The gentle wisdom of photographer Melanie Gordon
Melanie Gordon is an old friend. A friend made through art.
She has photographed many of my productions and I have collaborated with her on some of her art projects through photography. One time she built me an exquisite chandelier made almost entirely of branches for a strange and wonderful show I produced with no stage lights only lamps.
She also photographed my family – Dennes, Pablo and me – when Pablo was just 5 months old. That photo has hung somewhere in our various living quarters ever since and always will.
I have always admired her calm and thoughtful presence while she has shot my creative process, amazed at how she captures the moments I didn’t know existed in my choreography or in myself as a performer. Most startling is her ability to walk into a dress rehearsal, neither having seen the work before nor knowing much about its content, and to catch its essence.
This interview is long overdue, we sat down for this more than a year ago. But I release it now as a celebration of a tremendous talent and a heartful lady.
It goes without saying that all the photos in this article are by and courtesy of Melanie Gordon. This is the beautiful woman below...
LR: My blog is basically a place I try to interview and write about how artists make their work. I am always curious about the many ways and means artists get it all done. To start, what are you interested in artistically these days?
MG: What I’ve been really interested in lately is creative process and documenting the creative process. I’ve done that for many years – for dancers and artists of all different kinds. But I’ve started doing it for families now, documenting them playing and being creative together.
LR: Your “Imagination Sessions”. You’re offering families a safe place to engage in the creative process. And to document it is so beautiful. Those are the memories you want to hold onto…’remember when we painted that painting together and when we played in the woods.’
MG: Yes. What I’m really interested in giving children experiences and triggers for memories through photographs of being creative people. I don’t necessarily have research to back this up but looking at photos and hearing stories of me doing creative things in the past…it creates a string of memories that lead me back to who I am. I think a lot of adults forget that they are those people.
MG: We all start out as creative people. It’s so natural for kids to be creative and to play. The Imagination Sessions give families the opportunity to play imaginatively and to connect through creativity and curiosity in nature or in their homes. Part of my purpose is to give children memories of their own creativity, but also to give parents a reminder of who they are. Photographs are powerful identity forgers.
LR: It could be therapeutic in a way. I know expressive arts therapy has some of this as its basis, but how valuable it is to be photographed and captured playing, not performing, if you know what I mean. There is a tangible product to say “I was that, I did that” but it is purely for keepsake, for memory, not necessarily for an audience.
Your artistic processing of their artistic process. And the imagination is so important to trigger compassion.
MG: It opens your mind in ways you haven’t thought of before and you see things differently.
Adults need to be reminded that children are naturally open and loving. And that we are always children inside. We just have to remember that part of ourselves. After having a child, I started to see the world through her eyes. My hope is that making honest and inspiring photographs of children as they play and discover and imagine can help us all see the world through the eyes of children.
LR: I don’t see the world through my son’s eyes. Being his parent is really visceral for me. I feel his experiences in my body….Either way this is what we want for society: to see through someone’s else’s eyes, feel their experiences.
MG: Yes. Empathy. We want people not to be afraid to express their emotions. Art is so important for connecting people. Although sometimes words are the art, we don’t always need words to connect in an intimate, emotional way.
LR: It requires vulnerability. Something I consider a lot, the need for the artist to be vulnerable. Performative or not. It’s one of our greatest strengths as artists. But often the societal message is the opposite: vulnerability is weakness.
MG: I feel like in kindergarten you are given this opportunity to play and be creative and follow your curiosity, and then bit by bit, school funnels you in. Your heart gets closed down, narrowed. The heart should be the main source for learning in school and the main launch pad for creativity.
The irony is that business is craving creativity and innovation now, but we’ve taught this out of people.
LR: Taught that it’s not as worthy….There’s a disconnect for sure. I think we’re going through some growing pains…The industrial age is over and people are not letting go because it’s hard to change. It’s challenging. It makes me think of Richard Florida’s writings on creativity as the new capital in the information age….
There’s something about having children as an artist…I’m not one of those who says you have to have a kid to have these break throughs or understandings, certainly not….but having a child in the school system has illuminated issues I might not have noticed. Artist lie largely outside those more conventional and sometimes narrowing ways of working or educating and you feel that pinch when it starts happening to your kid through school.
