On this episode of What Makes You Click, Kelvin welcomes award-winning American photographer and author, best known for the book series My Last Supper, Melanie Dunea.
Melanie sheds light on the beginning of her interest in photography and writing, as well as the evolution of her career, having grown up with a mother who owned a bookstore and a grandfather who was a newspaper editor.
She tells the story of deciding to shoot her shot at being a fabulous photojournalist in Paris before “failing” and going to college back in the states. She shares her candid thoughts on majoring in photography versus being self-taught, as well as what it felt like to realize she wasn’t going to be successful in Paris.
“How I learned was knowing what I wanted and figuring out how to get there. You don’t need a fancy camera… you need to know what you want.” - Melanie Dunea
Melanie then highlights the power of listening to people’s feedback and following your gut, while speaking on how she used the Don’t Play With Your Food series to prove her skills to herself. She reflects on some of her favorite projects and opportunities, her opinions on seeking agency representation, and how the pandemic has shifted everyone’s perspective and presence in life.
“There are moments when you do need to stop and look at what is happening and see if there is room for you to grow and push… there are moments to also not push, those are hard.” - Melanie Dunea
Tune in to learn the inspiration and creative process behind My Last Supper, the power in giving back, and the key to building and leveraging your network to reach your potential.
Connect with Melanie Dunea:
Visit her website: www.melaniedunea.com
Follow her on Instagram: www.instagram.com/melaniedunea
Connect with her on Facebook: www.facebook.com/melaniedunea
Follow her on Twitter: www.twitter.com/melaniedunea
Connect with What Makes You Click:
Visit our website: www.whatmakesyouclick.com
Follow us on Instagram: www.instagram.com/whatmakesyouclickpodcast
Connect with us on Facebook: www.facebook.com/whatmakesyouclick
People + Resources Mentioned:
Don’t Play With Your Food: www.melaniedunea.com/subpage-of-arts
Melanie Dunea’s Pandemic Diaries: www.melaniedunea.com/shop?category=The+Year+in+Photos+%7C+2020
Photographs by Annie Leibovitz: www.amazon.com/gp/product/0394725972/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_taft_p1_i5
Yousuf Karsh of Ottowa: www.karsh.org
Sex by Madonna: www.goodreads.com/book/show/302236.Sex
Richard Avedon: www.avedonfoundation.org
Peggy Sirota: www.peggysirota.com
Mary Ellen Mark: www.maryellenmark.com
James Beard Foundation: www.jamesbeard.org
[00:00:00-00:00:52] - Episode Introduction
[00:00:52-00:02:55] - Guest Introduction
[00:02:55-00:08:34] - The Origins of Melanie Dunea
[00:08:34-00:10:48] - Learning Photography
[00:10:48-00:14:18] - The Struggle in Paris
[00:14:18-00:19:56] - From Paris to New York: Food Photography
[00:19:56-00:26:59] - Self-Taught Photography and Richard Avedon
[00:26:59-00:28:30] - Agency Representation
[00:28:30-00:35:55] - Photography Influence | Creativity During Pandemic
[00:35:55-00:39:54] - Photography Book Publishing
[00:39:54-00:42:08] - Having a Good Network
[00:42:08-00:46:53] - Charity: A Heart for Giving
[00:46:53-00:48:16] - Show Outro | Show Information and Resources
What Makes You Click with Melanie Dunea
Kelvin Bulluck: Hello, and welcome to another episode of what makes you click I am your host Kelvin Bulluck.
On today's episode, we have a guest who is a photographer, an author, a producer of sorts. She is a creative and the truest sense of the word, and when you hear her story and what she has been up to, you will totally understand why I say that.
Without further ado, let us take a listen to hear what makes Ms. Melanie Dunea click!
[Intro Music Playing]
Kelvin Bulluck: All right, Melanie Dunea Hey, I appreciate you for coming on the show today. I know you are a busy woman, and you got a lot of irons in the fire, so thanks for taking the time.
Before we begin, though, I did want to say that in the email where I messaged you, I said that I just came across your work and it was because of the Don’t Play with Your Food projects, that you have been doing and LA and Miami. I think there was another place that I am missing New York, of course, your hometown. That is how I came across your work, but when I started to research you a little bit further, I realized that I came across some of your work about two years ago on Instagram.
Amy Cheryl shared in her stories and image of one of your images, and it was a post that you had made. I think it was like a throwback Thursday and it was a photo of Ian McKellen, and you were telling a story about how you had thirty minutes to do the shoot, and then you decided you wanted to take them out in Time Square and do a shoot, and his PR person was like, oh no, I do not think this is a good idea, but you knew in your heart, that was the shot. You went out there and he agreed to do it and you got the shot, and that was what the post was. I remember seeing that and reading your posts, thinking, that is a great storyteller. Not just through the medium of photography, but just the way you eat told that story in your post. It was a happy accident for me to come across that again when I was researching you.
