Paul Melo is a Vancouver-based Photographic Artist specializing in large format Fine Art prints and custom commissions. His most recent project is a two-part series of “Dreamscapes” that are part fantastical landscape and part cheeky social commentary (Dreamscapes / One is currently also available as a published volume). We just had to know more about the mind conjuring these surreal visions and the creator bringing them to photographic reality…
Where did you grow up? I was born and raised in Chatham, Ontario. It’s a small blue collar town 40 minutes from the American border. Growing up there in the 70’s and 80’s was lovely in that I played like kids should: outside, without real limits to adventure. It was a different time where kids could play freely for hours just riding their bikes around town or throwing stones in the river. We had front and back yards, 20 or more kids to play with within a 100 meter radius and countless trees to climb.
What’s your neighbourhood and what makes it home? We live in Mount Pleasant. It’s home because it is truly a community. A friendly network of fellow families and small businesses.
What’s your artistic background/upbringing? I was the kid always daydreaming and drawing in class. I was the kid at the party in high school sober in the corner with a borrowed camera capturing the moment. I had two teachers that recognized my creative talents. One put a pencil in my hand and said draw, the other put a camera in my hand and said get out of my class. That first teacher sent my work to a curator. I had my first travelling exhibit of photo-real drawings when I was 12. They made my creative career a possibility.
Your first camera? Polaroid One-Step Land Camera.
You are a self-confessed “Foodie”…what’s the most delicious thing you’ve ever eaten? In my early twenties I moved to L.A. There used to be this narrow multicultural mini food hall at the corner of Broadway and the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica. In that hall there was this little window serving Brazilian food. They had this dish: shredded chicken in some delicious cheese cream sauce served over rice with a side of fried plantains. It was $6 of deliciousness. I had it many times and still think about it to this day. I have searched high and low and still haven’t found that dish again.
What’s the most beautiful dish you’ve ever eaten? Years ago my wife and I had an incredible ten course dinner at RIA/Chicago. Everything was beautiful and refined. Also, the devilled eggs topped with caviar at Masons Southern Provisions in Nashville, Tennessee. Had them three times in two days.
Your favourite local restaurant design? Savio Volpe.
Drink of choice? Ice-cold Coca Cola.
Your favourite Vancouver dish? Well, one of these: The Octopus at Savio Volpe; Steelhead Salmon Salad at Bel Café; Chicken and Waffles at Yolks (add two poached eggs); Artichoke and Waffles at Acorn; Burger at Forage; Bacon & Egg Brioche at Pure Breads; Breakfast Sandwich at Loafe Cafe; Pugliese at Dalina; Crispy Chicken Burrito at Tacofino; Chicken Curry at Kin Kao Thai (fucking great); Lasagna at Kissa Tanto; Salmon Miso Chowder at Bistro Sakana…then: The double chocolate sour cherry pecan cookie at the Gluten Free Epicurean (and I’m pro gluten!); Pistachio Croissant at Faubourg; Portuguese Custard Tart from Avelinos.
Your favourite thing about Vancouver? Natural beauty.
The thing about Vancouver you’d most like to see change? More restorations and preservation of heritage buildings. Less of the boring glass box condos.
If you could fabricate any space – a la the film, Inception – what would it look like? My current series of ‘Dreamscapes’ is exactly that: how I see the locations I visit and how I would improve them. It is usually a beautiful building from a previous era. I photograph them in ultra high resolution then place them in minimal, equally beautiful locations to give them new context and show how these buildings and their character truly stand out.
The place in the world that you haven’t been but would love to go? Japan.
Where do you go for silence? The bathroom. (I’m a parent.)
Where do you go for inspiration? Anywhere new. Be it a new street or new city. (Or Paris.)
Your personal ‘anthem’, so to speak? “Good Mother” by Jann Arden.
3 favourite films of all times? “The Great Beauty”, “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri” (the lead female character is my favourite character of all time), and” The Intouchables” (French film).
20+ years into my career I’ve finally reached a point where my intent is to create great, lasting work that will establish a legacy. I don’t shoot to impress.
What do you get from commercial photography that you don’t get from your personal artwork? Vice versa? Commercial photography requires a professional workflow and a dedicated creative process of creating an idea to serve requirements. That has polished my approach to my personal artwork. Personal work gives me a freedom to be authentic that commercial work typically does not provide. But having spent the majority of my time in the last few years creating personal work, I now bring that authenticity and relaxed attitude when approaching any project.
How many cameras do you own, and what are they? Four. One I use daily, one vintage Rollei TLR for select portraits and two collector cameras, one being my first camera from childhood.
Film versus digital: thoughts? No client or collector has ever said, “Oh, this is digital, give me my money back.” Doesn’t matter.
What inspired you to publish a book? The wave of interest in my Dreamscape series. I received so many requests to see the collection it only made sense. Print is the only way to do a photo justice. I collect photobooks and believe a good body of work or collection deserves one. It is also a beautiful medium to share your work that allows people to own and enjoy many images at once.
