Johno Mellish gets a kick out of taking photographs that don’t look the way photographs are supposed to. Though much of his work is observational in nature, such as his current series of abandoned cars in airport parking lots, his eye can just as easily lean towards the abstract. Johno’s previous studio work, for instance, resulted in a set of collage-like images that confuse as much as they delight. Instead of treating these fields as separate, he is becoming increasingly open to the idea of studio work and documentary work interacting – a dual approach he plans to explore more going forward. In the Q&A to follow Johno fills us in on his background, why he believes in making mistakes and how photography gives him a reason to see more clearly.
What did you want to be growing up?
A Catholic priest at one stage, but for the most part I had no specific intentions to be anything in particular.
Tell us more about your journey so far, and how you’ve come to be where you are today.
My journey started and ended abruptly at a Tygerberg hospital where I died at birth. Luckily I rode through the valley of death and landed up growing up in Somerset West where I found particular interests in the ocean, making skits and getting into trouble about everything and nothing. I then travelled to England for a year where I worked in a bar and reflected on my future. After that I went to film school for three years. I’m now here and I don’t know where that is exactly, which works perfectly for me.
What is your earliest photography-related memory?
My mom owned a Rolleiflex and I used to run around the garden with it pretending I was a spy in a submarine. I wasn’t capturing images but using the camera’s viewfinder as a vehicle to explore the garden.
How would you describe your style or aesthetic, and how does this compare to your early work?
I’m twenty three so I still think my work is relatively young and early. I have explored still life and documentary style photography. I’ve become more open to the idea of both studio work and documentary work interacting. Lorenzo Vitturis’s “Dalston Anatomy” is a particular inspiration in making work within both fields. I used to love shooting studio, I became bored with it and now I want to work within both fields more collaboratively. I would say right now the New Topographics have the largest influence on my aesthetic.
What are you influenced and inspired by?
To be honest the work that influences me changes all the time but my main influence is South Africa and the nuances and anomalies that define this place. I’ve consistently enjoyed Dave Southwood, Chanarin Broomberg and David Goldblatt’s work all for different reasons.
What camera(s) do you use, and why?
I only shoot with a Mamiya 7. It’s relatively small and the lenses show what I see when I take the picture. I shoot film because I like the way it archives my images. I trust my negatives, not my computer. Bad Hen Lab scans my negatives for a good price and at fantastic quality.
Sometimes, the way you choose to frame a scene decontextualizes it – instead of telling us more about the elements within the frame or their surrounds, you present things quite abstractly. Is this type of approach a conscious decision?
“Sometimes” being the operative word. So to answer I would say yes, I like photographs that don’t look the way photographs are supposed to look. I guess I was and still sometimes am attempting to challenge the idea of “good” photography, or at least what I have learnt it to be. It frustrates me when people say something is good. I don’t know if I believe in the idea of a single “good” photograph. Decontextualizing a single photograph is a reaction to that. I believe in mistakes, I love work that fails at first, for me it asks more questions.
Your studio images in particular have a very graphic quality, it’s almost as if they’re collages. Tell us more about the process as well as your thinking behind these.
I would like to get back into taking studio photographs; I felt that the practice was as fundamental as learning to walk for my photography. It was a way to explore. The process was uninhabited. I would crop, stretch, re-photograph, cut and paste. In a way a lot of those photographs were collages. I liked how those photographs lied and played tricks, it gave me a kick.
Is there a particular image you’ve taken that stands out as a personal favourite? Or one that has a memorable story attached to it?
I shot some soldiers in Harare and got escorted to a holding cell. That was memorable for obvious reasons.
Your bio states that your objective “is to make interesting collections of images that tell stories about existence and ways of seeing”. Could you expand on this, referring to a collection of your own images as an example?
I think my most recent collection would work as a good example. “On Leaving” is a photo essay that captures abandoned automobiles found in airport parking lots around Southern Africa, and it is about the people who left them there.
Travelling from airport to airport, the objective is to find abandoned cars strewn across their parking lots. While photographing these cars, I will try to find any information I can about the identities of the owners and the time and circumstances of abandonment. License plate numbers and till slips, business cards and the scraps in the seat cushions, anything that will give clues will be filed, further shown and photographed to accompany the photographs of the cars.
In researching these vehicles and their owners, I will remain open to any circumstantial elements unique to the location and the time of abandonment, which will require research of local and national events at the time of abandonment. I plan on mixing fiction and fact to create a platform for viewers to consider reasons for staying and leaving, essentially a platform to reflect on environment. In stating “ways of seeing” I meant how South Africans in particular react to the environment we are presented with every day.
What, in your mind, makes a good photograph?
The photographs on either side of it. As a said before I don’t know if I believe in the notion of a single good photograph. Everyone can take a “good” photograph, it’s when combining images that photography begins to exist as something elevated, at least for me.
Has the act of taking photographs changed the way you look at or think about things?
The act of taking photographs is inherently a fairly easy process. The act of combining and thinking about how things and photography work in relation is a lot harder. For me thinking about things has changed how I view photography. Photography gives me a reason to process things and thinking about things helps me develop my photography. So yes I feed off the relationship and I process my ideas through imagery. Photography gives me a reason to see more clearly.
Are you currently working on any ongoing photo series or projects?
Yes the above mentioned project “On Leaving” which I’m hoping to get funding for. I also take photographs constantly because in the act I find and see new interests and stories.
What else can we expect from you in 2015?
Lots of photography work and hopefully a show and some motion film work with my girlfriend, Sacha Sultan.