Masculinity and the Used Car Underworld: An Interview with Matthew Thompson

Fig. 1. Matthew Thompson, Grinding, On top, 2019.

Matthew Thompson is a Welsh visual artist, primarily working with photography. In his ongoing project On Top, he creates a narrative using written stories as well as photography to explore themes of masculinity and money-mindedness based within the underworld of a used car dealership. We wanted to find out more about this image-text relationship, so Eliza Morris took the opportunity to interview him.

EM: What first prompted you to write stories accompanying your photography?

MT: Most of the photographs are from 2015-16 when I spent about a year and a half selling used cars, and was surrounded by all these crooks and different characters. The main narrative is between my friend who is the director of the dealership and his investor, and the dark storyline between them about the lengths people went to sustain their drive for money. Through the images alone, it’s difficult to fully understand the dynamics and especially as I’m working in retrospect, looking at a period of time when I was primarily there to sell cars, I realised I have to tell this story too.

EM: What is your process? How are you piecing the photographs and stories together?

MT: To accompany the photographs I already had, I’ve created other images to fill in the gaps that have come about through my writing – not so much with people but elements of landscape which I feel like need to be illustrated. Additionally, during my MA I explored the theme of masculinity, so some of the images from then fit into this story. On Top stops and starts with small scenes and moments. For instance, one of the stories The Sale is centred around one single event in which the valeter locked the keys in the car accidentally just before the customers turned up. The director sees the keys are on the back seat, he says to the woman he’ll replace the window before turning around and smashing it with his elbow. She gasps, everyone is shocked, but he has a way with charming people and eventually sells them the car. The story ends on the words 'So how do you want to pay? Cash, card or finance?' In this instance I have an image of the director counting the cash across the table afterwards, so there is an inextricable connection between image and text. Overall the writing roughly follows a straight narrative and is based on fact, however I have taken about 10% liberty of fiction. I can’t remember exact words said but it’s based on real things and I’m trying to remain true to it. Working in retrospect is not something I want to do again as it’s a nightmare because I missed chances.

Fig. 2. Matthew Thompson, Fire, On top, 2019.

EM: In a way you’re creating images both visually and with words, playing with a relationship between image and text. Was there a specific inspiration behind this, an artist or writer perhaps?

MT: There are a lot of artists that I look to that inspire me and writers such as Raymond Carver the American short story writer. When I first read Carver’s Viewfinder, I was amazed someone could pierce straight through into something so beautiful in about 400 words. But I find this project problematic, I have to figure out the way to couple image and text together. The images are of real people doing real things in a real setting, and then I’m trying to fill in these blanks with the writing. When you try to couple things too closely it becomes too literal, so I need to find the right way to separate them almost.

EM: Does what you were feeling at the time translate in both your photographs and narratives?

MT: I think there is a certain degree that will inevitably come through in an image, but the problematic element for me is having produced the images detached of any plan or sense of what it was I was a part of. Years later looking back into it and having shared the story that surrounds the images with others, I realise there is a strength and power in the story, in its strangeness but also ultimately in universal themes and drives. In terms of what I was feeling at the time, I think this can only really be communicated through the writing where I can pull the viewer deeply into the lives of myself and the men I was closest to. If I was there now, aware of what I was producing, and working towards a realised vision, I think there would be numerous ways to work with the men and to communicate the themes and the story more effectively through imagery alone, through understanding the wider picture and through isolating certain elements and leading the viewer to certain places.

Fig. 3. Matthew Thompson, Hand, On top, 2019.

EM: Why the name 'On top'?

MT: ‘On top’ is something they would say a lot at the dealership. It was a way to describe someone who was attracting unwanted attention. A lot of the time we were doing very illegal things so you don’t want people around you who are very obvious. ‘On top’ also relates to the ideas that the men held and projected of themselves, trying to sell themselves to others and believing themselves to be on top and the most powerful. People buy into you. Often they’d avoid even talking about cars and just try to understand and charm the client. If people like you, they’ll invest into you.

EM: Within the project you explore the topic of masculine identity. What have you learnt from this exploration?

MT: Masculinity is a difficult subject. I think firstly that there is no one fixed 'masculinity', and within the setting of the project and the men I worked with (including myself) and who I encountered daily, it's that masculinity becomes highly performative. You can watch people fill different expectations and roles depending on who is present. Behaviours can shift and bend, the intent in the words uttered and the actions taken sway, all to follow suit. It can be nuanced at times, and in other moments brash. This performativity and particularly the image one projects to others is a consistent theme throughout the writing. There's a bravado, at times men becoming violent, in other moments it's swapping stories, other times it's taking huge risks. There's an almost continuous testing and gauging of one another, in a quite combative fashion, seeking to dominate. Throughout the series there are many images of bodies and/or faces covered and with this I'm building a sense of resistance, of something pushing back towards the viewer, or perhaps also something hidden, and with this I hope to strike the right balance in connecting these ideas from text to image.

In the future, Thompson hopes to undertake a long-term research project into ecology and biology, with writing again taking a form. For now, though, On Top promises to be an insightful exploration into the furtive dealings of an underworld defined by profiting at all costs and performative, fluid machismo. Not only does this self-aware observation of masculinity individualise this project, but so too does the intertwining relationship of image and text, which reveals the varying nuances between visual and verbal language and how to tactfully relate the two together.

Fig. 4. Matthew Thompson, Closing, On top, 2019.

Author, Eliza Morris - Instagram; LinkedIn

Photographers featured in this Article

Matthew Thompson - Personal Website