We catch up with French photographer Melanie-Jane Frey who, after spending more than 25 years as a photojournalist, has now switched disciplines and become a fine art photographer. [All Images open in a lightbox]
French photographer Melanie-Jane Frey has spent more than 25 years working as a photojournalist, with a focus on political reporting. After learning the ropes at Magnum Photos, Melanie-Jane embarked on a journey to tell stories that would enhance our understanding of war, social issues and politics. She now devotes much of her time to her artistic work, opening her own studio – Studio Ambrotype & co. – in 2017, using historical photographic techniques to produce contemporary images.
Digital asset management software provider FotoWare has accompanied Melanie-Jane throughout her journey, offering a reliable tool to best service her clients. She chose the company’s FotoStation product initially because it was the most professional software available, and it also happened to be the one used by picture editors in the magazines and agencies she worked with at that time.
As part of FotoWare’s 25th anniversary, Melanie-Jane talks about her journey and experiences of working as a photojournalist over the years.
What makes a photograph desirable to customers at photo desks or similar roles and have these trends changed over the past 25 years?
I believe there are two different approaches here. The first is where you follow your creative intuition and sell your unique viewpoint, and a client will commission you for your specific style and vision, while the other alternative is to put your client’s vision into the picture.
For the latter, you can still have a specific style but you are no longer commissioned for your own vision but for the ability to translate your client’s visions. It can be a difficult exercise. Especially since a lot of clients are not always very clear about what they want in the first place.
I tiink it will always be this way. It hasn’t changed much in 25 years, except that a photographer’s artistic judgement is acknowledged and valued more today, I believe.
There are now many more assignments given to professionals who dare to have a more personal view of the subjects, but the market is still mainly owned by clients that see photographers as a tool to bring back exactly what they – the client – wants.
Personally, I believe I lost a lot of time trying my best to fulfil a client’s brief. Sure it made me a good professional, but it is not very gratifying and I feel I wasted time that I could have been applying my own artistic style.
When I eventually decided to only accept assignments where I could use my creative skills, I was better paid and grew in confidence, style and notoriety. My advice to young photographers is not to lose time doing what everybody else does, but to always strive for an assignment that really puts your best artistic skills in the frame.
What would you say is the biggest change in photography in the last 25 years – both stylistically as well as technologically?
So many things have changed in the last 25 years. Not only has the arrival of digital photography broadened opportunities for photographers and enhanced the relationship with clients, but the last 25 years have also seen photography references completely move.
In the 90s the traditional humanist photography style was still the main reference pillar for any photographer, but it seems to me that nowadays inspirational sources for photographers have exploded, as have the boundaries as well.
Digital photography might have facilitated this. As it transformed the base of making pictures, it also questioned what an image is, and what the limits of images are.
Personally, after years of covering news events with the fluidity of digital, I rediscovered photography as a medium to make objects and installations. I was thrilled to dive into primitive processes from the 19th century or early 20th and experiment with techniques, processes, creating and discovering alternative possibilities that are still very much alive.
It is not that I oppose digital, it is a medium that I still use with pleasure. But for me and many others, photography is no longer just a document or means to translate reality. I feel the need to really give my pictures a much more material nature. Each piece I produce must be unique.
I like to use a lot of material: glass, tin, wood, handmade paper, daily life objects, metal leaves – I love using natural material or recycled and repurposed objects…
I like to alter my picture, so instead of trying to have the most perfect technique, I experiment to have something to go wrong and use the effect to build my picture. As my work, which has been completely artistic since 2012, is focused on the human life experience and facing up to the obligation of mortality, I need to have that sense of uncertainty and accident in my pictures. I develop personal chemical formulas specifically to create and enhance that feeling.
I like to use very raw material, to physically intervene with photographs, using corrosive products, to burn, to tear apart, to collage back pieces and mix photography with other mediums …
I no longer have a limit to the way I use photography and I’m still pushing the boundaries of the nature of the image and the various ways of printing and generating that image. Experimental is the new normal for me.
I am very happy with the esthetic results, as are the collectors following me.
When I switched to digital photography in 2000, and even when I deal with my digital archives from analogue works, I need the best tool I can find to be efficient and keep everything well organised. Since 2004, I’ve exclusively used FotoStation. It has supported me in dealing with the increased volume of photography I have had to manage and especially it’s made the difference in terms of easy indexing and photo editing.
Were there any events you wanted to cover during the last couple of decades?
Back to my photojournalism career, I‘ve always been frustrated to have missed the major historical events at the end of the 80s, beginning of the 90s when I was too young and not experienced enough. It took me time to learn the ropes, because there was no school, and I had no mentor to help me.
That is my main advice to younger photographers – save a lot of time by finding mentors to introduce you into the job. I myself feel very attracted to the idea of transmitting experience in this way.
Now after a career spanning 30 years in different areas of photography, photojournalism, corporate and now art, I really enjoy giving what I have learned. Probably because I really lacked this kind of help in my early career.
I am also fascinated by the creativity of the new generation and look forward to watching the new approaches they will take with the photographic medium.
