Melissa Laree Cunningham on JANE & GIRLSGIRLSGIRLS
Photography has the power to capture a story, an emotion and a world of complexities in a second. At times, we are drawn to its narrative for the beauty alone and others for the technical pursuit. It can be engaging and it can be transformative. Our community, and truthfully our world, has strong roots in this form of storytelling. It's been around long before us, and will hopefully never cease to exist. Among the many things we admire about Melissa Laree Cunningham, her storytelling through her visceral photography is near the top of the list. She's been working hard to bring her work to life in her new photo book GIRLSGIRLSGIRLS, and we couldn't think of anyone better to share her experience than Melissa herself. We're handing over the reins and listening as she tells us about her work, exciting new project and life as a mom.
Tell us a little bit about yourself — How did you begin photographing?
Well, I'm from Pasadena, [TX] — about 20 minutes from downtown Houston. I feel like that's important to mention. Houston isn't known for the arts, but under the surface, we have some incredibly talented musicians, artists, designers — you name it. Historically, it's a practical, blue-collar economy, built directly out of the opportunity for business and trade, not the epicenter of arts and culture.
My family has been in Houston central since the late 1800s as German immigrants. For me, that's a big deal because as I get older, I find that so much of my personhood, and who I have been steadily throughout time, grows directly out of family and how we, as a group, ended up, and stayed, in this city. No one in my family really deals in anything creative, but as I became interested in photography as a teenager, it was the vision of running photojournalism stories in war zones, documenting families and printing photos in my house that would show life real and caught.
Fifteen years later, I'm all over the place. I always prefer photographing people more than not and always with a hint of realism instead of completely staged or fabricated [scenarios]. I'm a hugely emotional person, (my non-German half of the family is more of that red-headed, Irish, back-woods Arkansas/Louisiana, female fireball type, so I'm always inner juggling the sturdy-practical with the wild-raw) so I gravitate toward making pictures that feel intimate or full of texture (read: imperfections) because the atmosphere feels more electric.
What is it you enjoy about photography?
I firmly believe I could never take another picture and no one would care. Go forward 50 years [into the future], and nearly every picture you think is important is forgotten. I have to constantly ask myself why and what's the point of picking up a camera instead of just being [present].
It's always story-telling to MYSELF. Not to other people. It is exhausting to be alive and to always be working, digging and striving for balance or control because really, any tiny thing could tip and you'd lose everything. So with photography, I connect myself to where and when and who I am at any given time just to remember the story of self [in that moment] and later. People get excited over new pictures but forget them in an instant. Newsstands run heavy projects showing immigration and genocide but it keeps happening. People spend $12,000 on photographs of their wedding only to divorce in four or five years. So everything has to be personal.
I photograph my daughter a lot, but always struggle with whether or not to show [those photos] to other people because she's her own life, not mine. Why would you subject a voiceless person to the public eye just for your own benefit? But at the same time, the struggle to understand my new identity as a mother has taken years and is constantly shifting. By photographing, I can find the narration in my life instead of getting stuck in one mode.
Tell us about your book GIRLSGIRLSGIRLS.
I've wanted to make books for a few years now, but since I have zero background in printing, bookmaking or putting bodies of work together as whole projects, I have been, understandably, daunted. I kept thinking I needed to know EVERYTHING first, like a master, before I could even begin, so I have been dabbling and researching for a couple of years into design and printing.
But, overall, [I'd just been] waiting until someone could tell me what to do, [and guide me through the] first steps. This summer though, I was at the Fotografisk Center, a photo gallery in Copenhagen, looking through their photo book library. They had so many titles from well-respected, internationally known artists and publishers. And [also] smaller, equally exceptional, works put out by unknown photographers from unknown publishers in tiny towns scattered across Europe. In that afternoon, I realized that [in order to begin working on my own book], I just needed to start, and growth would happen along the way.
This isn't your first time to work on a publication like this. What is different? What have you learned?
This technically IS my first time. I've helped friends while they have worked on their own personal projects for print, or contributed work to someone else's book, but I've never tried to fully conceptualize a group of photos into a new and single form as a book. It's a completely different monster. What makes a photo album different than a photo book? And a photo book different than a sample or portfolio of best work? I see photo books as single, independent art objects that have their own storytelling force. The choice and pacing of images, the layout design, the sizing and material — everything communicates something a little differently, so you are no longer just thinking about all the pictures you like. It becomes a practice in creating a new piece of art from scratch. It takes time. And feedback. And more time than you initially expect. And so much time. Because what do they say? Nothing good comes easy.
What tools are you using on the project?
I'm using my laptop, an Epson V600 scanner to rescan all of my negatives for print quality and my good friend Daniel Pagan has been doing the layout because he has a background in print and has been teaching me a lot. Otherwise, I will print cheap samples at Walgreens or on a home printer and do physical layouts on the floor. Over and over and over. I'm a tangible, slow person and I need to be able to see and touch what I'm dealing with before I can even hope to personally interact.
