It's the journey, not the destination Mel Curtis's thoughts on a life in the world of photography



Noodling around in my archives of film, I am trying to decide what to trash and what to preserve. I find little ditties like this. It was spring of 1976, in the final days of college at the University of Cincinnati. My best friend  Mark Giambrone and I were about to head out into the world. So to commemorate the occasion we made this goofy self portrait, as it was called back in the day. What were we thinking? Where were we going? Were we forward thinking visionaries? Or clueless kids? Perhaps both? But it appears we, at least, had a sense of humor. And that is always a good start.

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Like an Album cover for a Bluegrass Band


Hey John,

Quiet boring day here. Sunny, which is nice, warm but pleasant. I went to the hardware store to get a new sprinkler for the back yard. Big event of the day. The other fun project was going through old negs and attempting to pull them in some kind of order. Of course it is a futile thing to do. My old film has no written data attached to it. So I am left to analyzing the contact sheets to try and figure out what they are. Mainly today I did OU stuff, so while  there is no data, I recognize the faces and some of the places. There are a lot of funny images of you in bell bottoms and of course, very thin and young too. I slapped them all into new binders and put a general label on it. Who know that information would be so important in the future? What was I thinking? Is your old stuff well labeled?

Then when I reach back to pre OU stuff, it gets tricky. I see stuff that I can only vaguely recall the event. Like this image. I know I took it in winter in rural Virginia I think, maybe 1979. Looks like an album cover from that time doesn’t it? I worked this image as I shot 9 of the 12 frames on the roll of it. The other 3 I was playing with blurs, so they reveal very little, other then a woman friend is in two of them. A college roomie. I recall she visited me in DC twice. But this was a road trip I think? It would make sense that I drove from DC to Cincinnati where she  lived and drove through route 50 all the way through Appalachia,. I think that is where this image is from. I have now spent the last 2 hours dinking around with this neg, scanning and processing and for what reason I don’t have a clue… It seems a lot of my energy these days is spent trying to organize the elements of  my past and fragments of my life, least they disappear.

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An Audience of One


I make images of what makes me feel good, always have. Commercial photography is about problem solving and meeting budges and clients expectations. Making art for me is about fun and exploration or as simple as witnessing a beautiful piece of light illuminate an ordinary street sign. It has always been about the simple act of discovery. I can’t worry about what the market place thinks. I have to do what I do for an audience of one.

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How Did I Get Here?


Took a road trip to easter Washington last week, like I have so many times before in the spring time. For some reason I didn’t really enjoy this trip so much. Maybe it was the cold, gray weather. Maybe it was the long boring drive. Maybe it is my age and I am not into it any more. Or maybe it is  just the same old road I have been down many times and there is little more to see. I find that lately I am asking myself when to stop doing this or that and move on, like I have done so many times in my life. When it just becomes a job, I always told myself, just for a paycheck, then move on to something else. And there was always something else. But not so much lately. Maybe it will pass, but for the moment it is hard to see what is down the road, or get very excited about the possibilities any more.

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Dreaming of Paris


It is interesting to have a glimpse into the life and thinking of a 17 year old young man these days. So much going on, so many possibilities. Like you, I was fascinated with art at a young age, 6 to exact. I wanted to work at Disney Studios and draw Bambi. As I grew older, I wanted to be a painter. I studied French and wanted to move to Paris. None of it was within my grasp, as I had little aptitude for painting, and art classes in my high school were treated largely as means to escape study hall. My poor art teacher was mostly a baby sitter. But she nurtured me as best she could. And against the advice of my guidance counselor, I pursued art studies. It appalled the counselor, since I was in the top of my class and should be pursuing engineering like my father or medicine or law…Any thing but art. He said art was for the dummies. Even I had doubts. What would I do as a painter? I slacked in French studies, so the dream of Paris was just that. So graphic design became a good alternative. Art with job possibilities. It was a good choice for me and gave me the foundation and discipline that is with me to this day. And it introduced me to the camera. And eventually Paris.

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Enchilladas with Richard

During the past year I helped my friend Richard produce a show of his work for exhibition in December in downtown Seattle. He created iPad drawings and it was my task to be the technical support to move the images from his device to ink on paper. It was a lot of fun, I learned a lot and I simply enjoyed the process of making art. After every session we would head off to a local Mexican restaurant, where Richard always got the same thing for lunch. Cheese enchiladas with verde sauce. We would talk and carry on discuss all the serious topics of the day…or not. I guess it was the camaraderie that was special to me. Simply enjoying the company of a fellow artist and good friend.

