THE INSTANT MEMORY OF THE PRESENT
Interview with Jochi Melero
A Conversation with Miguel Figueroa
During its 23 years at the Galería de arte de la Universidad del Sagrado Corazón, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, El paisaje en la cara (The face of the landscape) by Jochi Melero, has been the most successful exhibition ever. The gallery’s coordinator, Norma Vila, told me, “Every day we’ve had a lot of visitors. This has never happened.” The connection which exists between the photos and the viewer touches one of the basic fibers of life, familiarity. In situ, we are transported to the impossible state of wanting to be with a loved one for eternity. Photographer, mentor, creator, father, brother, son and grandfather, Jochi Melero is simply a human being just like you and me.
Miguel Figueroa: What does photography mean to you? How did your love for it begin? Do you remember the first photo you saw?
Jochi Melero: No, but there were many. I always have the memory of seeing my dad's family albums. He was an amateur photographer and became more and more interested in photography. He started working and learning more about it with Mario Cox: a photographer who was also an actor and had a theater group. Also, he was eminently self-taught and since he had connections with the theater he established an exchange to help and learn from them. From then, between what he learned and read, he began to do his own work. He set up his laboratory where eventually he developed and printed his own photographs.
My father spent his time portraying the whole family. Our uncles, aunts, cousins: anyone who stood in front of him. I always remember seeing albums upon albums of all this. Little by little, people began to take an interest in his work and began to pay him for it. At that time, he worked at Shell oil company as an engineer. But he began to take the amateur part more seriously and it started to become a second career. These albums and photos have been part of my first memories of photography and taking pictures. I remember every evening and Saturdays when my dad was either in his lab or taking pictures. For me it was very interesting when he closed the lab and then when he opened it there were always new photos printing. That feeling of what is new—its magic, its mystery—was all there. It was like watching my mom cooking.
And what did she do?
My mom was a housewife and gravitated towards housework. She used her free time for arts and crafts, making necklaces and lamps. My parents were a good team.
Ever since I remember, there was always good art in my house—paintings and graphic art— because my father had a good relationship with these artists and they made photo exchanges with him.
When was this?
In the 50s and 60s he became friends with artists such as [Rafael] Tufiño, [Lorenzo] Homar,[Antonio] Martorell and other artists who created a network supporting the performing arts. They designed posters, scenography and all the graphics related to the productions. My father was very interested in the visual aesthetics of the stage; while he wasn’t that interested in opera, he was into theater and ballet. For 30-35 years my dad gave his service to this creative world, including the directors, producers and all the staff related to it.
That world eventually became part of me because he would pass on those assignments to me when he was concentrating on others kinds of work. From 10-12 years old, I was working in photography one way or another. At age 12-13 I started to establish a relationship with Juan Rivera, a technician in Jorge Santana's laboratory, and I was excited because my dad stopped developing negatives and focused more on printing focusing more on the creative part of photography instead of the technicals. Developing negatives is an arduous process. You need a specific water,filters and chemicals that work in a certain way. The air has to be contained in a dust-free space dust so that when the negative is processing it does not pick up particles otherwise you’ll have to do manual retouching. He started collaborating a lot withJuan to develop negatives this interested me a lot. I learned a lot from him in the laboratory process, but also how they resolved situations in a simple andintelligentway.
At one point, my brother (who was a bit involved in the photography, my dad and I decided it was time to open a studio space where he could shoot as well as develop his work.
How many siblings do you have?
I have a sister who is 5 years older and a brother who is 10 years older than me. I’m the youngest. Whenever we did fashion photography the three of us worked together. We shared tasks: I experimented and they concentrated more on the technicalities. Sometimes we took hair, makeup or jewelry editorials as well as campaigns for designers.
This is very technical photography.
On the one hand yes, and on the other it’s photography that’s more about elegance and quality. A shoot may appear careless but it must also be clear that this is part of its intention and language. These assignments force you to enter a specific discipline, technical rigor and to have a vision.
Many times we depended on research done via American and European fashion magazines to see how things came together visually. We made some hybrids so that the designers could enhance their aesthetics in such a way that they could sustain in an international market.
Which ones did you use as a reference?
L'Officiel, Italian magazines; French, Italian and AmericanVogue; Australian, English and Italian Harper's Bazaar. Here in San Juan, we had no problem purchasing American magazines but what was really avant-garde and had more artistry were the European ones. There was experimentation, vision and generally, more quality. We subscribed to these magazines and they would arrive by boat two or three months later. But, you know, here everything arrives delayed…
Where would you find photography supplies at that time?
