When Matthew Holler was around nine years old, he picked up his parents’ old 35mm camera. “That was it,” he says, recalling the young boy who, from the home in Buffalo, New York, to vacations in Tampa, would snap photos of everything he could. It was kid’s stuff—nature, food, vacation—and from a kid’s eye, but the seed had been planted. Through high school Holler dabbled in writing and painting and illustrating, but photography kept bringing him back, despite an art teacher who insisted photography was not, in fact, art. “I set off on a personal journey to prove him wrong,” says Holler. And upon graduation, Holler received a photography scholarship from Ringling College of Art and Design.

Photo 1

In college, the fire once fueled by the glamor of shows such as America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway burned brighter as Holler delved into the world of art history. He found heroes in mid-20th century photographers like Helmut Newton, Robert Mapplethorpe and particularly Richard Avedon, the fashion and portrait photographer known for his work with Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and as the real-life inspiration behind the Fred Astaire/Audrey Hepburn comedy Funny Face. “It was a time in our history when we had really successful commercial art,” says Holler. And like Avedon, Holler found insight in art history as well, continuing his studies past his graduation from Ringling in 2011.

Photo 2

With a recent exhibition in the Patricia Thompson Gallery of Ringling College, a quasi-retrospective entitled Recent Photographs, Holler shows his growth as an artist, learning to inject narrative into the work and move beyond “pretty girls in pretty dresses,” he says. The models are still models and the fashion is undoubtedly the focus, but the images move past simple portraiture to a heightened realism with a touch of the fantastical. A professor once described it as escapist, and though at the time Holler pushed back against the charge, now it’s something he embraces. For each shoot, Holler will craft a narrative for his models, makeup artists and hair stylists, giving them context they can then bring to their art. The audience may never pick up on the exact details, but the energy and conjunction of purpose comes through in the final shot in that intangible aspect that transforms a snapshot into an insight.