Matt Roppolo’s Iconic Photography From Rock Legends to Nike to the Ten Commandments

By: Matt Roppolo, Photographer, MJRPhotography

Since I was a young boy, I’ve loved shoes, cars, and guitars. I dreamt that someday I’d end up designing one of those things. The world had other plans, but I’m glad to be able to work photographing most of those items. I am constantly surprised by what comes into our studios at Heritage Auctions. Most of what we do are just standard catalog shots, but occasionally, we see some exciting designer items, historical artifacts, sports memorabilia, and celebrity-owned items. I have photographed various articles ranging from Mary Todd Lincoln’s black walnut commode, which was pretty much what it sounds like, to the Yavneh Ten Commandments Stone from 300-830 AD. Usually, things move quickly around our studios, but every now and then, I get to put my art degree to use shooting cover shots and other feature shots for ads and catalogs. These are my favorite days.

One day last year, I was fortunate enough to shoot the 1969 Guild F-412 guitar Stevie Ray Vaughan played on MTV Unplugged. I wanted to use something in the shot that identified the guitar with Stevie, but I didn’t want to use a photograph, album cover, or anything too direct. I searched around for ideas and saw a still image from a video filmed during a 1983 radio station interview in which you could not see Stevie’s face, only his hat, hands, and guitar. I knew I wanted to make something close to this image, but obviously, I would not have the pleasure of photographing the guitar in the late guitarist’s hands. I would be beyond lucky to get my hands on a black gambler hat that resembled the one he famously wore when I had to make this image. I remembered one night at a neighborhood bar when my friend and co-worker, Weldon Adams, described his 80’s club attire as like Stevie’s, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask if he had a black gambler hat. As you probably figured out, he did! I decided to use darkness to convey Stevie’s absence and a Canon TS-E 90mm tilt shift to hold focus on the guitar and hat while throwing as much of the dull, stained plywood sheet that I had the guitar sitting on out of focus. I think it went well and ended up being one of my favorite images I’ve had the pleasure of shooting for Heritage. The director of vintage guitars and musical instruments, Aaron Piscopo, was pleased with the final shot and with the sales from the catalog whose back cover it graced.

After photographing the Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar, I shot a Kurt Cobain-signed guitar. My first attempt was not fondly received, causing the director to suggest that I attempt to emulate one of Nirvana’s album covers in the background.  I decided on the album cover for Nevermind. Thankfully, the image did not spark joy with the department director, and I was given the go-ahead to use the original image. I will not go any further into that image, as the result was, while good, was not worthy of submission to Graphis. 

It did lead to me shooting two pairs of Nike shoes that Superman inspired, the Nike Zoom Soldier II “Superman” Look See, shoes to be featured in a collectible sneakers sale. After finalizing the four cover shots for the guitars and musical instruments sale, I asked if I could do a few feature shots for the sneakers sale. I was given a pair and told they were Superman shoes. I still had Nassau Blue seamless up from my album cover attempt and was eager to use the poly-fil clouds that we had recently acquired. I went with it because it’s hard to think of Superman without thinking of flight. The first pair I shot to appear as if they were on a cloud in the daytime sky.  At the time, I had no idea that I’d be asked to take a photograph featuring another pair of similar shoes in a different color scheme. When I found this out, I decided to try to emulate a night sky and clouds. Thankfully, I was on a large set with ample space since this required three different lighting zones. It would not do to have a shot of the shoes in the dark, so I lit them separately in the center and had the poly-fil clouds in the foreground and the sky and clouds in the background dark. The resulting images were well received by the department director and were among some of my favorite photos from last year.

I hope to have many more images to share in the coming years. I already have a couple pegged to submit to the next Graphis Photography competition. I’m glad that Heritage allows us to be creative and does not try to push the use of AI in our creative images. I do have concerns about how AI images will affect the photography industry. While I feel safe being that most of my job is documenting the condition of the items I shoot, I fear what will happen to the creative end of my career and the industry in the coming years. Let’s all do our best to avoid a robot takeover of the creative end of photography.

Matt Roppolo studied art photography at the University of North Texas. He started his photography career as a photojournalist for several suburban papers in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Then, he moved on to New Orleans, where he shot for The Times-Picayune. Longing to do commercial photography, he moved back to the Dallas area. After being a freelance photo assistant for over a year, he found a place at Heritage Auctions as a full-time photographer. Heritage was then an established name in coin and currency auctions and had recently branched out into fine art, comics, sports, and historical memorabilia. He has worked as a photographer at Heritage for over fifteen years, and they have grown into a large auction house with offices in several countries. Matt continues to do art photography whenever possible.

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Author: Graphis