Artist Spotlight : Melissa Barrett

Melissalaree_photowalkThis week, the spotlight is on Texan artist, Melissa Barrett. We found Melissa through our Instagram feed and we loved the art she is creating with instant film.  One look at her work and I think you will be inspired to create something. She truly is making art, and not just taking pictures. Her story is really amazing and she tells a great story. I can see how her up bringing has inspired her today. Please enjoy her amazing work, her great story, and her great answers!

Website | Instagram

•A little about yourself. Where you are from and what you do.

I was born and raised in Houston, Texas just south of the chemical plants and refineries lining the Houston Ship Channel. Grandparents on both sides worked in the plants, but my dad was a motorcycle cop, and to this day, I can’t see one without thinking of him. My mom stayed at home and managed the house, cooked amazing food, canned pears from our yard, and grew vegetables whenever we had the space. For as long as I can remember, both my mom and dad are always trying something new: gardens, chickens, carpentry, owning a flower shop and various other businesses, stained glass, sewing, bread baking, traveling in motorhomes across the country, they never stop and yet still find time to care for family. Without that spirit, I don’t think I would be who I am, as cliche as that sounds. 

I’ve lived in Denton, TX, a farm outside of Waco, TX, Brooklyn, southern Utah, and now Wichita Falls (Texas again….there’s a pattern). I’ve shot and skinned a goat, built gardens, learned to bake bread, travelled the country, rock climbed, chased rainstorms on the line between Utah and Arizona, tried surfing, waterskiing, canoeing, and through it all a camera has been closeby. 

So now…2014. I am an elementary school librarian, a mother of a three year old, a wife, and through it all I’m working on photo projects and trying to learn new mediums. I like to explore, so as soon as I figure one thing out, I want to try something new. Not great for a business, but it feeds the soul.

How did you get into instant photography?

 In high school it was disposable cameras, then right after high school, I tried 35mm but, without a good teacher, could not understand how exposure worked, so I would run through bland roll after roll. I found an old Polaroid (600maybe?) at a thrift store, bought film at Walmart, carried it around taking pictures of friends. Honestly, I can’t remember where that camera went, or where most of the prints went. I found two about a year ago buried in a suitcase full of pictures from my highschool years and from college and the farm.

My mom even bought me one of those crazy little instant cameras (high school again) that has a long strip you pull out. I thought that was amazing.

So last year I found a Polaroid Land 100 in the bottom basement of a local antique/junk shop and bought it for $20. The battery compartment was corroded, so I watched a lot of YouTube videos to figure out my options. It took a while (because I work and raise a toddler and cook and clean ect), but I eventually replaced the battery with a AAA flashlight battery holder, snipped some wires, and taped it all back together.

Since then I like to carry it when I hike or travel, to photo meetups, or to any project I’m working on.

 What is your favorite camera used for instant photography?

Back to the Land100. I had to change the batteries, and now the tape is coming loose all the time, allowing the wires to loosen up and sometimes not trip the shutter. Frustrating–would be an understatement. The owner of Denton Camera Exchange, Armand, sauters the wires together when he converts the Lands to AAA and gave me the idea in the first place. He told me last week to bring it by and he can help me out.

The thing doesn’t even have a case, but I refuse to buy a better one, even though I know it would be more satisfying in the long run. I’m addicted to the fact that I sat for two hours at my kitchen table pulling wires apart and trying to understand how basic electrical current works. So when I use the camera, it is somehow tied to me, not just an image-maker, but my self-worth as a person who can figure things out for herself. Would I like a more functional, perhaps manual Land? Of course, but I work in public education after all and I need to feed my family. (I’m also saving money to start developing/scanning/printing film at home, so there’s that).

What instant camera have you not shot with, but would love to try?

 Recently I’ve been aware (through Snap It See It actually) of people shooting instant on pinholes, and I have this thing for pinholes. It’s the box that eludes me because I am afraid of failing. I know that it takes a while to get exposure right on a pinhole because, unless you buy something perfect, or follow exact plans, you are plugging in a lot of different factors for a math equation. And I like working from scratch, which means I will probably waste a lot of film before getting it right. 

What’s your favorite Impossible film or pack film type?