Do you think that print is dying? No. Print is how I earn a living. I am also a Professional Designer. The core of my freelance career is spent designing online and offline collateral for clients around the world. When a client wants to really make an impact and elevate their brand, product or event: you do it with high-end print. No one has a drawer full of beautiful websites they’ve saved over the years. But most everyone has magazines, catalogues or business cards they’ve saved.
Same question as above, but about film photography? Yes. It has already been on life support for a while, simply due to the ease and freedom of digital. Most people who shoot film do so out of personal preference, nostalgia or to be a hipster photographer as a selling point. My entry into professional paid photography was as a location scout in the film industry. But then (pre-digital) I would be out shooting dozens of rolls a day. Basically, the script requires an abandoned warehouse, so I head out and photograph a dozen or so buildings. I stand in one corner of a room and shoot a series of photos from left to right, then go to the other side of the room and repeat the process: room to room, location to location. At the end of each day I drop off all that film for processing and pick up the double sets of prints the next day. I then sit down for hours scotch taping those photos left-to-right into a wide angle panoramic view of each position. They would then be taped onto legal card stock, labelled and filed into office folders, each folder holding a dozen or so fold out panels to present potential locations to the director. All of those are then organized and stuffed into a Fedex box and over-nighted to the director somewhere like New York or L.A. Exhausted yet? I was. Repeat daily for 3-4 weeks. It fucking sucks. Along comes digital and photo stitching software. Goodbye film, folders, waiting and scotch tape.
The tool (besides a camera) that you couldn’t live without? Smartphone. (I shoot and edit extensively on my Samsung.)
In your personal work, do you set out seeking subjects/pictures or do you let them find you? I have ideas and concepts that lead my choices but most everything I shoot is a discovery that I transform into my style.
Favourite view in Vancouver? Looking down to Vancouver from the former Fraiche Restaurant in West Van. Or the view from Nordstroms over the VAG.
Your favourite place in Vancouver to people watch? The window of most any cafe.
Favourite view in the world? Luxembourg Gardens, Paris.
Favourite photographer of all-time? Irving Penn or Vivien Maier.
A talent you wish that you possessed? Music.
A hidden talent? I’ll keep it hidden.
Another creative pursuit that you would like to try? Chef.
The first piece of art that you owned? A large format print by Matt Curry aka Ninja Cruise.
How has your approach to photography changed since you started? I know what I’m doing now.
Your photos have a very grandiose and cinematic feeling to them. Do you think that is a result of your background in the film industry? I always love to hear different peoples’ perspectives of my work. I appreciate that you get the cinematic element. I don’t know that my film background guides my work. I’m in a perpetual state of daydreaming. Everything I look at is altered in my mind. Over the course of my career I’ve developed a polished skill set that enables me to visualize those creative thoughts. Funny thing is, working in film actually kills a bit of that imagination. You see behind the curtain and see things for what they really are which isn’t grandiose at all. When you’re standing on set you see the back of the false walls and see that rocks are really styrofoam.
Would you ever return to film? And, if so, in what capacity? Strange you ask that. Yes. I have a script in rewrites. I plan to finish it by the end of the year. I will direct it. I originally wrote the synopsis more than 15 years ago. Its theme centres around a lead character who finds out his estranged father was homeless just before his death. This causes him to re-evaluate his life. He chooses a few random homeless people off the street and tries to turn their lives around. At the time it was just a random story. Life ended up imitating art. My father left our lives in my teens and he ended his life living in a men’s shelter. He too died alone.
A lot of your photos also have elements of the surreal. Is that something that you’re naturally drawn to? Not really. It’s weird. I started making my surreal landscapes for fun. It was just me merging some of my minimal landscape shots with my architecture images. Images that on their own didn’t have a full resonance, but once I placed a beautiful building in a vast landscape, it suddenly had more meaning. It became a place you would want to visit. People message me all the time about my motel images wanting to know where they are located. I think they are analogous to the way I like to travel. To places far removed or more surrounded by space than civilization. An example of a real life place like this is Encuentro, Guadalupe. A few years ago I surprised my wife for her birthday and took her on a road trip from Palm Springs to Baja California to this amazing anti-resort. We literally had the place to ourselves the first night. You stay in modern loft cabins cantilevered over the rocks of surrounding cliffs. You actually hike up the hill to your loft and the pool. The main building housing a winery and restaurant are at the foot of the hill. It’s surreal in its unique location and merging of architecture with landscape.
How do you escape? Photography is my escape.
The photograph you didn’t take that still haunts you? Well. This is the biggest of all the questions. Thus, the answer is big. There are three (all of which I plan to recreate):
1. My Father, the last time I saw him alive. The last time I saw him was the most heartbreak I had ever felt. My sister and I entered the lobby of a dank, brown brick building swarming with rough looking men. No pretty face or change of heart had ever crushed me the way the sight of this proud man did, rare to ever step out in anything but a three piece suit, held up in a Salvation Army lobby by a walker and a cold wall. His trousers a few sizes too large, held in place by a second-hand belt tied in a knot nowhere near his waist. Partially paralyzed on one side by ALS, nearly unrecognizable, all he could do was raise a brow and half a smile at the sight of us. But despite it all – losing his health, his home, his family, and his mind – when he saw our faces he lit up. Every time.
