities

Graves credits photographer Clay Cook, with whom he took a class, as the catalyst for his attitude toward constantly and consistently making connections. Cook told him, “Hey, you need to start reaching out to art directors, creative directors, marketing directors, this, that, and the third, showing them your work and letting them know what you do,” Graves recalled. “Let them know that you even exist.”

The advice paid off — Graves began to get work based on relationships he forged via direct messaging on Instagram. “Even those took time to get into opportunities,” he said, of his communication efforts. “There was times where I would just DM 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 some video over here on this project.’ These little opportunities started coming out.”

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

One of Graves’s biggest takeaways from working with larger companies, he says, is that he can concentrate solely on photo composition while on set.

“When you start off, you're all by yourself and you're just — you're doing everything,” he explained. “From the producer to the art director, you're the creative director — you're everything. With those bigger shoots, we had a team with me, and the only thing I needed to focus on was framing. We spoke about the idea, spoke about the concepts, and after that... I'm just focusing on the framing, I'm just focusing on getting the shot, directing the models. It was amazing... Every set I go on, I try and learn something.”

Adobe Stock photos taken by photographer Matelli Graves.

Credit: Adobe Stock / Matelli Graves, Adobe Stock / Matelli Graves.

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 that Graves arrived at organically.

“There's two things that you remember growing up in the Black community, and that's cornrows and the hot comb,” he said. “You’ll never forget those two because you'll never forget the smell of a hot comb burning the hair, and then you just never forget cornrows because everybody got them in our community.”

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

“I look at it as like hair positivity,” he told Adobe Stock. When his mother gave him a book on the history of African hairstyles that had belonged to her mother, Graves became even more impassioned about the significance of cornrows. “They was used for war, and also for hunting,” he explained. “They was used for carrying food — for example, slaves that was brought over from Africa to here, they had food in their hair, braided in, because they knew the journey was long.”

Adobe Stock photos taken by photographer Matelli Graves.

Credit: Adobe Stock / Matelli Graves, Adobe Stock / Matelli Graves.

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

Graves’s daughter is featured in his Adobe Stock photo series, where she is pictured stretching and performing ballet routines — though this was not his original plan. Before he was able to finish the series, Graves came down with COVID-19, and the family became entirely house-bound, eliminating any chance Graves had of scheduling shoots. But, on a suggestion from his curator, Graves decided to work within his home until he recovered — a perfect opportunity to team up with his favorite young collaborator.

“She’s amazing,” Graves said, of his daughter. “She was even giving me ideas. There's a shot with her doing the splits, with her hands over her head — that was her idea.”

Adobe Stock photos taken by photographer Matelli Graves.

Credit: Adobe Stock / Matelli Graves, Adobe Stock / Matelli Graves.

Embracing the slowness of film

These days, Graves’ experimental nature has led him back toward film — 35mm, medium format, and, on the motion side, super-8. Brands have started requesting that he use physical film alongside digital, which Graves builds into his estimated rate for the shoots.

Though his mother’s AE-1 is long gone, Graves has added a Mamiya RZ67 to his gear, and picked up a Contax T2 (a luxury point-and-shoot manufactured in the early nineties) before Kendall Jenner’s interest inflated the price. Super-8, which brands have also been eager for, Grave shoots with a Nikon 512 XL. “It's allowed me to slow down a lot on my process,” Graves said, of the film experience. “It’s been really fun.”

Explore Matelli Graves’ portfolio on Adobe Stock and meet more recipients of the Adobe Stock Artist Development Fund.

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