Interview with photographer Melissa Farley

I could tell you that Melissa Farley is a photographer, but I don’t think that explains it all. In a time when point-and-shoot-from-your-phone-then-upload-to-your- Flickr/Facebook/etc is the convenient path of today’s photographer, Melissa is still scouting locations, setting shots for days, and telling a story with each of her pictures. We sat down at her house in South Philadelphia to find out about her start in photography, the stories in her pictures, and her rediscovered family.

Denis: Do you remember your first camera?
Melissa: Yeah I do. It was a Pentax film point and shoot camera.

Denis: When did you get it?
Melissa: I got it when I was probably like 11 or 12. The only photo that I remember actually taking with that camera was my cat Louise underneath a chair. And I remember trying to walk around thinking, “What would be a cool thing to take a picture of? Something that’s different…” and it was just Louise underneath a chair. I remember getting the pictures back after I had brought them to CVS and being like “This fucking sucks!” [laughs] I was pretty bummed on myself. Denis: When did you decide that you wanted to do photography more than just for fun? Melissa: It’s kind of a depressing story. I took a photo class in high school. I wasn’t really good at much in high school. I wasn’t good in school. I played a lot of sports, but I didn’t excel at any of that really either. It sucked going through high school not actually being very good at anything. So I took a photo class and I started taking pictures. I remember being in the darkroom developing my photos and my teacher actually telling me “Wow, these are really good photos! You’re actually really good at this.” I was just like “Holy shit! That’s awesome.” I ended up failing that class anyway. [laughs] After that I continued to keep going with it. I guess it was just one of those things I was like “Well I think I’m good at this and I like doing it so fuck it, let’s do it”.

Denis: Other than the photo class in high school, did you have any other kind of formal training?
Melissa: Yeah, I went to college. My senior year I got a full scholarship to the Art Institute based on my portfolio. That was unexpected. Then halfway through that I dropped out and then I went to the School of Visual Arts in NYC. I dropped out of that. Then I went to U Arts for a week. Dropped out of that. Took that tuition money and bought my car, went back to the Art Institute where they gave me my full scholarship back and that’s where I graduated from.

Denis: How do you find the locations for some of your shots? Some of your shots that focus on Philadelphia are in interesting locations…do you just walk around?

Melissa: Some photos of mine…I’ve actually been there. The photo that you’re looking at has actually happened and I go back and recreate it because it was a moment that I just wanted to show people. I feel like it’s something that everybody could look back on and be like “ah, fuck I’ve been there before.” Lately it’s hard walking around, I don’t find shit around here that I want to take pictures of. I think that’s why I want to leave the city because I’ve just realized I need to be somewhere more aesthetically pleasing to me because it just makes me feel uninspired and just…shitty.

Denis: Do you feel that maybe sometimes living in someplace that isn’t as aesthetically pleasing makes you try harder to find subject matter? Or maybe just kind of sucks your will to be creative?
Melissa: I don’t know, it’s hard. The desire to be creative, it never leaves, but you can’t make something out of nothing. Philadelphia is a gorgegous city. I just think maybe I’ve played it out too much. I’m just done. I’m tired of taking photos that are involved in a city. I’m tired of it. I just feel like I need to expand. I think I’m growing as a person. I’m getting older. My feelings are changing. What I think is aesthetically pleasing is changing. So, that’s why I think it’s time for me to kind of move on in that way. I’m just not interested anymore.

Denis: Going back to where you said you wanted to take pictures of moments that actually happened. Do you ever feel that you can’t totally recreate that moment and it kind of frustrates you? Do you wish maybe you could take a picture with your mind just because it was a such a specific thing you can never recreate? Or can you recreate it enough that it satisifies you?

