Oct 28 2013
Photography by Lordale Benosa
On a cloudy Monday morning in October, photographer, Melodie Jeng, and I stepped into Van Leeuwen in the East Village to have a sit-down chat and to get properly acquainted. Melodie is unlike most female fashion photographers I’ve met recently or ever for that matter. I’m predisposed to the fashionistas that mix high end fashion with street wear in their outfit while toting their Canon 7D cameras outside of Lincoln Center during fashion week hoping to a photographed while photographing others. There is nothing wrong with that. A hustle is a hustle, but it shows what a selection of street style photographers are thinking about primarily with their cameras and that’s street style. Perhaps that’s all they know? Maybe they found their niche? Once again, a hustle is a hustle and you mustn’t knock a hustler.
But Melodie is much different than the crop. She’s a breath of fresh air in relation to most young fashion photographers with her nonchalant attitude, humbleness, graciousness and willingness to learn more about her craft. She is of a different class of photographers that was inspired less by Scott Schuman and more by Mario Testino, a class that prefers an issue of The Gentlewoman over scrolling through Tumblr to find the latest street style. Cincinnati, Ohio native, Melodie Jeng is the fashion photographer behind The NYC Streets, a NYU grad who had the opportunity to work on big budget editorials with Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar before shooting street style for Elle.com and most recently, Details Magazine, where she shoots daily street style. Melodie is a grounded and well-rounded individual that is a true student of the game, always learning and always hustling.
She grabbed a coffee, I grabbed ice cream, we picked a booth to sit and chat and what resulted was a lesson in the technical and artistic side of photography that I had only seen a glimpse of and heard little about.
This interview was recorded on October 7th, 2013.
What was life like growing up?
I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio in the Midwest, pretty typical childhood. In 7th grade it just clicked for me that I wanted to be a photographer. I would read through silly magazines thinking that I wanted to shoot the models this way or that way. I remember in high school looking at the pamphlet for the photography program and being obsessed with it and planning out what classes I wanted to take. Wow this seems like ages ago *laughs* but I kind of just knew. I did photography and music…
Yeah, my name is Melodie like “melody”. My mom is a music teacher and I did orchestra on the piano. It was a pretty big part of my life. I think in high school people might’ve known me for music a little bit more, but I wanted to be a photographer. [Music] was something that was important in my life, I even feel now that it’s weird that I don’t play piano every day of my life, that was a big part of my life and a way to express myself a little bit.
Do you still know how to play?
Yeah, I still know how to play but it has been awhile. I forget, it’s a whole different way to express myself that I don’t get to do very often unless I wanna sing, but I don’t wanna sing *laughs*
Totally understandable. So you took the photography route and?..
And I went to NYU for photography. Definitely thankful that I was able to do that. I wanted to go to a college with a strong academic background where I can work and study. During college I interned at some photo studios, Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar. I remember at Vogue, someone was looking at Street Peeper and Jak & Jil, I knew about the Sartorialist and Altamira, and around my junior year I watched the Bill Cunningham documentary and there was a moment when he is in the New York Times office with his editor laying out the piece and it just clicked for me.
I had the idea and wanted to start a blog. Everyone has to start somewhere and I wanted to start a journal online. I love print but I wanted a place to throw out my thoughts and pictures. I also knew I wanted to do fashion and portraiture, but I was pretty shy so I started practicing talking to people and interacting. Portraiture is very personable so if you’re uncomfortable the person is gonna be uncomfortable too so whenever I was going somewhere I took my camera and asked to take photos and threw it on my Tumblr. I started to get jobs from it and it built up. I still do test shoots. Ultimately I’d like to do editorial, but for now I’m focusing on street style and practicing and getting a feel for every aspect of photography.
Would you say anyone gave you your start in the business?
Well, I used to assist Dorothy Hong, she does fashion and portraiture. I respect her a lot and her photography style. She had a column for Footwear Plus Magazine that she gave to me for a month so that was my first assignment. I interned for Models.com too. I shot a street style story for them and I kept doing it. When you start out you’re a little naïve about how big something is I feel. I kind of shot what I wanted and I’m very thankful for them. Glo.com emailed me, I started shooting for Elle.com through a friend who I’m really thankful for and then I landed Details at the beginning of this year. Honestly, I don’t really know how people find me. It’s not like I know huge people in the industry so I’m very thankful for everything that has come along.
We saw that you went abroad for fashion week. How was the full fashion week experience for you?
It was good! It’s a lot to take in. It’s cool, you get to see everyone in the industry come together. Ultimately it’s a business thing, some people are there to get their picture taken, but you have to ignore them. I just shoot as much as I can of what I think is interesting and then look back and let it digest.
Do you disconnect from the industry a bit in order to shoot? I feel like photographers have to pull away so they don’t shoot the same people.
At first when I started I felt like man I hate when blogs only post fashion week photos or share photos of the same five people, but then I got over people. The first season I shot, I only really knew who Nick Wooster was and a few of the big street style stars. They look cool! There’s a reason why they became famous for their style. I’m not obsessed with menswear… I mean, I like it, I respect it but I try not to know everything about it so that I can shoot instinctually and keep the balance.
What do you want to do in the distant future?
I would love to shoot editorials and advertisements, so the next step is pitching myself to publications and sites for portraits and to just keep shooting and stay organized, find my vision, network and maintain relationships. My life doesn’t have to be fashion but keep on working as hard as I can.
Do you ever look to photos that aren’t fashion related for inspiration?
NYU is great at documentary and fine art photography. I could’ve went to FIT or Parsons, but I wanted to go to a school that had a focus in documentary and fine art so I can write about photography. My friends from school do documentary work, very few of them do fashion, I think that keeps me grounded looking at what they’re doing. I look at documentary photography and I want to mix that with street style and my backstage work.
Was there any piece of work that really resonated with you?
I’ve always liked Bruce Davidson’s work. He documented the subways during the 70s and did work in the Bronx and Harlem. I love street photography like Henri Cartier Bresson and Willy Ronis.
You said earlier that you seeing editorials in magazines inspired you. What magazines did you read growing up?
When I was 16 I read French Vogue, Numéro… I only had a few because $10 for a magazine seemed like a lot then, but those were my first two favorite magazines. I used to buy Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle and I remember there was Elle Girl which I liked a lot in junior high. Numero and French Vogue were definitely my favorites. They were very sleek and sexy, artistic. Right now there are so many magazines. I went through phases, but recently I’ve went through Bond magazine, Tank magazine and I’m going to get the new CR book. I’ve always liked Dazed & Confused, i-D, Acne Paper. I like the sleek look and also magazines that mix art and a lot of text.
Are there any editorials that really stuck with you and are there any magazines you would love to do your first editorial with?
My dream would be shooting for French Vogue and Vogue Italia. Vogue Italia has a lot of historical references and art, French Vogue has art too but it’s much sexier to me. One of the first editorials that I really loved was Nathanial Goldberg shooting Sasha Pivovarova in June or August of 2008 for British Vogue, it was in the woods with lots of greens and natural colors. Also [Steven] Meisel for Vogue Italia in 2007 or 2008 that was about models in rehab. It was very dramatic and there was one I didn’t realize I had from 2009 or 2010 until I went home by Meisel did that was based on being backstage at fashion shows and it was a bunch of pictures of Karlie Kloss walking down the runway. He also did one called MeiselPic, which was a bunch of selfies, a lot of my faves are from Vogue Italia. I also love Peter Lindbergh’s work too. It’s very cinematic and I always remember it.
Check out Melodie’s work on her website The NYC Streets.