West Main Street in Valley City is lined with local businesses and swarming with traffic, but hidden behind a bounty of vines, shrubs and trees is a quaint photo studio and long-time business of Valley City called Matson’s Studio.
The owner of the studio, Ken Matson, has been a photographer in Valley City for 58 years. He retired last year at the age of 85.
Although retired, Matson’s passion for photography never ran out. He still shoots photos for fun and remains the family photographer.
“When you’re a photographer it’s really hard to get completely out because you got these nice cameras,” Matson said.
His prints have won numerous awards and even been recognized nationally.
Matson said his family is the eighth generation to live in the Sheyenne River valley. He attended school and college in Valley City and finished at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks with a degree in journalism.
Matson and his late wife Joanne have five children, Jeff, Kris, Mark, Monte and Steve, and he lost track of how many cats they had.
From a Hobby to a Business
After finishing college, Matson took the first job he could find which was at Kent’s Studio in Valley City. After the owner moved to Montana, Matson and his wife started Matson’s Studio in 1953.
“I decided I really liked photography, so we started up here,” Matson said. He also wanted to stay in the town that he calls home, where he says the people are very nice.
Matson’s been interested in photography as a hobby since junior high. His passion continued through college, where he took photos for the yearbook at UND.
During his time at Matson’s Studio, Matson traveled the countryside in Barnes County to take photos just for his own hobby. Particularly fascinated by old churches and cemeteries, many of Matson’s prints showcase some of the area’s history.
Those prints are displayed on a wall in Matson’s Studio just above an antique organ topped with unique light fixtures.
The photos, each with an accompanying story, are a collection of some of his favorite and award-winning prints that he’s taken over the years.
Matson said he traveled out to Baldhill Dam at Lake Ashtabula eight times to get the perfect photo of steam rising above the lake in the winter.
“I could talk about a half an hour on every picture,” Matson said. “I could talk all day on photography until my voice runs out.”
Other walls of the studio show some of Matson’s best wedding and portrait work as well as his awards.
A Long-Time Career
Matson spent much of his career photographing weddings. He remembers doing 20 weddings in just one month. His son Mark had recently been helping the studio with wedding photography.
Matson started his business in the 1950s, and many things in photography have changed since then. Matson kept up with the times and still has some older cameras and accessories that he no longer uses.
The studio used to have its very own color lab, where Matson would make prints, but it was no longer useful once he switched to digital photography about five or six years ago.
Matson also used projection slide backgrounds, which he created himself. Matson explained that he used 35 mm slides that he projected on to a white background, creating an easy option for portraits.
One thing that made Matson’s business unique was the outdoor studio. The nature-filled front yard made a perfect backdrop for portraits, Matson said, but he also turned his backyard into a studio with a variety of vines and plants along a fence. Matson said he liked to make the outside look rustic for that purpose.
An Award-Winning Photographer
Matson’s photography has been recognized on a regional, state and national level.
The Photographers Association of America, now called Professional Photographers of America, has a convention with a photography competition once a year throughout cities in the United States.
Some of Matson’s prints have been shown at the convention.
“To get prints hung at the nationals is very difficult because they come all over the world. And there’s usually about 5,000 prints in that area, so to get one hung is very difficult,” Matson said.
A photographer gets a point for each photo that is displayed at the convention. After receiving 25 points, which takes about 20 years on average, according to Matson, then a photographer is awarded a master degree in photography. Matson received this award in 1980.
Moreover, the top 10 percent of those photos displayed at the convention go into the loan collection, where Matson has four of his prints.
One of Matson’s prints that hung during the convention was a black and white photo that he blue toned and oil colored of his son Jeff ice fishing.
“I didn’t think it was going to hang, but I suppose the judges were from some part of the country where they weren’t into ice fishing. They were impressed with it,” Matson said with a chuckle.