Dreamlike Photos of Small-Town Life in South Florida

Photographer Melanie Metz captures the magic she sees in her tiny, rural town.

by Tara Wray
Oct 5 2017, 7:35pm

All photos courtesy of the artist. 

Welcome back to Doin' Work: Flash Interviews with Contemporary Photographers. Here, I celebrate the photographers who inspire me and offer a bite of their personalities and work.

Melanie Metz is a visual artist from south Florida who holds a BA from Florida International University. Primarily a film-based photographer, Metz explores the simple magic she witnesses in her small, rural hometown of Davie. Her work has been published in Lenscratch, Oxford American, Juxtapoz, and Broadly, and has been exhibited both nationally and internationally. She is the 2017 recipient of the Emerging Photographer Scholarship with the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops.

The artist as a young woman. Image courtesy of Melanie Metz

VICE: How does where you live impact your photography?
Melanie Metz: Working in south Florida, I've gained a deeper understanding of my surroundings in relation to my upbringing. Because I can so naturally identify with this community, I make images with a subjective point of view. It's allowed me a special type of trust from the people who live here. They welcome me into their worlds.

How did you get your start in photography?
I started in high school and was encouraged to think of the darkroom as a means of creating art beyond the confinements of traditional photography. The medium was perfectly suited for my shy personality. I was introduced to the works of Abelardo Morell, Jerry Uelsmann, and Sally Mann, among others. I was inspired by their boldness to investigate alternative methods of photography's ability to portray light in time. I obsessed over exploring experimental ideas and eventually converted an extra bathroom in my house into a darkroom.

What compels you to pick up your camera?
When I see something in a person, object, or place that resonates with me. Most of the time these associations and motivations behind making photographs reveal their full significance after the fact. The instinct to pick up my camera at any given moment comes from having faith in these feelings.

If you have to explain your work to a child, how would you describe it?
When I see an expression in a person, place, or thing, I'll take a picture of it before I give myself the chance to ask why. Sometimes searching for these moments is like going on a treasure hunt. Other times I simply notice them throughout the day.

©Melanie Metz
©Melanie Metz

Do you make a living as a photographer?
I've worked at restaurants, front desks, and other unbearably dull nine-to-fives. I didn't want to dilute my attention from my personal work by making a living as a photographer. Then I realized that my art degree didn't qualify me for much else, so now I juggle odd freelance jobs that take up most of my time. I'm still in the process of figuring out how to financially support myself while being able to also focus on my personal work.

Show me the image you feel you're best known for. What are your thoughts on it?

©Melanie Metz

This is the image that I receive the most feedback on. I think people can identify with a truth it speaks to about gender roles. Society socializes young girls to be clean and "pure," while little boys are encouraged to get dirty. The young girl in my image is defiant in her demeanor and contradicts that belief. Here, the license to roam and play is transformed into a human right.

What, if anything, frustrates you about photography?
Photography in itself is simple. You use a camera as a tool to record what you see, and there are no limits. I only become frustrated during periods when I hit a creative block because it reflects a limitation I am holding within. These barriers can stop you from reaching the fullest expression of self. The slow and meditative process of photography enables me to recognize, understand, and overcome these roadblocks.

Describe your working process.
I take a lot of pictures, drop them off to get developed, and forget what I shot. Then a week or so later, I pick up my film and enjoy the mistakes and surprises.

©Melanie Metz
©Melanie Metz

Describe the approach you take when establishing a relationship with a subject.
As far as approaching new subjects, sometimes I prefer to simply take their pictures before they even know it. Once people realize they're being photographed, they will inadvertently take control of the way they want to appear, and it can be nearly impossible to get them back in their natural situation. After that, I will either run away or introduce myself.

©Melanie Metz
©Melanie Metz
©Melanie Metz

What do you think of the vast sea of online photography?
I don't worry too much about navigating that scene. There's an abundance of mediocre photography online, and I believe it perpetuates beginners to keep creating the same commercial-like images. There is a difference between cleverness and genuine poetry. I hope that if my images stand out to someone, it'd be because they convey my inner voice.

What are you most proud of, in terms of your work?
I'm glad that I'm still making work. It's easy to find reasons to stop or to turn what you do into a profession and get lost in the pursuit of social or monetary gains. I'm most proud that, no matter how many disappointments and unsuccessful attempts I've made, I have acquired the discipline that giving up is never an option.

©Melanie Metz
©Melanie Metz
©Melanie Metz
©Melanie Metz

What are you doing when you're not making pictures?
Reading, baking, throwing on the wheel… you know, living. I do make a point to explore a variety of other artists' work because it's a way to understand political and social issues outside of my own culture. It also helps me gain a greater understanding of what my work is saying and representing within the bigger picture.

What do you think the future of photography might look like?
I am hopeful that, in the future, photography will continue to be used as a means of communicating important stories, especially those from marginalized voices. I think the internet has been amazing for photography in terms of connecting with other artists and transmitting information. However, I fear there will be a decrease in thoughtfulness and an increase in immediacy as the future of photography (and perhaps life itself) keeps getting shaped around the now, now, now. Also, thanks to social media, getting famous will become a large chunk of every photographer's agenda. Or is this already happening?

Name three contemporary photographers who blow your mind.
Barbara Lamothe, Brenda Ann Kenneally, and Peggy Levison Nolan. I get to make pictures in the darkroom with Nolan every day. Her work consistently reminds me that a good picture can be found in the least assuming of places. I'm just lucky to absorb a little of whatever she's got.

The most important question of all: dogs or cats?
CatDog, CatDog—alone in the world is a little CatDog!

©Melanie Metz
©Melanie Metz
©Melanie Metz
©Melanie Metz

Visit Melanie Metz's website. You can find Tara Wray's work on her website.

Melanie Metz
Doin' Work
Tara Wray