Matt Rohde is a familiar face to most Shelter Islanders. He’s a captain on the South Ferry, he’s spoken publicly as a proud Gulf War veteran and has lent his skill with a camera to local newspapers and events. But for all he brings to the community, Rohde’s greatest talent remains unknown to most of his Island neighbors.
Three years ago, the 46-year-old ferry captain began taking pictures of his large toy collection and posting them online under the screen name x_captain_kaos_x. In that time, he’s become a bona fide sensation with a fan base more than four times the size of Shelter Island’s total population (according to the 2010 census).
Part of a large community of toy photographers on Instagram, Rohde’s pictures featuring Star Wars battle droids and stormtroopers, famous action movie stars, Universal monsters, zombies, aliens, dinosaurs, Marvel superheroes and one incredibly verbose and devious skeleton immediately stand out for their superb technical quality, imaginative content and often laugh-out-loud captions.
“I’m a big nerd at heart,” Rohde admits, recalling that he fell in love with the Star Wars films as a kid and never grew out of it. His passion for Star Wars toys also never really waned, the former Army staff sergeant and M1 Abrahams tank commander says, noting that he snapped pictures of his action figures as a boy and then took it up again after moving to Shelter Island as an adult. “It goes way back.”
Rohde shot a lot of landscape photography before deciding to put his toys in front of the lens, and he now applies those skills to his new, less conventional subjects. “I started messing around, taking pictures with my cellphone camera,” Rohde says of his first toy photos, though he now uses a high-end Canon DSLR camera and retouches pictures in Photoshop before presenting them to his nearly 6,500 Instagram followers.
The photographer says he shoots often, and he always keeps an eye out for new locations and toys. “I shoot in the backyard all the time,” Rohde says, though he has several favorite photo spots, including a secluded and rocky Shelter Island beach. “I go out of my way to make sure there’s no real life in my pictures,” he says. Rohde also keeps his angles low and plays with depth of field to create more immersive and believable pictures.
“Everywhere we go, I’m looking,” he says.
During a recent trip to the Mohegan Sun casino, Rohde was so inspired by certain surfaces that he took out two Lego stormtroopers and photographed them on a railing and then lay on his belly in front of everyone and shot them on the floor. “I didn’t care—I had to get the shot.” Besides, he says, the most curious onlookers saw his pictures and they were impressed.
While it’s easy to see how some could find Rohde’s hobby strange, his photographs usually put an end to any odd looks or questions.
Rohde’s wife, Shelley, also appreciates what he does and almost always accompanies him to shoot. “I help out where needed,” she says, describing herself as a sort of “prop master.” She often ends up holding toys aloft on wires, tossing sand and creating different weather and atmospheric effects that would be impossible for Rohde to manage from behind the camera. “He has a very vivid imagination,” she adds.
“She’s been incredibly supportive of what I do,” Rohde says. His wife even helps him seek out new figures that will eventually be added to his motley cast of characters, each with its own name and persona—far beyond any character the toy was designed to represent.
Now that Rohde’s star is shining more brightly on Instagram, and he sees how much people enjoy his pictures, the photographer hopes to take his work to the next level. “I would love to do something with it other than just put it on Instagram,” Rohde says, considering the possibility of prints and gallery shows. “If I could make money off of doing this, because I love it so much, that would be the ultimate.”
Visit instagram.com/x_captain_kaos_x/ to see more pictures by Matt Rohde. He is currently counting down to the release of the new Star Wars film, “The Force Awakens,” with one photo per day on Instagram. Scroll down for more pictures.