Melanie Friend is an English photographer with a long professional history in the medium. Melanie initially worked in journalism and has worked on gallery orientated projects since the 1990s. A solo show, The Home Front is currently touring the UK with Impressions Gallery.
Where did you study photography?
I studied for a part-time BA Photography 1984-88 at the Polytechnic of Central London (which became University of Westminster) when I was already freelancing. In 1999-2000 I studied part-time again on the MA Photography run by Anne Williams at the London College of Printing (now LCC, part of University of the Arts London).
What inspires you to create your work?
Anger at injustice has been a strong inspiration over the years. In the 1990s I focused on the violence in Kosovo (when it was effectively a police state); then I moved on to look at immigration detention in the UK. Much of my work has focused on conflict in one way or another. I’m more interested nowadays in focusing on subjects closer to home, and themes have expanded. The ‘creative process’ is unnerving at times, but I like the intensity & fulfillment of letting my ideas develop over a long period of time, while maintaining overall focus and direction. I get inspired by on-the-ground encounters, experiences and observations, backed up by research & reading. I’m open to inspirations from different sources (e.g. a 19th century engraving, a thread from an earlier project, a news story, a film, a poem).
How do you feel about the photography scene in the UK today?
It’s incredibly vibrant but very tough financially for photographers & practitioners/artists these days. It wasn’t easy when I started out in the 1980s but there were fewer photographers trying to earn a living; we got much higher freelance day rates and reproduction fees for the ‘bread-and-butter’ work. In 1986 I joined the photography agency Format, which was originally a cooperative and a very supportive network of women photographers. (I joined Panos later on, in addition). It’s great seeing new collectives or groups of photographers springing up now – sometimes friends who graduated from the same BA/MA course. I took on hourly paid teaching work in the 1990s and now I am a senior lecturer (part time) at University of Sussex. Right now it’s difficult to publish a book with a photography publisher or get a gallery show owing to the production costs, competition, pinched budgets & public sector austerity cuts affecting galleries/museums. On the positive side, today there are more festivals, grants, portfolio reviews & prizes out there, and opportunities to self-publish and to publish online. It feels like an entrepreneurial & inspiring scene, although much of it is dependent on enthusiastic volunteer labour!
What format do you like to shoot in and why?
I work with medium format film at the moment and I photographed The Home Front, on a Mamiya 7 II rangefinder. I used a Fuji 6cm x 9cm rangefinder for Border Country, the preceding project. After seeing the processed film, I get a small selection of negs scanned. I like the quality & design of the Mamiya particularly, and that in good light outside I can hand-hold it, and dispense with lugging around a tripod. The Mamiya is lighter (& cheaper) than a digital equivalent. Since my mid 30s I’ve had chronic back/neck stuff going on, and so it suits me better. It’s good to have both negatives & high res scans for my archive too.
I like to work with as little equipment as possible and to focus on looking and waiting – for the right light, for what works. I am also a bit addicted to the mystery of not knowing exactly what I’m ‘getting’. I love going to the lab to collect my processed film: feeling that anticipation and uncertainty, being surprised sometimes by the results. Seeing immediately what you’ve got on the playback screen on the back of a digital camera just doesn’t have that edge; but digital cameras have a lot of flexibility and are more economic if you’re shooting large numbers of images. I use a Lumix for research photos & holidays, and my iPhone camera.
An exhibition, The Home Front was shown at DLI (Durham Light Infantry) Museum & Art Gallery) following a show at Impressions Gallery in Bradford last year. Could you tell me a little about that?
In autumn 2013 The Home Front exhibition, curated by Pippa Oldfield, opened at Impressions in Bradford as a solo show, and Impressions Gallery are now touring it. This autumn it was shown at DLI Museum & Art Gallery (Durham) and is showing at UH Galleries (Hertfordshire) 14 November 2014 – 31 January 2015. The Home Front book was published in 2013 by Dewi Lewis Publishing in association with Impressions Gallery. It is an accompanying publication rather than a catalogue of the show, with essay by curator Pippa Oldfield, and foreword by Hilary Roberts of the Imperial War Museum.
Much of my earlier work used still images with sound; but The Home Front comprises still images only. It focuses on air shows and on the normalization of war in our culture. I took the photographs over four air show ‘seasons’ 2009-12. I’ve written about this on my website and am about to write about the work for a journal so I am keeping this brief. Here’s the URL for my website page on The Home Front and the link to the Impressions Gallery page:
My next project, Standing By, is closer to home and focusing on my parents. I have shown it as work-in-progress at two conferences to date. It’s a sound-led installation piece I started way back in 2000, & uses still images taken from several sources: my Lumix, iPhone, 35mm and medium format photos, & scans from family albums. Another project is in the pipeline but is at the ideas stage right now.
Images – Top: Tank rides at Abingdon Air and Country Show, Dalton Barracks, Oxfordshire, 3 May 2009. © Melanie Friend/courtesy Impressions Gallery.
Bottom: Hawk T1 military trainers (Red Arrows), Clacton Air Show, Essex, 26 August 2010. © Melanie Friend/courtesy Impressions Gallery.