'A little luck': Matthew Cavanaugh photographed presidents, world events and now turns his lens to focus on Franklin County

Last modified: Monday, February 01, 2016
*Archive Article*

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the gamut of Matthew Cavanaugh’s photographs tells a multitude of stories — from the image of the young newlyweds starting out in their new married life in front of a Hancock Shaker Village to departing President George W. Bush offering a farewell kiss from the steps of his black presidential helicopter, as well as iconic images of everyone from Bruce Springsteen and Sarah Palin to the nine Supreme Court justices, Queen Elizabeth and President Barack Obama.

Life has changed dramatically for the Greenfield photographer since he returned to Greenfield in February 2010 from a fast-paced life as a member of the Washington Press Corps and the board of the White House News Photographers Association.

The 47-year-old West Springfield native still gets called on to photograph hopefuls campaigning for the New Hampshire primary as part of a Getty Images press pool, and freelances for The Boston Globe and goes “on assignment” as a “stringer” for other newspapers he used to shoot for.

But Cavanaugh still finds satisfaction using his photojournalist’s skills to shoot weddings as his bread-and-butter.

“I feel like there’s a little luck in every good photograph,” he says, “because you can’t control all the elements, but oftentimes, it’s patience.”

Cavanaugh gets to practice that patience more now that he’s back in a slower-paced western Massachusetts lifestyle. Lately, he’s been putting it to work not only in taking advantage of candid photography moments at weddings but in immersing himself in timeless traditions for a portfolio of features.

All of the shots still require the same mix of luck, pluck, skill and imagination.

“You can see a good photo, you can see a scene where it could come together and could work out,” Cavanaugh says, “so if you know what you’re looking for and you have the patience to wait for it, then you can hopefully get that image. You obviously need technical skills to make that photo turn out well, but that part can be learned by anybody.”

For Cavanaugh, the learning began when he was given his an old 35 mm camera from his dad’s Army days as maybe a 10- or 11-year-old. Of course, it was broken, and it was just to play with, but Cavanaugh remembers pretending to be a shutterbug with it. And that got him to beg for a birthday present of a Kodak 110 Instamatic, which he used to take backyard pictures of birds.

“The results weren’t that great, and I went through a lot of film,” he recalls.

By the time he was 14, Cavanaugh had hounded his parents for another camera — this time, a 35 mm single-lens reflex that worked. What’s more, his father helped him set up a basement darkroom where he could print his own black-and-white images.

He shot photos for his high school newspaper and yearbook, and even got a job helping a local photographer shoot sports photos and portraits. All this was enough to inspire him to go to Greenfield Community College, where he took every graphic design and photography course he could from instructor Tom Young.

Those courses were about fine art rather than photojournalism, but after working in camera shops for years in western Massachusetts and then on Cape Cod, he began stringing for Barry Donahue, the semiweekly Cape Codder’s photo editor.

Donahue, whom he’d befriended through the store, not only gave him occasional assignments but took Cavanaugh under his wing, teaching him how to be a photojournalist, then hiring him part-time and eventually, in 1993, full-time.

“That’s how I got into it,” he said. “It was a great experience. Barry Donahue was great; he knew so much — kind of old school — and he taught me what to do and don’t do. I learned so much from him.”

In 1996, he moved back to western Massachusetts and freelanced for the Springfield newspapers, where he met Turners Falls native Nicole Letourneau, then a reporter.

They married in 2000, and when she was hired two years later to work in Washington, D.C. as press aide to Congressman John Olver, Cavanaugh moved, too.

Dream job

“It was probably the best gig I ever had,” says Cavanaugh, looking at the online portfolio of images he shot working for the European Press Agency, first as a freelancer, and then in 2004, as a staff photographer. By then, he’d freelanced for the Associated Press and for Springfield.

“I was so worried when I went to D.C. ‘How am I going to compete against these guys?’ What I didn’t consider is that I didn’t learn to be a really good photographer until I went to D.C. and got to watch them work and see what I was doing wrong. Shooting these events under those constraints on deadline, alongside those really talented people who’d been doing it for years, was an incredible education.”

The array of images shows not only a who’s who of national politics, from Rudy Guiliani and Hillary Clinton to Donald Rumsfeld and John McCain, but an eye for portraits and candid shots alike that capture incredible moments with panache and grace.

There’s Senate President Harry Reid, for example, talking on the phone under an office portrait of Samuel Clemens, Bill and Hillary Clinton glowing for the audience between staid paintings of themselves, and a shot of George W. Bush appearing to lose his balance on the steps of a Mexican pyramid.