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When the Batteries Go Dead


I did a photo shoot this past with a high end real estate stager. I have known him for some time and he owns a ton of my prints that he uses in his staging projects. But we had never directly worked together. So we are giving it a whirl. It is more like editorial, or catalog photography than real estate. Showing off the elements of design  mostly. And mostly more fun too. Looking for interesting imagery instead of trying to figure out how to make a photo of the messy laundry room.

But then I get on location. This $7mil house is already sold and we have  to document it before the move out. Fairly straight forward project I was actually looking forward to. Except when I notice that my main camera battery is very low. No problem, I will grab the spare. But the spare isn’t in the bag. I look at my second camera. The battery is low too…oh shit, and I start to sweat. I am half an hour from my studio, so no running there to grab the spare… I go great… New client, first project and I could go dead in the water… I start sweating more. Of course that could have something to do with the fire place roaring and me wearing a wool sweater. But I don’t panic, I know these batteries have long charges. So I just have to get to work and trust everything will be fine, don’t think about it… Worse case scenario, if both batteries died on me, I can play the Prima Dona card and say We’re Done Here… And not let on. I get on with things. Eventually the main camera battery begins to blink..death is imminent. I am maybe 2/3rds done. At that point the real estate agent for the property asks how much longer? My client leaves for a dental appointment, leaving me with his assistant. I say maybe half an hour. I stop sweating, knowing I am good, even if we left at that moment. Battery dies. I pull the battery from camera two and keep on rolling. I finish up with power to spare. I dodged a bullet. In the old days, I would have had an  assistant and sent them back to my studio for the spare battery that is normally with me. But now I have to work mostly alone and have to think on my feet. And trust that whatever I do, it will most likely be fine. But sometimes I think it is good when you have to sweat things out. Makes you work at it harder. And next time I won’t forget the spare batteries.

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Air Quotes


Sounds like a goofy event, but then such things always are. The closest thing I  have ever done to a gig like that was a recognition conference for WaMu back in 06 I think. It was awful and the only job I ever got fired from. But then I wanted to be fired. Oddly enough, I got canned for being too slow… But the WaMu big kahunas were slime balls. You may recall that WaMu or Washington Mutual was the largest bank failure in US history in 2008, and the leader in sub prime loans and the biggest cause of the recession. They took a lot of folks down with them and the slime balls only got a wrist slapping. Even though the gig was in Hawaii, I spend most of my time in a windowless room staring at a computer monitor, dolling my prom pictures. I felt slimy because I was even part of the gignormous waste of corporate excess. At one of the talks, the head slime ball welcome the crowd to the big auditorium so they could cover the business portion of the event…as he raised his arms to insert the air quotes… He said he would be brief, so they could go swim with the dolphins. I had a huge fight with the guy who hired/fired me over fees. Fortunately I still had my rep to mediate. The thought of it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Not because I got fired, but rather I got a first hand look at the coming storm but had no idea the damage these guys were about to cause. Where’s that way back machine when you need it?

My big event for the day is a Google headshot. And then a massage. Still working on getting sprained ankle back to more or less normal. I have a couple Google gigs this week, which means I officially am having a busy week. Insert air quotes here… Then off to swim with dolphins later, then maybe another massage…

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Quietly Dragging my Feet

Either of those days work for me. Lunch would be good too, lots of spots nearby. And then yes, we can dive into my archives. Sorry if I seem to be making a big deal about all this, but I guess it is a big deal. It seems like a mountain of stuff to go through and deal with. And that is just the physical part. Then there is the will thing and all it’s language. And I suppose in the back of my brain is the nagging thought that I am letting it all go. It’s funny, it is easy for me to let go of money or furniture or cameras, but it is harder than I thought to let go of my work. I suppose I will get over it, but perhaps it is the main reason I have been quietly dragging my feet.

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Park Vista Co op

ParkVistaI lived at Park Vista from 1994 to 2001. My first go around with home ownership. It was a very nice place to live, with mostly nice neighbors. I had a great view of the court yard and park. It was almost a “I could live here forever” place. And for many of of the residents, it was. I did this little photo project in 2000 to record the people who lived there at the time. I think I managed to photograph at two thirds of the folks living there at the time. Most them are gone now. But for what it is worth, I have these images of my neighbors at a moment in time.

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