We had good suppliers here that stocked everything: chemicals, materials, film, cameras ... everything and anything. Sometimes things we needed extras of and they ordered them from the US or Europe for us. We did not have the economic affluence of American studios, but we could generate high quality work within our economicalcontext.
Were there other photographers working in the same way as your father at that time?
Very few… two or three, maybe ... Yes, there were photographers for newspapers and there were good industrial and advertising photographers but very few people were doing what we did in the same way. For a long time we were the only ones. For about 20 years, we worked on fashion, glamour, hair, makeup and jewelry editorials round the clock.
In the 70s and 80s I did many different album covers. Record labels saw us able to interpret the characteristics and personalities of artists. We were a reliable studio where people worked hard and produced high quality work.
Did you keep all this work?
I’ve kept everything that is black and white and everything that I consider to have artistic value. I keep all the political campaigns that I've done. I had a phase of my career where I did a lot of projects with architects, interior designers and automotive companies and I have kept those as well.
You also made short films for political parties.
Yes, many. Political videos and commercials were commissioned because political parties trusted me to work with their candidates and I had no problem working with them.
All of them?
Yes. My mission with a commissioned job is to do it well. The political ideologydoes not matter to me. They look for my work because they want quality and I try to focus on that in an objective way. There are people who prefer to work with people of their own political leaning. That's fine but I don’t work like that, my thing is integrity and commitment to quality.
Did you work with different political parties all at the same time?
Yes. Once I did portraits for all of them — the candidates of the PSP (The Socialist Party of Puerto Rico), the pro-independencePIP(Independent Puerto Rican Party), the pro-colony PPD (Popular Democratic Party) and the pro-statehood PNP (New Progressive Party). None of them had any problems with it because in the end, I shot wonderful portraits. [Both laugh]
Tell me about your decision to move to Italy?
There is a legacy of doctors in my family and my father wanted me to study medicine. That was not for me and I went to study communications in Italy. I applied to universities in the United States and gratefully, they did not accept me. This allowed me to go to Italy. Then, when I saw that the format and atmosphere of those universities in Rome and Milan was religious, I decided that it was not the place for me to study communications.
I returned to Rome and tried to get into a very well-known institute, Centro Sperimentale, but it was closed. So, I went to the Scuola di Cineoperatori della Gioventú Italiana, a vocational school of the Italian government, that had a program for camera assistant and operators instead. What I learned, I learned it well, and the knowledge that was passed on helped me a lot and expanded my horizons. I had a baccalaureate in science and with that training I was able to develop an articulate language with a different and more complete technical complexity. The scientific rigor of physics, chemistry and biology helped me a lot.
How did biology help you?
Biology is based on the observation of life and how living thingsoperate. The other way it helped me was that it is that a technical work system built upon physics, optics, mathematics and the relationship between things. I wanted to follow the footsteps of the great photographers, but there was a reality to confront. I was not a photojournalist, I was not in a group like Magnum, nor in a photographic studio belonging important and famous photographer. The typical thing at the time was that to get ahead you had to have worked with someone in a well-established studio in New York, Los Angeles or Europe. You had to be a subordinate for a while in order to be able to move on to something else. In Puerto Rico that system didn’t exist, so I had to be self-taught.
But all of that also gave you a lead. I interviewed some of the assistants for Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and Helmut Newton. All of them told me the same thing: when they left to do their own thing, their careers as photographers were short-lived because of the pressure to grow out of such a large shadow. They did not have the power to keep up with them. The only one who has been able to maintain a stable career was Irving Penn's assistant, Nicola Majocchi.
What I want to get to is that I think that if you had been an apprentice to an important photographer ...
It would’ve screwed my... the other thing is that all photographers operate as gatekeepers to the new generationwho become their replacements which arise from relationships with their “peers”. It happens and "boom!" You already have it. But keeping your momentum is a different story. What you say is very true, becoming an apprentice to a photographer would’ve made my road difficult.
But you were your father’s assistant.
Yes and no. My dad worked veryindependently, he almost did not need help. I did need assistants; I had four who are now directors of photography, film directors and important photographers.
Who are they?
Frank Elías, Sonnel Velázquez and Victor Vázquez. They are important in their own right. I always supported them in everything. The other one was my apprentice is Willie Berrios, who is a good director of photography as well as cinematography. To this day, my exchange with Frank and Sonnel is very solid and we support each other. When they have a need or whatever, I am there and we help each other. We are united. There is a very close relationship. We also share a vision on people and how we understand Puerto Rico. That brings us together.
A feeling of community and support network is very important.
Yes, absolutely. To this day, that gives me great satisfaction.
