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Photographic portraits offer an insightful view into the life of a subject. An even deeper story is told when we as viewers are given the opportunity to see subjects in their own environments. Photographer Nick Mele is an incredible talent in the world of photography whose work shines exceptionally bright in portraits, particularly those taken in the home. His focus and love for “fabulous interiors and the people who inhabit those spaces” results in images that draw the eye and hold it there, revealing whimsical details through his unique perspective.
The interiors that he features in his photographs are luxurious, bold, and stylish homes that make the viewer want to know more about the person or people that live there. His work which showcases classic American luxury with a twist has naturally been compared to Slim Aarons, and one could easily describe Mele’s photographs in the same way Aarons once described his own work: “attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places.”
While the comparison is apt, Mele’s work is uniquely his own, often offered with a bit of a wink. There is joy and a sense of humor present through it is clear that he has a deep respect and admiration for who and what he captures in his work.
With his first book A Newport Summer released last month, we touched base with the photographer of all things chic to learn more about his work.
As a young person, Nick Mele did not dream of becoming a photographer, though looking back, all the elements were there. “For as long as I can remember, I have been into some form of art. As a child, I loved to draw. As I got older, my patience for drawing a portrait got shorter, and I was drawn to the immediate satisfaction of taking someone’s picture. Even though back then, it was still mostly filmed, and you had to wait for everything to develop.”
After some time spent trying things out and soul searching as an adult, Nick found his way back to photography. “My parents always encouraged me to follow my interests and do something creative with my life, but I spent a great deal of my 20’s worrying about making the wrong choice. All I knew was I didn’t want a normal nine to five job. So I went to photography school post-college to put off the decision longer. It was only after I had tried working in the movie business, returned to school and got my MBA, and spent a few years bartending that I finally returned to photography full time.”
One element that makes his work so appealing is that he is clearly very well acquainted with the world he photographs. Writers often hear that they should write what they know, and the same can be said for the art of photography. As a result, Nick can offer an insider’s look at a world of very well-appointed spaces with equally chic inhabitants.
“A big part of the draw to photography for me was the ability to capture a moment in time. I have always been a very nostalgic person, so I started off taking pictures of my family and friends as a way to remember things. As I got older, I began to realize how unique my surroundings were. Growing up in traditionally guarded communities like Washington DC, Newport, and Palm Beach gave me access to a lifestyle most people don’t get to see firsthand. In particular, I had a great affinity for my grandmother and her generation and wanted to try and capture that world before it disappeared.”
In addition to his knowledge of photographic style and aesthetically pleasing images, he possesses an awareness of and appreciation for interior design that allows him to select what he photographs with a highly discerning eye. “As a child, I was surrounded by amazing decor and insanely talented decorators. My grandmother’s house was designed by Sister Parish. Anthony Brown and Mario Buatta were regular guests at dinner. My parents taught me that bad taste was better than no taste, and a well-decorated home was something to be appreciated. So, I love capturing fabulous interiors, but even more so, I love capturing fabulous people in their fabulous interiors.”
His well-honed eye for design and interest in people drives his interest in the portraits he captures so beautifully. “I decided early on in my career that a person’s environment can say as much about them as their clothes or their expression, and often it’s the interaction of all three that makes for a great portrait. A great interior gets infinitely better when there is someone interesting in it and vice versa. It’s very hard for me to get excited about a portrait against a plain background unless there is something intrinsically unique about that person.”
It is easy to see why his work has often been compared to iconic American Mid-Century photographer of socialites, beautiful homes, and luxurious environments, Slim Aarons. However, his influences are quite a bit more varied. “For obvious reasons, I am often called a modern Slim Aarons. Our mutual affection for the environmental portrait combined with our shared subject matter makes the comparison inevitable. However, I also draw from photographers like Tina Barney, Betty Kuhner, and Sally Mann. I love their naturalistic approaches to light and to photographing family. I’m a huge fan of Norman Rockwell as well. His illustrations have informed my whimsical sensibilities and my desire to tell stories within my photos. In that sense, so too am I influenced by filmmaker Wes Anderson’s cinematography, set design, and sense of humor. I could go on and on about the different artists whose work has crept into my photographic sensibilities.”
