Matt Rainwaters Is OK with Oklahoma Noodling

By Barbara Goldman

 Portrait of Jessica Ray, published in the The New York Times Magazine,  from the OK Noodling contest at Pauls Valley, OK

Once upon a time commercial photographer Matt Rainwaters lived in LA, where he was a high school teacher and hotdog-stand owner.  Rainwaters has a love for life, for people, travel and interesting moments that he seizes upon and shares in his fun and vibrant photography.  Now based in Austin, Texas he continues to come up with fascinating subject matter for his own projects and for clients.
Last summer, Rainwaters took on a personal project to photograph the time-honored southern tradition of the Oklahoma Noodling Tournament, Festival and Fish Fry. The OK noodling tournament is a once-a-year chance for noodlers and hand fishing enthusiasts to compete and meet-up in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma for the world’s largest bare-handed catfishing contest. The event is steeped in backwoods tradition and usually goes from May to June.  First-documented origins of Noodling going back to Native Americans, who would wrap clothes around there hands and arms and wrestle these massive fish to shore.
The crowd in attendance includes a diverse group of local fishing enthusiasts from around Oklahoma, the curious and media from around the world and has attracted as many as 10,000 fans. It has also become a marketing opportunity aimed at the many facets of the American Heartland. The tournament has been covered by ESPN Timeless series, Discover Oklahoma and extreme angler and host Jeremy Wade of the popular TV show River Monsters on Animal Planet has also rolled up his pants to catch these aggressive and powerful catfish.  As one contestant put it, “if you’re noodlin’, you’d better be ready to lose some hide.”
Rainwaters had heard about this contest years ago and imagined the characters would be really unique.  A few years later the  composer and guitarist Bill Frizell made an album entitled “Disfarmer,” inspired by Mike Disfarmer ,(http://www.disfarmer.com), a reclusive rural portrait photographer in the small town of Heber Springs, Arkansas who photographed the lives and emotions of his community in the early 1940s.  “One portrait of a man with a giant catfish was burned in my mind and I put the two together.  The entire series is homage to his [Disfarmer’s] work and part of my greater goal of cataloging the odder parts of our culture,” says Rainwaters.
What started out as personal project for Rainwaters turned into a published portfolio for The New York Times Magazine last September.  Rainwaters mentioned the shoot to his art director- friend, Caleb Bennet formerly of Texas Monthly, who had recently moved to The New York Times Magazine. Bennet and Rainwaters had worked together on award winning features at Texas Monthly over the years and always stayed in touch. “Texas Monthly has a way of directing you to make your best work, so it was a real pleasure to work with a member of the same creative staff in a new environment, “says Rainwaters.  
When Rainwaters got to the actual shooting location in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma it was 109 degrees.  “I have a really great crew though so everything went smoothly and the contestants were all such great people and really easy to direct- it was energizing working with them actually,” says Rainwaters.  He also had to be mindful of other film crews that were shooting TV shows.  He had a van full of gear and a few default plans for lighting but in the end chose to work with natural light because it suited the subjects and location the best.    
If You Ain’t Bleedin,’ You Ain’t Leadin” was published in the The New York Times Magazine last September 2011, but it is still bringing recognition to Rainwaters. His photos with the magazine’s elegant art direction presented the OK Noodling tournament as a truly beautiful Americana tradition, handed down to next generations. "The noodling photos were as much about the people as the catfish, and I think Matt did a great job of conveying that. They presented us with a unique slice of American subculture in a fresh, inviting way and resulted in nothing but positive reactions from everyone involved,” says Benet.  The amazing photos of the giant catfish are still going strong for Rainwaters almost a year later in direct mail campaigns and a future limited-edition zine that will include the entire collection of noodling characters and their big fish.  The photos are also syndicated through The New York Times Paris office and are now available to other markets across the world.
Rainwaters has promised to keep us posted on what comes next , but you can bet that whatever it is, it will be interesting and another prize catch for any art director and photo editor.  See more of Matt Rainwaters’ projects and portfolios on his site and his blog at www.mattrainwaters.com.
Client- The New York Times Magazine
Creatives- Art Director: Caleb Bennett    
Writer:  Tony Gervino  
Photo Editor: Christine Walsh   
Photographer:  Matt Rainwaters
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