Melanie Walker (w/ intro to Todd Walker)
I’ve come late to the party when it comes to getting to know the art of Melanie Walker. I know I’ve seen a piece here and there over the last couple of years - not to mention the sightings on social media. I wasn’t good with matching up the name with the images, and that’s on me. It’s on me because Melanie has been at this a long time, and has been shaping some extremely well developed bodies of work. Not only is she an accomplished and prolific artist, her father was as well. The “apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” is in full effect here, and it shows. In fact, after some discussion with Melanie about how enormous an influence he was on her, it was decided to not just examine this influence with some of my questions in the interview, but include a brief history of Todd Walker with a selection of his own work as well. What better way to look at developing a creative process than to see the direct impact a parent in the arts can have on their child?
Both CENTER and Photolucida have highlighted Melanie’s work quite recently, and that is where I really took notice. I think that’s where I also realized how impressive and thought provoking a photo-based installation can be. Others create installations as well, but I find hers especially unique. Melanie's mixture of photographs, both traditional and sculptural, and the lighting involved are a sight to behold - and isn’t light what this is all created from? Collaboration is in her blood, and her ongoing and evolving work, A Million Stories, has it’s roots in her early work from the 80’s. That’s a narrative and a project worth knowing more about if you ask me. So ask I must, and I reached out to expand my knowledge of Melanie and her career in the arts. Thankfully, she was more than happy to oblige…and now I feel we are all better for it.
Melanie Walker has been a practicing artist for over 50 years. Her expertise is in the area of alternative photographic processes, digital and mixed media as well as large scale immersive photographic installations as well as public art. She attended San Francisco State University for a Bachelor’s degree in Art and Florida State University for an MFA. She has received a number of awards including an NEA Visual Arts Fellowship, Colorado Council on the Arts Fellowship and an Aaron Siskind Award. She taught at a number of universities including San Francisco State University, SUNY Albany, Alfred University and the University of Kentucky, Lexington. She currently teaches in the Media Arts Area at the University of Colorado Boulder and has work in over 100 collections including LACMA, Center fro Creative Photography, Princeton Art Museum and San Francisco Museum of Art.
Michael Kirchoff: Every photographer experiences that spark that drives them into the direction of image making. How did you get your start, and what were your early influences? I also understand your father was a well respected photographer and artist. I imagine his influence plays strongly into your career as well?
Melanie Walker: It’s hard to say when it all began. I was born into a photographic family. Photography is home for me in a sense. My father, Todd Walker, was an active passionate image maker for over 60 years and was close friends with so many notables in the photographic community. They would get together socially with each interaction being entirely focused on image making and related philosophical ideas that informed their images. When I was about 5, Robert Frank came to dinner with his family and I played with his kids. That was probably when he was traveling the US photographing for The Americans. Shirley Burden who helped fund Aperture in the early years gave my father a studio space which they shared in Beverly Hills and whenever any photo dignitaries came to LA to see Shirl, my father would be included. Wynn Bullock was one of my closest friends when I was 7. He always valued a kid’s insight into abstract images. My father worked with Charles and Ray Eames in the 50’s as well participating in the Moscow Exhibition the Eames’ designed. In my teens, after my father left advertising and became a professor, I was around cutting edge photographic artists on a regular basis. Robert Heinecken would come to dinner regularly along with Darryl Curran, Ellen Brooks, Barbara Kasten, Robert Fichter, Robert Flick, Keith Smith, Joan and Nathan Lyons and lots of other notable artists. It was an amazing and intimidating experience.
I could go on about my influences but I have to say that my father was definitely my primary influence and role model. He was self taught and a great researcher. He was at the leading edge of the resurgence of interest in historical photographic processes back in the 60’s. He had been exceptional at chemistry in high school and years later, after collecting photo books with formulas, with his knowledge, he was able to translate historical chemical names into contemporary vocabulary. He worked every day for 60 years and was an incredible role model. I think my first print ever was a salt print from a paper negative I made of our cat named Soot. I started taking photography classes at Reseda High School with a Mr. Warren King. He would introduce me to his photo friends who came to visit our classes as “Todd Walker’s daughter”. I would go home and we would laugh as I introduced myself, “Hi. My name is Todd Walker’s daughter…”
Growing up around adults who were playing with this plastic malleable medium, it’s no wonder that I was drawn to picture making. I remember being surprised when I realized that not everybody’s family made pictures. All of these influences had a profound impact.
