Please join us in conversation with New York based photographer Dimitri Mellos for an inspiring read.
- A Greek in New York City is by itself the ingredient to start this conversation. Can you talk a little on the cultural divide between Greece and New York and how that had shaped and influenced your visual sensibilities and personality.
It’s an interesting question. As a street photographer, one of the cultural differences that stand out is the fact that New Yorkers tend to be much more nonchalant about being photographed on the street than Greeks are. Greeks tend to be quite suspicious of photographers, and very vocal in their protestations if they don’t like what you’re doing, and this makes the work of the street photographer especially challenging there. However, to answer this question on a more substantive level: my own position as an immigrant and foreigner, and therefore a de facto outsider of sorts, ties very well with my identity and practice as a street photographer. The street photographer is a “participant outsider” par excellence, and this is paralleled in my own hybrid cultural identity, my position of suspended animation between two cultures, partially at home in both but not completely at home in either. In that way, I believe that my status as a transplant in New York has fostered my photographic work, also, not least, because photography has been a way for me to appropriate my adopted home and truly make it my own. It’s ironic that I probably know the streets of New York better than most native New Yorkers, thanks to my photographic peregrinations.
- I feel in your "I speak of the city" and "imagined communities" projects a connecting thread representing a personal struggle on the former and the desire to assimilate on the later. Can you comment briefly about these two projects?
Well, I am not sure about the personal struggle aspect… but perhaps my previous comment speaks to this. New York made me a street photographer – not only because part of my agenda, when coming to this city, had been to try and walk in the footsteps (literally and metaphorically) of the great New York street photographers that I admired; but also because, by transplanting myself to a new place, all of a sudden I was seeing the world with new eyes – I was hungry to look and see. So definitely my more “pure” street photography, as exemplified in the “I speak of the city” project, also entails an element of coming to feel at home in a new place, appropriating the city and making a home in it through photography. The “imagined communities” project has to do with the parades, street fairs, etc. of New York’s multiplicity of ethnicities and communities. I think what intrigues me about these celebrations of cultural identity is the fact that all these communities are very invested in, and proud of, their cultural uniqueness, but at the same time they all share the identity of being New Yorkers and Americans – it’s a fine balance, rather than a straightforward desire to fully assimilate. Likewise, on a personal level, these public displays of culture speak to me because they express this desire to find a new, composite identity, rather than blindly assimilate.
- We both share the unique experience of photographing both in Greece and the States. Is there an emotional component significant to your visual language, and your approach when working in New York or Greece? Aesthetically, I see a significant difference. Please talk a little about that.
On a practical level, as mentioned earlier, it is somewhat easier to do street photography in New York (not that street photography is ever easy, but at least in New York it’s possible – in Greece, it often seems altogether impossible, because people tend to get quite suspicious and edgy when they see a stranger with a camera). This is one reason that I have not done much urban street photography in Greece. Another reason is that I really became a photographer after moving to New York – I have not spent enough time in Greece as a photographer, apart from short trips, to have been able to pursue street photography more intensively there. So, part of the reason my themes have been different in New York and Greece has to do with these more superficial parameters. During vacations in Greece I have tended to travel more in the countryside, and consequently I have photographed more in rural areas. Part of this was a by-product of the fact that I go back to Greece on vacation, but part of it was a conscious choice, a desire to re-connect with the country I grew up in, to discover and rediscover it through photography. As for the visual language, I think the differences arise organically, in response to the subject matter and my own emotions. In a way, form follows content. Thus, my landscape photos from Greece tend to evoke something more static but also more serene, and also a sense of melancholy and nostalgia. These elements, mirrored in the form of the photos as much as in their content, are certainly there in the landscape itself, but perhaps also partly projected onto it by me.
- New York City has been photographed in depth by so many photographers. Do you think there is something missing from the immense archive? Also, what are some of the difficulties you have encountered while photographing in the Big Apple, and how do you overcome the cliche in order to produce a body of work that is distinct both in style and personal vision?
Well, that is precisely the challenge in photographing New York. It’s an immensely interesting place for a street photographer, but the flip side of this is precisely that it has been photographed so much already, so it is very challenging to add something interesting and original to that archive and visual language. I am not sure whether something is missing from it, but I guess my photographing is a way of trying to find out. In a sense, there is nothing new under the sun, as the saying goes – but, at the same time, everything is always new, the world renews itself every moment, so there is always an incentive to keep looking. As for how I overcome clichés, I am not sure I could answer this question in words – if I occasionally do, my photographs themselves provide a better answer. I am not evading the question – I genuinely don’t know how it’s done. Every good photograph is a miracle, as Koudelka so aptly put it. Obviously, with time and hard work I have started developing a personal style, but this is something that has emerged organically and unconsciously, not something that I chose programmatically – so it would be hard to put it into words, as it is not the result of following a clearly-defined set of rules; it is not painting-by-numbers.
- Where do you find inspiration for your work and is your background in psychology an important component to your work, and why?
There is no better inspiration that just keeping one’s eyes open (not just literally, but metaphorically – being interested in, and fascinated by, the world). Inspiration comes from outside, at least in my case. As far as my background in psychology is concerned, it definitely does not inform my photography in any intentional or conscious way. However, I would say that my involvement in both psychology and photography share some common sources; they both spring from certain characteristics of my personality that inform and motivate both endeavors – primarily an interest in the outside world and the lives of others, a respectful and limitless curiosity, and a desire to connect with what lies outside myself.