I just wanted to say, and then the only reason why I even follow Amy is, besides, she is like a great artist, I have been like photographing her since 2015, and I saw that you also have, photographed her a few times. We have that mutual connection.
Melanie Dunea: That is such a cool coincidence. Yay! I am still happy to be here. I am not too busy; I have got plenty of time for you. Thank you for following my work. I am always surprised and curious, how do people find you and what do you know, what sticks is always an interesting thing.
The Origins of Melanie Dunea
Kelvin Bulluck: Exactly. Now that I have you, the thing that I like to do on this show, and it is titled What Makes You Click because it is a play on the whole, what makes you tick, but I am asking photographers, and we click. I like to talk about the origins, or we will start off with the origins of Melanie Dunea.
I saw that you are from Chicago, Illinois, and I guess my first question would be, how did your family even end up in Chicago? Are your parents originally from there? If so, what did they do while you were growing up?
Melanie Dunea: They are not originally from there. My father is from Austria and my mother is from Iowa, two polar opposites. My mother had an independent bookstore right in downtown Chicago, and my father is a Kidney Specialist. They have nothing to do with photography, except now my father fancies himself, a photographer with his iPhone. I think he is way better than I am. That is for sure. [Laughter]
Kelvin Bulluck: That is hilarious. Everybody, these days is a photographer with those I-phones and hey, I cannot blame them that, that camera is better than some of these cameras people were shooting with in the eighties.
Melanie Dunea: Totally for sure. I am happy people are taking pictures.
Kelvin Bulluck: Exactly. You grew up in Chicago and you are like you said, your parents were doing two totally different things then thing that you are doing right now.
As a child growing up in those circumstances, I am sure, first, that was interesting to have a bookstore in the family. I am assuming that they even had you working in the bookstore at certain points.
Melanie Dunea: You have done your research! Yes, they did.
In fact, that was the first time I really became aware of photography. There was an Annie Liebowitz book with Meryl Streep on the cover, and Meryl Streep’s face is all covered in some white paint and she is in it and she is pulling on her face and I thought, wow, that is such a striking picture. I wonder what this is. I looked through the book and then my mother had a book signing because authors will come and bring their books and do a signing with this sort of bald big, large, shall we say man, and his name was Karsh of Ottawa. I recommend everybody it is Karsh, look at his work and look at his style, his lighting, his technique. There are some great stories.
For example, he has a famous picture of Winston Churchill, scowling, and the backstory because it is true. The backstories are always sometimes more interesting than the actual story, is that he, Winston Churchill loved to smoke a cigar. Karsh went and took the cigar out of his mouth and Churchill was so surprised and appalled, he looked at him like, err, and of course that is the famous picture of Churchill.
I guess there was a, a little bit of awareness, of photography at that point in Chicago. When I was thirteen, my grandfather, who I used to spend a month in the summer with, because my parents worked no camp for me, I would spend a month with each grandparent and my grandfather was the Political Editor of the Des Moines Register the newspaper. He was, depression era minded, and worked one time in life for one magazine and said, nobody will ever hire you to write the story and take the pictures. He was, a little cheap, so he said, go learn how to take pictures.
You will not find pictures of me when I was little with a camera. My first camera was the disc man, which will really age me, but it was like a little camera that you stuck this sort of disc in and took pictures. It was not like I woke up in the cradle, with a toy Fisher-Price camera.
Kelvin Bulluck: You had a bit of a passion for writing?
Melanie Dunea: I am okay, but I am not great. I still do it and I do it when I can, but it is torture as any great writer will tell you, and I am just not as good. Nothing is as good as when I am standing in front of a person taking a picture.
Kelvin Bulluck: Yeah, that is interesting to me because just knowing what I know about your work from the research that I have done, you have done five books and those are not just photo books. You are telling stories and you are having your subjects tell stories and you are putting it together in a way that is, still your perspective.
You grew up in a bookstore and you became aware of photography through that bookstore, and then, being around all this knowledge and words, and then with your grandfather being in the industry. It almost seems like a perfect storm and it makes sense just looking at your career path, how you have come to be, in a sense, if that makes sense.
Melanie Dunea: [Laughter] Sure, it does.
Kelvin Bulluck: I guess you jumped to when you were thirteen, that is when your grandfather had told you to do both, but I am curious, I also noticed that in your childhood, you seem to do quite a bit of traveling. I think I saw that you were in like Sydney, Australia, and you did not like. Oh, okay. That makes sense.
Melanie Dunea: That was the other month. [Laughter]
Kelvin Bulluck: Oh okay!
Melanie Dunea: One month in Australia and one month in Iowa, which boy, those were different. [Laughter] Especially because our summer is winter in Australia.
Kelvin Bulluck: That's what I was going to say. I am like, wow, you went to summer and then actually ended up in school. What summer school to [unclear]
Melanie Dunea: Exactly. Yes. I have always been really blessed and cursed, where my family has been spread out, so I have been able to travel a lot.