There are many challenges to come in the coming decades and photography can offer an extraordinary method of raising awareness and providing accurate information to everyone.
You’ve successfully moved from a career in reportage to an artistic focus – how difficult was that process? Do you have any tips for photographers looking to diversify their outlook?
After a 20-year career, my transition from photojournalist to visual artist came naturally.
I have a university degree as an historian, both in art and political sciences, and my choice of photojournalism was due to a pressing desire to discover the world and be at the heart of history when I covered the news and sociological issues.
It was exhilarating and I was overwhelmed by this first part of my career. But for some time, during midlife and after going through difficult trials of mourning and illness, my approach changed and I needed to question the world and the meaning of existence.
I became interested in a more spiritual quest for beauty and meaning. I am undertaking work to highlight more complex things such as making the invisible visible. For example, in my work about the materiality and immateriality of music (e.g., the work « Orchestra » exhibited this summer in the photo festival « Les femmes s’exposent » with a beautiful scenography on the beach of Houlgate in Normandy), about human emotions, my current actual occupation during the Covid-19 crisis and lockdown.
Also for instance, the duty of memory in history (e.g., my work on WWI and the symbolic battlefield of Verdun), or the study of memory connections in our family relationships in my ongoing series ‘Memorial rehabilitation,’ in which I document through my daughter’s life the ecosystem of our memory construction. That ecosystem defines the value of our existence and emotional link to our loved ones.
My work always has an element concerning our relationship to mortality, and to our emotions. As if by Art, I could try to lift the veil on all these notions so complex that are at the centre of our lives.
I loved photojournalism and even in my news coverage I always found a way to be very creative. this was my USP at the time. But at one point my inspiration was more personal or universal. It was not anymore about bearing witness, but about existential quest and life contemplation.
How has your approach to the issue of rights management changed over the years? Is it easier to manage with modern tools?
Rights management is a very important issue and it’s our duty to defend rights for all photographers. As much as for the self-defence of our job and recognition of our profession but also a duty to the next generations.
Photographers could benefit by learning how to be more united and proactive – together- to defend the value of their work. It is a difficult job, with not much social protection compared to others.
Since it is a very popular hobby to take pictures for so many people, the world thinks we are not as useful as we once were. It is a big mistake.
Without professionals opening the world for everyone to see and pointing out the main issues in our society, it will become very difficult to be aware, to think and formulate our opinions. A very dangerous scenario that opens the door for dictators, or many forms of degradation of democracy. The world needs professional photojournalists. It was very obvious during the COVID-19 crises. Weren’t we happy to receive news from our lockdown bases?
And don’t get me started about the importance of art for our society. I believe art cannot do everything, but nothing is possible without art. Nowadays, art and photography have a duty to be a field, a laboratory in which we can collectively think of our role as the creator of the future.
FotoStation has helped me much with the issue of rights management every freelance photographer deals with. I have a script in my metadata tool that automatically applies my copyright to every picture and I always put all my contact information in the IPTC fields, as well as restricted use information if necessary.
It’s easy to put in place a system to have the best metadata with FotoStation, and that is really a big deal for me. Not only to give the best indexation to my archives but also to literally communicate with all the future users of my pictures.
If we were creating a ‘photography tips for beginners’ article, what would you include? Anything you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
This is a very long list! I give workshops and mentorship sessions regularly based on what I wish someone would have told me when I started out.
First of all, I would say to a beginner that there are techniques, methodologies and processes that could be learned instead of trying to reinvent the wheel. Learn, study and find mentors to guide you.
To become a good photographer you have to train your eyes by practising a lot and by nourishing your mind with the work of the greatest photographers.
It is not enough to make perfect pictures, you need to have something to say. A well-built mind is the key to an interesting piece of work. Be curious and authentically interested in the world, people and as many things as possible.
Don’t let other people’s judgment on your vision diminish you. If something you create makes you happy, there will be necessarily someone somewhere that will like it too (I am not talking about your mother, boy-girl friend or BFF, let’s be clear).
But tips for beginners really deserve a longer interview – if not many!
Similarly, if we were creating technical tips for beginners/intermediates, do you have any longer-term thoughts (for example, key lens types to spend on more at the beginning, using a DAM to manage images, etc.).
There is so much to say here, as you might imagine! But I can at least tell you that I learned through the years that having the correct tools is maybe the bigger part of what makes you a good photographer.
It is like in cooking. If you don’t have the right tools, you will be very limited!
In photography, you lose a lot of opportunities if you do not have the full range of tools at your disposal and there is nothing worse that the photo you missed because you did not have the correct tool – am I right?!
But also you lose the ability to do great work, instead of just OK work. To be a professional and have a chance to grow and make a valuable lifetime’s work, you need to properly manage your photographs, edit them, store them, catalogue them in the right way.
They were the perfect companions and evolved at the same time as me. It makes them decisive assets as much in my commercial as artistic success.
I was faithful to them to help deliver my best work, and they never failed me. Both have kept me informed of all the technical developments over the years, which allowed me to stay up to date.
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