Cookie banner

This site uses cookies. Select "Block all non-essential cookies" to only allow cookies necessary to display content and enable core site features. Select "Accept all cookies" to also personalize your experience on the site with ads and partner content tailored to your interests, and to allow us to measure the effectiveness of our service.

To learn more, review our Cookie Policy, Privacy Notice and Terms of Use.

clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews

The Woman Behind Saturday Night Live’s Iconic Photos

Mary Ellen Matthews's business card will tell you that she's Saturday Night Live's photographer. But a short conversation with Matthews reveals that not only has she been the long-running show's lenswoman for 16 years, she's also an encyclopedia of references, an improviser, and a politician.

Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.

This is a woman who has worked with some of the biggest talent in comedy, roaming the same halls as SNL cast members since she joined the show as an assistant photographer in 1992, but also from the worlds of sports, acting, music, and politics. You can only imagine the stories she could tell — if she weren't so professional.

emma snl

Photos: Mary Ellen Matthews

She readily doles out kudos to co-workers ("All these are group efforts... between me and [costume designer] Tom Broecker and the props people my personal photo team") and doesn't prefer working with comedians over less seasoned individuals ("It's such a privilege to be able to work with any of these people. You collaborate with all these different personalities from all different walks of life."). She refuses to pick a favorite cast member ("No, no, no, they're all just amazing. We're all family. It's like asking if you have a favorite son or daughter."), maintains a balanced relationship with SNL's notoriously enigmatic head honcho ("Lorne is a comic genius. He lets me do what I do, but I look to him for some guidance to keep the show running on the rails."), and generally loves her work ("I mean, I have the best job in the world, can you believe it? It's amazing"). Like Lorne, she seems purposefully tight-lipped about the influences for many of the photos, letting the image tell the story and the mystique of Saturday Night Live to carry over to these images.

Matthews landed in the best job in the world in 1999 after her boss and the lead photographer at the time, Edie Baskin, stepped down and entrusted Matthews with the lens. Talking to Matthews about her process, you start to understand why she's been so successful working at a place like SNL, an institution that lives by the motto, "The show doesn't go on because it's ready; it goes on because it's 11:30." During her time at the show, she's never tried to fall into a routine. Instead, she takes her cues from cast members, many of whom are alums of improv institutions like Chicago's Second City, New York's Upright Citizens Brigade, and Los Angeles's Groundling Theaters.

donald trump snl

Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews

The photographer works in a similar on-the-fly style. She'll put together props, ideas, and entire shoots on the day of. "You know there's always one the day of, there's something else always comes up, like, ‘waaah!,'" she says, emphasizing the chaos with a scream. The recent image of the Donald using a gold, Trump-branded can of hairspray to keep his hair strategically placed came to Matthews on her way to work the morning of his shoot. She called the graphic department — "our gal Tara Donnelly," she says — brought in the props department, and Trump hairspray was created in less time than it takes for him to earn another million. Typically, Matthews shoots the week's host on Thursday and doesn't hand the photos over until two or three hours before the show starts on Saturday.

Matthews says she's lucky to have room for revelation built into her job. There's no shortage of inspiration when you work at SNL. One iconic photograph, featuring Rihanna and Louis CK playing cards, came together completely in the moment. "I just thought of that the last minute, everyone was around," she says. "I thought, ‘Let's just get everybody.' We got a couple of our crew members to go in there, and that's just fun for everybody to take part in."

snl andy
tina fey snl

Photos: Mary Ellen Matthews

It's not just the people at SNL who inspire Matthews' photos. During this current season, her imagination has been sparked by the very walls that surround her, the hallowed halls of 30 Rockefeller Center. Matthews decided to "take advantage of the history and what it means to be in the building," when she set one of Amy Schumer's bumpers in a 30 Rock elevator. The way Matthews tells it, the idea started off as Schumer posing as a ‘40s elevator boy, but it just wasn't enough. "We kinda kept digging through it and digging through it" until they landed on the image of Schumer with a mouthful of feathers and an empty birdcage.

Occasionally, the host has some say in what their photo looks like. A privilege, by the way, reserved for very few: The Will Ferrells of the world who, Matthews says, "will kinda jam on some ideas" with her. Emma Stone was gifted the chance to pose as Gilda Radner because "Radner was a hero of hers," Matthews says. Other times, the host inspires, but it might be less about what they say and more about their goofy face. One of Matthews's favorite photos features Andy Samberg in a martini glass, an idea she'd been kicking around in her head. She couldn't find the man for the job  — until Samberg came around. "You're like, ‘OK, he's going to get plopped in this glass.'"

More often than not, it's Matthews's own ideas and references that spark her lasting images. She can create an entire shoot out of a iconic pop culture staple like the Edward Hopper painting Nighthawks, which she did with Edward Norton. "I had that idea and he just jumped out of his skin with just wanting to do it," she says.

ed norton

Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews

Likewise, a shoot with Tina Fey — which shows the comedian posing like you've rarely seen her: scantily dressed, and putting on for the camera — was inspired by a vintage picture, an old Jane Russell photo. Matthews wanted to "show some different sides to [Fey] and let her feel great and get into another persona, get her into being Jane Russell on the hay," she says.

While SNL photos occupy a small amount of screen time relative to the sketches, musical interludes, and monologues, they are, as Matthews knows, just as a pivotal a part of a host's SNL story. An actor goofy enough to be the olive in her martini glass, an actress in love with a comic legend like Gilda Radner; look closely at Matthews's photos and they tell as rich a story as anything else that happens live from New York. Matthews knows what a story a picture can tell: "I think of each of these pictures as a magazine cover or a movie poster. I put that much attention to detail into each one of them."

Farewell From Racked

Best of Racked

Best of Racked Essays

Best of Racked

Best of Racked Funny Stuff