Photo in National Geographic History taken by former student

Cal State Fullerton alumnus and photographer Matt Gush seems to be everywhere on campus, attending events, taking studio portraits and recording college life. But even after a long day on campus, he rarely leaves the camera.

Instead, he can be found photographing in Los Angeles and surrounding communities, capturing moments in history such as the Black Lives Matter protests, homelessness, or travel. When he studied photography at Cal State Fullerton, one of his goals was to get a photo published in National Geographic magazine, widely known for its high-quality photojournalism.

Late last year, he accomplished this goal with a photo of Caitlin Rankin, a geoarchaeologist he had been working with, excavating the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Illinois near the Mississippi River, part of the largest pre-Columbian city that lies to the North. from Mexico. The photo appears in the November/December 2021 issue of National Geographic History.

You have a BFA with a concentration in photography and a minor in anthropology. That is an unusual combination. How did the idea come about?

I credit it to the general education requirements. When I came to campus, I didn’t realize that you could study such interesting subjects by choice. I took a class, Anthropology 101, and just thought, “Yeah!” Anthropology is really at the intersection of science, culture, and religion. It is understanding the field of human experience on a deep level.

I came to Cal State Fullerton thinking I would be an illustrator. In fact, I didn’t take an art class until I was a year old and fell in love with photography on my own. I took a photography theory class and it helped me understand the implications and rationale for why and how we construct meaning. As part of an art class internship, I was assigned to the office of the mayor of Los Angeles (Antonio Villaraigosa, followed by Eric Garcetti). It was an amazing opportunity and it helped develop my love for the city. After I finished my job at the mayor’s office, I would go out and explore the city.

How many years have you worked at CSUF?

I started in Strategic Communications in 2010 as a student assistant. For the last nine years, I have worked here full time.

What are some of the challenges you have faced recently?

Some of the biggest challenges would be the world erupting like it has. The story happens almost every day. I feel a great connection to Los Angeles. Sometimes it is complicated and dangerous, but also fascinating. When I was photographing the riots following the murder of George Floyd, I saw a peaceful protest on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I went out to meet some friends and heard on the radio that protesters had broken into the highway. So I canceled my dinner plans and went to see what was going on. That night turned into a coverage week for me. I would work for the university during the day and then go to Los Angeles at night. The photos I took ended up being used in a digital project we called “Temperature Rising” at Cal State Fullerton. At that moment, I felt compelled to be there, I needed to be there. This was not the time to shrink. Sometimes I was terrified to be there, but would I go back? Absolutely.

What made you decide to photograph Cohokia? How did you find out about that?

National Geographic publication in conjunction with Scholastic Pyramid Book

At a sixth grade Scholastic Book Fair, my mom bought me a book about pyramids and there was a picture of Cahokia. That was my first exposure to that site. I have a love for ancient civilizations and look for new places. I began documenting pre-Columbian Native American lands during my travels in the Americas. I was especially fascinated while walking around the central Mexican pyramids. These are the physical remains of great past civilizations. Many people have no idea that we have pyramids in the US. Photographing them and giving them a chance to be seen and understood is wonderful.

Your photography covers a wide range: protests, weddings, science, travel, portraits. How do you decide what you want to photograph?

In Spain, I saw a Roman tomb and was struck by a similar tomb I had seen while photographing ancient Minoan sites on Crete. These shapes and forms and ways of thinking about life have been passed down through time and distance. It is the nature of discovery. Once you find one pyramid, you look for others… Georgia has mounds, Ohio has ruins… I honestly can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing. It is intrinsically special that I can commune with that story.

Is there a subject that you particularly like to photograph?

My greatest pleasure is that I can interact with everything. Things are always new, always different. I don’t do the same thing every day. When I look at Los Angeles, sometimes I see beautiful sunsets and other days, it’s on fire. I have an infinite fascination with the world.

The good thing is that I get paid to look at things. I had a lot of fun photographing Cahokia. Posting a photo on National Geographic was the icing on the cake.

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