SS // I always love to start with the basics. Childhood basics. It sets a story up nicely. Anyway, you grew up in Columbus, Ohio. What was that like?
AT: I think that [while you’re] growing up, you don’t have a lot of thoughts about the place you live until you’ve experienced something else. Even less so than Columbus, I properly grew up in Ashville, Ohio. A small farm community of about 4,000 people. I think I spent a lot of time in my own head and dreaming of the places I’d only seen on the internet at the time. Growing up in the Midwest comes with a work ethic and curiosity that is very unique.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Or… What were you expected to be? Did you have hobbies?
AT: The only thing I cared about up until I moved out of my parent’s house was soccer. I played all year-round for different clubs. There was probably a level of creativity in the sport that I was wildly attracted to. I’m also just insanely competitive. Other than that, I had thought I would be an engineer just like my dad and his dad. I was sort of under the impression that [being an engineer] was the “right” answer.
….Although, after sports training I would stay up late looking at photographs and design on Tumblr. I made a lot of friends through that community (all over the world) when I was in high school. It was the secret that I kept away from most people, knowing that it would be a point of misunderstanding. Looking back I know it was one of the greatest influences in how I got here today.
You’re only 23, so a lot has gone on for you in a short period of time. Let’s skip forward from high school meanderings to your freshman year in college - how did this next chapter in life change you?
AT: It was my intention to play soccer in school, but at the last second had decided that it was time to move on. So there I was, a freshman with no hobby or something to work on for the first time in my life. I ended up studying accounting since the school I went to didn’t have an engineering program. It was a time in my life that I really struggled with. I think I’ve always been somebody that latches onto purpose and for the first time in my life it felt like I didn’t have that.
So, how were you introduced to photography? What type of content were you shooting? Until that point, did you have any preconceived ideas about the craft?
AT: I kept myself sane in college by running all over the city of Columbus and taking photographs with my iPhone 5 after accounting classes. Asking my friends to stand in front of walls, taking photos of coffee in a cafe. I just thought it was fun. In all reality, I found joy in making the everyday sights in the city something worth stopping to look at in a photo. It was always cool to see people comment, “I drive past this every day!” knowing that the photograph was most likely a surprise to them.
"A lot of artists are paralyzed by things not being good enough or thinking that they’ve already arrived."
What happened from there?
AT: During my sophomore year of school I had realized that maybe it was possible to make money by creating social content for local cafes and brands. A lot of people never responded but a few businesses in Columbus gave me a shot. After building a small portfolio of work, a friend from Instagram reached out to me admiring [my] hustle and complimenting me for the work. He was living in Chicago, but had gone to school in Columbus and found himself familiar with a lot of the clients that I’d been working with.
He asked if I’d be interested in assisting him for the summer after my sophomore year in Chicago, where I [would continue] to make new relationships and work with as many people as I could during my time there. After a few successes and a lot of failures, a creative agency offered me a position as an internal Content Creator two weeks prior to my intended date of moving back to Columbus — where I was supposed to finish my junior year of school. I took that job and worked at Idea Booth full time for 10 months.
The need for content at the time was something new to all brands and restaurants (hello - Instagram). When did you notice this desire and tell our readers how you went after it.
AT: I had a couple friends in Chicago that were working off of a similar model. My pitch to brands was the importance of being known for something. For good food, coffee, design, photographs. Everything is part of the brand and all of it matters.
What brands were taking chances on you? Companies? How did this lead you to staying in Chicago?
AT: The first small businesses I worked for were Mission Coffee Co, FUSIAN Sushi, and Lokal Cold Brew. When I moved to Chicago a small business named Furious Spoon took a chance on me. It happened that the restaurant was a project managed by a boutique creative agency specializing in hospitality. The agency’s name was Idea Booth.
So you knew NOTHING about real shoots and cameras? How’d you not chicken out and leave it up to the self-proclaimed ‘pros’?
AT: Nothing at all. I think there was a level of naivety that really played into my advantage. I felt like I could do it so I just did it. I knew it wasn’t perfect but I also knew that I was inevitably going to get better. A lot of artists are paralyzed by things not being good enough or thinking that they’ve already arrived. There is a sweet spot in between that really allows us to grow and move forward.
What have you learned about life and trusting a process, thus far.
AT: The most important thing is to keep going. Find new ways to make yourself fall in love all over again.
What are your thoughts on networking?
AT: Being a good and likeable person is undoubtedly more important than the level of skill itself. Just be nice to people and always take time to learn more about those who are around you. No matter how far ahead or behind you are to them. Their name is always worth remembering, and we always have something to learn.
