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'Dorothy' (Barrel Series), 2003, from High Fashion Crime Scenes, 2003-2016 | Courtesy of the artist
'Dorothy' (Barrel Series), 2003, from High Fashion Crime Scenes, 2003-2016 | Courtesy of the artist
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Photographer Melanie Pullen On Picturing Death and Beauty in LA

Picture of Marnie Sehayek
Updated: 23 September 2016
She paints and facilitates performances, but is mostly known for her stunning, stylized photographs. Melanie Pullen is an artist unconfined – a Jackie of all trades. Prolific, but at times reclusive about it – in our conversation she laughed when she called herself the ‘J.D. Salinger of photography.’ Even within photography, she’s untethered to a particular subject matter, preferring instead to pursue wildly different projects from her notable High Fashion Crime Scenes, editorial-esque re-creations of actual crimes; Soda POP! a series of portraits of working male sex workers in homage to a peculiar childhood friend; or Mexico, in which the photographer embedded herself in the black market of Tijuana and the occult underworld therein. Despite this diversity, there is a certain reverence and glamor in her work. In this interview, the artist explains her penchant for depicting beauty and violence, the importance of stories, and how art is a practice of letting go.

Do you remember the first photograph you took? What was it?

The first photograph I took was of my family in New York. I was somewhere between five and eight years old. It was a portrait of all of these chain-smoking, screaming New Yorkers, that’s my family. I had a Polaroid camera and I said ‘OK, everybody stand together!’ and it was the first time everyone listened to me and they stood silently. I took advantage of it and took a really long time to take the photo to relish in this silence and ultimate control. I though, ‘I have 25 adults listening to every word I’m saying.’ I still have that photo.

You started taking photography seriously with portraits of musicians. What was it like shooting Beck and the Black Keys before they were famous?

It was cool for a while. I quit taking pictures of musicians because it was shattering the music for me. It’s like meeting Oz in the Wizard of Oz. I like preserving the fantasy of what the music is about. I don’t want to ruin the illusion anymore. I try not to meet the people I really like and admire. Although, there are some people I’d really like to meet. I met Werner Herzog once and hung out with him and he was better in real life. It was like stepping into a Herzog movie. His stories were crazier. It was like I knew him for a million years.

Phones, 2005
From High Fashion Crime Scenes, 2003-2016 | Courtesy of the artist

There are some recurring themes in your work – beauty, death, sexuality, violence, ritual. What draws you to these subjects?

Beauty, violence… I like to play with what’s exploited by society. Especially in the United States, there’s this exploitation of tragedy especially prevalent around beauty. It’s not just the media – it’s an interest of society as a whole. There’s a ridiculousness in it.

The psychology of even our own vanity in violence is really interesting. The more disturbing shots I’ve taken for the High Fashion Crime Scenes series, which I’m pretty desensitized to now – were recreated suicide scenes. People dress up for that. You see the correlation between a suicide and a war photograph throughout the history of battle – uniforms that are overly glamorized throughout the ages. There’s this ritual and vanity around a final moment, knowing your final moment. Beauty plays a role in violence.

What specifically inspired your High Fashion Crime Scenes series?

It had to do with my own growing desensitization to violence. I came across a crime scene book years ago in a bookstore, mixed up in a bunch of art books and it haunted me. It was a terrible thing to see. It was a really violent book, but I couldn’t stop looking at it and it gave me nightmares. Then a couple years later, I saw a similar book in the same bookstore and that time I was more interested in the shoes and wallpaper. Later I realized I was looking at crime scenes again, but hadn’t focused any attention on them at all. So then I started thinking about what psychologically had changed in me to make me completely overlook the violent aspect of these horrific photos.

High Fashion Crime Scenes became about purposely desensitizing people to violence by playing up all the other elements that would distract the viewer from the actual crime. I initially laid out the show in a way that subtlety increased the violence and by the time people got to the hanging shots, people would ask me, ‘Who makes those shoes?’ It was a walk through what I went through.

Stairs, 2004
From High Fashion Crime Scenes, 2003-2016 | Courtesy of the artist

Each crime scene is a recreation of an actual historical event.

Yes. I tried not to pick very famous crime scenes. I wanted the stories to be vague and I didn’t want them to be relevant to somebody’s life now. I’m not trying to open wounds for people. It’s more of a poignant statement about these various exploitations.

How important is story to your work in general?

Very important. A series should tell a story as a whole and each shot should tell a story individually.

Are you telling your models that story?

No, I tell the models nothing. They are the clay. I’m working with them to get a very specific thing. I couldn’t do it without them, but I’m not making them actors. I’m molding and creating a scene entirely. I try not to shoot friends because I don’t want any connection or connotation. I want the final product to be very singular.

On the other hand, your series Soda POP! is drawing on personal mythology in a way your other work doesn’t necessarily.

