For 23 years, this photographer has been taking pictures of Downtown Raleigh, capturing some iconic images of the City of Oaks.
by Susanna Klingenberg | photography by Matt Robinson
When you look at Raleigh’s skyline, what do you see? Perhaps its history, or growth, or art: all contours and angles, steel and glass. Or maybe you don’t see buildings at all; you just see home.
For photographer Matt Robinson, the skyline is a muse. Over the last 23 years, he’s made a systematic study of its visual geometry, capturing the evolving shape of what he calls “our city’s fingerprint.” It’s a fascination that runs deep. As a child, Robinson was awed by the Pittsburgh skyline, a beacon in the distance of his suburban hometown. “It captured my imagination,” he says. “I held onto that when I moved to Raleigh in 1999.”
In 2008, when the RBC Plaza (now PNC) was built, Robinson began to see a change in the subject of his work. Downtown Raleigh was at the very beginning of a growth spurt, both in popularity and steel-beamed vertical feet. Demand for images of the skyline increased, and Robinson’s passion eventually became his profession.
Now his photography business, RaleighSkyline.com, supplies images of the skyline and the wider city to tourism outlets, local businesses, news stations and a handful of dedicated collectors. “The skyline is our area’s visual signature,” says Karen DeSollar, creative director at the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau, “and nobody captures it better than Matt.”
This kind of specialized photography requires a serious command of the camera, of course. But it also requires a working knowledge of meteorology, astronomy and local geography, along with a whopping dose of patience and a sense of adventure.
Most of Robinson’s skyline photographs are weeks — sometimes months — in the making, full of research, planning and waiting for conditions to cooperate. When the moment arrives for the perfect shot, Robinson drops what he’s doing, grabs his equipment and gets the job done.
Other great shots involve a little more luck. “No matter how much I plan and research, sometimes the conditions for a perfect shot happen spur of the moment,” says Robinson. “You just have to be there.” To that end, he and his wife, Beth, chose to live in Southwest Raleigh, near Dorothea Dix Park, an area that gives him quick access to views of the skyline should the perfect opportunity present itself.
An avid runner, Robinson often scouts new viewpoints when he’s hitting the pavement. He then circles back later with equipment (including his 24-foot tripod) to play around with composition and angle, so he’s ready when the conditions are right. “Ironically, sometimes you have to get pretty far away from downtown to get a good shot of it,” he says.
“Distance compresses the buildings together, which helps you get that classic skyline silhouette.” Capturing the Raleigh skyline can be challenging because our downtown buildings are moderate in height and often blocked by trees, and not all of his favorite places to take photographs are easily accessible for a layperson. For pedestrian-safe skyline views, Robinson recommends Dix Flower Cottage (especially at sunset), Boylan Bridge and Halifax Plaza.
Once he’s identified a good viewpoint of the skyline, Robinson’s next step is to study the skies. It’s the backdrop to the buildings, after all, that makes them really shine. For this, he taps into his love of meteorology, kindled by adventuring with his elder brother Dan, who was at one time a professional storm-chaser.
January 2014: “Beth and I were walking Dorothea Dix on a foggy night. I wanted a picture of Beth in the final months of her pregnancy, then we noticed the deer.”
To anticipate conditions for a memorable shot — a storm, rainbow or well-placed moonrise, for example — he relies most often on two apps: The Photographer’s Ephemeris, for moon and sun positioning, and RadarScope, which shows raw, hi-res data, straight from the weather service. “The satellite technology and tools available for real-time forecasting now are amazing,” says Robinson.
Robinson’s talent for capturing Raleigh in all conditions has paid off: his work is regularly featured on the news. “Matt’s photos give us real-life verification of what we’re seeing on our computers,” says ABC11 chief meteorologist Don Schwenneker. “His work continues to amaze me!”
For people elsewhere in the world considering a visit or a move to Raleigh, Robinson’s photos do the work of invitation, letting them know at a glance that Raleigh is a place they want to be. But for those of us already here, his work does something else entirely — it gives us emotional touchstones, fresh views of what we already love.
When the sign at 150 Fayetteville Street was changed in September 2011, Robinson was invited onto the scaffolding. In June 2019, Robins captured a full double rainbow from Boylan Bridge.
Robinson thinks that feeling of connection boils down to this: a skyline is more than the sum of its parts. “You may not feel attached to individual buildings in downtown Raleigh, especially if you live in the far reaches of the city,” he says. “But when you see the buildings presented together, it makes you feel part of something bigger than yourself. You feel pride of place.”
Robinson’s connection to his subject is more than just aesthetic or professional: to him, it’s personal. “I’ve watched Raleigh grow and change for 20 years, and I’m proud of what it’s become,” says Robinson. “What I want most is to enjoy this city for what it is, right now.”
And so he’s off, chasing another shot, another angle, a fresh view of the city we call home.
This article originally appeared in the July 2023 issue of Walter magazine.