The impact of growing up around Hollywood and all of its illusions also had a huge impact on my understanding of ‘reality’. My grandfather, a Scottish immigrant, helped design and build the first sound stage in Hollywood and my father worked at RKO studios. We lived in the same community as Tim Burton who I think was also hugely impacted by suburbia that surrounded Hollywood. I was in a lot of the 1950’s classic Chevy ads that my father made. I would be a child in the fictional family scenarios with “parents” that I had never met. My mother would find the models, wardrobes, props, locations and other details and my father would make the pictures. Those fictional advertising images were our family pictures. Early on I understood the power of images, how the photograph could be a constructed reality and the impact images could have on people. I have continually attempted to use these early insights in my practice of creating and deconstructing illusions.
MK: Also in regard to your father - your work, Song for My Father: A Posthumous Collaboration, has its roots based upon several destroyed negatives left behind by him. Can you share a little more about how this work came to be and what it means to you?
MW: Working with my father’s archive over the last 20 years has been an emotional and overwhelming labor of love. In dealing with my father’s vast body of his life’s work and working with the Center for Creative Photography to place his archive, I have become aware that some things cannot be accepted due to their condition. That is the case with a lot of the work for hire he had to do in order to support the family and be able to pursue his own work. Even though he was an award winning, highly acclaimed photographer in the advertising world, it wasn’t work that he was terribly proud of. I suppose working with these destroyed negatives is a way for me to continue to work and learn from him even though he has been gone 20 years now.
In my own work I have always been drawn to the imperfect and chance. I used to take my negatives, paint rubber cement on parts of them and then submerge the film into baths of laundry detergent or sodium carbonate just to distress the images. So in a way the destroyed negatives are along the lines of what I have tried to make happen. Maybe the destroyed negatives are my inheritance.
I have been thinking of the things that he photographed for hire in terms of the Anthropocene era that we have entered. I believe the new archaeological age was named when he was doing the advertising work. My father was so conflicted with what he had to do to earn a living before he became an educator. He knew that consumerism was compromising the planet. I remember sometime in the 60’s he told me that the earth was officially enshrined in smog. I suppose in a certain way working with the commercial work in the way that I have chosen to is a way of addressing what we have done to the planet. For me it serves as a reckoning.
MK: In regards to an older body of work, The Househead Chronicles, these are are images started quite some time ago, and then more recently resurrected into a newer version. Why the break in it’s timeline of creation?
MW: I started The Househead Chronicles in the early 80’s when I was invited to use the 20x24 Polaroid camera as part of a California Photographers project. I had been working on a body of gum prints dealing with broken things and when I accepted the invitation I was told that there would be 60 sheets of color material for me to use and the resulting work would be exhibited through the Ansel Adams Center in Carmel.
I immediately went into a panic since I had never used color materials and got desperately ill. When I was sick I had a fever dream and a person with a house on its head came to watch over me while I was healing. I felt compelled to bring the dream image into reality so the project began. At the initial session I pursued two directions: one that related to the additive color gum prints and the other related to my Househead dream.
This was shortly after I had visited a friend who is Hopi on the reservation and had learned about kachinas and the Home Dance. It was also at a time when, as a single woman, I was head of the house, which was traditionally a male role. I made the work to try to figure out my place in the world. I was adopting found family snapshots and creating my own fictional family and that goes back to the early Chevy ads I was a part of.
I made the work for very personal reasons but frequently it seemed to resonate with what was going on in the national conversation at that time in terms of homelessness. I worked on this body of work for many years and then set it aside.
In 2013, I lost my only sibling and the notion of family came back strong. This coincided somewhat with the massive migrations that we are now experiencing with climate refugees, wars, violence and so many other painful issues. I returned to the project because things are still amiss and I felt a need to attempt to address these universal issues in my work. Connection, community and a sense of place are universal amongst all living things. If you look at so much of the history of art, it is us looking at ourselves. One of my parents friends once called me a ‘visual satirist’. I would add to that , a ‘cultural spy.’
MK: While I was looking at work during the jurying process for Critical Mass in 2018, I noticed your name come up. Plus, I believe CENTER recognized your visual achievements as well. The work, called A Million Stories, appears to take some of its inspiration from The Househead Chronicles. The main difference though is that there is a major shift into showing the work as sculptural installations. How did this creative process evolve over time?
MW: I feel the immersive installations are a return to my early work. My thesis exhibition in 1974 was an interactive immersive installation. It was very sophomoric but I made an interactive soft sculpture garden that travelled for several years. It was called Photosynthesis and merged an array of methods for printing images on fabric.
