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Desert Fest

 by Sam Mellish

To capture something in a tender way, something that is not intrinsically tender, is a tough endeavour.

London-based photographer Sam Mellish has managed to achieve a quiet and beautiful portrayal of the Desertfest community; Desertfest being an annual weekender festival based in Camden dedicated to stoner rock music.

Desert Fest is the result of Mellish’s interest in this community of music lovers with strong identities and colourful characters, a small and simple but honest self-published zine, with simple but honest portraiture.

A style that contrasts with the stereotypical styles and types of this subculture and music scene, but works perfectly well in Mellish’s wonderful project.

It is this direct approach that we admire, a different approach to the usual, and the huge effort put into the work — Mellish shot the entire thing on large format — which absolutely shows through.

We spoke to Mellish ahead of Desertfest 2017, which opens this Friday 28th April. Read our interview with him and find out more about his practice and his project!

I grew up in Suffolk, in a small village south of Ipswich in the United Kingdom, but I now live in South London with my girlfriend and little cat. I’d say I’m a commercial and editorial photographer.

I earned my photography wings hustling to get images published in action sport magazines, when you would send editors a sheet or two of slide film. It was a great time to get involved. I also shot for various brands within the sports industry — it’s been a privilege to work so closely with Vans since those early days.

This background in sport editorial photography, which I’m still lucky enough to do today, led me into commercial work, which is pretty varied.

I work on national campaigns for clients like Crisis and Lloyds Bank Foundation, so I get to see a lot of good work happening in the third sector.

I also do work for more straightforward commercial clients like Red Bull. I like to balance commissioned work with personal projects to keep things fresh. Despite the constant hustle, it’s a good position to be in.

What’s your story?

During my late teens I started to shoot on 35mm film, and mixed this hobby with a passion for travel. My dad gave me a Canon EOS 500 before I headed away on a six month trip to Africa.

I don’t think he ever knew the impact the camera would have on me. Before becoming a full-time photographer, I worked all over the world in kitchens, cooking in ski resorts throughout Europe to beach resorts down under, and local bistros in Suffolk between seasons — this travel provided a good backdrop to learn photography.

I also volunteered as a project photographer in Africa and India on a few occasions, so my late teen to mid-twenties was very much dominated by travel. It was an incredible journey.

Please tell us about Desert Fest.

Desert Fest is a limited edition photo-zine featuring 41 unique portraits of the people who attended the 5th Desertfest in Camden last year. All images were captured outside the Black Heart pub using an old fashioned Zone VI large format camera.

I’ve been into Desertfest for a while. I like all types of music, though I’m a big fan of metal and stoner rock. What particularly attracted me to Desertfest was the loyal following and a strong identity of the community — hopefully that’s what I’ve captured.

I can identify with Camden and it’s scene. I find the area very honest, yet being uniquely raw, so for me this was a perfect marriage of subject + project.

Ultimately, I was stoked that I had been given so much freedom, and this goes to the Desertfest organisers for giving me that free rein.

Your project is made up of very direct, simple portraits of the festival-goers; what made you decide to choose this approach?

The set up for Desertfest involved quite a bit of trial and error. I tried a few approaches shooting people in Camden previous to the 5th Desertfest.

I even brought a massive ring flash and digital camera to the festival in 2014 and shot around Camden, but wasn’t getting the results I wanted.

I don’t think I even got my camera out during the actual festival as it didn’t feel right. I knew it was the crowd I wanted to shoot rather than the bands.

I’m really inspired by the late American photographer, Richard Avedon — his large format work In The American West is so iconic. That book is a real inspiration to me.

Can I ask why you decided not to shoot in colour?

Honestly, it fitted in with my budget. After researching all the types of film to buy, I went with B&W Fomapan 200. It saved me a small fortune.

I think it’s important that photographers seriously consider budget — and time — when working on personal projects.

There were a lot of colourful characters, so many detailed tattoos and cool denim patches. Lots of denim! One lady in particular I would have liked to photograph in colour.

However, I think the aesthetic works incredibly well shot this way. It is very raw; it might be just me, but I feel it’s rather revealing. These are honest portraits — maybe the colour would distract somehow from the person?

As an example, I don’t think the image of Steve Hayley (below) would be quite so striking if it were in colour. Maybe I’m wrong.

What was your experience of using a large-format camera during the project?

