John Mastromonaco received his first camera as a gift at age 15. The first photograph he took was a snapshot of his brother standing on a highway shoulder next to his car, looking forlornly at a flat tire.
“And it’s been downhill towards perfection ever since!” says Mastromonaco, with one of his frequent (and infectious) baritone chuckles. “I’m trying to reverse that course and get to a more imperfect, instinctive place where the finished work is emotional but totally subjective.”
But ‘downhill’ is relative, and after that first picture Mastromonaco pursued photography in earnest, building a darkroom in his basement in order to understand (and control) every aspect of the process. Youthful experimentation (“Miles and miles of wasted celluloid,” he says) gave way to a more disciplined and meticulous approach, which led him from art photography to portraiture. He found the one-on-one artist/subject relationship exciting, “an intimate and sometimes awkward dance towards trust,” which suited his gregarious personal style. His portraits led to magazine editorial work, fashion and then advertising, first as a still photographer and eventually as a filmmaker and commercial director.
And that’s where perfection came in.
“It used to be a specialist hunched over a work table with a magnifying glass, manually re-touching a negative. There was only so much you could do to manipulate an image, so it was still a largely objective medium. Then there was Photoshop, but expert re-touching was still a rare and expensive craft. Now photography is perfectible, infinitely changeable. Software algorithms can make everyone an Avedon, which is neither good or bad. But the fact is photography has become something else.”
For Mastromonaco that something else is a starting point, a raw material to be broken up and refined (or unrefined and further roughed up) into something more expressive and strange.
As he says: “I like to turn the obvious into the mysterious.”
Typically working from an old photographic negative, he reduces the image’s resolution to 80kb until it becomes a near-abstraction, just shape and texture. Odd patterns that are invisible at higher resolutions, pixels and digital artifacts introduced by this ‘destructive’ process appear, and this image is further manipulated with high-resolution digital paint, then actual paint, tactile collage elements, layer after layer passing through analog and digital phases until…“It’s done, I guess,” he laughs, “or so I think. I work alone now, just me in the studio without the usual cast of dozens of producers, crew, stylists and makeup people, models, actors, agency, clients…everyone looking over my shoulder to make sure everything is perfect. I’m extremely lucky and I can’t complain, but perfection is dull. Have you ever been to a perfect wedding? So boring. The ones where the ring bearer has a screaming meltdown and the best man gets drunk and gives an insulting toast in the middle of a raging hailstorm, that’s the good stuff. A messy, fantastically human spectacle. If you want your wedding to be indelible, do a bunch of shots, take off your clothes and start a brawl at the reception. Then hug it out!” Mastromonaco thinks for a moment. Sighs.
“You know, it feels pretentious to talk about what I’m doing, or trying to do. I’m a very practical person and I’m done trying to overthink things let alone blab about my ‘process’ or whatever, as if it were anything other than an impulsive blurt. A subconscious blurt. I mean, does anyone really care? So let’s just say that my work is for people who know that a disastrous wedding is the best kind, and that there is grace and secret beauty in the awkward and imperfect.” – Eric Schmid