Women Crush Wednesday: Melissa Zexter
Interview by Anna Robertson
How does your process work? Do you print the images on fabric or paper? How do you choose images to embroider? Are there some that demand it more than others?
I take and print all of my photographs; the majority of black and white photographs are silver gelatin prints that I print in my darkroom and the color photographs are digital prints. The subjects of my embroidered photographs are most often portraits of women and girls, sometimes men. But I also have a large archive of photographs of landscapes, street photos, and architecture.
I often photograph people that I feel have faces or demeanors that will engage meaningfully with my embroidery. Sometimes I take pictures without a plan on how I will transform them with the addition of sewing. My first goal is to make a strong photo that can stand alone without the thread. Once I print my photos, I visualize an image or pattern that could work with the specific picture. The imagined sewing pattern often evolves into something that I didn’t initially plan. Once I get started, it always takes me much longer than I had planned to get it right. Often when I think I am finished, I realize I am only half way there. The challenge is always in working towards the unknown.
I typically study the photograph and visualize a pattern and use colors that matches the mood of the subject. Many of my more recent works employ looser, abstract stitching which encourages further reflection upon the combination of the two mediums. Of late, I find myself being more interested in making three-dimensional art. When I layer the sewing or use a looser sewing method it seems to add a more multi layered effect to the photograph. Much of my process is intuitive.
Taking and printing a photograph is a much more technologically immediate process than sewing is. Photographs stop time and serve as a souvenir/ memory of a time that has passed, or act as a document of a place or person. Hand sewing alters time. It allows me to react to a moment (the photograph) and alter and adjust the memory. Hand sewing allows me to draw with a needle and thread and to create an intimacy between the object, the viewer, and myself.
Embroidery and other types of textile arts have been widely considered a predominantly female driven art form, while the photography industry is vastly dominated by men. Would you say that you are making a statement in your photography by combining these two media?
I don’t think I am deliberately making a statement. I work from a female perspective because I am a woman and I have worked with photography much longer than I have been working with textile arts. It seemed natural to combine two very different mediums that I am passionate about. For a long time, my interest has been to create one of kind, unique, altered photographs. I don’t understand why the photo industry is male dominated. I teach photography and the majority of my students are female. I also attended art schools where the majority of the population was women. My work is somewhat autobiographical in content and therapeutic in process. It’s often an escape into a place where I make things that I assume will only have meaning to myself. I don’t think about making overt statements, but if the viewer interprets my images as a commentary on gender related topics, I’m OK with that.
Embroidery also makes the photograph more unique, more precious. Do you think that photography has lost value with digital photography, where photographers can take hundreds of photographs in minutes.
Photography has been constantly evolving since its inception in the 1800’s. I don’t think that digital photography has made photography lose its value. People should study the history of photography and photography’s progression as an art form – it’s truly fascinating and inspirational. I think it’s exciting to imagine the unknown next steps that photography will take. Whatever the medium is – whether it is a Daguerreotype, film, digital or many other methods used to take and preserve images- I love them all. Think about how we view images and not the tool that we use to make them. The mass quantities of photographs that we view can be somewhat numbing and at times unsatisfying. Very early on I made the conscious decision to make photographs that encourage the viewer to slow down and look a little closer. My first job out of college was as a printer in the darkroom at the Associated Press. I printed thousands of images a day and after awhile none of the photographs stood out anymore. I knew I wanted to make pictures that were different than what I had already seen. My image making process has been evolving for decades now. The goal is always to make something that’s my own, that’s unfamiliar. Nowadays, since we are exposed to so many images that can be more of a challenge.
Describe your creative process in one word
If you could teach a one hour class on anything, what would it be?
Compassion and Crocheting 101
What was the last book that you read or film that you saw that inspired you?
Jonathon Ames- The Extra Man. I imagine it’s difficult to write a funny book since I can’t find too many of them. Loved this one.
What is the most played song in your music library?
Glasvegas –Geraldine (from 2008,) or Amyl and the Sniffers, Cup of Destiny
How do you take your coffee?
Three drops of coffee in a large glass of milk
To see more of Melissa’s work, visit her website here