Kelvin Bulluck: Yeah!
Melanie Dunea: Incredibly lucky.
Kelvin Bulluck: Back to your grandfather saying you should learn both. How long did it take you from that point of him saying, nobody is going to hire you to do one, so you should do both, how long did it take you to pick up a camera and start learning?
Melanie Dunea: No time, I started right away. I was going to high school, I took a photography class, but the real question is how long between then until I got paid? [Laughter]
Kelvin Bulluck: Of course!
Melanie Dunea: That was a long time.
Kelvin Bulluck: You started learning immediately, you took courses in high school. At what point did you realize when I go off to college…. and I saw that you went to Boston university, I am going to major in this. I believe I saw Photojournalism and French, so I am assuming you wanted to go to France to be a Photojournalist?
Melanie Dunea: Completely, hello! Henrietta-Cartier Bresson. I deferred NYU and BU for a year and decided to go to Paris and try out being, a fabulous French Photojournalist, because that is what I really wanted to do was Photojournalism, not portraits.
I did that, I spent a year there. I did the American University in Paris, which partnered with Boston University, the Parsons, but those were not extremely academic times.
In college, I came back to America because I realized, it was not going to happen. I had to be here; I could not keep up with the slang. I could not keep up. I went back to Paris another time. I just knew that was not a place you can go back there, but it was going to be too hard to make it. I realized, I did not understand lighting, I did not understand just the new…., like the technical side of photography.
Studying photography, getting a degree in photography, I am not sure if that is what I would tell people to do. That is why I did French as well, because I thought at least I could do something else, if this does not work out. I could be a translator, or I could work for the UN maybe, or…something, work in a French restaurant?
The Struggle in Paris
Kelvin Bulluck: Yeah. You just said something though, that I am curious about. You said that you knew you would not be able to make it in France. At that time, what was your definition of making it? What did that look like to you, and how did you deal with that feeling of realizing, I am not going to make it? How did you even just continue to press forward from that? I know those types of defeats can make you just question everything. I am simply curious to know how you work through that.
Melanie Dunea: I have to say, there have been many of those in my life. That is the truth, I am sure that same for you. I remember when I moved to Paris, I moved a trunk, a pillow, a comforter. I was really in, those things seemed important in those days, bless the youth, huh? [Laughter]
Kelvin Bulluck: Exactly, right?
Melanie Dunea: I remember just knowing that. I looked incredibly young and I could not keep up with the slang. I could speak French, but I could not keep up with that nuance. How you might say something to me that you heard on the street today and I would be like, somebody just texted me, somebody I had to Google the urban dictionary. It was not like WTF, it was something else, and I was like, what is that?
Kelvin Bulluck: Yeah, yeah!
Melanie Dunea: Language changes so fast, and I just saw myself staying in the same place and not being able to make progress, and I saw the holes of my knowledge. I read in American Photography magazine, about photo studios in New York, but I went to Boston University and I did the Photojournalism program, and I had all these gigs. I had a gig with Lawyers Weekly, I made seventy-five bucks a shoot and I rode my bicycle.
Kelvin Bulluck: Oh, wow.
Melanie Dunea: I could do three of those a day, I was rolling in it. I was like had my little donkey bag on my back would ride to a shoot.
I also knew then, did I want to be a big fish in a little pond, or did I want to push it? It was another moment of reckoning. I knew I had to leave Paris, it is time to go from Boston, it is time to come to New York, everything seems to be then, revolving around New York. I had read in American Photography magazine, it was like an issue about studios and them, there was a page about this photo studio called of Industria Super Studios that was founded by an Italian photographer.
I think there was one in Milan and one that was in New York, it was in the meat packing district. Madonna had her new book party there, the book was called Sex, amazing book. Something, I totally recommend you getting your hands on. It is so innovative and cool. It was like bound, it looks like a notebook, it was so cool. I thought that is where I need to go. I went there with the piece of paper and I was like, hey, can I work here? The woman's huh, what? I said, no and she said, what is your name? I said, Melanie, and she said, that is my name too? I said, so I am hired. Yay!
I think there are moments…. In fact, I think this is a moment now this pandemic, there are moments when you do need to stop and look at what is happening and see if there's room for you to grow and push. Then there are also moments, and this has been a lesson of getting older, I think is there moments to also not push. Those are hard. [Laughter]
From Paris to New York: Food Photography
Kelvin Bulluck: That is good stuff. That is, that is amazing. I am continuing to hear these recurring themes already, just from your story regarding you taking these leaps. You spoke to a part of it being youthful and thinking, what can happen or, the world is your oyster, as they say, but everybody does not have that.
I think a lot of the photographers that I have spoken with on this program have all seemed to have that whole idea of, for me to get where I am going, I got to step up out of this comfort zone and make some things happen. It sounds like even at that young age, you were like, all right. It is not necessarily working out here in Paris, but I am still hungry, I am still excited about this thing. There is still a lot that I must learn, so I am going to go, I am going to go to New York, which is like insane to me.