I feel these immersive installations are also a direct connection to the environment that I grew up in. Growing up around photography, it was an immersive experience. It wasn’t just one picture on a wall but rather how the images conversed, how they inter-related.
Also, I was born visually impaired. I have been legally blind in my left eye since birth and have experienced double vision constantly whenever I am awake. In the more recent installations I am working with transparent layers in space. This is an attempt to allow others to perhaps experience things the way that I do.
It might sound strange but I feel a responsibility to incorporate my sense of blindness into my work. Since I can experience the world as both a sighted as well as a blind person, depending on which eye I use, I feel that I can serve as a bridge between different ways of experiencing a recorded event. I like to call it a dif-ability as we all experience things in unique manners.
In so many ways blindness is an integral part of photographic practice in that when an image is recorded onto a light recording device, be it analog or digital, what is being recorded can no longer be seen. The shutter blocks the view. I like to think of photography as a long record of giving blindness sight.
MK: What do you feel is the best way for you to grow as an artist? Are there any fears behind treading new waters?
MW: Growing up with my father as a role model and a pioneer, I learned by example that the only way to find out if something works is to just follow through. Being around so many amazing artists and watching them constantly stirring things up and pushing the envelope I guess I have never been afraid of trying new ways of making ideas visual.
If there’s an obstacle in front of you, try figuring out another way to get around it.
MK: Working with others is clearly something you feel strongly about. What collaborations have worked out best for you? Will this continue with future projects?
MW: I suppose it comes from the environment I grew up in. Art was a conversation. All of the people who were streaming in and out of our house were engaged in a visual dialog and allowed for the influences of others to extend the conversation. Remember, this was before there was a market for photographs. I still feel that the strength of any artwork is context and conversation.
My first real grant from the NEA was a collaborative grant that involved inter-media with sound artist, Susan Stone, sculptor, John Tangenberg and myself. We created an immersive installation called Omphalos that questioned the future viability of cities. Omphalos in Greek mythology was fabled to be the center of the world. The installation involved suspended houses that were viewing boxes containing miniature tableaus. I was thinking about the word camera, which is an architectural phenomena meaning room. Each tableau contained sound that Susan Stone composed. We printed aerial view of a city that was placed on the floor under the suspended houses. This was around the time that homelessness became a part of the national conversation. We were trying to break down the traditional idea of a proscenium by inviting the audience to participate. Everything was viewer activated.
Along with my personal practice, I have also collaborated with my partner, George Peters on over 90 public art projects. We have a website of most of our projects. It’s airworks-studio.com. Very few of the projects are photographic but most deal with light and air and space.
We also make kites. I have been making photographic kites for about 5 or 6 years now. Maybe longer. I love to exhibit my photographic works in the sky. There’s something immersive about watching the kite and feeling the wind. One time we were invited to an international kite festival in Thailand. That weekend there were about 500,000 people at the event. I started thinking seriously about how to use that medium to reach an audience. A museum never has that sort of attendance…and as soon as you put something up in the sky, you have an audience. Plus there’s sort of a funny metaphor with seeing which way the wind blows in relation to trends in art…
With both the public art and the kite works, I like to call them art in unexpected places because when someone encounters something aesthetic by chance, I think it’s a very different situation that when someone goes out to seek an aesthetic experience.
MK: Was there a specific point in time where you felt that you had found your voice in photography and became satisfied with the direction of your work? Do you ever truly find yourself in a good place with your images, or are you always searching for more?
MW: I am rarely content with what I make. There is a quote about the garden that seems very appropriate as a metaphor. The garden was never so good as it will be next year. That’s how I think about my practice. It can always be better and it’s never perfect. I think growing up around all of those amazing influences it took me a long time to feel like I even had a voice. I have always been pretty quiet and very respectful, if not in awe, of others…it has taken me a long time to feel that I have a way of showing my perception of the world that anyone might be interested in…
MK: What is it that you get out of creating photographs? Is there an overriding theme in your work that you feel best represents you as an artist?
MW: I think creating work is a way to try to understand ideas visually. I am always driven by my curiosity and that is probably what I got from my father’s example. I am friends with a lot of his former students and he would always ask, ‘I wonder what would happen if you tried this…’ I just have to try things to find out if there’s anything there. Also, I love the processes. The smells of the darkroom and historical processes take me back to my childhood. It’s magic, still.
The theme part if a challenge to answer. If dis-junctiveness can be a theme, I suppose that is what I probably am addressing at my core. I work in lots of different ways but I don’t make a lot of it public.