This is not usually the norm ... there is a lot of envy in the industry.
Look ... the negative interpretation of Darwinism promotes the scheme of survival of the fittest, divide and conquer, stay at the top of the food chain and if you seem to be more evolved it’s because you are superior to others. My interpretation is that of all that nonsense sustained slavery for a long time in trying to show that colonialism was justified by nature or the parameters of evolution and survival processes. So what happened? They sent this man to on a journey to observe and take notes to form some conclusions so that a group of Englishmen would not feel guilty about what they were doing to India, Africa and the Pacific ... colonizing and robbing people who submitted to their needs for control and economic power. That puts them in an ideal position because they were hidden in England and the oppressed were not going to get to them.
Over time things changed and new ways of seeing things happened. There is a molecular biologist who found that in communities there is no such thing like ‘Darwinism’. What exists is cooperation. Cooperation is what sustains nature, communities and animals. You will never see a lion with 100 gazelles in a refrigerator. That does not exist. He eats one and it's over. When he needs another he eats it. That community does not abuse nor accumulate, they just use what they are going to consume.
That way other things come to you.
Of course. Things like trees, which have animals that eat, fertilize it, live there, and others come and feed themselves ... they are communities, they communicate and interrelate in a healthy and practical way. We still cannot really understand that. But, I hope we are on the way to that because cooperation is the only way that truly responds to the conscience and the future of humanity. It is difficult to understand, but I hope it happens.
Few of usunderstand this.
I believe that this also happens in groups of creative people because when that awareness comes everything is much easier. I don’t know what my children will end up doing, but I hope this way of thinking is passed on to my offspring. Many times we are not aware that we are birds of passage, at some point we are going to leave the planet and we’ll leave something behind. You have to be clear that it’s good, so you make sure that what you did has meaning. You also have to get away from cynicism and feeding existentialdramas.
All that limits you as a person.
When we get away from that, we work with results. My exhibition is about determining how many good things arise from that. I am not talking about the monetary aspects, but the social good involved and the aesthetic legacy that is generated from the ways of seeing people. It is an exhibition of the humanity of people for human beings.
And that is what is transmitted there.
Many people talk about street photography. I talk about the photography of the human. Street photography is what’s cool now and it boomed after the discovery of Vivian Maier. After that everyone became aware through the internet, which is really a bunch of things going on at the same time. This becomes a category ofmultiplicity. [Edward] Steichen and Eugène Atget made street photography. The only thing is that they didn’t do it with a phone or a 35 [mm] camera, they did it with an 8x10 camera.
Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin too.
It’s the same for [Henri] Cartier-Bresson and Sebastian Salgado with his Survivors Camp photography. All of that is photography of the human. If it is a landscape, it does not matter because the person who took it was a human. It is not the camera alone, it is the person who faces the landscape. It may not have a human [in the photo] but it is a human who is looking at it.
It has that same emotion and passion.
Exactly. For example, an object or a building was made by human beings. Everything is photography of the human. I hope that someday people will start to see things from that perspective. Everyone is setting up situations that look like spectacular or memorable things which are highly produced and directed to create the perception that an almost metaphysical synchronicity occurs at that moment. When in fact, it is something totally fictitious to the nature of what is happening there because it is totally transformed and manipulated.
Doing for the sake of it.
Well ... it is generating the notion of creating a magical moment when it was not so, because it was completely intentional and mechanically constructed. I'm not going to deny the aesthetic possibility because there is the emotion that produces that image, but I do not see the manipulative intervention taking the natural to being integral in its essence first. It can be one way, but not the other. Aesthetics must always be at the service of integrity but not necessarily in order to be genius. Those photos are very good, but I would not do that kind of photography.
But you do your snapshots.
I do snaps, but I do not add anything. I'm not going to set up a day production to snap a location to make it look like I was there when that was happening. If something happens, good and, if not, it’s good too. In that vein, I like the work of David LaChapelle and Dina Goldstein, they do some really fucking great things. There is no intention to appear documentary-like. In this type of photography, the statement is different. You see the authorship in front and do not try to hide it behind something to make it look like reality.
It is the language of the photographer.
Yes! And it’s fearless! He puts his balls on the table and says "we are going to work and this is what it is". I respect that mental process a lot.
But your photos have a language of their own.
Okay, yes, they do. I try to maintain the integrity, the naturalness of things and their authenticity. It's a matter of being there, if it went well, and if not, I keep walking. It’s like everything in life. For example, in relationships — of people, objects, places or landscapes — not all are good. It depends on what happens with what you have in front of you. There are times when one is fortunate and things happen. Sometimes, if it’s not there you simply have to move on.
