“The process of making and thinking about photography has been my way to interface and engage with the world”, says South African photographer Johno Mellish, who has found in analogue cameras his best allies. With them, the artist has created a universe of pastel images that talk about universal ideas and to sense the power and beauty behind everyday things.
When did you start getting interested in photography? Do you remember your earliest photography-related memory?
I think my interest in photography started a long time after my first photography related memory. I have been interested in photography from about the age of 18. Over the last ten years, I’ve thought about my approach, and through this thinking, I’ve slowly started arriving at a place where sometimes a picture comes together in a way that feels like my own.
It started as something that you liked and caught your attention, but over time, photography has become a very important part of your life. How has the process been? What challenges have you faced over the years when trying to become a photographer?
The process of making and thinking about photography has been my way to interface and engage with the world. The world, for me, is inconceivably beautiful but also full of problems and absurdities, and my process is a reflection of this engagement. I mostly work for myself and it can be mentally challenging when photographs don’t work. I think to be a photographer, one needs to be able to embrace failure – failure can be taxing but also revealing.
From photographing people in any corner of the house to On Leaving, the project where you took pictures of abandoned automobiles found in airport parking lots around South Africa. Do you think that photography has the power to make any common thing beautiful or interesting?
What I think is powerful is life, to look at life is powerful, it changes you, and a camera enables that to some degree. So yes, I agree that, in certain contexts, ‘common things’ can become beautiful, but I think those things are often beautiful even before they are looked at through a lens.
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Your starting point is often a common object or scene, but your work is not conventional documentary photography. It always has an unmistakable cinematographic vibe. Would you say that your work as a filmmaker influences your photography and vice versa?
I wouldn't consider myself a filmmaker at this point in time. I studied film and knew quite early into my studies that I was more interested in photography. However, some of the strategies I learnt in filmmaking have been very useful in making the sort of photographs that I make now. Slowing things down and consciously engaging with time between me and my subjects is a device that I learnt through filmmaking and still employ on the shoots that I do.
Another influence in your current work is studio photography. How did you get interested in the interaction of studio work and documentary work, and what do you think is the best thing about this mix?
In the last few years, I’ve moved away from making work in the studio. In the past, I was drawn to what the world can express about photography, but now, I’m more interested in what photography can express about the world. So, my interest has grown outside. I learnt how to use lights in the studio and this has carried through into going out into the world and taking pictures of people with a studio setup. I think this studio influence approach still comes through in my pictures.
In your pictures, you approach the relationship between subjects and spaces. From your experience, how would you describe the interaction of people in Cape Town with the spaces you usually document?
I normally start with a location, space or place that interests me in one way or the other. I've found that if people are familiar with the space they're in, the interaction between the person and the space is a lot more accented. Often, when a person is comfortable in a space, something comes out in the picture that is revealing about that relationship and interaction.
“Photography allows me to connect dots between places and people. Making connections helps me make sense of the world.”
As a South African-born and based artist, you shoot your environment constantly. Is it difficult for you to give it a different approach through photography? What idea of South Africa do you think you communicate with your photographs?
At this point in time, I’m not sure if I want to express any specific idea about South Africa, however, I think it would be right to say that my ideas are universal but born out of a South African context. I've become aware of the fact that my lens has pointed more and more towards certain types of interiors. The relation between an environment and the people in that environment is very interesting to me. Photography allows me to connect dots between places and people. Making connections helps me make sense of the world.
Besides your environment – which, as we see, is fundamental in your photographs –, what other references do you have when shooting? Any photographer, film director or creative that inspires you?
South African writers have been inspirational – Eugene Marais, Herman Charles Bosman, Rian Malan. Reading allows me to visualise pictures. Besides that, I love David Goldblatt, Santu Mofokeng and Jeff Wall. Reading is what inspires me most though.
You’re a big fan of analogue cameras, but has it always been this way? What do these types of cameras bring to your images?
In a way, yes, I started photographing seriously only after I purchased a medium format camera. I want my pictures to look like how I see the world without a camera, without any photographic ‘effect’. In my opinion, what large format film cameras capture is as close to what I see with my eyes.
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Beyond everyday places, local scenes and pastel colours, what would you say are the elements that make your photographs recognisable? Have you incorporated them spontaneously or are they the result of a conscious search?
I want to express things as clearly as possible, and sometimes, that requires a bit of labour, so I think what’s recognisable is the labour. My pictures are a result of many different types of labour brought together. I would also say that the interactions I have with people are usually awkward and maybe this comes through.
Even if the work of other artists can be a good source of inspiration or entertainment, do you feel that sometimes, seeing the creations of others can be counterproductive? Seeing others constantly doing new projects has made you ever feel compelled to shoot even if you aren’t in the mood to do it?
I think it can be totally counterproductive. Especially looking at my contemporaries’ work. I think looking too much can result in making flat homogeneous workm especially if what you're looking at is on social media. In saying that, I also think it's really important to try and understand the context that you're working in and react to it in some way.
You’ve found a unique way to show Cape Town, you’ve built a portfolio over the years… but what’s next? How would you like to continue your career as a photographer?
I would like to continue making photographs that mean something to me, that for me is the bottom line. If I can do that, I'll be happy.
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