Melissa Breyer is making huge waves in the street photography scene. The community has praised her work far and wide, and she has amassed a strong following because of it. The strength of her street photography and the depth of her knowledge have led her to become a trusted figure. Evidence of this can be found through her involvement in the 2019 London Street Photography Festival, where she will be on the judge’s panel for their open competitions.
She creates her stunning black and white images in the Big Apple, a place she describes as “…a crazy, beguiling place”, stating “who wouldn’t want an excuse to be wandering New York city whenever possible?”. We had the privilege of catching up with her.
Phoblographer: Hey Melissa! So, how did your relationship begin with the wonderful world of street photography?
MB: Hi there! So, there’s not an exact point on the timeline, it was pretty organic. I was a painter in a former life, but after college when I actually started selling paintings, I realized it wasn’t the life for me. I gave it up, but apparently, I could not give up making images so I bought a camera. I took photos while traveling, and then started taking what I called “travel photos at home” in NYC, not knowing that there was a thing called street photography. I loved the idea of having those magical powers of observation that vacation instills, while being in a place that I was familiar with. Fast forward to the social media era and I learned that there were all kinds of people also taking “travel photos at home,” AKA street photography, and I felt like I found my tribe.
Phoblographer: Have you and street photography ever had some rough patches and thought about breaking up? What keeps you together?
MB: I think we are in it for good. I have always been an obsessive walker and I have always been an obsessive people watcher. Put them together and add a camera to the mix, and street photography is the icing on the cake. I never feel like creativity is something I have to force; so, worst case scenario, I have a great walk and don’t take photos. An influential New York Times photo editor once told me, “Keep doing what you’re doing. If you make 6 -10 great street photos a year you are doing well.” And just like that, the pressure was off.
Phoblographer: With the use of black and white and the subjects you capture, your work has a classic feel to it. Why does this aesthetic work for you?
MB: It’s funny, even when I was a kid I chose black and white film … there is something about the absence of color that has always resonated with me. I think much of the appeal comes from my wistful side, but there’s also this idea of disabling the knee-jerk cues that are inherent with color. Color is loud and kind of bossy, it easily dictates emotion. Black and white is more dependent on an elegant take of structure, composition, mood. It’s more of a streamlined message with less distraction and allows me to better focus on the subject. However, I do give in to color from time to time because sometimes it just demands it – like I said, it’s bossy.
“I am much better when I’m shooting intuitively rather that intellectually”.
Phoblographer: Street photography requires a lot of concentration and a clear mind. How do you ensure that you keep focused, and more so, what helps you to remain creative when building a scene?
MB: Well, I think for me, concentration and a clear mind are perhaps at odds with one another. My favorite photos have come when I am actively not concentrating, but have instead left my mind wide open to wander and feel things. If I am too focused and looking for something, I can miss the odd spontaneous moments happening in the peripheries. I am at my most creative when my expectations are turned off and I am completely in the moment, with all of my senses open. I am much better when I’m shooting intuitively rather that intellectually.
“When judging, one thing I ask is: Would I hang this on my wall?”
Phoblographer: Where are some of your favourite locations to shoot? Do you have a particular spot that you feel brings the best out of you?
MB: It all depends on the light, and I always like a place where I can focus on the emotion of a person, rather than the trappings of modern life – which means I am drawn to places that are uncluttered. I am really less of a documentarian of time and place, more so (hopefully) of the inner lives of people. As for specific locations, I especially love Grand Central Terminal, even though it has been photographed a zillion times, I cannot walk into the main terminal without my heart skipping a beat. There is a hum there that is mesmerizing and I feel like I have been transported to another time and place. It is never not an entrancing experience for me there. I also love downtown, where the skyscrapers and narrow streets are like a playground for light.
Phoblographer: You’re going to be a judge at this year’s LSPF – what kind of photo is going to make you stop and think “this is a great entry”?
MB: First off, I guess it’s the same standard I apply when editing my own photos, does it give me that little stop in my breath? Does it catch me in my tracks? When judging, one thing I ask is: Would I hang this on my wall? But even if an image is not in my aesthetic taste, is it an excellent image for its style? I want to see original things – photos with strong compositions and some emotion or humor or that something extra. I want to see images that aren’t easy shots. If it’s going to be someone’s back or a street performer, for example, there needs to be a reason that it’s interesting. And I generally take a hard pass at images that don’t respect the dignity of their subjects.
Phoblographer: Talk to us about The Watchwomen project. What was the inspiration for this series, was there a particular reason you focused solely on female subjects?
MB: When I moved from California to New York I got a job at a little restaurant in the West Village and continued working in restaurants throughout college and graduate school. It was such a transformative time, filled with the splendor of having arrived in the gritty wonderland of old NYC and having my whole future in front of me. I loved working in restaurants, but it also felt like a kind of limbo and much of my time in-between tasks was spent daydreaming.
“…being out on the street is engaging and life-affirming”.
Many years later as I found myself roaming the streets with my camera, I kept being drawn to waitresses at work; women, because I saw former versions of myself. I couldn’t help but wonder about their stories and I started creating my own narratives for them. These women are so much more than their jobs and I see their grace and dignity even in the smallest of gestures. I love the idea of freezing the frame to capture those still moments, when the mind is wandering and life is ripe with possibility.
Phoblographer: You’re involved with organisations that encourage female street photographers to showcase their work, giving them a platform to freely express their creativity. In 2019, for street photography, where do you think we’re at in terms of being a more inclusive and diverse community?
MB: I know there has been some controversy about women-only groups; but women have been left out of the party – museums, collectives, exhibits, festivals, et cetera – for so long, we can either loll around and wait for an invitation or be proactive and create our own momentum. These groups also provide a very succinct response to the claim that there aren’t many women street photographers doing good work. The Women Street Photographer’s exhibit in December at Artspace PS109 in New York, for example, showcased 75 female photographers and every single photograph was exquisite in its own way.
That said, I have seen progress in the last few years in terms of diversity. Representation is not yet equal, but I am seeing more women being included in arenas that were formerly mostly male. We have a long way to go, but I feel confident that we will prevail.
Phoblographer: Finally, please finish this sentence; I need street photography in my life because…
MB: …I am hard-wired to make images and street photography is the best way I have found to feed that need. The life of a studio artist can be lonely, but being out on the street is engaging and life-affirming.