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‘SNL’ is back. Here are the stories behind the iconic photos from the show.

Actor Jonah Hill plays a tiny piano in this photo that aired during the “Saturday Night Live” episode he hosted in November 2018. “We talked about his favorite movie like ‘Amadeus,’ so we’re sticking with that,” photographer Mary Ellen Matthews said.

She is not part of the cast, but Maria Elena Matthews has been a staple of “Saturday Night Live” for the past 23 years.

Since 1999, Matthews has been the show’s official photographer, taking the photos you see whenever the show returns from a commercial break. These celebrity portraits spotlight each week’s host and musical guest, and they’ve become as much a part of “SNL” as the opening monologue or the “Weekend Update.”

“I always try to bring joy,” Matthews said. “That’s kind of my maxim of how I operate: bring the feeling of fun, keep it light. It’s also nice to have these quiet moments that are a little more introspective from time to time. I think it’s a good balance on the show.”

Singer Adele gets her hair done for a “Saturday Night Live” photo shoot in October 2020. The behind-the-scenes shot wasn’t planned, Matthews said, but it ended up airing during the show.

These portraits have been a part of the sketch comedy show since 1975, the year the show premiered. Edie Baskin was the photographer at the time, and Matthews picked up where she left off.

Every Thursday before a show, Matthews can meet with each host and musical guest to collaborate on a variety of looks or concepts. She comes up with ideas that could play into each subject’s personality or public persona. Or maybe she is recreating a famous piece of art. Sometimes it’s as simple as putting Charles Barkley’s bald head in a sea of ​​basketballs.

“And there’s always something organic going on, so you have to make room for that,” Matthews said.

Hall of Fame basketball player Charles Barkley poses between basketballs before hosting “Saturday Night Live” in March 2018. “I don’t watch basketball a lot, but as far as the host goes, I think definitely. is one of everyone’s favorites. Matthews said. She said that Barkley “just gave the perfect expression” here.

After each shoot, a bit of post-production is needed to make sure the photos have the graphic treatment and colors they need to “pop” for live streaming. In recent years, Matthews has also dabbled in animated frames.

Due to the hectic nature of the “SNL” production week, Matthews only has about 90 minutes with each host and 20 minutes with each musical guest. But it’s exciting, and she loves it.

“Every week is like the first week all over again,” he said. “You always want to do better than last week, and you always want to provide the same fantastic and creative service to every musical host and guest and make it fun for them and (make) their dream come true.”

Matthews said musician Anderson .Paak brought a lot of energy to his December 2018 session. “I thought two is better than one for him,” he said.

And make no mistake: Even for some of the biggest celebrities, hosting “SNL” is a dream, Matthews said, and they often come to filming eager to partake in the tradition.

“I feel the emotion,” he said. “I feel like (they) are like, ‘What are we going to do?’ There are many crazy ideas. There have been a lot of fun concepts. I think it’s a time for them to loosen up a little bit and just shatter this kind of confidence.”


adam driver

Air Date: January 25, 2020

No special camera tricks were used for this image of Driver, who was hosting the show for the third time in 2020. Just carefully placed mirrors and a little patience.

“He’s someone who understands what we’re trying to do,” Matthews said. “Very collaborative to get the correct position and the correct positioning of him within the mirrors and the correct position of his hands. It’s really nice to get these kinds of images on camera.”


oscar isaac

Matthews often references famous art in his sessions. This is a nod to René Magritte’s painting. “Clairvoyance”.

In Magritte’s painting, it is a self-portrait of him painting a bird while looking at an egg.

“I was like, flip it over,” said Matthews, who brought a prop chicken for the shoot with Isaac. “And now it’s a fried egg, and the chicken doesn’t like it very much.”


Claire Foy

Air Date: December 1, 2018

Foy, one of the stars of “The Crown,” is sitting on a swing while drinking from a cup of tea.

“We’re leaning into its British character,” Matthews said.

The studio crew hooked up the swing set for the shoot at NBC Studios. “That’s real,” Matthews said. “Actually, she is hanging from a swing in the rafters of Studio 8H.”


Chance the rapper

Air Date: October 26, 2019

Chance plays an entire gospel choir by himself. It was appropriate because in this episode, he was both the host and the musical guest.

“We did it in all these poses and put it together,” Matthews said.

Chance has also labeled himself a Christian rapper and references his faith in his music.

“This spoke to him,” Matthews said.


Kim Kardashian

Air Date: October 9, 2021

“She was doing colored gels last year, and it’s a bit like a long exposure (photography) and she plays with the accents on her dress there,” Matthews said. “I think this is beautiful for her. A little more of her feeling the moment. …

“She understands what we’re doing with light and long exposure, so she’s on top of the process, and our collaboration went beautifully there.”