While he may draw influence from some strong forces in the world of photography and portraiture, his perspective is all his own. “I try to fill the gap between aspiration and attainability. I want to combine aspects of old-world glamour with a sense of effortless elegance and a modern irreverence. I try not to take myself too seriously, and as a result, I hope my subjects don’t as well. As a photographer, it’s very important to have a recognizable style and point of view. Otherwise, it’s very easy to get lost in the sea of talented people with cameras out there. My style has developed through trial and error over the years. It was a slow process of taking bits and pieces from the works of people I admire and fitting them into my perspective of the world.”
Not only is his perspective his own, but often his subjects are, in fact, his own family. His wife and child are featured in a series documenting his family life that shows not only the style we are accustomed to seeing in his work but warmth and charm as well. “I have always found that family members as potential subject matter are readily available and have a hard time saying no. What started out as free labor, however, has slowly become an ongoing project to document our lives in a fashionable yet whimsical manner. I think they secretly like it, but you’d never know because they always need ample warning and, even then, bribery is usually involved.”
As with his portraits of others, we get to enjoy the gorgeous design of Nick’s own home when his lens is turned toward his own family and self. “There’s a great term that was coined a couple of years ago that really resonated with me: grand millennial. It’s a nod to old-school design, traditional and classic in style, but with a fresh twist of youth. I’m definitely a maximalist. More is more for me. Pattern on pattern and art on top of art. I love a good gallery wall. I have great affection for my grandmother’s taste and my mother’s taste, and all my favorite things are pieces that have been given to me by them.”
Next up for Nick is his first book, A Newport Summer, released last month by Vendome Press. “In many ways, Newport, RI is one of the last bastions of old school American high society. The grand houses of yesteryear still stand – often untouched by modern renovation and style. Things like artwork, fine china, and the importance of good manners are passed down from generation to generation. Yet, it is a town that refuses to forget its history and tradition. Walking through people’s homes, you can almost see the ghosts of parties past – splendid cocktail affairs and marvelous dinners that have left a palpable imprint behind. Underneath everyone’s perception of its wealth, Newport has an understated elegance – the things that set it apart from every other summer destination – a charming patina from generations of being. A Newport Summer is a coffee table book about real people and houses. There is new money and old money, but there is always a sense of history, style, and tradition. The book is an agglomeration of all my photos over the past 15 years of shooting there; everything from portraits to interiors to parties and more.”
Five Questions with Photographer Nick Mele
TLV: How have the cities you have lived in (or visited) impacted your design aesthetic?
NM: I certainly have a greater affinity for the look and feel of the northeast. I love colonial houses and places that feel lived in. The Spanish style homes that are so common in Florida don’t do it for me as much. I also have a real hard time with modern design and modern art.
TLV: Favorite travel destination?
NM: Paris. I think I would like to live there when the kids are little bit older.
TLV: Ideal way to unwind after a long week?
NM: I’m a huge movie fan. Growing up my parents would take me to the theater almost once a week. There is nothing I enjoy more than a bowl of pasta and a good film with my family on Saturday night.
TLV: Do you have a dream project you would love to do that you have not yet had the chance to work on?
NM: There isn’t one single project that pops into my head. I am currently working on a series of fine art photos for the first time in my career. Those will be out later this year and hopefully it opens a new avenue for me creatively. I would love to do another book like A Newport Summer but focused on Palm Beach. Other than that, I really look forward to expanding my commercial client base and getting the chance to continue shooting fantastic characters and amazing interiors.
TLV: Favorite project in your body of work?
NM: My continuous photo series chronicling my own family’s adventures which can be found on Instagram @A.Social.Life
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Photos Courtesy of Nick Mele / Text by Liana Hayles Newton