MK: With regard to creativity and the projects you take on. Do you feel it is better to create work that fits a particular style for yourself, branch out and try new things, or better to simply leave yourself open to possibilities that happen organically?
MW: I have to work organically. I am usually working on several things at once and am not very disciplined. I admire people who can commit to one project, one idea and follow it through to a sense of completion. I can’t do that. I find that my projects spiral forward. I am always questioning and that causes me to work with ideas using several approaches. I love the materiality of photography and all of the possibilities for interpreting images.
MK: With the proliferation of digital technology taking over the photography world, there seems to be some pushback from the analog world. We are beginning to see a trend of more and more photographers taking on historical processes. Do you feel this is exactly that, a trend, or that possibly people have a desire to return to the way we used to create work before the pixel took over?
MW: This one is a hard question for me to answer because there are probably multiple reasons and I can only speak for myself. I love the interaction of the photomechanical with the mark of the hand. It has been my passion for the medium since that first salt print I made of our cat when I was a child. I have worked pretty consistently with historical processes since the early 1970’s and I have mixed it up with both analog and digital image making. Painting didn’t die when the photograph came into being despite Paul Delaroche’s proclamation in 1839. I think people will continue to work with expanding the vocabulary of the medium in a multitude of ways.
MK: You have spent a considerable amount of time teaching at several universities around the country. How have these years helping others in the visual arts caused your own process to evolve?
MW: I have been very fortunate to have been able to be actively engaged with the medium for several decades. I think that teaching has allowed my work to evolve because I strive to set an example. I listen to the things that I tell my students. I think that making art is an act of courage. You have to be brave to always be confronting yourself and questioning your belief systems. I don’t think there’s a right answer in terms of making. You just have to try to communicate and if nothing gets through, you go back and try again with a slightly different approach. We never really know if we are communicating but it’s important to try.
MK: Anyone working in an artistic field has matured and grown over time. Is there anything you’ve discovered lately that you’d like people to know about you or your creative process?
MW: HA! That’s a very kind way of addressing my age. I am still in the process of learning and I think I am finally getting to the point where I no longer edit myself out of existence. In my earlier practice I would usually hide away my experiments and rarely share anything I was working on. I think social media has helped to open up my process and allowed me to get feedback on sketches.
I am also realizing how much my vision challenges have impacted the way I work with the medium. I have been visually challenged since birth but we all have our own unique challenges.
MK: What’s next for your photography? Any new projects you have in the works?
MW: I am working toward a big exhibition that will integrate my photographic work with my kites. It will take place in Italy in April, 2019, in the city of Cervia on the Adriatic. I am being given 2900 sq ft with 39’ ceilings for my part of the show. At the same time I will have an immersive installation at the Next Stage Gallery in Denver as a part of the Month of Photography.
In March, dnj Gallery in Santa Monica will be showing some of the collaborative work I have been making with my father’s negatives. It opens March 23rd, 2019.
And we’ll be participating in the Otis Kite Festival that will be taking place in June this year, I think. Weather and wind conditions permitting, I will be just north of the Santa Monica pier flying my photographic kites. If there’s no wind we will have a nice ground display with banners and our kites.
And in October I have been invited to participate in an exhibition in Portugal. The space is amazing and I am trying to figure out what to do with it. I’m feeling excited that I am being offered spaces to create installations. I love the interaction of images as much as images that stand on their own.
I am not certain of what’s next but as my father always said, one foot in front of the other…
You can find more of Melanie's work at her website here.
Todd Walker - a brief history, by Melanie Walker
My father, Todd Walker (born Harold Todd Walker September 25, 1917- September 13, 1998) was a self-taught pioneering artist whose medium of choice was photography. He worked with light formed images for 60 years exploring historical photographic processes, sabattiers solarization, artist books, silkscreen, lithography, collotype and digital. All of his images utilized additive color with source images starting with black and white negatives. He essentially had two successful careers: he was an award winning freelance advertising photographer in the 50's and 60's as well as an internationally known and respected artist/educator/researcher from the early 70's until his passing in 1998.