My parents, for whatever reasons always insisted my sister and I had activities of physical exertion and artistic exertion.
MG: Using your complete person, your body, your heart your mind all together to communicate who you are …
I really love the focus on creative process because there isn’t the pressure to be good at anything, you are just exploring your creativity. This is one other peeve of mine in looking at the education system. A lot people seem to think of creativity or art as only visual art. In elementary school you’re not given a lot of opportunities outside visual art. For a lot of people if they are not technically skilled at that they are shut out. There are probably other ways they can explore creativity and feel accomplished and expressive. It’s a little too skill-oriented. It should be more about process
LR: There’s a new thinking around STEM education and that is STEAM. Inserting Art in there. Education researchers have noted the value of creativity process, problem solving, creative thinking, imagination. Not just the old ideas that you get social skills or teamwork from doing drama or some other performance art.
At my kid’s school there’s a great primary teacher Mr. Corbin who teaches drama/dance/interarts/music. I would ask Pablo “which class did you have with Mr. Corbin today? Was it music or drama….?” And he’d say “I don’t know.” Because the teacher mixed it all together. It was all so interrelated…
MG: And then they realize the connections and not have to compartmentalize themselves. I still feel like I have to resist compartmentalizing myself even in photography: oh I’m a family photographer, I’m a portrait photographer, I’m a creative process photographer….
But people want to know in bite-size pieces what you do and I understand the need for it. Still I find it hard to describe in such a bite.
LR: I was actually thinking about that when considering our meeting today. What I think is interesting about your work ….Other photographers might do headshots, landscape and have a different approach to each kind of photography….but… maybe because I know you…there’s something about your work that is the same no matter what kind of photography your doing. There is always action. Even when it’s a production shot from one of my shows. You catch the action.
MG: Yes I’m really interested in the in-between moments and the momentum in an idea. I’m also really interested in movement and capturing movement, time in a still image. Stillness within movement.
What’s always drawn me to photography was that you can capture time that you cannot see, but you feel it in the photograph. I used to use longer exposures to capture the movement of light in motion. I just love the idea that you are catching an experience that you can’t see.
LR: Exactly! You capture what you actually don’t see, if you were an audience member at the performance. The less obvious moments. That’s what you do so well. Some of the best photos of my work are from my least favourite piece of choreography because you caught what I didn’t see. Aspects of the movement or the feeling. I could see it through your lens. It was there, and that’s what I wanted but I couldn’t see through my choreographer’s lens.
Lucy Rupert and Caroline Niklas-Gordon in Blue Ceiling dance's Days of Mad Rabbits
MG: My lens has always been a lens for emotion. Photography for me is emotion plus light plus time.
LR: Ah, that’s beautiful.
MG: That defines it for me.
LR: Emotion plus light plus time….maybe that’s the next level of understanding the fabric of the universe….
MG: It’s untapped. People have this incredible capacity for emotion but have been conditioned not to tap in to it but to control it. What about a world where we could give ourselves the gift of feeling what we feel? And feel what others are feeling?
LR: I was talking with a Gestalt therapist a few weeks ago, and she was talking about allowing kids to have their tantrums. When they are feeling so much emotion, to just push the furniture aside and say “Go ahead, let it out.” When we tell them to stop their emotions or tell ourselves to, we create a dam on the waves of our emotions and eventually the pressure of those waves building up will break the dam and be more dangerous and messy. She said usually kids wind up being upset for a much shorter time if you let them have their tantrums. So probably that world you’re describing would ultimately be calmer.
MG: More grounded.
LR: Yes. You’d be allowed to ride those waves of emotion and get off the ride easily when the wave dwindles.
Have you always felt fairly confident and sure of your vision as a photographer?
MG: You know, I’ve always felt confident in my identity as an artist. My vision as a photographer? That’s where art and business get a little intertwined for me. My vision as an artist is very clear. It is to help people connect through art and to help people explore their creativity and see the beauty in the world. That’s why I do what I do.
With the family photography my mission is to help children be seen and heard and empower them to trust their voice and vision. Letting them be creative and making images of them doing that so they can see themselves as art, they can see the beauty in themselves. They become more valued when we can make art about them, when they are more represented in the world.
