Today we are pleased to share the work and words of Melanie Walker, whose work proves that photography cannot be contained and is always evolving.
Would you please tell us a little about yourself.
I grew up in the land of fiction where everything was a construct, an illusion created for the camera… LA, in an environment that revolved around photography. I live in Colorado and have been an artist and teacher all of my adult life. Most of my work incorporates alternative processes as well as unconventional presentation.
How did you get started photography?
It’s challenging to think of when I was not engaged with photography. My father, Todd Walker, was an artist and photographer along with all of his friends and colleagues like Wynn Bullock, Robert Heinecken, Darryl Curran, Robert Von Sternberg, Robert Fichter, and many others. They were actively engaged with the medium and taught photography. Many of his students were around the house a lot of the time as well. I remember being surprised when I learned that not everyone’s father made pictures.
At twelve my father gave me one of his Rolleiflex cameras and I still have it. I started making paper negatives when I was about thirteen. I was around adults who were pushing the envelope with photography and I was completely drawn in. I got started in photography because of my dad. Picture making was a way to explore ideas and play with materials in conjunction with those ideas. LA in the 60’s and 70’s was a vital and experimental time in photography. That was when and where I grew up.
There was such a strong sense of community that was so magnetic. My dad was pretty much self taught in photography and it is admirable because he was a very successful advertising photographer who walked away so that he could dedicate his life to his research/curiosity and teach others to do the same. He instilled that curiosity and love of the medium in me and many generations of his students who keep in touch with me.
Which photographers and other artists’ work do you admire?
Where to begin…there are so many. From my father, Todd Walker to Wynn Bullock and Edward Weston, Eileen Cowin, Annette Messager, Boltanski, Lartigue, Kahn and Selesnick, the Parke-Harrisons, Linda Connor, Robert Fichter, Doug Prince, Bea Nettles, Betty Hahn and folk artists and Joseph Cornell, Magritte, the DADAists and the Surrealists and the list goes on… and it is ever evolving.
Would you share with us an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time.
Oh, there are so many that have stayed with me… I am so stumped over the one image that stays with me. It is a river, a flood of images and how to pick just one!!!! I have always been a commitaphobic… I fly through my mental index to see where my emotion stops, but it doesn’t. So much work has touched me… Edward Weston’s Pepper #30, John Wood’s amazing work, Doug Prince’s layered sculptural boxes, Betty Hahn’s sewn gum prints, Wynn Bullock’s tide pools, my father’s sabattier prints, Linda Connor’s contact prints, Eileen Cowin‘s elegant narratives… I love it all.
What makes a good day for you creatively speaking?
It is a day when all systems are go and I can just let myself make without doubt or being self critical. And then I go to my other studio, which is the kitchen… I work with photography and alternative processes much the way I cook. I have been growing props in the kitchen so I guess the best day is when there is cross-pollination and everything feels like a celebration.
Please tell us about your work and the installations that you do.
I work in many different ways but I think my favorite way to work is the most challenging. I love making immersive photographic installations that are interactive and incorporate sound, kinetics, puppetry along with photographs and photographic objects. I think it comes from growing up in the environment I was raised in where everything revolved around photography. The walls were covered with images so, for me, it wasn’t just the singular photograph but the interconnection between those images and the people who made them since I was so fortunate to know so many amazing artists who used a camera. All discussions and social interactions involved photography in some form or another whether it was a bunch of us camping out to take pictures at the Rose Parade or having dinner with a group of photographers who all taught at various institutions around LA.
I was so influenced by all of these amazing artists and feel as though with each different project I take on, I still feel their profound influence. I have been working on one particular body of work for over thirty years, off and on. It is a project that seems to continue to be relevant even though some think it might be not serious. It’s a project that I am currently calling “The Househead Chronicles”. It’s an ongoing body of work that examines and questions notions of home, homelessness, overpopulation, tradition and family. Food, water and shelter have long been considered basic human needs. Using the image of a house and the conceptual framework of home as metaphor, I seek to offer pictorial access to the longing for connection. The substitution of a house for a head implies a reality without being specific. It allows fabrication of a world and a narrative that occurs only in the photograph.
Delving into the fantastic and the banal, the work addresses fictional metaphors for experience and emotion. Within this work I seek to create a theater where the ridiculous, the poignant and the unexpected can be acted out through imaginary and whimsical associations that portray life on the lyrical edge of sense and non-sense. The series consists of two complimentary forms; a suite of photographs and a range of installation components including shadows, kites, puppets, quilts and images printed on sheer silk. I am trying to weave it all together into a sort of graphic novel. Throughout this body of work I have chosen to work with approaches that might be considered childish or playful.
There is a rich political history in puppetry and kites have a way of drawing people in. I am interested in the tension that can exist when serious issues are brought forward in a manner that is disarming. This approach relates directly to my first memory which involved eye surgeries associated with my birth defect. I was born legally blind in one eye and had eye surgeries at age three. I woke up alone after the surgery strapped in a bed with an eye patch over one eye to see a chimpanzee wearing a band leader’s uniform riding down the hospital hallway on a tricycle. This surreal memory has been integral to my approach to making work. I restage this as a photograph and someone who had the same surgery the same year for the same problem remembered the chimpanzee as did her father so I found out it was real.
I have also just started on a new project that involves many of my father’s destroyed negatives from his early days doing work for hire from around the time I was born. The decay that has taken place over time is something that I find incredibly intriguing and compelling. It relates to a lot of the hand-made cliché verre negatives I have been making… that is another project… so much to do.
What challenges do you face as an artist?
In reality I think my greatest challenge is self-doubt. I am still trying to learn to just make work and turn off that voice that says it’s not good enough. I think my self-doubt comes from being around so many amazing artists when I was growing up. I still compare what I do to others which is so counter-productive. Also I was born with a visual impairment called strabismus and I see double every waking moment. It is confusing and exhausting and gets in my way. I think that feeds my self-doubt as well. And another challenge is TOO MANY IDEAS! Too many projects that I am driven to work on simultaneously… but I think it is connected to my multiple vision and being legally blind in one eye.
If you could spend a day with any other photographer or artist living or passed who would it be?
This is such a difficult one to answer because there are so many. . . but in honesty, I have to say it would be my dad. I still had so much to learn from him.
How do you over come a creative block?
I get to work. Sometimes when I am really stuck I use Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies to give myself room to play. When I am really desperate I go to the local herbal apothecary and get some healing herbal blends to help release whatever is blocking me. . . Or I go into my kitchen ‘studio’ and cook.
Is there one thing that you wish people would stop doing when it comes to the creative process or in the art world?
I wish people would stop defining and categorizing everything. I think it’s so important to step out of one’s comfort zone and keep taking risks. I see so many artists who get locked in by the marketplace and either get pigeon-holed or pigeon-hole themselves…. The curse of style.
Thank you Melanie for sharing your work and words with us. We look forward to sharing more of your work in the future.
To learn more about Melanie Walker please visit her site at, Melanie Walker Artist.
“What a wonderful interview with a wonderful artist! Brave, thoughtful, caring, Melanie is a gifted, persistent seeker who has developed a distinctive “voice” all her own. Thank you for sharing her life and work with us….” Barbara Bullock Wilson
“Melanie is such a deep soul – and your marvelous interview brings out her complex heart and mind for the reader to contemplate. I so appreciate the thoughtfulness in her work, her ability to portray her own thoughts, and her frankly, subtle genius. I am thrilled that this inspiring interview will remain available to re-read many times!” Mariana Bartolomeo
Thank you to the photographers that share their work with us.
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