In the 30’s shortly after his father died when Todd was 16 he went to work at the RKO studios as a painter’s apprentice. He polished the floors Fred Astaire danced on as well as working on film sets for Citizen Kane and a number of other films. In his late teens he enrolled in a summer school course at Art Center studying with Will Connell and Eddie Kaminski. Around that time, after he had to discontinue his studies at Art Center, he crossed paths with Shirley Burden who became a life-long friend. Shirley Burden (who helped start Aperture) enlisted Todd as a collaborator and they created Tradefilms making educational films for the military in the early 40’s on how to fly the P-38. Todd photographed every part of the P-38 with a 4x5 view camera. Tradefilms ended after Todd joined the military during WW2 to become a flight instructor in the Army Air Corps. Ironically he flew P-38’s.
After his military service Todd married Betty McNutt and returned to LA where Shirley Burden shared a studio with him in Beverly Hills. In the 1950’s he gained a reputation and became a successful free-lance photographer working with clients like Charles & Rae Eames, Frank Brothers, TV Guide, and Campbell-Ewald, making the signature Chevy ads from the late 1950’s. He would make the pictures that were conceived in Detroit and then make his own version. His version was always the version that would end up as the advertisement. He was given awards yearly through the ASMP. In 1955 he was asked by the ASMP to go visit Edward Weston to pick out some prints for the organization and to help support Weston during his ailing years.
In 1963 he was asked to do a one-person exhibition at the California Museum of Science and Industry. This opportunity along with the visit with Edward Weston and his friendship with Wynn Bullock began a gradual transition away from advertising work toward personal expression, which he had been investigating during his off hours and storing in the ‘bottom drawer’. During the mid 60’s he began teaching at Art Center. Around this same time he attended one of the first Society for Photographic Education conferences where he crossed paths with Robert Heinecken. By this time Todd had begun exploring artist books and was making tiny handmade collotype/letterpress books that were hand bound. He did the work from start to finish – including the marbled paper that we would make with him. Both Todd and Heinecken arrived early at one of the seminal SPE conferences in the mid 60’s and they developed a fast friendship after Todd shared his tiny book endeavors with Robert. The book projects lead to the Thumbprint Press where approximately 25 books and portfolios were self-published. These books were collected by Manfred Heiting, Aaron Siskind, various special collections and other repositories.
Shortly after Todd’s encounter with Robert Heinecken, he was invited to teach extension classes at UCLA. By this time Todd was deeply ensconced in exploring more of the 19th century photographic process including gum printing, cyanotype and van dyke brown printing as well as the sabattier solarization process for which he received high acclaim. Word spread and soon he was teaching at Cal State Northridge as well as Art Center and UCLA extension courses. This began a huge shift in Walker’s career path. When Robert Fichter moved from the Eastman House in Rochester to LA to teach alongside Heinecken at UCLA, another fast life long friendship was forged. Fichter, Heinecken, Curran and Walker had a small show in the late 60’s somewhere in the San Fernando Valley. Shorty after this event, Fichter recommended Todd Walker for a one year sabbatical replacement for Jerry Uelsmann at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Around this time there was also a one person exhibition in San Francisco through the Focus Gallery. In 1970, Walker shuttered his advertising career and shifted his life focus toward being an artist/ professor/ researcher in his 50’s.
The one year sabbatical replacement position at the University of Florida in Gainesville turned into a seven year tenure at the university where he taught along with Jerry Uelsmann and Doug Prince. Todd was represented by Light Gallery in NYC, taught workshops all over the country, was published internationally and was sought out for technical advice by both students and professionals including Robert Rauschenberg and many others.
In 1977, Walker was approached by the University of Arizona at Tucson for a full time teaching position in a new photographic department that was being formed in connection to the Center for Creative Photography. Initially he taught alongside Harold Jones and W. Eugene Smith, but Smith passed away that first semester. Todd Walker impacted many of his students while he continued to expand his vast body of his life’s work. In 1981 he began teaching himself machine language and started to explore the possibilities of the digital photographic realm long before photoshop became a common tool. He was a pioneer on so many fronts but he had little interest in pursuing gallery representation by this time, except for his former student, Stephen Josephsberg, who maintained a gallery in Portland, Oregon. Todd Walker was highly regarded by the photographic community as a photographer’s photographer. His work is included in many collections around the US and internationally. He continued to exhibit his work primarily through educational venues. He retired from teaching in 1987 at the age of 70 after impacting generations of photographic artists and continued to do class visits with former students who were then teaching around the Tucson area. He continued his research in the digital realm on a daily basis until two weeks before his sudden death in 1998. His photographic career spanned over 60 years.
Todd Walker is represented by Etherton Gallery in Tucson, Arizona and a research fellowship has been established at the Center for Creative Photography in his name at the University of Arizona where his work is housed. His work is housed in many collections both nationally and internationally.
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