- What is your intent in communicating the work with the public?
To become really rich and famous, of course – what else?! Joking aside, naturally there is an element of pride and personal satisfaction when one’s work resonates with other people – it’s also nice to receive some outside confirmation that the work is good, so you know you’re not delusional when you think so yourself! But the main reason is that, for me, the whole point about photography is affirming and celebrating the real world as it is; street photography in particular is about noticing what is around us in our everyday reality, and distilling the magic and the poetry out of the mundane. Many people, for whatever reason, seem to be pretty oblivious to their surroundings, especially so now, when everyone seems to be glued to their smartphone screens all the time. So my intent in showing my work is to inspire people to keep their eyes open, to pay attention to the world around them. I like a quote from Sherlock Holmes: “I see no more than you do, but I’ve trained myself to notice what I see.” I want to inspire people to train themselves likewise.
- Your photographs stand on their own but also work as part of a broader narrative. Are you interested in the nuances of the single image or a more linear narrative?
Well, primarily I am interested in strong single images. After all, every photo narrative, no matter how extensive, starts with one individual image. Of course, it also depends on my agenda and intent at any given time. So, if I am working on a specific documentary project, the emphasis will be on a story, a more linear kind of narrative. Having said that, even in terms of my personal work (for example the street work), I am definitely interested in building up sets of pictures that stand together as a whole, and that may be more than the sum of the individual photos. But my working method is to allow my work to dictate these thematic sets or projects; I prefer my projects to emerge organically and almost accidentally out of strong individual photos. By this I mean that I don’t usually set out with a plan to start photographing a particular theme; but once I notice in my work that there are thematic or stylistic elements that could bring certain photos together so as to form a coherent set, I may then start being a little more on the lookout for new photos that would fit well with that theme. Ultimately, however, in my work happenstance and serendipity rule – what kind of photos I come up with, and whether they cohere to form a narrative, are matters that are, at the end of the day, always dictated by the outside world.
- What are your thoughts on the mindset of creating something "new" in the field of photography - specifically street photography and documentary?
This is a very important and difficult question, and the answer will have to be somewhat complicated. I’m not really interested in creating anything “new” as such. What I mean by that is that I am not interested in novelty for novelty’s sake. It seems nowadays as if novelty is sometimes considered the highest artistic value, trumping all others. That is certainly the case with a lot of contemporary visual art and conceptual art. And often, novelty is also equated with shock value. I find that sort of novelty kind of cheap and too easy, and in fact condescending to the audience. So in terms of my own work, I am not interested in making a name for myself by creating a radically new style. I am a traditionalist. I consider my work to be part of a long photographic tradition, and that means that I aspire to incrementally build on what came before, and hopefully add my own small contribution to the canon of street photography. But I believe this could only happen in the context of a dialogue with my predecessors (and contemporaries), and dialogue implies a give-and-take, not a radical displacement of the past. In other words, I sincerely hope that my work may be seen as adding something to the tradition of street photography, but whatever that may be will have to emerge gradually and discreetly. On another level, though, every photograph is something radically new – a never-to-be-repeated moment of life. This is especially so in the case of street photography, since the street photographer has absolutely no control over the flow of life he observes and photographs - the moment is always gone so quickly. As Koudelka said, every good photo is a miracle.
- Do you believe the criticism in contemporary photography today is adequate and how important do you think this is for the development of the medium and its historical trajectory?
I don’t really feel qualified to answer this question, as I feel I don’t have enough time to keep up with enough of contemporary photography and, even more so, contemporary criticism. Especially with the limitless availability of stuff online, I think it’s easy to fall into a rabbit hole of looking at photos or reading about photography instead of spending enough time photographing, so I have to prioritize. Having said that, based on my limited exposure to what’s being written and discussed, I feel that occasionally (especially nowadays, due to the echo-chamber effect of the web and social media) critical taste becomes a matter of fashion rather than independent, discerning thinking. Especially in the domain of street photography, I feel that a lot of what is touted as successful contemporary street photography actually does a disservice to the genre and its history. I say this in full knowledge that, in doing so, I readily expose myself to the danger of being diagnosed with a case of sour grapes. So be it – I am confident enough of my own work and critical thinking to be willing to take that risk.
- What advise would you give to students and emerging photographers especially those interested in street photography?
My advice would be very simple – keep your eyes open, walk around, and work, work, work. Be interested in the world, not in yourself.
- What is your opinion on the current state of American Photography?
Again, I don’t feel qualified enough to answer this question. Obviously, there is a lot of interesting work being created, but I hardly manage to keep up. I think the advent of digital has been a mixed blessing, as it has become incredibly easy to produce huge amounts of photos, and this cornucopia of images sometimes dulls people’s sensitivity. Also, I get the impression that what’s in vogue these days is mostly conceptual work, or work emphasizing the photographer’s inner world or the microcosm of their friends and family, at the expense of the outer world, our common reality. I am not very interested in that – I prize photography as a means of expanding one’s horizons, rather than engaging in artistic navel-gazing. I feel quite lonely in this artistic context, as my work is decidedly (and not accidentally) old-fashioned – but to each his own.