What is the most powerful image you've included? Why?
Oy. They are all their own separate thing. We even had a hard time placing some super powerful [images] in the book because sometimes it felt like they should just be their own thing, not in succession with others. But overall, "powerful" is in the eye of the beholder. Everyone interacts with something visual in their own way based on their experiences, background or visual cues.
The most powerful [image] for ME is probably the opener. It's a little blurry, not in focus and was a poor 35mm shot, in general, but the life in it is unmistakable. They are my cousins' kids, and my dad and I were taking all the kids down to swim at sunset. We were at Inks Lake, in [Texas] Hill Country, where my dad and his family used to camp every summer.
Two years after his dad passed away, we all decided to spend a week there together. It was all the siblings, plus their kids, who are my cousins, and their kids, who are the next generation. I had just finished a divorce a few months prior and moved to Houston with my daughter. [We] spent days and days with this giant, extended family swimming in the water, [taking] walks, taking the little kids down to fish, drinking margaritas and eating fajitas at night with the whole family. It's just life. For the living. Nothing really mattered except being there.
What's the most memorable story surrounding an image in your new book, GIRLSGIRLSGIRLS?
Page 33. It's my daughter. It is probably the most "her" picture I have, and I laugh every time I see it. My parents lived on a couple acres right inside Deer Park (which is right next to Pasadena), for the past couple of years and the property had about 10 citrus trees. This day, we were harvesting a bunch of oranges because my parents just sold the house. I'm trying to get a picture of her with the oranges, and I keep saying, "Wait wait, let me get your picture" or "Show me the oranges." I just need her to be still for 2 seconds because I'm using a heavy, slow-to-focus Pentax 67. But the girl pointedly puts the bag in front of her face and marches past me because she doesn't want to 1. do what I said or 2. get her picture taken. Which I respect. She's very much her own person, so as she's gotten older, she will tell me when she doesn't want a picture, and I oblige that. But this one, we were both laughing at each other and it became a game. I have a lot of pictures of her blocking her face. It's become a thing for us.
Tell us what your average day looks like — I know you have a full time job, are a mom, freelance and are also working on JANE Publishing?
...What is average? This summer I started waking up at 4 a.m. to work on creative projects, then get ready for work, make my daughter lunch, get her ready for school, work my day job as a librarian, pick her up, clean up, cook, take her to soccer, get her to bed, lay down to read something and then pass out. Bam. Repeat.
Her dad lives in town, so when she's with him I try and do anything social or knock out a bunch of creative work in one go. Lately I've had to take a step away from everything because we had a very sad death in the family, and it rocked a lot of inner sense of self and place in family. I literally could not muster any desire or energy to do more than just the basics every day. In general, I drive myself more than is probably necessary, but I'm alive so what else are we here for? It's become important to remind myself of my priorities weekly.
1. Daughter 2. Librarian (because that's how I make a good life for me and my daughter) 2 1/2. Me (because if I don't take care of me, no one else will, and I won't be able to take care of 1 & 2 properly) 3. Extended Family (because they were here before everyone else and will continue to be so). 4. Creative Voice 5. Friends (sometimes I swap 4 and 5 just depending on my own needs). If a creative project gets put on the sidelines, then I'm completely okay with that. I'm not here to be famous or make money, though I am very much okay with success if it comes naturally and true — I'm here because I need to tell stories and help other people do the same.
Do you have any advice for someone just starting out in photography or wanting to create their own book, too?
Don't do it on your own. There are reputable publishing companies for a reason. The amount of time and consideration of materials and knowledge it takes to put a quality book together is important. It is possible to self-publish of course, which is what I'm doing as a lead up to start a micro-publishing house called JANE that focuses on helping photographers turn their works into book form. The goal is to have everything designed, printed and bound in Houston
What about JANE?
JANE is an independent micro publisher of photo books based in Houston. We are just in the early days, but the initial plans, conversations and projects will focus on bringing in quality work from all over and partnering with designers and printers in Houston to publish a small selection of photo books each year.
Someone recently asked me why would I name the company JANE because that sounds like it's a company just for women or to promote women artists. And that assumption alone prompted me to stick with the decision. In my family, Jane has been a name passed down through the female line, and each of the women with that moniker have been strong (usually headstrong) women capable of raising families in difficult circumstances while working and striving to make a good life. If I'm going to care about projects or work, it needs to come from a raw and personal place in me. Then I can focus on the nitty gritty of specifications and bring in outside talent. And why shouldn't a company called JANE publish a badass, high-quality work of art by men and women both, include both men and women designers and cater to good work and original stories. A female name shouldn't be an indicator of anything less.
I am publishing GIRLSGIRLSGIRLS as the first official JANE work, and we are going to press with it in the coming months. In fact, just this morning I received a digital proof to look over before we go forward with the physical proof. And wow. Can't explain how exciting that was. Once we work through the physical proof, we will take pre-orders through the JANE website.