Paul Rudd

“We found the couch and then Tom Broecker, our amazing costume designer, had this suit made,” Matthews said.

He said he couldn’t remember for sure if the sofa came that way or if it was upholstered to match Rudd’s outfit. But everything was perfect for the playful Rudd.

“He is so expressive,” Matthews said. “He’s just the best, right? We all love him.”


larry david

Air Date: November 4, 2017

This was another example of how some of the best portraits are not planned.

“We just started playing and, you know, a character evolves when you give someone a pipe sometimes,” Matthews said.

She said this was David’s favorite from her session.

“I think he was asked to use it as a headshot or something. He loves this too,” she said.


jason momoa

Air Date: December 8, 2018

Matthews often tries to formulate ideas based on the public persona of each subject. But it’s also fun to go in the opposite direction, like putting Momoa, who often plays tough guys, in a ridiculous suit.

“There is another shot of the same shoot where I had it in pigtails, and (his expression) is like ‘thank you very much,’ that kind of thing, which is exactly playing against the guy,” Matthews said.

I initially wanted to make this photo an animation, but extended it as a still image.

“We talked about it, and he gave me a couple of moves at the end. And the suit worked perfectly in a graphic sense.”


Rege-Jean Page

Air Date: February 20, 2021

Matthews recalls that the “Bridgerton” breakout star was “so loved” during her week. “She was a wonderful, wonderful person to work with,” she said.

Like Foy’s photo above, this plays into his British background.

“Maybe I’m overreacting with the cup of tea,” he laughed. “But we were doing something and we both decided, why don’t you come to the other side of this? It was at the end of the shoot. Just be playful and ruin the set. Why not?”


Daniel Craig

“It’s definitely one of my favorites to shoot because, you know, it’s Bond,” Matthews said. “And for him to stand up as a subject is a great thing, I must say.

“I’m a huge fan, and I thought by giving these kinds of looks and putting them together, he took the spy and gave him some comedy in there.”


donald glover

This mirror was not planned to be part of the Glover shoot.

“We were just using it to check the look and all that, and it became such a surprising and thoughtful moment,” Matthews recalled. “Not usual for this kind of funny bumpers. But I think it’s really powerful.”


Will Ferrell

Air Date: November 23, 2019

Each year, it is a tradition for Matthews to incorporate this same turkey accessory into the Thanksgiving extravaganza.

“Whoever is hosting the Thanksgiving show do something else with the turkey,” he said. I think Matthew McConaughey was in the steam room and both had small towels on them.

“But with Will, I just thought I’d walk his turkeys out there on Fifth Avenue. I just made it up, I don’t know. As if he wasn’t quite sure where we were going with this. Instead of walking your dogs, you’re walking your turkeys, and it kind of became a ’70s version of it somehow along the line.”


Dan Levy

Air Date: February 6, 2021

“He’s such a vibrant person,” Matthews said of “Schitt’s Creek” star Daniel Levy. “So adding that vibrant color to that heartfelt moment, it just seemed like him. There was nothing forced there. It’s effortless Dan Levy right there.”


Matt Damon

Air Date: December 15, 2018

“Christmas shows are always fun to do, and for this one I found a reference to the Beach Boys Christmas Album where they’re decorating a Christmas tree,” Matthews said.

As with other holiday shows, Matthews will start thinking ahead to ideas that can make each year feel different. She thought this was a great match for Damon and his clean image.

“Matt pulled it off perfectly with this kind of plastered-on, ‘all is right with the world’ kind of smile. … I wanted every shot of him here to be more or less the same, and he rose to the occasion.”



Air Date: February 9, 2019

This photo of Halsey is another nod to an album cover: “Goat’s Head Soup” by the Rolling Stones.

“Mick Jagger is like, covered in silk in the same way,” Matthews said. “We were playing the Rolling Stones, and I was talking about the Stones, and I suggested it to her and she loved it. … And she is so present. She is a great collaborator. She adored her, her art. She is a painter. There is so much in it.”



During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, “SNL” aired some special episodes of “At Home” where cast members filmed segments at home while practicing social distancing.

Matthews didn’t have his usual hosts or musical guests to photograph, so he had to improvise as well.

“We all had to make do with what we had at home, and she became my subject,” Matthews said. “So I put her in a bubble bath with a shower cap and a rubber ducky. … It was not easy. It wasn’t really that much water. It was more of a bubble bath. But it definitely looks like, ‘Please stop. Get me out of here.’

“I’m not sure how much he’s enjoying it there. But she was very patient, and I owe her a big cookie for that.”

See more photos of Matthews and the stories behind them.

The new season of “SNL” premieres Saturday at 11:30 pm ET/8:30 pm PT on NBC and Peacock. This weekend’s host is actor Miles Teller, and the musical guest is Kendrick Lamar.

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