 Fuji fp-100. I use it all the time. 10 images for $9, and I love the blues. A few weeks ago I bought my first fp-3000c, but half the pack was wasted between the shutter not tripping (the wiring) and I didn’t realize until too late that I had changed the dial to 300 instead of 3000. That extra 0 really killed me. You may be thinking… a better Land camera and stop wasting you money on bad shots. And you may be right.

(blush) I have never bought a pack of Impossible film. A few months ago I picked up a Polaroid SX-70 (chrome and leather) from an old couple on Craigslist for $15, and I knew I should buy a pack and test it out. I would sit at the computer and stare at the film on Impossible’s website, but I could never bring myself to buy a pack. So I gave the camera to my dad who is supposed to sell it for me in Houston. I feel so comfortable with the Fuji, that I weighed it out and decided to stick with the Land 100.

How have you incorporated instant film into your regular workflow?

 I bring the Land everywhere I shoot. A wedding, a branding, portraits, especially traveling. When I travel or hike, I carry the folded up Land, and wait to shoot when I find a moment or a view that catches me. I want to see how this junky, 50 year old camera, with homemade wiring, sees what I see. 

One thing I love is that the image only comes out once. Sure you can scan it and reprint, but that original can not be replicated. So I bring the Land to certain places and ask to take portraits, then give over the original. I haven’t figured out (though I’ve tried) to preserve and clean the negative for scanning, so this means that the image is 100% unique and I want the person to keep it. I met a man in a Durango bar, during one of the World Cup games this summer, traveling the country on a motorcycle. We stepped outside the door, I shot once, and he left with the original. I took a picture of the polaroid with my phone, but that is definitely not the same. I’ve done this for friends and people I barely know. I love the connection it brings, but then that person can go home and have something just for themselves. I like that “giving up” control feeling. It’s not mine anymore (though I have asked some people to send me scans, so we could share on here). But the truth is, there are some polaroids that I’ve shot and given, which I will never see again. I’ve thrown some out due to bad memories, and even this feel amazing. The moment doesn’t exist anymore.

How would you describe your voice or vision with instant photography? (does it differ from your other work?)

 It has to be different because it’s not as exact. The viewfinder is distanced from the lens, the exposure can be affected by so many things, the focusing is slow and sometimes not exact. All of this means, I have to work slow, take more time even than normal film. This is one reason, perhaps, that I like shooting my hikes or travels because I have this single moment in time to stop, study, consider, then repeat all of that through the viewfinder of the Land. Even then, I stop and sit down, wait for the development, peel apart the film, and in all of this time, I get to be still and wait. How often can this happen in daily life? Rarely. I know that….I live that.

This summer I drove to Durango and made a night stop in Santa Fe. That morning I hiked a beautiful steep trail just on the edge of the city and stopped once for a polaroid that overlooks the city from the trail. A few hours later, driving with the windows open in that northern New Mexico, mid-morning desert air, I was the crazy person continually slowing down to see as much of the rock colors and shapes as possible. At some point, I passed beautiful red rock cliffs on the right of the highway, and the state had kindly set up a small rest stop on the left. I pulled off, carried the Land back to the road and tried to shoot the form of the rocks against the blue. I over-corrected for the viewfinder/lens separation, and ended up with two tiny humps in the very bottom. But, when I came back a middle aged man on a motorcycle was resting on the picnic table. He said something about the camera which opened up an entire conversation, and I had the chance to learn a little bit about where he came from. With all film cameras, I’ve learned to ask questions and take the time to listen to people’s stories. The picture I decided to send to my best friend in Idaho for a gift because it had a good moment behind it.

The first time I shot a polaroid at a wedding, everyone was moving, the bride was falling into the groom laughing, and the entire crowd was standing behind them. The image is blurry in the dusk and the movement, but it was a good moment. Afterward, I took the pull-out to a quiet place, let everyone have a few minutes of joy to themselves, and quietly waited, peeled, and observed how the camera witnessed the moment. I really enjoy that slowness, the nature of peel-apart film and older cameras is that you have to stop and wait. I need that.

Any personal projects we should know about?

 1. My daughter started ballet two months ago, and I sit every Saturday morning watching a stream of girls and boys of all ages come through for rehearsals for the upcoming show. In an effort to be more connected to what my daughter loves, and the people she is spending time with (I tend to be introverted to a fault and would rather not open up or put myself out for other people to see), I’m going to work on portraits of the entire dance company. Clean, natural, film and like I said….I bring the Polaroid everywhere. This is big for me mostly because I still have to ask. I’m terrified of asking then being rejected and what that says about me. I don’t actually want to make any money here; it’s just an exercise in connecting to people in a different way, and I keep waiting for the right moment to bring the subject up with the owner. Maybe there is never a right moment.

