Photographer extraordinaire, Melissa Zexter is my very good friend and studio mate. I 1st saw Melissa's work as a graduate student at NYU, in a seminar class we shared with Suzanne Anker in the '90s. She was in the ICP program while I was studying Studio Art. I was impressed by how inventive and professional her work looked. We talked some and occasionally found ourselves at the same east village bar after class. It wasn't until we started running into each other a year or so later here in Carroll Gardens, that we became friends. I'm so glad we did!
I'm happy to share her work and my illuminating interview with her here--
AH: How old were you when you got your 1st camera? what kind?
MZ: I was 8 when I got a Keystone 110 camera. I also had a little Kodak camera with a big square flash bulb that my mother gave me a year before that, and the Keystone was a big step up! I took pictures of my family and neighbors in Rhode Island. I still have the negatives and the pictures aren’t much different stylistically from the pictures that I take today!
AH: Did you always know you wanted to be an artist? When did you 1st consider photography as a profession? Any other professions you considered?
MZ: Always knew I wanted to be an artist/painter, although I wasn’t thinking about photography until my first semester at RISD when a friend saw my snapshots and said “you should be a photographer!” I guess I am easily swayed because I took his advice and stuck with it.
AH: How did your personal style develop?
MZ: Although I didn’t know much about the history of photography at age 18, I was immediately drawn to the works of documentary photographers like Larry Fink, Henri Cartier Bresson, Diane Arbus and journalists who worked for Magnum. Initially, I carried my camera to places that I was intrigued by and kept going back over time, so I could get to know the people. This helped my projects to develop- first local places in RI and in Brooklyn- cheerleaders, factories, bars, hair salons, different neighborhoods/communities. I always had an interest in documenting the lives of others- not people that I knew- but to go to places that were somewhat unfamiliar territory.
After working at the Associated Press as a photo printer when I was 22 where I printed literally thousands of pictures each day and working for several years as a freelance photographer for NYC newspapers I needed to break away and try something different from my documentary approach. I started to make one of a kind photographs, that were actually more like paintings and sculpture. I have always gone back and forth between “straight” photography and a more “mixed media” approach.
AH: When and what made you start incorporating embroidery into your work?
MZ: After about 10 years of working with mixed media and photography, the addition of embroidery happened by accident. I was at a month long artists’ residency at The Millay Colony and was working on making photographic “mosaics”. They didn’t have a darkroom there (this was pre-digital) and I ran out of photographs, so decided to make some paper and to sew images onto paper. I liked the sewn “drawings” on paper and I decided to experiment with sewing onto my photographs. I had never sewn before and loved the meditative process of sewing. For me the combination of sewing and photography brought together two very different processes that I love.
*Melissa's embroidered work can be seen in the current Jan/Feb issue of After Image magazine (Print & Online)
AH: Which artists/photographers have influenced you the most? Do you have any favorites?
MZ: From the first moment that I saw her work, I have loved Diane Arbus' photographs and I have always admired her passion and courage that is evident when looking at her amazing portraits. I also like the work of Brassai, Lisette Model, Robert Frank, Weegee, William Eggleston, Larry Sultan and countless others.
AH: What made you decide to go to RISD? Are you pleased that James Franco is currently taking classes there? MZ: I’m from Rhode Island, so was very familiar with RISD . I’m very pleased that James Franco is following my footsteps.
AH: What do you think you gained from art school that you could not have learned from simply going out and doing it? MZ: It was a luxury to be part of a community of artists whose feedback and work was an inspiration. I also had one teacher at RISD, Wendy Snyder Macneil who was a big influence on me. She was a teacher who really pushed students and wouldn’t allow you to be satisfied too easily.
AH: Was NYC an obvious next step for you or did you consider living in another city after college? MZ: I never thought of another city. While in college I lived and worked in NY every summer and I knew after four years at college in RI, I would relocate to New York. It seemed a very natural step. Of course over the years I have had dreams of relocating to Paris , Rome or Barcelona, or even San Fran but that just never happened.
*Zex at Gaudi's Casa Batllo in Barcelona. I did an apt swap in Oct '08 and she came for part of stay. Great fun, great city!
AH: We met at NYU, despite being in different programs, what made you think I was so brilliant? MZ: Your positive outlook on life and sense of humor were a draw and of course your artistic brilliance and appreciation of handsome men.
*She spent many summers at art residencies in Woodstock in the 90s. Here, we pose for Graham, think trying to look sexy or maybe mean. She looks seductive and I look like a boy, why did no one tell me?
AH: What was your 1st job? favorite job besides teaching, of course?
MZ: My first job was a summer job that I had when I was 18 working as an archivist at Magnum Photo Agency in NY. It was amazing to be exposed to so many great photographs and to meet so many photographers whose work I admired. At 18 I loved the work of Bruce Davidson, Cartier Bresson, Raymond Depardon, Gilles Peress and Josef Koudelka. It was very exciting! I also had the opportunity to briefly work in Paris as an assistant to a photographer at Magnum. The highlight of the job was not the assisting but to hang out with and eat clementines with Josef Koudelka. My favorite job was working in a button store.