Because if not, you won’t grow.
You have to dedicate a little more time to things because when that happens—it’s happening. That is very powerful. At least, I feel it that way, if not, you have to move until it happens again. You have to be aware and attentive. If not, these moments will go away. You have to see things as they are and be pleased and grateful with what you have in front of you.
Do. If things are not done, you have to give them time. Everything has its space of greatness. Then, little by little you try to swing around something and gravitate towards that. If it happened and it's there, good. If not, keep looking. If it has already happened, go somewhere else because it is not going to get better. Then it will become repetitive and then the law of diminishing return will begin to take over that. The more you try, the worse it will be.
How do you see the progression of your photography?
That is very interesting as it occurs because there are periods connected to the interests that one has. Mentality changes according to the situations in which one is living, the context and the environment. An endless number of things that you leave behind and go back to, seeing them with a different set of eyes. We identify a cycle that we recognize and runs for a while. There a voice inside that tells us "in this cycle, he had this; release it and go to the next one."
Language depends on an emotional process of connection and search at the same time. Once you think that, it is more or less that you have to let go so that it will mature on its own and you need to move to something else to pick it up again to see if you are within the parameters of the thoughts that you abandoned or not. It is a revival, a revisit to an old friend or a person, to find a reference about what is yours and what is happening. It will always be an internal and external process of what is happening and how you process it.
How many periods have you had?
I spend periods where there is portrait with landscape, others are either landscapes or portraits, objects and/or objects with landscape.
Not that much. Family is incidental, whether it is there or not, it is a given. They are me and I am them. I see it that way. Sometimes I go back and release it. Usually it will respond to an internal need, a process that is what’s going to try to find that space, people or combination. It is very difficult [to explain] but I listed what could basically be, but not in how many times and in what proportion or in how much time. It is similar to eating: “I've already eaten meat twice this week, now I have to move onto fish, vegetables, or I want to eat something else ..." The need for expression is intimately linked to this basic process of eating or drinking: "I do not want to drink more wine, today I want to have a beer.” It's what the body needs, the intelligence of things, my emotions and my own mystery.
Life is repetition.
Of course. Think of the most basic thing of living as human beings: breathing. What is it? Try to stop breathing and see what happens. You have to go to the most elementary—and breath is that. Sighs are a different way of breathing, they are in a context and have an intention: to let go. You become aware of the breath, you enter into it and it can become a work of art on a metaphorical level and a work of art at the level of your spiritual and emotional formations.
What is the first thing they teach you in any ancient religious order where spirituality and basic behavior go hand in hand? Breathe. Buddhism, meditation and yoga teach you to it. In all those disciplines there’s a mixture of the body with spirituality where the starting point is breathing.
All this applies to photography.
In photography, the main thing is observation. A director or photographer can only reproduce what he observes. He does so by creating a specific emotion that he considers to be worth his interest, but then he does not present it as something that represents him. Bam! That's that. How will it stay? Right or wrong? It all depends on the ability of that person to commit to a deep meaning and purpose. If that does not happen, the work does not stand on its own.
During the selection process of images for the exhibitions you told me some anecdotes of what happened during the period in which the photos that we see in the show were taken. Before we go, could you share another one?
I was in Rome, in Via della Croce where there was a trattoria that I liked very much, Otello della Concordia(which still exists). There was a very interesting man with crutches asking for money. I decided to get a little closer to shoot his portrait. He turned around for a moment in a way that I kept shooting him but it seems that he got very angry at me. I pulled back and saw that he wanted to throw his crutches at me, so I ran off but he threw them. They fell next to me but they didn’t hit me. I decided to leave him alone. I believe that person had a lot of anger and asked for love through his violence. In most cases I try to make people feel my respect towards them and people react to it.
That is very important, because some photographers have a bad reputation of obsessing over their subjects and doing whatever it takes to shoot them.
Respect is fundamental in everything: with oneself, objects, people, places and spaces. One has to show respect so that you receive respect back. If you do not respect your car, it breaks down. If you do not respect your camera, it does not respect you. It will break and you cannot work with it anymore. It is detrimental to the relationship you have with whatever it is, including yourself. Respect is fundamental for things to work.
If you do not respect yourself, who will respect you?
That is not negotiable. Respect is a way of recognizing the divine intelligence in a being or in something deeply. What is important in the work of a photographer or artist is that in any form of art, he brings to the observer one more possibility to understand something: to open a mental space that is for development, intelligence and connection. That's what it's about. The shared good is the true good. It is not giving of what is left over, but of what you have. That's where the truth of the world resides.