Q&A with Photographer MELISSA BARNES


Melissa Barnes is a San Francisco advertising and editorial photographer specializing in food, travel and lifestyle work. Melissa has built a career around her passions and brings a talent for creating and finding beauty and for capturing skillfully composed spontaneous moments that reveal a magic, humor and warmth. As a result, she is tapped by a diverse client list that includes Panera Breads, Sutter Home, Samsung, Goretex, Klutz Print, Siemen’s, W magazine, Men’s Journal, Wall Street Journal, The Daily (iPad magazine), Sunset and Food Network Magazine among others.

Despite the recent downturn in the economy, Melissa maintained a busy editorial schedule, grew her advertising business and built a new body of work shooting food both in studio and on location. I thought this was the perfect time to feature her work on POP. I caught her between trips and jobs (barely!) to talk about why her photojournalistic style is so in demand by her advertising clients, building a career based on shooting the things she loves and staying inspired and breaking through Photographer’s Block.

Melissa’s work has taken her to some of the best restaurants in the country, had her hanging out with Thomas Keller, and led her to the treetops in Oregon and the bottom of the ocean in Belize. I often have a pang of career envy with my interviews and this one was no exception. A big thank you to Melissa for such a thoughtful interview and for sharing so many images from all her adventures with us.

POP: What are your earliest memories of photography?

I’ve always loved images. When I was a teenager my walls were plastered with photos. It wasn’t about the celebrity, but about the image itself. For some reason, my junior high English class had a huge stack of Rolling Stone magazines in the back of the room. Instead of learning punctuation and grammar, I was tearing images out of magazines to put on my wall. Somehow I managed to graduate anyway. (For the record, I often beat the pants off my friends in Scrabble.)

POP: When did you realize you wanted to be a photographer and what brought you to San Francisco?

It seems like I’ve always wanted to be a photographer. Once I got out of High School I was doing the same soul searching that most people go through trying to figure out what they want to be and the only thing that interested me was photography.

I ended up in San Francisco because I was living in Vancouver, BC and had been assisting for a couple of years when I decided I wanted to try something different for a year or two. Seattle was too close, NY was too far and LA was…LA. So I settled on San Francisco. That two years has turned into 14 and even though I do miss Vancouver sometimes, I’m happy to call San Francisco my home.

POP: Who were your early influences?

Reportage has always been my first love followed closely by the type of portraiture that really draws you into the life of the subject. The photographers that I admire most like Larry Sultan, Sally Mann and Nan Goldin seem to have a way of combining both. I was fortunate enough to work with Larry Sultan a number of times before he passed away and learned a lot from those experiences. He had a way of integrating into any situation, moving about and shooting fluidly. I try to bring some of his influence into my own work.

To read the full interview, please click here:

POP: You shoot people, travel, food and lifestyle and have a very strong diverse portfolio.

I’m interested in so many different things and in that sense I’m fortunate the trend is towards having a diverse portfolio. I don’t think I could shoot just one thing. The best part about being a photographer for me is that there’s always something new around the corner. As an example, I’m shooting for Panera breads this week and next week I’m doing a four-day editorial travel story in Napa. I find photography suits my personality really well. It’s challenging, creative and always leading me on a new adventure.

POP: For your food work, you shoot both advertising and editorial. How do you approach each of these and how are your goals different?

I tend to be very hands on when photographing food, either on location or in the studio. When I’m shooting an ad job in the studio, I work closely with the food stylist to help build the shot. Constantly making small adjustments until it feels right. When I’m on location, the first thing I look for is beautiful light and then try to find a way to set up the shot to take advantage of it.

One of the best things about photographing food is that I’m able to express the part of me that likes to create things. I’m producing something beautiful by pulling together different elements. It’s a wonderful feeling when everything falls into place and I know I’ve created a great shot.

POP: You are a busy editorial photographer and this last year started shooting more advertising work. How did you make this happen?

I’ve shot a number of advertising jobs over the years. I was marketing, but I didn’t have a plan and would let months go by because I was shooting. I really stepped up my marketing with a structured plan that included monthly email blasts followed by mailers to targeted lists and signing up with FoundFolios and PDN’s PhotoServe (which I update frequently). After a few months of dedicated marketing, my advertising business really started to take off. I’ve discovered that I’m primarily a businesswoman who sometimes gets to take photos.

POP: Your lifestyle work has a very natural feeling to it whether it’s a shot you’ve set up or captured in the moment. How do you achieve this?