*Tender Buttons the renowned Upper East Side button store, where she worked for her aunt, met fab friends and saw countless celebs!
AH: You've been teaching for many years now, what stands out to you in a student's work? What would you most like to impart to students? (what ages do you currently teach).
MZ: Passion, intuition, a good eye and technical skills. I taught college for many years but am currently teaching very confident teenagers . Working with teenagers is very fun and funny!
*The family; Lance, Mirabelle & Odille at a fave restaurant in Bristol, RI.
AH: What do you appreciate most when you visit your hometown of RI? what do you enjoy or appreciate about where you live in Brooklyn?
MZ: The ocean and fish and chips in RI . The anonymity of being in NY and my great friends and having access to some inspiring art at fabulous museums and galleries in Brooklyn.
*Some photos Zex took as a teen in NYC late 80s. Meat Packing District, above, looks very different today and it's pretty hard to find a boombox this size anymore!
AH: How has having a family altered your work, if at all? your process?MZ: Having a family has forced me to cut back on my time in my studio, but it has also brought me back to “straight” picture taking, which is somewhat less time consuming than making embroidered photographs. I continue to do both. Having a family has been great because I now have models on call (my daughters) who are always available and willing to be photographed.
AH: Your daughters seem very comfortable in front of the camera, would you include photographs of them in exhibitions or are they personal pieces? MZ: For many years prior to having daughters much of my imagery included pictures of girls and women, so it is a fortunate progression to be able to add photographs of my daughters to this ongoing series.
AH: What is it about tabloid news, like the headlines you used from The Post for a series of work, that appeals to you?
MZ: In these photographs I embroidered the “truth” onto my own black and white photographs. I was interested in creating a tension between the red and silver graphic sewn text and pictures and the photographs, some of which directly related to the headlines (Heath Ledger found Naked) and others which were more elusive (Hill Fire- a mix of Hillary Clinton and Britney Spears stories). I am interested in the juicy headlines and dramas that are found in these sensationalist newspapers and transforming them into my own type of archives or memorials.
*Yes, that is me in Hill Fire piece, currently on view at Muriel Guepin Gallery.
AH: More recently you have been photographing people in transit, going to & from work on the subway. What made you decide to take the 1st shot? what do you find interesting about them? MZ: While riding the Lexington Avenue line during rush hour for years, I often thought about photographing and recording the experience of riding the train during rush hour. One day I saw somebody that I couldn’t resist photographing and after that it became addictive, It also makes riding the subway much more interesting and exciting- I’m always searching for interesting and diverse faces in trance-like states of being. I find these photos of everyday humanity serve as reflections of our most authentic selves.
The trains have cleaned up a bit over time!
AH: What artist would you most like to talk to? and what would you want to know about?
MZ: Diane Arbus- I would like to know what was going on when she took the picture, Mexican Dwarf in his Hotel Room. I actually wonder about this often!
AH: Which galleries do you visit most? MZ: I visit galleries in Manhattan fairly often. The last shows I saw included Tulsa, a film made by Larry Clark in 1968 at Luhring Augustine, an exhibition of Painted photos by Huma Bhaba at Peter Blum gallery and Todd Hido at Bruce Silverstein gallery. I love going to all of the museums, especially the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the MOMA and the Brooklyn Museum!
AH: You bake my favorite cakes, do you have any secrets you'd like to share?
MZ: Orange zest works wonders, never overbake, and decorate with colorful candies.
AH: What quality (qualities) do you admire most in a person? MZ: Some brains, a sense of humor, loyalty, and no liars , please.
AH: What advice would you give someone just starting out in the field?MZ: Meet the right people- it will save you a lot of time!
AH: Your mom's a Brit, do you think that's why you have such class? ;)
MZ: Without a doubt, she’s my biggest influence! She’s the real deal!
Finally, here is a miscellaneous mix of Zexter's Top Picks:
Blogs you look at--
Movies you can watch again and again-
Little House on the Prairie- The Long Winter
Butterflies are Free
Rosemary’s Baby and other Roman Polanski Films
A Woman Under the Influence and all John Cassavetes movies
Mean Streets, Taxi Driver
Saturday Night Fever, etc, etc.
Longest celeb crush- Joey Ramone
Hottest crush- Carlton Fisk
Place for Best cocktail? River Café- Cosmopolitan or Sour Apple Martini
Dive bar or Posh bar? Depends on mood
Chips-- Potato or Tortilla? UTZ or Bon Tons- Both are potato chips
Champagne or Martini? Champagne, but it must be fine champagneIce Cream or Cake? Ice cream- but nothing with mint, The more chocolate the better!
One of my favorite photos of Melissa and Mirabelle :)
Thank You Zexter!!