I was an army brat, but my formative years were spent in North at little town in North Alabama. I am just the idea. Every time I go to New York still to this day, we go through the Lincoln Tunnel and we are in the city and I am like, I feel like this little boy from Alabama in the big city.
Melanie Dunea: I will show you around and you will not feel like that.
Kelvin Bulluck: I am going to hold you to that. Now, when this pandemic is over, I am like Melanie, I am here show me where the restaurants are.
Melanie Dunea: You have it recorded. I came and lived with two people I knew one of them hooked me up with Richard Avedon. There was a connection there, but I cannot give myself credit for the wherewithal to say need to pause now. I think it is really coming down to listening. It is so pathetic to your gut, but it is really listening to what works and your instincts. I think that is what you must do when you photograph people and it is peel it all away, and focus.
I am describing things that I do not do consciously, but it is interesting that you brought up, can I jump to Don’t Play with Your Food? That was another moment where I was like, people kept calling me a food photographer. Yes, as you have mentioned, I have done five books. Two of them were about chefs, I am not a food photographer. There are some amazing food photographers out there, not me.
One day I was like, if people keep telling you, you are something you got to listen to that, if somebody says you are a jerk or you are this, you are that like, you got to listen to that. Food photographer, so I was like, let me see if I am a food photographer.
I thought, let me pick twelve places and things that I love and know the Negroni from here, the egg from here, places I am comfortable asking. I paid for everything. I rode my bicycle in some cases, my best friend's son interned, and I say that in quotes with me, he came to like help, but I just went, and I said, can I have two Negroni's?
I thought, what can I do with this Negroni and I just did something with it, and I just listened to myself in the moment. I thought, what should I do with this oyster? What should I do with this egg?
I did it to prove to myself that I am a food photographer in my way. Of course, on Instagram, I was trying to take pictures. I do not have sunlight streaming in a beautiful table and a silver set that I can just throw on a…. those things are styled, so I was like, what is my contribution to this?
Kelvin Bulluck: That's real right there. You dropping nuggets left and right on us because it is real because like you said you, it seems kind of like a simple thing to say, but it is not always the easiest thing to do, which is following your gut.
Just like with this whole thing of, maybe I am a food photographer, maybe I am not, but I am going to try. Then through that process, it has evolved, and honestly, when I look at your work, especially not just your portraiture, but with the, Don’t Play with Your Food, I am looking at this and my mouth is watering and I am excited and, in my mind is food photography, because it has got me excited about the food that is in the photo and I would be ready to purchase if that menu were in front of me. In my book, yes, from that, you clearly are a food photographer in your own right.
Melanie Dunea: What was interesting…. thank you.
What was interesting about that was I decided to hold another one in LA. Because LA is, I was thinking, what is LA to me, it is a place that I love, it is a place I feel lucky to go to. It is flashlights it is flashy people showing off.
I took over a restaurant and I got a sponsor for that one just to pay for it, not to make any money problem, but this is not a business podcast. I photograph the people in LA eating the foods that I love, because I knew they would love the flash and the…
Kelvin Bulluck: Hollywood baby!
Melanie Dunea: Exactly. Then the third iteration was a collaboration with a chef. As diners ate his food, I did the work live and that was such a huge challenge. It was stretching myself, some people said, you should do that again and again, I thought no, I am done with that.
Self-Taught Photography and Richard Avedon
Kelvin Bulluck: This is funny to me just because I wanted to mention it before, but you brought it up. I wanted to go back for just a second, because I cannot gloss over Mr. Richard Avedon. You said you got connected with him, so I wanted to go back to that for just a second. I would love to hear just a little bit more about that, because for me before I realized who Richard Avedon was, I was inspired by his work.
It was not until I do not know, maybe four or five years ago, he got on my radar. I am self-taught by the way, so I had to learn as I went. I came across some of his work and I was like, wait a minute, this is the guy whose work I keep bookmarking or pinning in Pinterest. It is like a crazy thing, so anytime I hear anybody, who has had a connection with them, I get super excited.
What was that even like?
Melanie Dunea: I will tell you about that, but I will also tell you about the self-taught is the way to go. When people say, did I learn anything? Sorry, Boston university, and I am not going to have you scratch this from the record. How I learned was knowing what I wanted and figuring out how to get there.
You do not need to have a fancy camera. You do not need all that stuff; you need to know what you want. Now, you can Google it. This latest thing I did with the Scarf project, I Googled literally, how do you layer photos? Then I tried to layer the photos.
Self-taught is not shame, that is pride, firstly. Secondly, I was lucky enough to have a friend of mine that was his Studio Manager, Richard Avedon, and it was all connected with Industria a photo studio.
