Interview: Mel DiGiacomo
Interview by Kathryn Kearney
It is one thing to get to know famous tennis-players from a press photographer’s standpoint -- watching them from a distance, maybe exchanging a few words here and there from time to time, you get the jist. But it’s another thing to have world class tennis players, Chrissy Martinez and Billie Jean King record your cellphone’s voicemail.
Mel DiGiacomo is a dynamic, crazy photographer who is truly invested in his craft. His camera does not leave his body, swinging back and forth as he carries out his everyday pursuits. Having shot over twenty covers for Newsweek Magazine, producing several photo-essays for Newsweek including: "Route 66," "TB", and "Candid Wedding," serving as a contributing photographer to Sports Illustrated Magazine, CBS, and ABC Sports, Life Magazine, and numerous photography and sports journals. He has also worked on assignments for The National Hockey League, World Tennis Magazine, Tennis Magazine, Tennis Week and The New York Times. He was given the title of “Photographer of the Year” by the editors of Tennis Week not once, but twice.
He has photographed people in places across the globe including England, Ireland, France, Greece, Italy, Sicily, Russia, Denmark, Germany, Holland, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, Jamaica, British Virgin Islands, Bahamas, Antigua, Barbuda, Dominican Republic, Monserrat, Guadalupe, Uzbekistan, Hong Kong and the People's Republic of China.
He has twenty-five photography books that have been extremely successful. Over the course of his career, his works have been featured at the Museum of Modern Art, The House of Commons in London, Madison Square Garden Gallery, The Image Bank (Paris, Milan, New York City), Rizzoli Book Store, The West London Gallery, and The Moscow Gallery of Fine Art. Mel has truly done it all.
MUSÉE: If you could use any word to describe yourself as a photographer, which would you chose?
MEL: Learning. If you stop learning, you might as well pull the blankets over your head and die. If you're not learning, you're not living.
MUSÉE: If you could select any word to describe yourself as an individual, which would it be?
MUSÉE: Most of your photographs feature people. When did you figure out your approach to taking these photographs?
MEL: I’ve always wanted to photograph people. The thing that was most important to me to was people so when it came time to decide what I would do with the rest of my life, I realized it wasn’t the lifestyle of being a photographer that I wanted, it was the people. When I was a kid, I was given a hard time for wanting to go into the arts, but every single time it was ever brought up, I just responded that “life is in the arts.”
MUSÉE: What drove you to pursue photography?
MEL: Well I was offered a job at CBS to produce preseason Giant’s games while I was in my 20s. I had been with 60 Minutes for some time at that point in my life but the program only lasted five weeks so I had to find something else to do with the rest of my time. This guy Stenner from CBS dared me to get a camera one day at work. So I was 27 years old with a camera and when I looked through the lens, I knew it was my passion.
MUSÉE: How do you separate your photographs?
MEL: Well the last thing I want is to be labelled. I was hired to take photos at professional hockey matches then made the transition to shoot tennis so I was deemed a “sports photographer,” but I wouldn’t accept that. If anything, I’d call myself a street photographer, but you want to be dynamic. I will photograph anything. As long as the light is right, I will take a picture.
MUSÉE: Was there an era of your photography that you saw a change in the way you would shoot your subject? Or has it always been the same?
MEL: There was a time when I would bring around a ton of equipment because I thought that’s what you needed to do. After spending some time in Italy in 1976, I realized I could simplify my travels by bringing only one or two lenses.
MUSÉE: Was there ever a time that you did a series and your original intention behind the capturing of these photographs changed?
MEL: Different books, different experiences, different times. I’ve just always been on the lookout for those magical moments.
MUSÉE: Why do you shoot most of your photographs in black and white versus color?
MEL: Robert Frank, one of the greatest photographers of all time once said “the colors of photography are black and white.”
MUSÉE: Who is your greatest inspiration in the realm of photography?
MEL: Jay Maisel was my teacher about life and always shot in color, but he never gave me any direction. He was aggressive but not in the sense that he was annoying. He just attacked everything with passion and great sensibility and I learned from his ways. Being mindful of your environment and situation is essential.
MUSÉE: How do you know when to print your photographs in color?
MEL: It’s an instinctive thing. Everything is taken in color, but it’s really a matter of converting the colors to black and white while editing, seeing what that decision brings out in the photo, and then you just can feel it.
MUSÉE: What is your opinion on polaroid cameras?
MEL: A camera is a camera. It’s vision that takes photos, not cameras. No matter what camera it is, as long as you learn the technical aspects, the camera should not influence what you’re trying to capture, it's your eyes that know.
MUSÉE: How do you feel about phone cameras and the changing nature of the photography industry?
MEL: If you go back to the first cameras, that was an unusual process. As time moves on, things improve and get better and better and better. Cameras are becoming so great. It just kills photographers though, because everyone is capable of being a photographer now.
MUSÉE: What themes typically play into your photography?
MEL: No themes. As Jay Maisel once said: “When you walk out of your house what do you expect to find… nothing and everything.”
MUSÉE: What is your definition of “humanity?”
MEL: The embrace of life.
MUSÉE: And finally, what is your advice to photographers?
MEL: Give yourself assignments, but wherever you are, it's all the same, just look.