“He’s goofing, pretending,” explains Cavanaugh, who had seven or eight other photographers shooting beside him with wide-lens cameras to capture the grandeur of the overall scene during a break from a North American summit conference. “I was shooting with a long lens, and I was the only one who had it tight enough to show it. Everyone else had the whole pyramid, so (the people) were tiny. It was on the front page of The Washington Times the next day and got published quite a bit. It made kind of a silly, goofy moment, but it was a little bit of being lucky because I chose that lens. I didn’t know that was going to happen, but nobody did.”

That kind of serendipity paid off, too, at a Rose Garden ceremony to mark World Malaria Day.

It was the kind of event everyone was covering, because President Bush was there and not much was going on that day. But most of the cameras were set up in the front row to focus on Paul Wolfowitz, who was then under fire and would resign in a matter of weeks as head of the World Bank.

“We had all moved over there waiting to see Paul Wolfowitz, who had turned away, waiting for him to turn back this way,” recalls Cavanaugh, who had moved back to center position after taking a Wolfowitz shot, just in time to get a great view of the Senegalese drummers and dancers finishing up … and then taking the president’s hand for one last song, inviting him to dance.

“He didn’t want to look bad, so he just started dancing and really got into it. We’re shooting, it was not the longest moment, but a lot of pictures came out of it. Meanwhile, all of the guys in the ‘cut’ position trying to get Paul Wolfowitz were screwed, and a couple ran over, but by the time they got over, they were kicking themselves. But that’s luck. I can’t take credit for the image …. It was the front-page image in many, many newspapers.”

Other Cavanaugh shots reflected knowing what he wanted and having patience, like a photo downward showing the top of a single blue umbrella on the center of three subway escalators.

At a U.S. Naval Academy commencement ceremony, for example, he knew there would be a flyover, and he positioned himself behind a row of graduates so that when the aircraft shot overhead, he could hit the shutter to capture the moment.

“Definitely, knowing where to put yourself is an important part of it, but it’s also a little luck: Any one of those guys could have turned around and made some dumb face and ruined the shot. You don’t have control over everything.”

Back home

As fabulous as the job was, when Letourneau became pregnant with the couple’s second son, they knew it was time to leave. Their first son, Jonah, had been born in December 2007, and they had juggled two careers with young child, “but we didn’t know if we could handle two babies in D.C. And we really loved it here, so we decided to come back.”

Also, Cavanaugh’s father got sick with pancreatic cancer late in 2009.

“We hustled home as quickly as we could. We’d planned for spring or summer, but then within a week’s time, we went back and packed the apartment into a truck. We just missed 18 inches of snow” falling on the nation’s capital as part of a record-breaking winter of early 2010. “The flakes were falling as we were leaving town.”

Cavanaugh’s father died two days later, and their second son, Julian, was born.

After a five years of fast-paced, high-profile job, freelancing back in rural Franklin County was an adjustment, replacing all of the camera and computer equipment he’d been given — they’d even paid for his car — and then pitching himself to clients. The connections at The Globe, at the New York Times at Getty Images helped, and he’s been able to find work as a stringer. Geographically, though, Franklin County is not the best spot for news photography.

“I knew coming back here I’d have to do a lot of weddings, and I’ve always done them,” said Cavanaugh, who unlike some photographers has always enjoyed working at the milestone celebrations, even while in D.C.

He enjoys photojournalism, even though it doesn’t pay as much as weddings, because it’s interesting and fun, being “thrown into a situation where you’ve got to come up with good a photo no matter what the assignment is, no matter what the light is. You’re put in some pretty drab situations and you have to come up with something interesting.”

And Cavanaugh, who advertises on WeddingWire online planning site and on his own website, tries to bring that sense of spontaneity to weddings, shooting them as a journalist would.

“Clients who hire me are interested in that. They don’t want to spend three hours posing for their pictures. They just want to enjoy their wedding day and have me document it.”

With New Hampshire’s upcoming primary bringing a cavalcade of hopefuls to our doorstep, Cavanaugh was called on by Getty Images for 10 days in January 2012, and will return for a similar assignment in February.

“The last time around, we stayed in a Manchester with a bunch of other photographers, and every day we’d go running around from event to event and filing pictures in between. It was like being back in D.C., and I’d see a lot of the same photographers I’d worked alongside of there come up and shoot the primary. It’s a blast.”

Cavanaugh’s looking forward to covering the primary again in February.

“It’s a very fast-paced way of shooting, where you have to be able to shoot, edit, caption and transmit photos in the car and then get to the next event on time. It’s really challenging. The candidate comes out, gives a wave, you shoot that, pull the (data) card, put it in your laptop and send it. You’ve already written the caption, you know the location and the candidate’s name, so as soon as you get one, you send it and go back to shooting. … For a really big event, like Romney’s (2012) concession speech in Boston, there were four photographers working for Getty including myself. Everybody was hard-wired, the cameras were all Ethernet attached, the images went right to editors in the back room, and their screens just populate with images.”