When I worked with him, which I would say, was two dozen times or something as the fourth assistant, I learned some…. sorry, there is a siren. Welcome to New York. [Laughter] I learned so many things, but they were particularly about the outward facing.
For example, in his photo studio, one of our first jobs would be to set up an area where the client could sit, and we would put out his coffee table books. Duh, we should all be doing that, I still do not even think to do that. Then there was always a big break for lunch sitting down with the client schmoozing with the client, it was about the whole experience.
Listen these jobs and we are like, one of them was a Versace, the plates when Claudia Schiffer and Sylvester Stallone were naked. These are big budgets, these are huge, but it was always about being kind and nice to everybody being excited, but the connection and making the client subject feel, both feel special.
Kelvin Bulluck: Interesting. That is what is up! love hearing those stories and I know he had a way about him. I have seen like all the documentaries and all of that and it is, like you said, seem like these are things that we should be doing to play into the whole idea.
It is something that I did with a client, I had this corporate client who wanted to do a branding session, in her million-dollar facility, but she was like, I am a woman, and I do not want it to be the normal, CEO portraits. I want to do something that is different, and I want it to be a little bit more glamorous.
She wanted the glamor. I brought in the full team, I made it a big production and you had the fans blowing and it was like, she felt like one of those people on the cover of that magazine. The images were great, but that experience is what is going to stick with her for the long term.
Melanie Dunea: I can tell you; I can name five photographers that it is just the show. People will say to me, wow, that was so fast, that was so easy that you did not need a lot of equipment. Sometimes I know, they want the show.
Kelvin Bulluck: Yup. Yup. You got to read that.
Melanie Dunea: You should give them the show. For me to sit there for lunch, I do not want to have lunch, I ate breakfast. I do not need to have lunch with you, but, and not because I do not like you, but because I do not want to waste your time.
I know one photographer, I remember he is you must get robes made for your subjects, with their names on it. I was like on this budget? [Laughter]
Kelvin Bulluck: Eating into my profits.
Melanie Dunea: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
Kelvin Bulluck: Speaking of a little bit more of, those type of jobs, at what point did you really catch, your big break in New York? What was the job that really made you feel like I have arrived?
Melanie Dunea: Oh, boy, I am waiting for that one. [Laughter]
Kelvin Bulluck: You have arrived Melanie, I promise you.
Melanie Dunea: WhenI think back then, there were so many lucky, like going to Rome with Quincy Jones to shoot, we are the future. That was so amazing, and we were in this like Sheena Cheta, that cinema where they shot, like Dolce Vita, which by the way is like a dump and freezing, but still, you are like, oh my goodness, I am in the place where they shot. Dolce Vita, like burr, can I get a glass of water. That was amazing.
I shot a lot of Kenny Chesney album covers and that those were on an island, which in this conversation sounds great, but I am sure sand. Let me just name some of those elements that will make you cry. Sand, wind, boats.
I have to say, I remember when there was a girl that worked next to me at the front desk, at the photos. I ended up getting the job at Industria and I worked in the equipment room and the front desk, which was so genius because I got eight dollars an hour, forty hours in both positions until they caught on.
Kelvin Bulluck: Oh, wow.
Melanie Dunea: I forget Lawyers Weekly; I was moving up in the world. I had eighty hours and forty were overtime, and so, I was like, Cha-Ching.
I remember this one woman sat next to me. It was so cool. I think it was the moment when I realized I was in New York. One girl kept running outside and I was like, what are you doing? She said I am working with this fashion designer he makes shoes, and he wants me to make fabric, so I am taking this fabric outside, I am leaving it on the street, letting cars drive over it, and then I am going to get it back. His name is Manolo. I thought, that is a job that is so amazing, I am in the right place.
Then the one on the other side was saying, I would never shoot for People magazine. I would never shoot for this. I would never shoot for that. I remember thinking like, I do not know, that is just not for me. I know that people can be very discerning, but I look at the commission, the assignment, what I am in front of, and I give them all kind of equal value. Probably to a fault. [Laughter]
Kelvin Bulluck: Interesting.
Melanie Dunea: I have a friend that always says what is the lift on this? Meaning how much effort and I think, all this is a lot of effort. [Laughter]
Kelvin Bulluck: Wow. Wow. This is something that I hear a lot with photographers that I speak with, and it really does all come back to relationships, right? The different people that you connect with, this person knows this person who knows that person, and this is how I got that job. Was there a lot of that for you as well? At what point did you, start seeking agency representation? I believe I did see that in the portfolio as well.
Melanie Dunea: I did have an agent when I started to make money. I had that agent for probably nine or ten years. I do not have an agent now and I think that just you do not need to go to photography school, which does not mean you do not have to be classically trained. I do not think you need an agent, listen, I am not a great hustler. I am a great connector, but I struggle for work too. Listen, it is more and more competitive, the phones have made it. Now everybody has access to digital.