Melissa: I think I can recreate it enough to satisfy me. I think that I’ve lived kind of an interesting life, you know, for a 27-year-old white girl in America. A lot of people have had it way worse than I have but I think I’ve lived a kind of interesting life. I just feel like I’ve been in a lot of situations and I’ve had a lot of moments that were just different, that have really just taught me a lot. You know, that maybe I just want to share with other people. There is one photo of me and my friend Jenni in a car, in the back of my old apartment off Spruce street. It’s night out. Me and my ex, we dated for three years, we broke up and I remember being in my house and feeling kind of miserable. She came and picked me up. And I just had that feeling of like “Dude, I don’t know where to go, just drive. I don’t care where we go, let’s just go.” And we just went and sat somewhere. I remember putting my head on her shoulder. I didn’t have anything to say. I didn’t have anything I wanted to talk about. I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t want to laugh. I didn’t want to do anything. I just fucking sat there. Then a month or two later I went back and recreated that because, of all the shit I went through then, that moment stood out for me the most. That’s how I felt, I bet you a lot of fucking people have been in this position before. That’s something I just really wanted to remember and also something I thought was just really special in a way…that sadness you’re feeling and that comfort you can get from any person that’s close to you. Just like, everything is going to be alright.

Denis: Looking at your pictures, for the most part, I get a feeling of loneliness even though some of them are with other people. They’re kind of sad. Is that on purpose?
Melissa: Yeah, I guess so. I think a lot of my photos people take as being pretty sad or pretty lonely. For me, they’ve been more empowering in a way, to shoot or even to look at. Often times I feel like I struggle, I go through shit and I don’t know why. I have nothing to show for it. Sometimes when I can take a photo based off of something that happened I have something to show for it. “Oh, look at this. This is what I created out of this shitty thing that happened or this awesome thing that happened or whatever. Check out what I just created with that.” That’s awesome. I don’t know how else to explain it but in that way.

Denis: So, you’re trying to maybe prove to yourself that fleeting moments are not always fleeting…that there can be meaning in the most mundane of things?
Melissa: Yeah pretty much. It’s hard to say without sounding super corny. Just the way things look sometimes can be really fucking touching in a way. Just like certain moments stand out or just things that I want to capture and hold onto forever. And they’re not always the most special fucking moments. I mean right now I‘m working for a photographer who does weddings. I sit and look at wedding photography all day long. I think I’ve even told someone recently that at my wedding I don’t want a fucking photographer. Stuff like that, I don’t care about that shit being documented. Those things will stand out in my mind, that’s fine. It’s not about the wedding. It’s not about the actual ceremony. It’s not about the people there celebrating. It’s about what’s happening between the two people and that connection they feel and if there is a way to express that through a photograph…I don’t necessarily think it will be on your wedding day. I don’t know if that makes any sense, I just feel like there are certain moments that I want to make sense out of maybe. And just show people.

Denis: Do you think your photos fit together into a narrative that is your life or each photo tells its’ own specific story about a specific time?
Melissa: I think it’s maybe a narrative about my life. It just all things I’ve gone through at the moment. My brother died a few years ago and for the next few years I shot photos that expressed the grief I was going through, the loneliness I felt while dealing with his death. I’m sure not a lot of people would see that, not a lot of people would get that from looking at my photos, but most of them had to do with his death. Recently I went on a trip with my birth sister who is 12 and I hadn’t seen in 4 years. I met her when she was 5 or 6 years old. She’s my only blood relative. Her and my birth mom, I didn’t find them until I was 19. It was weird for a long time, a really long time and it really upset me in a lot of ways. I recently went to Paris and London with them and my whole last show, I put 30 black & white snapshots up and about 25 of them were of Bella, my little sister. People look at them and just go “oh that’s a cute little kid” or whatever, but for me I was documenting this weird bonding experience her and I had within those 6 days. The first day I felt really fucking weird. We wouldn’t even speak to each other. We’d be in the same room and just walk away from each other. I’m 27 years old and she’s 12. It was really strange and by the end of it, we’re both crying because we both don’t want to leave each other. So the photos that I shot are documenting that kind of weird…that bond you have. In all the ways that I think I’m so fucking weird, that I can’t relate to other people around me, I found similarities within her, my 12 year old little sister. Being 27 and going pretty much your whole life feeling like a fucking weirdo, to find that now, in a 12 year old little girl, is awesome. It makes you feel like “Oh shit. I’m here, I’m like this for a reason. I’m not totally on my own with it.” It’s cool. So yeah, I think my photos do narrate my life in a way.

