Matthew Albanese has travelled to Mars, survived a howling tornado, and lived through a house fire—at least in hyper-realistic landscapes he creates using everyday objects such as spices, herbs, fabric, and glass. It all started when Albanese, a 26-year-old photographer in Lincoln Park, New Jersey, knocked over a big tub of paprika in his studio two years ago. “I was cleaning it up and, like a crazy person, started to see Mars,” he explained. The color and texture of the spilled spice soon led to Albanese’s first mock landscape, a careful mix of paprika, cinnamon, nutmeg, chili powder and charcoal that became “Paprika Mars.”
Click Image To View Our Gallery Of Matthew Albanese’s Strange Worlds
Since then, Albanese has created 15 other landscapes, a collection of scenes most people witness only in their imaginations: including the lunar surface (a tribute to Apollo 11), a volcanic eruption, and the fantastical “Sugarland.” Albanese, who draws inspiration from lyrics, movies and everyday life, often takes up to two months to execute each “small world.” Once he settles on an idea, he combs through hundreds of articles and pictures using Google Images. “I try to get very technical about the science behind something.”
To ensure verisimilitude in his photograph of a burning living room—a miniature made out of wood, nylon, Plexiglas and dollhouse furniture—Albanese even asked a firefighter to inspect the piece’s accuracy and whether the printed image looked believable to someone who spent his life putting out actual fires. He incorporated the feedback, reducing the flames to make the scene appear more realistic. After each model is set, Albanese then shoots over roughly 500 photos and experiments with different size prints so that he can make sure the finished product is “as authentic as possible.”
While Albanese’s Strange Worlds has gained some notice online, Albanese does not have official representation. He uses brokers to leverage deals with private galleries in New York and Philadelphia, and sometimes sells to fans who contact him online through Facebook or Behance.net.
There’s an experimental quality to Albanese’s work, both in its execution and in its creator’s struggle to infiltrate the art world. Just the other day, Albanese uploaded his Apollo 11 homage. It took two months to accumulate his primary building block, fireplace ash, which Albanese kept in a paper bag and continuously sifted through in order to make it pure and smooth. “There’s a lot of trial and error,” he admits. The same can be said for Albanese’s marketing strategy—he’s trying to spread the word wherever he can and has yet to figure out how to earn as much as he believes the photos are worth. (Albanese typically sells his work for $1,000 and up, and he makes editions of 10 for each size print.)
For his next image, Albanese wants to try to use Saran wrap, or some kind of thin plastic, to depict an ocean scene. “Something really interesting that people can’t really see all the time,” he says, “a rare sight, kind of like a scary moment.” This shock value, it seems, is the most compelling source of attraction, and Albanese depends on it: His bestselling photo is the tornado, composed of steel wool, cotton, ground parsley and moss. “It is so unusual and ominous and very unexpected.” Then again, in Matthew Albanese's strange worlds, the commonplace can become astonishing.
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Tali Yahalom has written for New York, the Atlantic, The Financial Times and USA Today.