Images from Alex’s first shoot for a coffee shop in Chicago (iPhone 5)
You’ve mentioned to me before that “the moments of life where you’re not obligated to do anything are defining who you are going to be.” What does this mean for you, personally?
AT: We all have obligations in life. Work, school... The things we need to do to survive. But it’s really where we spend our time when nobody is making us do anything that matters. It’s all of that time [where] you can be getting better at what you do, and meeting new people who will reward you later. I try to take photographs on every free weekend possible. I know it will only move me forward.
You do a lot. You work full time at Matte Black, you work on passion projects, you co-founded MOUTHWASH, a digital/print magazine production hub AND podcast platform in 2018…. You also manage to find time to have friends and tweet to your bizarrely large group of Twitter fans. How TF do you not burn out?
AT: Sometimes I do feel a little burnt out. But that’s how I know it’s time to take a break or move on to something new. At the end of the day if you love what you do you’ll find ways to keep loving it. I don’t have a lot of advice for burnout, but I do know that if your desire to do creative is built on the love to do it, you don’t have a ton to worry about.
If I can be honest with myself, a lot of my burnout in the past has come from the desire to do things with the wrong intention, whether that be popularity or feel cool by everyone else that is watching. It never lasts.
How do you push yourself to be better?
AT: I get excited to use creative as a way for problem solving. It’s really cool when there are problems and creative can be used as a solution. Anything that feels unique or unexpected is what makes me most excited. With that comes the imperative awareness to know who you’re surrounding yourself with. We’re only as good as the people we surround ourselves with. I try to keep people around that I can always learn from and ask a lot of questions.
What are your thoughts on pursuing passion?
AT: For me it’s the most rewarding feeling. I hope I die one day and have something to be proud of. A real goal of mine is to make something that lasts a whole lot longer than I do.
You’re just getting started.... Does that excite you or make you anxious?
AT: It makes me so excited. I feel so good for where I am at 23 years old and am excited to see where life takes me.
What’s next? What do you want to make of yourself?
AT: I try to let life dictate that. I know for sure that what I’ll be doing in 5, 10, or 20 years from now will be so far beyond anything I can dream of, [that] to try to box that in is an injustice in a lot of ways. I hope I’m doing what I’m doing now but on a bigger scale with people that I love.
Cool. See you at office happy hour?
AT: I’m really into negronis lately. I’ll take one or two of those.
Meet Matte Black’s very own, Alex Tan. At only 23 years old, Alex has figured a lot of important life stuff out, fast. Born and raised in Ohio, Alex was on track to become an Engineer and/or soccer star. With special to the timing of technological innovations, serendipity came into play and led Alex to taking photos on his iPhone as a hobby. After dabbling, he ended up taking a trip to Chicago to shadow a mentor who was shooting a campaign. Filling his spare time knocking on doors of local shops and cafés, Alex started creating custom content for fun money. Flash forward to today, and he’s here, working with us in LA as an Art Director. (Chelsea offered him a job after he was interviewed on our podcast last Spring). He's Co-Founder of MOUTHWASH, shoots on the regular, has been featured as a unique creative on VSCO and Twitter... it seems that there’s little he can’t do. When you meet Alex you can feel his energy. He's got a spark in his eye. He’s just getting started, so look out (and read more about how he got here in this inteview).
— Gaelan Simpson, Managing Editor SSR
They’re inevitable, so we might as well chat about it.
Hello, got a question for you: have you gone full rage after seeing an advertisement? Not because it was lousy or poorly shot or just, you know, bad. No, not like that. Rather: because the message was a bit much? It brought up a polarizing topic you, the consumer, think corporations and brands should really just gloss over? Or maybe it brought up a negative aspect of society. A human shortcoming even. Those sorts of things.
— James Royce, Writer
As marketers and strategists, we often talk about how our clients’ products and services are going to create meaning in their consumers lives. This exploration of how people relate to products in their world is a critical part of our process to develop compelling storytelling. But, let’s be straight; in a world overflowing with stuff can any one product truly inspire meaning in people’s lives anymore?
— Megan Abramson, Strategy Director
Indulge me for a moment.
All together now, let’s gently close our eyes and conjure in our collective imagination Leonardo da Vinci’s exalted Italian Renaissance painting, Mona Lisa. I suggest this particular art megastar for its wide recognition among readers, and for the purpose of discussion.
— Peppa Martin, Founder of Truth + Beauty
The title: How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation. My coworker slacked this article to a group of us a few weeks back. I didn’t open it. There was no need to.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made a post about how people are trying to leak his nudes this week. That’s a real sentence. This is a real story. This is another reminder that the reality simulator crashed back in 2012 and things have just been glitching since. Why’s this happening?