Denis: You were saying people see pictures of a kid and don’t know the story behind it, do you find photography can be limiting in that way or is that your challenge as the artist to tell a story with just a photo?
Melissa: It’s kind of a challenge, I think, more so because it’s hard to not be totally overbearing and in your face with some kind of a message. I hate that, I don’t ever want to be like that. It just makes it pretty lame. So it’s hard not to make something totally boring and not having any meaning or any kind feeling to it, to being totally in your face and so obvious. But, there is a line that I struggle with where I have to think long and fucking hard. I think some people don’t really understand the kind of photos I take.

Denis: Do you find that photography as an art form is not as respected as others where it’s obvious how much work is put into it?
Melissa: Yeah, in a way. It’s hard to say. For photography I think a lot of people think you can just pick up a camera and take pictures. I’ve even had people say that to me, “you just push a button.” Sure I can walk around and take pictures of trash. Or I could walk around and take pictures of alley cats. Get an off camera flash, go to a party and take some party photos. Sure I can do that and all that shit’s cool. But that’s not necessarily the type of stuff I do. I know there are a lot of photographers, even in Philadelphia, who feel the same way. They take their shit seriously. They put in a lot of time and effort. You got to feel real strongly about what you’re doing to put all this time and effort into it. I feel like maybe people don’t see that time and effort. Which, who really gives a fuck, really? I don’t want people to look at my photos and be like “oh, look how much time and effort she put into this shit. I respect it so much more.” I don’t give a fuck if you knew that it took me three weeks to take that one photo. Just look at the photo. If you like it, cool. If you hate it, cool. It doesn’t matter to me. The only problem that I find, when it sometimes takes me a while to shoot one photo…I’m just kind of like, don’t get on my case when I’m not going out shooting photos sometimes. I can’t always do that. It’s more frustrating to me than it is to you. I don’t have a studio. I can’t sit in a studio, sit there and take photos all day long. Like some people can sit in their studio and paint all day. Fuck, that’d be awesome. Sounds relaxing.

Denis: Even painters and other kinds of artists and musicians don’t just keep painting or playing the guitar until something comes. You wait until you’re inspired.
Melissa: Yeah, totally. Everyone has to take a break for a little while, for a little bit. I feel like I took a long break with the stuff that I’ve been doing. I think I hadn’t taken my photos, my kind of photos in a few months. I wasn’t getting inspired, I didn’t have any real ideas. I think a lot of it probably had to do with the fact that I have a job, I’m working on photos all day long, I’m sitting at a computer for 8 hours a day and not even playing my favorite games from My neck hurts, my back hurts and shit. When I pick up my camera now I’m like “fuck this is making me think of shooting weddings”…which isn’t bad, that’s cool too, but it’s not making me want to go out and take a photo. But that’s why I wanted to try something else which is why I got a smaller camera that I can keep on me all the time. I started going around taking snapshots, doing other stuff, working in a different form. Doing black & white stuff instead of such vivid color stuff. And that’s fun, that’s been awesome. It’s making me think differently. I think that before I got to a point where I started to think more and more on a bigger scale of things where I’m just like “fuck. how awesome would it be to shoot on top this gigantic mountain with all these people”, you know what I mean? And have all this shit. But fuck man, I’m just Melissa. I’m just sitting here in my house in South Philly. No one knows who the fuck I am. I can’t go to some mountain. I don’t have those resources yet. I just am not capable of doing that yet. So what are you going to do with that? Are you going to sit around and bitch and moan that you don’t have the money or resources to go out and do stuff like that. I went kind of backwards and that’s why I got the smaller camera and I started walking around taking pictures of whatever, my friends or taking pictures of my littler sister. That stuff, I just focused it on something else so I wasn’t frustrated. Which is cool, I think that it worked out for me in that way.

Denis: How do you feel about technology with photography? Flickr. Digital cameras. Do you think it’s dumbing down an art form or do you think it’s maybe giving people a voice, so to speak, they normally wouldn’t have because before photography was a little tough if you didn’t know what you were doing?
Melissa: I don’t really know. Part of me just doesn’t care. I have a Flickr account. I don’t know how to use it or anything. I rarely put pictures up on Facebook or anything like that. I think it’s cool that other people are way into it. I think that anybody who has a hobby whether it be photography or anything at all…if you’re into it, I think that’s awesome. If you want to put that shit up on the internet that’s real cool. It doesn’t bother me any. I don’t think it necessarily dumbs photography down or anything. I think that people who have a lot of talent, who really want to make it their career and it’s their passion, I think it kind of forces them to think outside the box and do something different, which is always a positive thing. It makes you go “alright, what can I photograph that nobody else has before? How can I express myself in a way that only I can do?” It just makes you think on a different level when everybody else is doing it too. That goes the same with everything. It comes in waves. Comic book nerds, they hate everybody because people hate them because they’re comic book nerds. Then a comic book becomes a huge fucking movie and all of a sudden everybody is a comic book nerd. The OG nerds get pissed off but that means they’re not going to keep enjoying their shit? Everything happens like that but you can’t hate. Not hating.

