“Saturday Night Live” Photographer Mary Ellen Matthews Gives Hosts a “Bumper” Shot

Country music superstar Blake Shelton was poised on a mid-Manhattan sidewalk, looking right at home beside a split-rail fence while he toyed with a lariat.

It was pretty cold, and curious passers-by were starting to crowd, but Shelton seemed to be enjoying himself while a photographer fired away.

Shelton, guest host of "Saturday Night Live," was engaging in a rite that reaches back to the birth of this NBC institution: lending himself for a portfolio of images aired as "bumper IDs" before and after each commercial break.

"I've had Nashville people say, just jokingly, 'Hey man, don't make us look stupid,'" said Shelton as he scuffled a boot in the hay strewn on the sidewalk and chuckled at this kountry-kousins tableau he was part of.

It won't look stupid. "SNL" host portraits — some zany, some smart, some downright suave — exhibit a consistent track record of cool artistry, and with their blink-and-they're-gone impact they have always served the show's sense of downtown elan. They are part of what makes "SNL" ''SNL."

Since 1999, they have been the weekly creation of Mary Ellen Matthews, who in mid-January for something like the 300th time, was doing it again, keeping it fresh and making it look easy.

Until this final setup outside Rockefeller Center — a last-minute inspiration by Matthews for which Shelton was game and stagehands swiftly toted the fence-prop out to 49th Street — the session had taken place indoors, in Studio 8H.

"So THIS is where it all happens! Look at this!" Shelton had marveled earlier as he strode into "SNL's" fabled home to start the five-day whirl that awaited him.

On a stage to the right of "home base" (from where Shelton five days hence would deliver his opening routine), Matthews' lights were arranged against a neutral-colored seamless background.

Her goal: "Staying loose, loose, loose, then understanding when That Moment hits — or when you FIND it."

Her challenge: "For each image to jump off the screen. It's only up for like three seconds."

Shelton reigns as CMA male vocalist of the year and as a coach on NBC's music-competition series "The Voice." But more importantly for Matthews' purposes, he was an easygoing pro, instantly as comfortable with her as she was with him.

Taking his place in front of the lights, he quoted a fellow country singer as declaring, "I have two poses and YOU'VE got one hour," and laughed at such bullheadedness. His session would stretch for nearly two hours, through dozens of poses and several wardrobe changes.

For a full-figure shot, Matthews asked him to deliver a little kick with one of his boots. His first try was tentative. "MEAN it," she teased, and the next kick looked just right.

A rope around Shelton's waist was tugged by an off-camera assistant while he mugged at the camera in hog-tied bemusement.

At Matthew's request, he tossed a cowboy hat in the air and caught it on his head, all the better for its landing slightly askew.

"Good, good, good," Matthews cheered him on.

Clad in jeans and a velvet jacket, she was coltish but deliberate, capturing Shelton with her Canon 1DX (she went digital a decade ago but still misses her Hasselblad's "analog feel and the magic of not knowing what you've got until it's processed").

From the no-wait harvest, Matthews would have to cull a total of nine images for possible use on the telecast, which will conclude a busy week that began for her on Monday with brainstorming and other preparations, then on Thursday typically requires a photo session with the musical guest (not needed that week, since Shelton is pulling double duty), and by Friday calls for applying to the handful that Matthews has chosen enhanced color and other digital sorcery (her neutral shooting background, for instance, can be transformed into any hue, design or location).

Matthews joined "SNL" 22 years ago as assistant to Edie Baskin, the show's original photographer who in 1975 had established its enduring visual identity. Matthews calls her "my hero and my mentor." When Baskin left in 1999, Matthews took over.

Growing up in New Jersey, Matthews was hooked on photography from childhood.

"My father had a darkroom and I was in there 24/7," she recalled when the Shelton session had wrapped. "He used to have little contests between me and my brother and three sisters: We'd each shoot one frame and pass the camera around, and he'd judge which frame was the best."

As she spoke, with time fleeting, thousands of frames now demanded her own discerning eye.

"I'm real excited to jump into that," Matthews told her interviewer, "as soon as we're done."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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