Sense of place

Yet, between waiting for weddings and freelance assignments, Cavanaugh had been hankering for more — “something local to shoot that would be a fun project.”

So when he saw the last summer’s approaching Heath Fair, which he’s enjoyed for years as a place to take the boys — now 7 and 5 — and a place to be wowed in a homey, hilltown style, he looked at his calendar and saw it free of wedding assignments. He called a friend there who was taking off that weekend and offered his cabin.

“I just love the look of it: It’s up on that hill, out of the sun, and such a feeling of community, which I’ve really appreciated. I thought, ‘Why don’t I just go and cover the whole thing?”

With the invitation from his friend and the blessing of his wife, he went up that August Friday and covered the fair right through to Sunday.

“I just kept looking and looking and looking and shooting and shooting and shooting. And when I got home at night, I looked over the photos a bit, and just kept shooting and shooting.”

When it was all over, back home, he culled through the images, found 50 or 60 he really liked, and posted some on his Facebook page and website, increasing his number of visits and getting shared “by many people I don’t even know. It was such a nice response, and I felt so good about it, that it immediately fired me up. I wanted to do more.”

So when he read a Recorder article about the bumper apple harvest this fall, he made arrangements with Clarkdale Fruit Farms to spend several days there, shooting trees and fruit and Ben Clark with other workers from 7 a.m. on.

“It was just beautiful to go out there … it was just a stunning place,” Cavanaugh says. “I shot various aspects of the harvest, as well as picking pears and making cider.”

Both features on Cavanaugh’s website, along with plans for future seasonal outings of sugaring and an as-yet undecided winter focus, maybe with an exhibit down the road has the photographer reflecting on how good it feels to be back in Franklin County.

“I love this place. I love the valley and the whole idea of doing a project on something like the Heath Fair as a way to do something interesting to me photographically. A personal project just for my own pleasure, that seemed like a really good thing to do.”

Even a creative job can feel draining, he says, when it’s weekend after weekend of weddings if you’re creating images you’re not particularly proud of. But when Cavanaugh comes away with even a few images that he feels are “standouts,” he comes away happy. A news assignment, too, may yield a photo that he’s really proud of, though most live for just the 24-hour news cycle.

The seasonal features, with so much time and sense of place invested, he said, leave him feeling proud enough to hang them on his own wall.

In the moment

Yet the grand, intimate images Cavanaugh shot on the world stage — like the one of Obama, in sunglasses, black polo shirt and white pants, walking with the enormous Egyptian Sphinx in the background — leave a powerful impression on the photographer, and on his home page as well.

That trip in June 2009 to Egypt, France, Germany and Saudi Arabia was probably the best assignment Cavanaugh ever got, highlighted by a trip on Air Force One and a chance to experience the wonder of the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx, culminating in the Obama photo that was probably his most published.

“All that day, I was just shaking my head, ‘I can’t believe I get to do this.’”

There are, of course, other photos and experiences that stand out for Cavanaugh as well, like the emotionally draining candlelight vigil after the Virginia Tech shootings, President Obama’s seemingly never-ending Inauguration day or the image of President Obama on the morning of winning the Nobel Prize, taken through the Oval Office window while he was taking a congratulatory phone call.

“We all knew that was announced, and there would be some reaction from him,” so the press corps was waiting in the White House Rose Garden for a press conference to begin.

“He sits down at the desk and picks up the phone, and there’s bushes in the way, and glass,” Cavanaugh remembers. “I just happened to be in a good position to get a pretty good view: That smile, the phone, it all kind of came together. The funny thing was that when he came out, he didn’t crack a smile, because the Nobel Peace Prize to him was something people were saying he didn’t deserve. They were careful about not wanting any kind of gloating image, and he said, ‘I’ll take this as a challenge.’ But I knew I already had my picture. And that was on the front page of the New York Times the next day.”

Working in the two vastly different spheres are not all that dissimilar, says Cavanaugh. But the constraints differ tremendously.

“I feel like we went from this crazy, fast-paced city to the valley, and it’s same with my work,” he reflects. “I went from a very fast-paced job to a slower, more solitary way of working. But it’s great. This place is dramatically more affordable to live in, especially as a place to raise children. I love being out in situations and having time to work. I feel, I just get better results if I have the time to put in. I feel I’m really benefiting from being in a quiet place, a slower place, in the quality of life, in and out of work. It took a little while to re-acclimate to this lifestyle in every way. We love it here.”

See Matthew Cavanaugh’s photos at:


You can reach Richie Davis at
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

Senior reporter Richie Davis has worked at The Recorder for more than 35 years. He can be reached at rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 269.