LR: The art is an extension of themselves. It could hang anywhere and still be art and still be beautiful and has value because of them.
MG: Yes and it’s not something they’ve done or achieved, but their quality that makes it valuable.
LR: Not the winning goal in a soccer game. But something that frees them from quantifying their accomplishments, in a way.
MG: It’s funny because I’m a photographer and I’ve taken a million pictures of my daughter, but the ones I have up at home are more fine art. They are more about her soul than how she looked at 3 or 2 or whatever. She’s a timeless being in them. It’s really important to me to do that. To give her identity more dimension than just what she looks like. She’s more than just her body.
LR: When I think back on the most memorable photos from childhood, I immediately think of one of my sister, my dad and me sitting in a field at Point Pelee National Park. The whole story comes back. My sister and I are doing homework because we were taken out of school to go to Point Pelee, our cat is out of frame but was there, because she would walk through the woods on a leash. My dad is staring at the sky,hawk watching in the clear blue with his friend Ross. My mom must have taken the picture. The whole thing comes back.
MG: The story of that moment in your life.
LR: And what do you think about all the instant, smartphone photography? Our kids are so used to having all their moments caught on smart phones. For me, it’s fun. I take a bunch and delete later. The fun is the process of taking the picture, the act, not the image.
MG: Smart phone photography can be mindful. People taking time to consider what moments to capture.
LR: That’s an interesting way to look it, that it can be an act of mindfulness.
MG: Finding those bits of beauty in between the other things that may not be so beautiful. Or finding beauty in those things.
LR: Are the Imagination Sessions your primary focus, not just as business but creatively?
MG: Yes. I’m most interested in photographing children and dancers, or performing artists. I’m curious about how creativity moves through us. I’ve also been doing this project ‘The becoming of dance”…I’m interested in the imperfection in the creative process. In capturing the making of it and not the performing of it. Capturing the messiness. I love working with dancers but it is hard to make a living at it. That’s more of a personal process along side photographing families.
So I feel like the Imagination Sessions are a merging of everything I’m interested in: creativity, art, childhood, families, telling stories, photography.
LR: As you’ve been speaking, what I know of you, it feels like it’s all coming together. Not hierarchical, rather than moving higher in your art, it’s going deeper.
MG: Having experienced being a mother, I feel like photographing that love within families is so meaningful, to me and to the families I photograph.
LR: Something particularly special about you is that you don’t go for the big obvious movements in your image creation. In dance photography you don’t necessarily go for the static image, the big kick or suspended jump…Do you have a sense of why you’re good at it?
MG: I’m working on being more mindful and being more present in the everyday moments and appreciating them. I feel like the everyday and the in-between moments tell more about the person and the story than the big kicks or rites of passage because they are more vulnerable moments. I connect with that vulnerability I guess.
The word that comes to mind is hope. Hope that in the in-between, the just-after or just-before there’s hope that something good is going to happen and I can see that. I’m a hopeful person and I always feel like something good is going to happen.
Capturing that energy is more real to me, but maybe it’s the ambivalence [of those moments] too. I’m also a super indecisive person and I can see both sides of everything.
I get stressed in my own life when a lot of plans have been put into place for one big thing to happen. Everything is leading to that big thing and what if that big thing doesn’t happen how I want it to happen? Or what if I don’t feel well? Or.... As a kid I used to feel sick at birthday parties because there was so much energy. I connect better to what’s between big moments, there’s more space to breathe and grow.
LR: It makes me think of how choreographer Doris Humphreys described dance: the arc between two deaths. It was an approach to technique to swing and catch, suspend and release, but also the metaphor that dance is what is between two fixed points not the fixed points themselves. This is what now really is.
MG: That really resonates.
LR: I think this is a wonderful place to stop. With the idea of hope and that something good is going to happen.
Melanie will be doing a day of Mini Imagination Sessions in October to raise money for PINE Project’s Bursary fund. Join her email list to get the details.
Melanie will also donate $50 from every full Imagination Session to Stretch.Heal.Grow, a yoga and meditation retreat for young women affected by breast cancer.
You can see Melanie’s work here: http://melaniegordon.com/
And contact her here: firstname.lastname@example.org