2. My father on his deathbed. The night he died I was on a first date. We ended up in a park late at night, I was pushing her on a swing like two nervous kids. My cellphone interrupted the moment. I didn’t recognize the number, but it was a hometown area code.
“You need to decide sir, if we should resuscitate. But I don’t think we should. He will need a machine to breathe, and honestly, that would be all he could do sir. Breathe.” I could feel the humidity gather in my throat as this nurse squeezed me into indecision and my date kicked her legs to the sky, passing like a pendulum behind me as if to count the seconds wasted. “I’ll leave now. We’ll be there as soon as we can. It’s a four hour drive so you’ll have to wait.”
“But sir, he’s barely breathing.”
The next morning my mother, sister and I round the corner into a hospital hallway. A nurse clasps her hands together and tilts her head in our path.
“Sir. I’m sorry!”
There are few sensations as unique as the emotion that courses through your veins in the moment you learn your procrastination has finally cost a life. Procrastination always bothers to a degree of self-deprecation. A quiet, intrinsic guilt. But this. This kick to the sternum of where-the-fuck-were-you procrastination was sure to hurt for good. It will haunt.
She waves us through a door. I enter a sterile white room. It is empty all but for a narrow gurney and the absurd minimalism of interior design for the dead. Our steps ricochet from wall to wall. My father, still, and angled in the corner is gone but there. So oddly dressed and inelegantly mummified beneath a well-ironed sheet tucked along the length of his body, his arms to his sides. Someone thought it best to leave his glasses on as if to help him see his destination more clearly.
Weeping and regret take over the silence and this woman whom bared the full force of his anger and mental illness was again lost in love for a man who once was everything but good to her.
All I can think about is capturing the scene with the camera that is always at my side. This view is surreal and of all the photos I never took, this one was the best. And as I failed to be there at his most necessary moment, I too missed the opportunity to freeze this last look at how little was left.
3. Little Girl At Helmut Newton Show. My favourite gallery is The Annenberg Space For Photography in Century City. I go whenever I’m in L.A. On one visit I saw the Helmut Newton show “Big Nudes”. Literal life size nudes in his signature starkly lit black and white style. As I entered the centre mezzanine I stopped in my tracks. Directly across the gallery is a young girl, maybe 7 or 8 years old. Dressed impeccably in a pretty white dress and lace cardigan. Her hair held into perfection by a bedazzled hair band. She is standing directly under one of the large nudes, crowned by the models pubice and haloed by a lone spot light. She is looking up directly between the woman’s legs. In the same split second I froze reaching for my camera, my eyes met with a security guard a few feet away from her. My brain was screaming, “Shoot it!” But my heart was stuck calculating if it was A. appropriate and B. going to get me kicked out. A second later, the girl’s equally beautiful L.A. mom steps into frame and takes her by the hand leading her away. I lost the moment. Given the chance I would not hesitate to take that photo today. The image still burnt in my mind, so full of question marks and nuance.
One more: 4. Every movie set I ever worked on. Back then you just didn’t think to photograph the places or people. (But I did capture a few.)
Advice to young or new photographers? Shoot what you love. DO NOT try to emulate other photographers’ work. Admire it, learn from it, be inspired by it but find your own style and voice. Learn to balance art and commerce from the moment you begin. Photography is both a skill and an art form. Establish your value like a professional and never work for free for any capital endeavour. NEVER. Exposure is bullshit and doesn’t pay your rent or mortgage. Know your camera inside and out. Every function, limitation and capability. You should know exposure just by looking at the light. I don’t own a meter. Don’t read photography magazines. They are all full of useless garbage articles they regurgitate every few issues. “Lighting Setups of the PROs”, “Learn Lighting Like The Masters”: this kind of crap. Learn the skills that feed your style or needs. Don’t buy lights and gear because you think that makes you professional. It does not. Most importantly: 20+ years into my career I’ve finally reached a point where my intent is to create great, lasting work that will establish a legacy. I don’t shoot to impress.
Many young people want to be shooting commercial work because they think it’s lucrative and glamourous. It’s not. I know photographers that rent dozens of lights and top-end Phase One cameras for their shoots. They have the client on set and work tirelessly to impress them with gear and the show of it all. It’s all facade because everyone feels unworthy. Everyone is insecure and scared shitless they’ll be found out to be a fraud. EVERYONE. It’s part of the human condition.
The gift of age and experience is that you grow in skill and confidence and give less of a fuck year by year. Not about the work, but you care less and less about what other people think and grow out of the need to be measured by others.
I now own one camera for my professional work and two basic prime lenses. I roll up to a shoot with that small kit and maybe a reflector and get it done. I don’t need to impress people with assistants and light setups. Its about the interaction and the work, not the gear.
Lastly, like anything in life, do it because you enjoy it. If you don’t enjoy what you’re shooting, it will show through and you won’t last. Just take the pictures you want to see.
Where do you see yourself in 3 months? 1 year? 5 years? 3 months: Organizing a show of my Dreamscape Series. 1 year: In Japan. 5 Years: Cooking in my future cafe/restaurant.