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Battleground to ballroom: Meet Nickel City Studios’ veteran photographers

blog by Nick Mendola  • 

It’s a story as old as time: Two combat photographers fall in love in Hawaii, then choose to leave both the military and paradise to become in-demand wedding photographers in Buffalo, N.Y.

What’s that you say? That’s unusual?

Well it’s the case of Grand Island native Alyssa Mattingly and her husband Rich, the eyes behind Nickel City Studios, a respected photography business in Buffalo for the last half-dozen years.

She’s the daughter of a military photographer who grew up in Western New York and took off for the Navy as soon as it was legal to leave. He was born in Montreal due to a draft-dodging father, and grew up in Nashville before completing a lifelong dream of joining the Marines.

They’ve spent time doing separate tours in the Middle East and the Eastern Bloc, Italy and Puerto Rico, the Far East and Hawaii, where their relationship began as two military professional charged with capturing critical moments for their country.

“We met in Oahu in 2004 and we hit it off,” Rich Mattingly said. “I got deployed to Afghanistan later that year and we just decided to go ahead and get married before I left. We were at a point in our life where we knew pretty quickly.”

Their love survived the rigors of combat and a great deal of time apart—not unique for an enlisted newlywed—but they were sometimes maddeningly close to each other with minimal contact.

“The first few years of marriage we were only physically together about five months,” Rich Mattingly said. “At one point I was in Sri Lanka while she was in India, which was kind of hilarious.”

The life was hard and inspired them to seek a life outside the military.

“When I got back from Afghanistan in 2005, we started thinking,” said Rich Mattingly. “We didn’t think we could have a functional relationship long-term in the military. We had been around long enough to know guys who had been in the military for 17 years and married three times.”

They still hadn’t met the majority of each other’s families thanks to their whirlwind romance, which lead to a fateful trip to Western New York as Alyssa decided to bring her husband on a short trip to Buffalo.

“We came here to Buffalo and it was (expletive) awesome,” Rich Mattingly said. “It was the weekend of Taste of Buffalo. There were free concerts and we did a veggie breakfast on Linwood Avenue where we live now and everything about Buffalo was (expletive) awesome.”

For Alyssa, she was returning home to a markedly-different place.

“When you leave a city as a 17-year-old and come back as an adult about to have your first kid and start a business, things look a lot different,” she said. “I couldn’t wait to leave and now I can’t imagine leaving, barring winning the lottery and moving to Kauai (pictured).”

“I guess I picked Buffalo with Rich because I was ready to come home,” she added. “My parents are both dead and the rest of the family moved to Florida, but my sister had mentioned maybe moving home and us raising our kids together, so that was definitely floating around in my mind as my future.”

The move was stressful, as Alyssa was deep into pregnancy with the couple’s first child (they have three now: 7-year-old Murphy, 2 1/2-year-old Dexter and just-turned-1 Arlo). Rich took work as a marketing chief for a recruiting office of the armed forces and the two went about setting up their photography business as often as possible.

What they found was that their intense work capturing moments from the battle field and beyond prepared them for the far less dangerous yet challenging work of capturing a couple’s big day, which happens to be a nerve-racking time that doesn’t always find people calm and collected.

“Alyssa always says to clients, ‘We couldn’t ask the helicopter to land again or the Marine to kick in the door that he was kicking in again,’” Rich said. “We learned to shoot really quickly and with a lot of accountability, too, because if we came back and didn’t have the shot, we were going to get yelled at. This stuff only happens once and when you’re in the military, you better (expletive) get it.”

He went on to say that they follow more than just the couple’s words, but their body language as well. It’s all in the goal of bypassing the typical posed photographs for capturing massive and/or emotive moments.

“I don’t want somebody to look at an image and say ‘It’s pretty but there’s not a lot of emotion there,’” Rich Mattingly said, “I don’t want them to remember the process of the photo being taken. If that happens, then we’ve kinda failed at our job.”

“Our business plan has been pretty simple,” Alyssa said. “Work hard and be nice to people and everything will work out. Kind of like Buffalo, you know? You get out what you put into this town.”

The work’s gone well and the couple have settled in Buffalo “for the long haul.” Perhaps the happiness with her childhood region has caught Alyssa Mattingly by surprise.

“Buffalo has more going on than I ever remember growing up,” she said. “I’m sure part of that has to do with living on Grand Island then and living downtown now, but this city has been so good to us. There are a million things to do with our three boys and there’s even a burgeoning home-school scene we’re a part of.”

For Rich, his adopted home has struck him in many different ways. One of those is how it looks.

“Growing up in the South, you never see architecture like this,” he said. “I don’t want to harp on Buffalo’s architecture, but it struck me it was really neat. Especially coming back from Afghanistan and then Hawaii, coming to Buffalo felt like coming back to America in a really official way.”

The pair came to the military from familial backgrounds, as mentioned above. Alyssa essentially took up the family business after growing up on Grand Island, not too many miles from the ship her father served on during his time in Vietnam, the USS Little Rock now docked at the Naval & Military Park.

Rich went to Western Maryland College, now called McDaniel College, before enlisting thanks to a family influence of his own. His uncle was a Marine for 20 years and a military professional for 40. The traditional post-college questions lead him to the Marine Corps.

“When I got out of college I was like, ‘What do I do now?’,” Rich Mattingly said. “September 11th had happened and I knew a lot of stuff was about to go down and I knew if I didn’t do something now, I’d be the old guy who was like, ‘Man I should’ve done that.’”

And while being around war was a poignant experience for the head male Mattingly, the transition to photographing weddings has not be a crazy experience.

“I had buddies who went to Iraq like five times and I did one deployment to Afghanistan,” Rich Mattingly said. “I saw combat, more than the average guy probably, but it was a tiny little 10-month piece of my life. It informs the rest of your life, but you don’t want to let it control the rest of your life.”

As for the future, the Mattinglys are still finding fun in the wedding game. Whether they move to another form of photography in the future is undecided, but for now they’re creatively capturing “The Big Day” for Buffalonians… and it’s working well for their young family.

[You can see Nickel City Studios’ engagement, wedding and more photos at their website and Facebook page.]

(Image of Kauai, Hawaii is from Flickr / Alaskan Dude. Bottom photo of USS Little Rock is from, shockingly, USSLittleRock.org. Their logo, just above the photo credits here, was done by Hero Design.)

TAGGED: alyssa mattingly, cue the resurgence, interviews, nick mendola, nickel city studios, photography, rich mattingly

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