Based in New York and working in a Bronx hospital, Dimitri Mellos sat down at his computer to answer some questions from TPR Director Sean Davey on his exhibition I Speak of the City, which is on show at The Photography Room until 12 March.
Your photographs have a certain sense of urgency, can you elaborate for us on your choice of taking the camera into such busy, public places like the streets of New York? Why street photography rather than portraiture, or more personal, intimate work?
Walking around the city appropriating it through the act of looking carefully and photographing is in fact very much an act of intimacy, and I consider my work very personal. Somehow the fact that in street photography so much is up to chance and randomness, and so little under the photographer’s control, is something that I find not just intriguing but truly magical when things work out and everything falls into place in a picture. It feels like a truly collaborative effort between the photographer and the world. So on both ethical and aesthetic grounds, street photography appeals much more to my temperament and values. And many of my street photos are, in fact, portraits, albeit un-posed ones. I think there is often much greater authenticity and truth in this kind of candid portraiture, although I also absolutely love the work of some of the great portrait/studio photographers (August Sander and Irving Penn's Small Trades series immediately come to mind).
You were born in Greece and recently returned to photograph there, which was published as an essay in the New York Times. Did you use the same approach to working there as on the streets of NYC?
I wanted to convey the atmosphere of stillness and solitude of those vistas in the Greek countryside, so that also influenced how I composed my frames, unlike my street photos, where often the chaos and fast pace of the depicted reality is also reflected in the photographs’ form and composition. The work from Greece in fact accrued over several years and a number of road trips around the country, and initially I did not think of those photos as much more than mementos of my trips. Only with time did I realise that the work was starting to cohere into a meaningful whole with its own internal logic and aesthetics.
New York city streets are like nowhere else in the world. Bruce Gilden once said to me ‘People think the war is over in the Middle East. The real battleground is right here on the street. This is a war zone. You gotta be tough to survive here.” That always stayed with me. How do you relate to the streets of NYC on a personal level?
I would be cautious about overly romanticising or exaggerating New York’s toughness. I think street photography is extremely tough to do anywhere, not just in New York, and in fact probably more so in other places. It is interesting that even someone as apparently brazen in his approach as Bruce Gilden would say that it’s tough; that definitely resonates with my own experience. It’s never easy. It has gotten a little easier with time, but basically every day I photograph I almost have to start from scratch – I am much better technically than when I first started, but emotionally it is always extremely hard. The real challenge of street photography is overcoming my own emotional inhibitions. It is not easy to cross that boundary into the lives of strangers. But the other side of this coin is that, just by engaging in the very process of overcoming one’s fears and inhibitions, and of looking and observing and photographing, one develops a much deeper connection to one’s surroundings. I mentioned before how street photography is an act of emotional appropriation. I think that was part of my motivation when I took up photography again after moving to New York – I used this fascinating city to rekindle my interest in photography, but at the same time I used photography to start feeling more at home in the city.
Your photographs embrace colour and contrast. Is colour a motivating factor for your work in this series? Have you worked in black and white as well?
In my early 20s I got a real camera, and started shooting black and white film and developing and printing in a darkroom. That went on for 2-3 years, but for various reasons I abandoned photography again for the better part of a decade until finally getting into it for good. I am very glad I had the experience of the darkroom, there is something really enchanting about the tactility of the whole thing, and I also love black and white photography on an aesthetic level. In fact, when I took up photography yet again, after moving to New York in my mid-30s, the main reason I initially switched to color was that I no longer had access to a darkroom, and it was much easier and cheaper to just have my color film developed at the pharmacy. But soon I discovered that I really loved color, and also that I was doing much better work in color. Still, I don’t believe in color for color’s sake – it should not take over a photograph at the expense of other elements; it’s a fine balance. It also depends on the subject-matter: I’m still open to occasionally doing black and white work when I feel that b&w will better convey the emotional tone of a particular theme or situation, for example. But overall, I enjoy color much more than b&w in my own work, although I have no such preference when I am looking at the work of others.
Tell me a bit about your thoughts on your own photography and how your vision has evolved.
For one thing, when I started out I was focused more on single images. I am now thinking of my ongoing work more in terms of coherent series or projects. I still feel that every single image in a series should be able to stand on its own as well, but I have also come to realise that a whole can be more than the sum of its parts. By the same token, I am now conceptualising my work more as a “long game.” Once I realise that I have the seeds of a bigger project at hand, I work patiently, over years, accumulating images and editing and re-editing the work.
Another way in which I feel my work has evolved is in realizing that closer is not always better. Sometimes taking a more inclusive, somewhat more detached view of a scene does more justice to the photographed reality, and in fact makes for greater emotional closeness. I can do aggressive close-range street photography, but now that is just one tool in my toolbox, to be used sparingly. Similarly, I have realised that strong form is never enough without equally strong content, without emotional depth.
You have a job at a hospital to pay the bills. Do you relish that you are not a professional photographer or is that something that you would like to do, work professionally full time?
Far from relishing it, I actually agonise over the fact that I need to spend most of my time doing something else instead of being able to pursue what I consider my true life's work. Photography feels like the most meaningful thing I am doing with my life, and not just in a self-indulgent sense (I do enjoy it!), but also in terms of giving something back to the world and creating something that may outlive me. As such, what I do in my day job pales in comparison. The way things stand, I can only photograph on weekends and on vacation, and on a few weekdays I take off work once in a blue moon. It is very few photographers who actually have the luxury to be getting paid for pursuing their own personal vision, or at least for doing work they are interested in. For example, I would not want to be doing advertising photography to pay the bills and fund my personal vision - I might as well keep working at the hospital.
You have been honoured with a number of awards for your work. Do you see your work developing/evolving into something else or will the streets keep you occupied for a while yet?
Well, this ties in with the previous question. Doing street photography is something I really love, but it is also making virtue out of necessity in my current circumstances. It is something I can do on the side, in my spare time, while being tied down in a particular city due to my day job and other obligations. That said, there is nothing I would rather do than street photography, there is no genre I love more. It is easy to make impressive photos when the subject-matter itself is impressive, for instance in a war zone or an exotic locale of stunning natural beauty. But street photography is the poetry of the everyday, the poetry of small moments. In that sense, it is the most transformative photographic genre.