Denis: Good analogy. I’m sure comic book nerds will appreciate that.
Melissa: I love comic book nerds.

Denis: [Laughs.] Good to know. We’ll have your email address and phone number at the end of the interview.
Melissa: [laughs]

Denis: Let me just ask a typical question: Who are your favorite photographers? Who did you get stoked about when you were first starting out?
Melissa: One photographer I really liked in high school, his name was Huger Foote. He has a book called “My Friend from Memphis.” His photographs were really beautiful. He worked a lot in color, a lot of color stuff, real vivid shit… like midwest, fucking suburban type shit. Really really pretty stuff. Obviously Cindy Sherman, as any girl my age who is into photography would probably say. Gregory Crewdson, who I think is a genius. I think he’s awesome. You should check out his stuff. I don’t really look at a lot of other people’s work to be quite honest with you. I guess a lot of artists I feel look at a lot of others artists work to get inspired and motivated, I don’t. It’s not that I don’t like other photographers’ work, I do. I admire a lot of photographers’ work but I just, I don’t know. I’m just not the type of person to go to First Friday shit or go to a lot of art shows or photo shows. I have other things that I want to do too. Photography is not the only thing.

Denis: What’s coming up in the future?
Melissa: Uh…not much. I don’t have any shows lined up right now which is a good thing because I’m broke and I can’t really afford to do it. I do have this photo job so I am doing a lot of shoots with a lot of different equipment that I’m not really used to using. Which is cool because if I want to make money with photography then I’m going to need to know this stuff real well. So I feel like right now I’m kind of focusing on that. Using photography as a way of expressing yourself is awesome, in an artistic form it’s fucking awesome, but if you want it to be your career you gotta know your shit, you gotta know your technical stuff. That’s more what I’m focusing on, that’s been a long time coming where I’ve probably needed to do that a few years ago and now I finally have an opportunity to have equipment at my disposal and really take advantage of it. That’s what I’m focusing on right now. I don’t think that anything else is going on. Besides Croque Madame.

Denis: Why don’t you tell us what Croque Madame is?
Melissa: Croque Madame is my band with my friend Kat. We do lo-fi home recording stuff. We will soon be put out by Peasant Magik. We’re going to write one more song. I just started writing a blues song which I’m into.

Denis: So other than photography you also play guitar?
Melissa: Yeah I play guitar and sing. I’ve been singing in bands since I was 19. But I’m not very good at playing guitar or anything. But I can handle it for Croque Madame style. Kat plays keyboard. I’m way into it. I’m pretty psyched on it. That’s what’s happening in 2010.

Denis: When can we expect that record to drop?
Melissa: I don’t know, not sure yet. We need to finish writing our demo and then we’ll get it over to Peasant Magik. Hopefully that shit will drop soon. I’ll let all of y’all know.

Denis: Finally, what advice would you have for someone who wanted to get serious about photography?
Melissa: Maybe to just try and think about it in your own way. Really think about why you want to do photography. What is it about photography that intrigues you or interests you? Think long and hard and if you can’t think of anything then, I don’t know, fuck off. But make it your own, really is what I would say. More so it’s just practice, I guess. Don’t get too hard on yourself, which is what I should say to myself. Use it as your way to tell your own story, show your own world. I think if you do that, your photos will always be unique.

Denis: Any closing statements?
Melissa: Are you sure you don’t want a cookie?
Denis: [laughs] I’m sure. thanks..
Melissa: Alright.

Visit Melissa Farley on the web at

Special thanks to Jaime Morgan for transcribing this interview.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the awesome interview with my daughter. I learned a few things about her that I didn’t know.

    Comment by Bob Farley — 06/09/2010 @ 4:59 pm

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