It was 100% a positive experience. I began shooting on a 35mm film camera, and still regularly shoot on a Mamiya, which is medium format — the tonal range is incredible when using Kodak Portra — so I’m a big fan of traditional techniques.

I have to admit, before the Desertfest, I was a bit nervous about how people would react to the camera. The access road near the Black Heart pub where I photographed is sealed off during the festival, and it’s quite a tight space.

I made a few trips to check it out and see if I would have enough space to work, but with crowds on a heavy weekend session, I did wonder if I would be in the way.

As it happens, the whole weekend was a huge success — I was really humbled by the way people reacted to the camera. People gave me space in a busy, boozy environment. People were very respectful and actually were intrigued by the camera.

Obviously it slows you down, shooting on a large format camera. Over the three day event, I probably shot about 50/60 plates. So it’s very time consuming.

But the way the people respected the set-up was really touching. I had a very clear vision of what I wanted to achieve before the festival, I talked through the idea with the organisers and I asked for space to be able to create this work. I also had an assistant with me for the weekend, so this obviously helped.

So it goes without saying, a big thanks to all who were drinking at the Black Heart over that weekend for giving me space to work.

Why did you choose to publish the project as a book?

I could see the value of making this body of work into book form. I have my own imprint, Diesel Books, which I set up in 2010, and since then I have self-published three titles: On The RoadRoadside Britain and Watford Gap. I really enjoy the process of making these individual titles and it’s very rewarding.

Laying out the images, constructing the copy, working with printers… and finally when the first copies arrive, it’s a wonderful experience.

With regards to Desert Fest, I thought it would be really fun to produce this new zine and then launch at this year’s festival. I did play with the idea of doing an exhibition, but I think this is the best approach.

You’ll notice on my website, Desert Fest is laid out as diptychs. In addition, the tones and the contrast in the blacks all work really well in print.

The team at Desertfest itself were more than happy for the title to be sold during the weekend, so it all came together really well. I’m hoping to produce another title by the end of the year so do keep an eye out.

Most of your work focuses on people, and portraiture. What is it about photographing people that you enjoy?

I’m very curious about people — they are the fabric of life. I’ve always had an interest in documentary photography and I tend to gravitate towards projects that have a social narrative.

What’s on your recommendations list?

Oh good question. I was never much of a reader until I read Of Mice & Men by Steinbeck for GCSE English — the book had such an impact.

Currently, I’m reading James Joyce’s Dubliners — I’ve just come back from Dublin. Before that was The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down by Haemin Sunim, and currently on my bedside table, waiting patiently is Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan.

Music is a mixed bag. One minute it will be something heavy yet melodic like The Sword, or a band called Colour Haze who are worth a listen, or something classic… Neil Young, Nick Drake. Gentlemen’s Pistols or Graveyard are a good take on modern classic rock.

I’ve been listening to an album by Jimi Hendrix that I’ve not heard before called Machine Gun, then there’s Sabbath, Queens of the Stone Age, White Stripes — all good stuff.

Next it’ll be Coltrane, Stan Getz, Miles Davis. Then I’ll want something like War on Drugs, or early Nightmare on Wax, Nina Simone or Howling Wolf… All depends of my mood to be honest. I dig BBC Radio 6 music.

The most recent TV program I’ve been watching is This Country. It’s very funny. I don’t really get around to watching box sets, but am a sucker for sit-coms. Have you watched Detectorist? Genius!

Finally, tell us about an artist who inspires you.

When I shot my second book, Roadside Britain. I was very inspired by Paul Graham and his work in A1 — The Great North Road. And then there is Avedon.

When I was about 17, I watched a BBC documentary about Martin Parr and it was like a eureka moment. Parr’s approach to photography blow me away. Growing up in a small Suffolk village with a family devoted to sport, seeing his work was really refreshing.

More recently, I’ve been really into Stuart Freedman’s recent collections. The Palaces Of Memory is simply beautify while his new work, The English Man and the Eel is a lovely take on a fading East London tradition.

But if I were to say just one photographer that inspires me, it would be Danny Zapalac. He shot some incredible snowboard photographs while I was cutting the mustard, hustling for the attention of the action sport picture editors. I really dig his style. He published a limited book called Mile Seventy Eight which sits proudly on my bookshelf.

The Desert Fest zine is now available to purchase in-person from The Photographer’s Gallery in London, or online here.

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