In Focus: Blurring reality on the streets of New York City with photographer Melissa Breyer
To Melissa Breyer, beauty is an alluring aspect of daily life too tangible to ignore.
With a childhood dream mapped out to be a painter, Breyer would toy with different mediums of artistic expression in a bid to quench the thirst for communicating the vision of the world around her before settling with a camera in hand.
While the desire to transmit her work through a lens has grown organically, Breyer has managed to carve out her own world within a vast field of stylistic approaches and, in doing so, has successfully conveyed an alternative take on street photography—but specifically attempting to label her work is problematic and, in truth, too limiting.
With elements of film noir, vintage film and classic fashion photography, Breyer’s black-and-white images exploring the streets of New York City offer a snapshot into how the artist sees the world. Picking out intrinsic and poignant moments of daily life, her work manages to blur the lines of reality yet almost feel tangible in a unique but contradictory manner.
“I fall for beauty, in all its many, many guises,” Breyer told me of her inspiration. “I like elegance and dignity, among all walks of life. And I like a timeless feel because it puts the focus on the figure, their emotion, and an enduring sense of humanity.”
We’re focusing on your series ‘True Stories’ could you explain where this idea came from?
“It started off as random images that evolved into a revolving, ongoing series of candid photography. The work is a catalogue of strangers’ stories; glimpses of the split seconds that comprise the minutes, hours, and days of the six million people who live in New York City.
“I love the play between real and surreal; between fiction and non-fiction. We are constantly surrounded by all of these strange scenes that we become immune to—afforded by things like the abstraction of reflections, the hunger of shadows, the mischievous dance of light. In True Stories, I’m looking for moments that may be somehow detached from reality, visually—but are nonetheless true, represented as the camera sees them.”
It’s clear that your work manages to blur the lines of reality, how was the scenario of this series was formed? I noticed your work has developed certain ‘film noir’ elements, has this genre of cinema impacted your vision?
“I stumbled into street photography on my own; but once I really started exploring the genre and seeing other people’s photos, I was all over the place in terms of style. Like, I really wanted to take humorous photos—but it just didn’t work. Finally, I realised I just needed to follow that deepest creative current within, that indescribable pull where you let intuition drive. I turned off my brain and this series is what happened.
“I agree there’s a film noir feel, but it’s not a cinematic style I have studied much. I strive to create an atmosphere and am likely influenced by the look of vintage film and old fashion photography. I like moody, and I like a timeless feel because it offers some detachment from modern reality and thus a focus on feeling. In that way, my photos push against the ‘street photography’ label. I am definitely influenced by literature; fairy tales and Victorian novels live constantly in my head.”
I understand that your work rallies against a strict street photography label, but I’m interested as to know what led you down the path of creating this type of work? Given how prevalent some of the people are in your images, how do you approach them and what is their reaction to your art?
“There was a point after college when I was travelling a lot and taking photos; when I would return to the city, I’d just keep taking my travel photos at home. When I found out there was such a thing as street photography, I felt like I found my people.
“I don’t interact with the people in my images very much; I try to stay discreet so as not to break the mood of a photo. And in NYC, so many people/tourists have cameras that everyone ends up in photos all the time anyway. When I do have eye contact with someone I have photographed, I usually just give a smile and nod. I’m happy to show them what I have taken if they seem interested.”
Given your method, could you run us through your process? What distinctive imagery are you looking for?
“I usually start with a destination, initially decided by the time of day and the weather. I love how light creates a scene, so on days with good sunshine, I will go to a place where I know light and shadows will be playing nicely with the architecture. If it’s a cloudy day, I may go to areas with nice windows for reflections or an indoor public space.
“What I look for is emotion and/or theatricality, I suppose. And I am pretty nostalgic, even for times I have not known, so I look for backdrops that are generally free of an excess of modern trappings. Once all of that is in place, I start people watching and see what happens.
“I also bring my camera everywhere, and sometimes photos appear out of nowhere in surprising places.”
You have such a specific style in your work, how have you managed to develop your own distinct aesthetic within photography?
“I am a happy person, but I have wistful streak a mile wide, and there’s something about all of these people living in the city—all of their histories and stories, their happiness and sorrows, their dreams and desires—it’s just all so beautiful and profound. I kept listening to the feelings the city gives me, and the style emerged from that, I suppose.
“Again, a lot of it is just intuition—but there is definitely a lifetime of input that has informed that intuition. There is a dark, in the loveliest way, Norwegian grandmother and a bent toward melancholia. (Like, my life is wonderful, but I listen to sad songs.) My low-fi approach and that noir feeling just feel like the right way to portray Gotham and its people.”
Generally speaking, what attracts you to a certain subject or field?
“I fall for beauty, in all its many, many guises. I like elegance and dignity, among all walks of life. And I like a timeless feel because it puts the focus on the figure, their emotion, and an enduring sense of humanity. Because of these things, I veer away from the noisy modern hubbub and crowds in sweatpants carrying plastic shopping bags and talking on their mobile phones.
“Those scenes may more accurately document modern times, but it just doesn’t appeal to me at all.”
Is there a specific moment of beauty, or anything poignant, that you can recall that made you want to pursue photography?
“I grew up expecting to be a painter, and then when I became one and started selling my work, I realised I didn’t want to be a painter. I went back to school and got an MA to write about applied arts and design and decided to teach myself photography as an easier way to continue to make images in the meantime. I literally bought a ‘Photography for Dummies’ book and a grown-up camera and went to work.
“In my youth, as an artsy punk teen in L.A., I had always taken snapshots in black and white film… expanding that was a natural direction for me. As a figurative painter, taking photos of people was also natural. On the timeline of my creative life, taking candid pictures of people in public makes perfect sense.”
What do you think makes a certain photograph stand out from the norm? What makes a certain photograph memorable?
“I think it all depends on a personal connection at some level—and I think that a photograph can really speak to someone when it is taken from a genuine perspective.”
What did you seek to capture most in your series?
“To be honest, the one and only thing I look for is this: Does the image jiggle something in my heart/brain? It needs to check at least one of many boxes: Is it beautiful, weird, dreamy, elegant, show dignity, evoke mystery, reveal abstraction, express compassion, suggest a story, time travel, et cetera?”
Did the atmosphere change when you began to understand more about your process?
“I think the only thing that has changed is that I have become super selective, both in shooting and editing.
“I used to go out and take a zillion photos per outing; now sometimes I don’t even take one—I suppose I know exactly what I am looking for and there’s less random grabbing of everything. And then when it comes to editing, I only choose to work on the photos that I feel strongly about… and then from there, only add a few to the body of work.”
Do you have any ideas in terms of which sphere of life you may be exploring next?
“Well there is always something bubbling in the background. In terms of creative curiosity, I have explored everything from papermaking and welding/foundry work to knitting and glassblowing. And for the last few years I have had a regular side hustle of making fancy sweet confections for parties. I will always be trying new creative ventures, but photography has stuck with me for 20 years—the last ten of that being constant—so I think it’s here for good.
“That said, I have been craving the smell of linseed oil and paint again and I would like to learn a new language and maybe try living in another country for a while—but none of that precludes a continuation of taking photos of strangers in the street.”