Once it turned from analog and me having my own darkroom and printing and bringing the client beautiful, to whatever I was going to say Venmo going, but I meant drop boxing pictures, and filters and it changed. I guess do not have an answer for that.
Photography Influence |Creativity During Pandemic
Kelvin Bulluck: No, it is cool. It is always interesting to hear everybody take on that because everybody is experiencing it. I love speaking with people who entered the industry in a different world, basically, because you have had to continually adapt. Even when I look at your social media, I feel like you have done a really good job of continuing to stay relevant, continuing to post content that is appealing, content that is valuable.
What keeps you…. and I am sure ultimately the drive is you got to keep the lights on, but what kinds of things are in inspiring you to do that? Even now, has there been and even in the past rather, was there like a career path or some role model of yours, from that timeframe that you were trying to emulate in your own career path, if that makes sense?
Melanie Dunea: No, I must tell you that it was the people that were the potential peers of that. After Industria, I was just put in that typical and not upper level, but Annie Liebowitz box or Peggy Sirota box, or though I would rather have been in the Mary Ellen and Mark box. It was like okay, now this is what you do, and these are your competitors, I just did not like it. That is why I started to do the books because that was the moment where I was so in demand.
Cover of New York magazine, story for Vanity Fair, blah, blah, blah, advertising. I was like off doing my books, refusing jobs, not being a jerk about it, but just being like, I am too busy, I am too busy. Finally, people were like, forget it, like we are not asking you anymore.
I can only speak in example, so at the beginning of this year, it was about the fifth year since I did not have representation, and I was doing incredibly well. The James Beard foundation, which is a famous chef, it is like the Oscars of the chef, had commissioned me to photograph thirty of the most important chefs in their thirty-year story for a huge exhibition in my hometown.
My eighty-seven-year-old dad who does not care could come, and see my work and, in my hometown. I thought this is a good time to really return to the chefs and amazing, and I was doing this and this charity thing because I really try to do a third of my work, Pro Bono for sure, because I cannot write big checks, but I can give my work.
Kelvin Bulluck: I want to goback to that in a moment, but yes, just yes.
Melanie Dunea: Really, that was the moment where I was like, yeah, I got this, I have got this. Of course, we were all. The rug was pulled out on March eleventh, done. I remember debating, should I go to Philadelphia on the twelfth, half the people said yes, half the people said, no. We did not know, so, I quarantine locked down for two weeks and of course was freaked out and depressed, like every other person in the whole world.
Then I thought, no, the story is here, pick up your camera. You do not need somebody to tell you to take pictures, it is right here. I started walking the streets every single day parsley, not to get pandemic fat, and because I was like, we have this tool, we need to use it. I walked and I wrote a diary and I ended up publishing it and it was my pandemic diary.
It was a about four months of just what I felt like and what I saw and what, and then I was like, wait a second! I saw empty streets and so many flowers, and I wonder if the flowers had always been there, but I was rushing around and New York way, like rush, and I never noticed the flowers before.
That is when I sat down and Googled, YouTube videos of how to put pictures together. New York is in bloom; I want to send a positive message. I put pictures of empty New York together with flowers, and then I was like, I will make scarves. I need to figure out how to make scarves. I did that.
Then I was like walking around like this and I was like, my head is up right now for those people who cannot see me, because there are so many clouds, the clouds are so beautiful. Have I not noticed the clouds before or what? I started photographing the clouds and then I was like, what I miss is people and their lips and talking and hugging and kissing.
I Googled it again, because I could not remember from last time, because literally talk about self-training. I was like, how did I do that? I made another scarf collection, called Dreaming. These moments of, I think we just need to listen to ourselves, and be true.
You very kindly said I am a food photographer, I am not really, but I can approach food and interesting way. When I tried on Instagram and I am going to get to that, to do, the fancy spoon with the thing and the thing, like I was not being myself. I have a fine number of followers; I do not have anywhere near what my peers do because you do not come to me knowing the one thing. That is what I think is going to be my…. people are like, what exactly is she? Is she a portrait photographer? Is she a food photographer? Does she make scarves? Does she write pandemic diaries? I do not care; I am doing what is coming from within me. Welcome to the show come along for the ride. [Laughter]
Kelvin Bulluck: I think that is something that we all struggle with because I believe as creatives, the thing that we are expressing ourselves within the moment, is not always the thing that we are going to do, or I feel like doing.
For instance, before I picked up a camera, I was really into, to spoken word, like poetry. I would go to open mic nights and, spit a little something on the microphone. Then when I picked up a camera, I was like, this is another way for me to tell stories. I know that moving forward, I am more than just a photographer and there is going to be other ways that I want to express myself.
Melanie Dunea: That is what we are doing right now.