2. Creative Collective (The 12 year old in my wants to say club because I always wanted a club, but I know some people reading this may have forgotten what that word even means). I live in a town, not by choice but by necessity for now, that does not like or encourage progressive attitudes, creativity, alternatives, home-grown anything. For a while I merely worked and kept my head down, dreaming of the day I could leave. This is a miserable way to live, and it is almost like you create your own bad luck. The past half year or so, I’ve been trying to dig into my community and see what’s here, even if it isn’t as beautiful or stylish or put-together as other places I’ve lived or visited. With that, I recently organized a photowalk downtown and invited anyone I knew. I was able to start a new connection with a girl who travels between Denton and Wichita Falls.

Part of this is the developing. I recently bought a low-end scanner (Epson V600) to scan my polaroids and eventually negatives. I’m picking up developing equipment for film, and we are hoping to start using my house as a mini headquarters. Work on projects, develop the film together, scan, tweak, try it again. A woman I’ve become friends with also has this beautifully large 100 year old downtown building with an unused, except for storage, upstairs. Exposed brick, a wall of windows. She’s agreed to let me use part of it for a while for portraits and in exchange I’m going to help clean. I’m hoping to keep gathering creatives to work together, use space together, develop and scan together, and push each other. I’d love to put together a house art show this winter, but I can’t figure out how to meet the right people since I’m at work all the time. So if you know anyone in Texas or Oklahoma or wants to be a part of that….send them my way.

3. And I really want to try wet-plate or large format, but no one in my area does this, so I wouldn’t even know where to start.

What other photographers do you look up too?

How do I answer this?! I look up to my good friend Mackenzie Rollins probably before anyone else. She’s photographed everything from travels, to weddings, to commissioned work for big names, but she is one of the most real women I know. Sometimes (and I hope she doesn’t read this) I like to just go and look at her personal work, just to see how she sees her world. Without all the glamour and styling, she can do that sure, but she is a great observer of people and movement, and I think sometimes she can see what other’s don’t.

Who else? Ryan Muirhead(he may be on everyone’s list now). It is rare that you find deep connections to another person’s view on life and art without actually knowing them. I first read an interview with him in Film/Digital online and instantly thought, “I get this!” Anything I say now will just be cliche so I won’t say it, but I hope one day to meet him. I can’t even explain how his expressions shifted my perspective at just the right moment.

Jarrod Renaud. I’m not even sure how to describe what I think of him or why I look up to him. Everything he does just has life to it, not cliche or always balanced, but real life. Instant, film, even digital. He’s a family man to and building that business with his brother carving wood products. I really am inspired by real people creating beautiful moments from their own perspective while also doing everyday life and pushing hard. I’d like to meet him one day too.

Can I just start listing people now? 

What advice would you give to someone just getting into instant photography?

It’s the advice I followed….don’t go all out. Don’t try to pick up the trendiest, coolest piece of equipment you have heard about. The camera, when it comes down to it, can be manipulated. If you are starting out, I always tell people to find a Land 100 with a working shutter and start on that to get the feel for the look, the focusing, the view, the time. I hate that money is a big deal, but I also hate that people feel the need to grab the best of the best in the beginning. 

I have a love/hate relationship with Instax. I’ve used both the mini and wide, and for some reason it feels more like snapping a phone picture because of how quick it happens, and you don’t have as much control. I tried them both out hoping for an inexpensive alternative, but really the Land is great.

Where does your inspiration come from? Do you seek it out or wait till it finds you?

Such a loaded question. Of course I seek it out, in general. I read a lot, I spend time outside, I read poetry (Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, William Carlos Williams), I stare at paintings and try to follow or understand historical movements, I have a lot of personal struggles that I always wrestle with. All of this informs how I see the world, which connections I notice, how I interpret what’s around me. But in the moment….when I am in a place, with people or by myself, I just want to be present and take it in. This is what I was talking about earlier, about wanting to see how the Land interprets what is happening in 3D life. 


  1. Lovely interview. Keep up the good work in WF!

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