That series is very personal and autobiographical. It’s very different from other work I’ve done. There were set rules – all the photos had to be shot between midnight and three in the morning; Each guy got $20 and I engaged in a dialogue with them and got to know them. It was recreating a dialogue from my childhood – the guy [sex worker] I became friends with outside my window – and I tried to implement a feeling of my work too. Portraits become interesting when time has elapsed, when people change and you can look back on them. That series will be interesting to show later. It’s my secret series – I didn’t promote it at all.

I have so many series that people don’t know about. I’m like the J.D. Salinger of photography.

From Soda POP!, 2016 | Courtesy of the artist

How has fashion influenced your work? You’ve done a lot of editorial work and obviously the fashion crime scenes draw on that specifically. Even in your Violent Times series, the costumes are quite important.

For me fashion has been the most outward presentation of ourselves and a way for us to create an identity and tell a story. As people, we gauge people really quickly by how they dress, so it’s like another form of storytelling. You can really create a great dialog with fashion if used properly. I also consider many designers some of the greatest artists in the world.

For some people, their life is art in the way they dress or their nightlife persona. I’m friends with a lot of drag queens and they’ll spend all day getting dressed for the night. Their outfits are beautiful and they’re total artists, but their art is that night. They’ll spend eight hours doing makeup. That’s their art.

From Violent Times, 2005–2009
From Violent Times, 2005–2009 | Courtesy of the artist

You’ve lived in Los Angeles a long time now. Is this an inspiring place for you? Does the city effect your work?

Oh yeah, LA is one of the great cities. For someone like me, I do a lot of guerrilla style shoots. You can walk out and yell, ‘Clear the set!’ and people will just walk out of your shot. Whereas in New York, you’d get punched. Here, everybody just scatters.

I have a couple of shots in the crime scene series that were taken in Union Station and it’s just from yelling at people to get out of the shot. Everybody is very polite about it. Also, it’s a city that sleeps early. The bars shut down at 1:30am, so you get this emptiness on the wide streets that can be pretty beautiful… an empty subway, nobody takes the subway.

I build a lot of sets, but I think the best sets are already built. If you can take advantage of existing scenes that’s the best. You treat it as if you’ve built it, you make it your own. This city is great in that regard. I take advantage of it all the time.

From High Fashion Crime Scenes, 2003-2016 | Courtesy of the artist

You did a performance last year at the LA Art Show. Are you interested in facilitating more performances?

Yes. As a kid, my mom was a street peddler, selling her painted scarves. We were friends with all the other artists in the [East] Village. Philippe Petit became a really good friend of mine and a lot of others… Shel Silverstein – we’d build little cardboard houses together. Performance art has been a really big part of my make up. In a way, I’m going back to my roots with that work.

I’m going to do a series of 13 performance pieces around LA that will be very secret and only certain people will be invited. I get great stills from them and it’s an unusual way to bring people into my set. These days, with people constantly photographing with their cellphones, it’s instant media. It allows everyone to participate in an art piece. They can take their pictures and it becomes partially theirs. There’s something unusual about that.

Live Performance Still from 2016 LA Art Show
Live performance still from 2016 LA Art Show | Courtesy of the artist

You mentioned being a photographer requires you to be a director. There’s power in that. How does hosting a performance push that boundary?

People will do what you tell them to do. Of course, you have to have the right people – it’s like casting a film. Good people will come out of themselves. They’ll listen. In that regard, I direct a performance – this is the storyline, this is what you do. Then there’s room for improvisation. I believe you make art and it takes on a life of its own. With performance, it’s the same thing. Let it breathe a little. Still photos are very structured. With performance art, there’s a whole evolution to it.

It’s not quite comfortable. In Indian culture they thought that taking someone’s picture was taking part of their soul. It’s a little like that. When someone takes a picture on my set, it makes me a little uneasy, but I’m letting something go. I’m playing with my own psychological issues with that.

You take photos during the performances as well.

I do. In the end, there’s a million angles and viewpoints on it. You’re letting your name and your copyright go a little, but it’s interesting. The real art is the final photo that I’m taking in a large format, and the videos. The performance is fascinating because you can be guiding and then it can totally deviate. At LA Art Show, it became insane… It’s not a play, it’s not a movie, it’s its own entity.

From High Fashion Crime Scenes, 2003-2016 | Courtesy of the artist

Do you have a specific intention when you make work and how important is it that the viewer walks away with that in mind?

I have a very specific intention absolutely. I go into the work feeling like I own it and it’s mine. It’s a very selfish process. It’s not for other people. I have a lot of series I haven’t shown that I haven’t let go of yet. But the beauty of art is how people view it and how people interpret it. Really it’s just chemicals on a piece of paper. In the end, people internalize it based on their own experiences and a lot of times it has nothing to do with me or how I saw something. For me, that is more fascinating. It takes on its own life. I would never get offended if somebody saw it a different way, instead I’m more intrigued. When somebody is disturbed by my artwork, it’s something in their own make up. Art is really just a fake thing. It’s a very insignificant thing in the grand scheme of things. Our experiences are what makes it art and that’s what’s important to me. Hopefully, I make something that draws into someone’s experiences in some way.