Kelvin Bulluck: Exactly. This pandemic it has been a, I hate saying it like this, but it is a gift and a curse in a lot of ways. We are at like over 270,000 deaths and that is horrible, and we have had to shut down and we have got, businesses closing. At the same time, it has also caused all of us to stop and reflect and become present, even during this horrendous time, being present is such an important thing. You saw the roses in bloom once you just stopped and looked, so, there are some good takeaways that will come from, this disaster.
As creatives, just going back to what you were just talking about us, not being able to just stick to one thing, and of course, currently, people do want too yeah put you in a box and say, this is what you do.
That, of course it is one way to grow following, but again, listening to yourself and realizing that I am going to do what I am feeling led to do, what that creative spirit is leading me to do. I am a fan of that.
Photography Book Publishing
I wanted to go back again, so there is so many morsels that you are dropping in here that I want to try to touch on as much of it as possible while I have got you on the line.
Going back to the first book My Last Supper, with that book was the idea all along to make it a book, and then how did you go about even getting the publishing? I think there is a lot of photographers out there who are like, how do I do something like that?
Melanie Dunea: This is not going to be the answer for everybody. [Laughter] I went to a bookstore and I was going to somebody's house, and the bookstore had only chef books that were like…. and I had just done a big piece for Gourmet magazine and they had put Mario Batali on the cover, and they have given me free reign to do these ten portraits, so I was like, chefs are interesting. They are so much less pain in the a** than celebrities. There are no publicists, very few of them had publicists back then. It seemed like something was brewing, there was like the Wild Wild West. I had photographed, a guy that wrote a book called Anthony Bordain and he was another one that I really was like, he is cool.
My people that I photograph or not, I do not pal around. I do not go and photograph somebody and be like, we are going to be friends. It is very unusual, in fact, Amy Cheryl, you mentioned we ended up being friends, but more because she was like, let us have dinner. I would never dare say, let us up dinner.
I remember, I was photographing Tony a few times. I went to the bookstore and noticed that everything was one chef, one chef, and I thought, would not it be interesting to have a coffee table book where I put like an ultimatum to the chefs. I did not research, this was like, probably before you could Google. I do not remember what year it was, but you were not able to get so much. I remember spending a lot of time in Barnes and noble and I asked him, I was like, do you think if I did this book and I did an ultimatum, which is like, what is your last supper? What would you eat? Kept it simple, and then if the questions were, what would you eat? What would you drink? Who would be there? Who would clean up? What music would you listen to? I think that was it, even though there were six questions and who would be there? Then we could see the people that were like promoting themselves or the people that love themselves, people that hate themselves, we could see.
I asked Tony who at that point was getting a little more famous, Kitchen Confidential was going, and I think it was before TV. I was like, hey, listen, do you think this is a good idea? He said, it is a great idea, and I will write the forward. I thought, cool. I do not think I need you to do that, but that is fine.
Then I was talking to my friend as I am talking to you and she is you need a Literary Agent. She is my husband is a literary agent. I thought, cool!
We sold the book and, I had eleven people come to the meeting. I held the meeting in a restaurant. They came to me, which apparently is unheard of, and out of eleven people that came so publishing houses, I got three offers and one that I could not refuse. It was not just because I love the woman and she did not ask me, are there going to be restaurants? Is there going to be food? I thought, yeah, that would be food.
Fast forward to answer your question, I got it, the book deal, and then I got a certain amount of money and I ran around and produce the whole thing myself. I called Versailles every day. I got the bone for Tony. I got the fish for, did the whole thing with some help I think you can self-publish, or you get a literary agent. That is just step one, good idea that sticks. My Last Supper sticks, that is what makes it work. Everybody knows what it is, and they can understand it, and it got something to say about it.
Having a Good Network
Kelvin Bulluck: That is more nuggets right there for everybody listening and she is dropping mad knowledge on us right now. Going back to relationships. You have got a lot of synchronicity going on there as well, being in the industry and making some of the connections that you made. I think it is amazing that, my husband is a literary agent. Like that is that is perfect.
Melanie Dunea: I have to say that I probably will leave this earth with people saying how amazing my friends are and how I do have a good network and I really do not abuse it.
I think that the key is, I asked very little, and when I ask it is such a tight ask, some people say yes, before they know what I am going to ask. I am so respectful, and I am so clear about my ask. You asked me to be on the show, you were clear, you were succinct, you offered me to listen to it. I did not even read your whole email. I liked the way you presented it, I did not listen, and I was like, sure. I get three of those a day.
Then you have asked me good proper questions because you are prepared, you are curious, and you are listening to me. Those are all the things that we need to be doing in our professions, whether you are interviewing me or photographing me or writing down about me.
Kelvin Bulluck: That is amazing. First, thank you. When you agreed, I thought, wow. What is the worst you can say is no war or ghost me? Thank you for not doing either of those.
Melanie Dunea: The next thing, if you want more knowledge is, you need to ask me who I suggest. Because then you will get my connections.
Kelvin Bulluck: More knowledge people, I am telling you, this is good stuff.
