Thirteen years ago, Mel Karch started her career doing black and white reportage photography on the Kings of the Ivory Coast in Africa. After assisting photographers such as Annie Leibovitz and Marc Seliger, she has gone on to work for clients including the New York Times, Japanese Vogue and Kenzo.
Her latest body of work, MOMENTS, which will exhibit at Clic Gallery NY next month, was compiled over the course of 6 years of location scouting for Marie Claire Italy. The result is a glamourised ode to the American landscape, be it in the form of solitary suburbia or Hollywood iconography.
In the following interview, Karch discusses her universe of creativity, biblical influences and inspirational travels…
Having grown up in Germany and studied in Paris, why did you decide to focus on Americana instead?
The American landscape, architecture and history is where I get most of my inspiration. I started 7 years ago with projects in Los Angeles and New York for Marie Claire Italy. For each assignment I would arrange a separate road trip to find the places I was looking for, For me, the location makes up a big part of the story that I have in mind. It is the place where I will execute my inspiration.
Who do you remember as the first photographer to have a profound impact on you?
About 15 years ago, I discovered a book of Walker Evans and was fascinated by his strong black and white portraits capturing moments in life. But I think I’m more inspired by the history of photography then by any paritcular photographer.
Over time, I have collected a kind of ‘reservoir’ of images based on memories and dreams, but also different film scenes and dated photos. I am also inspired by the minor details, scenes and light of everyday life- all of these things are a part of every one of us – and painters such as Balthus, Edward Hopper and David Hockney.
What was the most important lesson you learned while assisting photographers such as Annie Leibovitz and Marc Seliger?
I think it is very important to be faithful to one’s own style and vision in order to create a universe of work within itself.
The images for MOMENTS were taken while location scouting for Marie Claire Italy. What was your working experience there like and how did it segue into this photography project?
Accompanying the exhibition is a book containing a selection of 78 colour and black and white polaroid which were taken to prepare for the project, to find the locations where each story could talk place. For the last seven years of the collaboration with Marie Claire Italy (2005-2011), I was lucky enough to visit some of the most beautiful parts of the world.
It was nearly an addiction for me to find the perfect locations for the upcoming shoots, most of which were done in the States. Before each project, I would arrange a separate road trip for myself to find the place for the story I had in my mind. Sometimes I ended up choosing a completely different location from the original idea, but the search itself was such a rich experience and made up a big part of my stories.
When I would go on these trips, to familiarize myself with a place, to find an ideal site, and to pique my curiosity, I would often forget who I was and where I came from. In order to find the right location and to show my progress in the composition of each image, I liked to work with Polaroid Instant Film. These instant images of the idea that I had in mind worked in the same way as a a sketchbook does for a painter, and were also a tremendous help, allowing me to check some technical details before the shoot.
There is a cinematic feeling to your images. What influence does film have on you and what directors inspire you most?
The universe of my work comes from a wish to see and a wish to narrate. I always start with a specific location. The chosen location is the beginning of the story. It is such a wonderful thing to tell stories, and my ideas come from a reservoir of images and scenes from the film in my head. I’m inspired by Ingmar Bergman, David Lynch and Wim Wender to name a few.
Your work has been praised for its “biblical symbolism and dream-like surrealism”. How do you see these topics reflected in your work?
The significance of biblical symbolism concerns a particular project earlier on in my career, a triptych consisting of La Pieta, Women With Fish and Jesus Portrait, for which I was awarded the Fuji Prize for Young Fashion Photographers in 2006. I see them as interpreting the bible in a contemporary way.
I think that the minimalistic composition of my images, underlined by a cinematographic lighting, gives them a dream-like surrealism. Each images is a captured moment in life which helps constitute my universe.
What is the creative process behind each image?
When I look back on seven years of work, I think of how beautiful it is to have had the possibility to express oneself in one’s own universe of creativity. Creativity is the basis of self-expression. Creation is the birth of something and something cannot come from nothing. It comes from a passion, from a willingness to create something like a painting, a poem, a photograph. Creativity comes from an experience and perspective, from emotion, or from a combination of ideas. Creativity is the desire to express ourselves. To describe these expressions, one must collect experiences, dreams and desires together and mix them with something that comes from inside oneself, a way of seeing the world. The most satisfying thing is to find people who have the same or a similar vision. In my few years of working, I’ve had the luck to meet several very special people, and I am more than glad to have had this rich experience.
A majority of your images are either black and white or use faded colour. What is the intention behind this, do you feel it gives a sense of timelessness that could not be conveyed otherwise?
Indeed, the desaturated colours give a timelessness to the images and I use it to mix colour and black and white images within stories. I think the black and white images have such a strong appearance, the capturing of the moment being photographed becomes essential.
What are your plans for the future?
I would like to continue doing road trips, traveling and experiencing different situations, filling my reservoir of images. This would be fantastic and a truly natural progression.
MEL KARCH, MOMENTS opens at Clic Gallery NY next month. The accompanying publication is out not and available atwww.clicgallery.com and www.melkarch.com.
Read the full interview here.