Melanie Dunea: Good interview, I feel good. You send me a thank you note, everybody must send a thank you note, you know that. Then you would say by the way, if there is anybody else do like to suggest you are so amazing, you can say that a few times.
Kelvin Bulluck: You are by the way!
Melanie Dunea: Whatever, and I am a food photographer. Do not bs me Kelvin. [Laughter]
Kelvin Bulluck: I am just telling, like I see it, that is all.
Charity: A Heart of Giving
Melanie Dunea: You wanted to go back to the charity component and so do I.
Kelvin Bulluck: Yes, that is perfect!
That is perfect that you brought that up, and I think this will be my last question because we are running out of time here.
I came across a quote from, I believe it was Interview magazine and it says, I am just going to read this and then I want you to just break it down even further for me. It says, Dunea breaks down the components of her work life with relative ease, twenty-five percent Pro Bono charity work twenty-five percent food and chef photography, twenty-five percent celebrity portrait shoots and twenty-five percent crazy undertakings. That still resonate with you.
Melanie Dunea: I love that! I am always scared when people say, let me read this, please. Do not please. I think that is completely right, and I need to Google that and put that on my wall. I believe so much in the power of what we do and how we can share. The first thing I did when this pandemic started with sell my pictures for twenty-five dollars, because I needed something to do.
I was walking the streets and then I was selling pictures and giving all the money to charities. I sold like ten-thousand worth of pictures, which was a ton of work. I do not recommend doing that, but I feel like that is how as storytellers we can give back. Any chance I can, I do it.
I raised five million for the food bank, with a campaign. Five million! I am not selling five million to the photography in my entire lifespan, so I feel like that is our gift back, translating. I hope in my dream is that I stay out of the picture, I want to translate, so I am translating the story of, I want the story to come through me.
I have my friend Gail says I show the world through the lens of food. My boyfriend, Michael has a show on ESPN. It is the world through the lens of sports. I show the world through the lens of me. That is, it. You like it, or you do not.
Kelvin Bulluck: I love that. Another question regarding this heart of giving that you have is, where does that come from? There are certain people who innately can see the importance of being a philanthropist and giving, what do you attribute that to?
Melanie Dunea: I think it started; I remember my mother would always say eat all the food on your plate because people do not have food. I thought, if they do not have food, they do not have underwear, so, I remember going and like finding…. I hope I did not cut up dresses, we did not have that kind of money. I was sewing little packages of underwear for children to have underwear who could not eat too.
I am so privileged here, I sit in New York city during a pandemic with the lights on talking to you, like for one minute the disaster we are in does not exist, so what I need to do is I need to make sure that I give back. From large gestures to small gestures. I feel that if we can all live like that; would not this be a better place?
Kelvin Bulluck: Beautiful! I think that is the perfect place to stop, but before we go, is there anything that you want to promote or anything that you want to, where can people find you? Where can we buy some of these beautiful scarves?
Melanie Dunea: What a good idea, promotion! I was saying today that I am so bad at that. I am so good at idea and execution follow through no window with the promotion, but I would love to have all your people, because if they like you, they probably like me too, I hope.
Follow me on all the social media, that is Dunea as we were joking, lots of vowels and on my website. If you see something that I posted, there is a petition, and you sign it then it is a victory for me.
Kelvin Bulluck: I am going to put links in the show notes to everything, and even some of the artists and photographers that you said, we should check out, I am going to drop those links as well, because I believe you have basically given us a master's class in what you do. I want to make sure that you are continuing to give through the knowledge that you have.
Melanie Dunea: You'll have me back in a year and we can revisit.
Kelvin Bulluck: Definitely! Melanie, again, I am so grateful that you agreed to do this. Yeah, definitely, and just keep doing what you are doing.
Melanie Dunea: Thank you. You are too and hit me up for some more names and on you go, you are particularly good, and I am excited to see this go to the top of the list.
Kelvin: Bulluck: I received that! Thank you!
Show: Outro | Show Information and Resources
That is the show, I hope that you enjoyed my chat with Melanie. I learned quite a bit from it, I hope that you did as well. Sorry for fanning out a little bit earlier in the episode when she was talking about Richard Avedon, but that is one of my all-time favorite photographers. To know that she was affiliated with him and learned from him, that was a fan boy moment for me, so forgive me for that.
Like I said, I hope that you enjoyed the show and as always, you can check out the show notes at whatmakesyouclick.com, to see any relevant links to people or books or things that were mentioned in the episode? I always highly recommend going there to do even more research, to continue to learn and grow on your journey in photography.
Speaking of which, if you feel like this show has helped you in some way with your journey do not be shy. Take a moment to mention that on our comments. Whether it be on our Facebook page or Instagram page, which is What Makes You Click Podcast or by rating and reviewing on wherever you listen to your podcasts. Any little thing that you can do to help me continue to produce this podcast is greatly appreciated. And with that, we will see you on the next episode!