Advertising and editorial clients often hire me for my photojournalistic style and there are a couple of different approaches I take.

One technique is to set up the shot and then let the moment unfold. As the photographer/director I like to encourage spontaneity and playfulness that allows people to let their guard down and not think about being in a photograph. They’re having fun and I’m there to capture that moment. I’m a big believer in setting everything up but leaving room for the magic.

A good example of this would be an image I shot of a pillow fight. For this test shoot I managed to convince two of my friends, who were complete strangers, to crawl into a bed together in their underwear and have a pillow fight. The light was beautiful, the chemistry was there and I just encouraged them to whack the heck out of each other. We got some really gorgeous shots that day and they have since become very good friends.

The other way I accomplish this is more organic and is how I shoot a lot of my editorial work and personal travel images. I show up, keep a sharp eye and let the moments unfold. The lawn bowling image is a good example of this. Sometimes great images just present themselves.

POP: Your personal travel work has a relaxed authenticity with a sense of adventure and aspiration. Have you been hired for ad jobs because of this style?

I was recently hired by Publicis in Munich to shoot some images for Siemen’s Green Index Report. They gave me a set shot list, but also asked me to shoot impressions of San Francisco and Sacramento. I often get my best images while traveling by aimlessly exploring my surroundings, so I let myself be a tourist for a day and had a great time visiting some of the city’s more touristy spots. It also gave me a fresh perspective on San Francisco and I fell in love with the city all over again.

This is often how I feel when I’m on a long trip. I’m very relaxed and I don’t have to go looking for a photo because everything is new and fresh and right in front of me. I have time to observe, discover and see how the light is falling. I can devote my time to being there in the moment. I don’t have to worry about the job I have next week or the million other responsibilities waiting for me at home.

I’ve also found my camera can be a wonderful key into different worlds. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked for permission to take someone’s portrait only to be invited into their home for tea in return. You just don’t get those kinds of experiences without engaging with the people around you and photography gives me a good excuse to start a conversation.

POP: You must especially enjoy the hotel and resort work since it brings together travel, food and lifestyle.

I LOVE shooting for hotels and resorts. It’s the one place where all my favorite things come together. Plus it doesn’t hurt to be surrounded by beautiful landscapes, eating delicious food and enjoying the luxuries of high-end travel.

I’m in the process of planning a five-week long trip to Argentina and Uruguay in the fall where I will be shooting for different hotels and resorts as well as taking time to shoot some personal work along the way. I can hardly wait to get on the plane.

POP: You spend a lot of time working on DIY projects including ceramics, landscaping, remodeling, etc. Does this give you any insight into your creative process?

I’ve always liked to make things with my hands and find that creating or building fulfills this part of me. I’m often picking stuff up off the street because I can see it’s potential and want to give it new life. I’ll find an old beat-up dresser on the curb, bring it home, refinish it and end up with a beautiful piece of furniture. Unfortunately I’ve had to stop myself from doing this anymore because I have absolutely no more room in my apartment.

I guess photography is another way for me to express this creative urge. Luckily I can buy as many external hard drives as I like to hold all my photographic creations.

POP: Do you ever get Photographer’s Block and if so what do you do about it?

Sometimes I do find myself in a rut. The last time was a couple of years ago. I was at a point when I felt I had lost some of the passion I once had and was looking for something to reconnect me with photography again. To give myself a jump start, I challenged myself to shoot 30 Shots in 30 Days. The idea was to commit to shooting something every day and post it to Facebook. I took my camera with me everywhere and pushed myself to create images I thought worthy enough to post. The project gave me a keener eye plus I got some great stock from it. I’d recommend this exercise to anyone who is experiencing photographer’s block. It gets you moving again.

POP: Is this what led to your documentary work?

I’d actually started shooting my personal documentary work a few months before 30 in 30. I’ve always loved reportage and there were some interesting stories I wanted to tell, plus I wanted to challenge myself by stepping outside of my comfort zone.

Shooting stories like Selena and Tent City has taken me in a whole new direction and freed something up that lets me shoot more instinctively and work from my intuition and heart. My professional work has really blossomed since I’ve been exploring my photojournalistic style. It’s more alive and has brought me to a new level. I shoot more from the hip and don’t try to set everything up, but rather just let things unfold naturally and be there to capture the moments when they occur.

POP: How did you choose your subjects and what most surprised you?

Documentary work is like traveling in a way. I step into a different culture and get to experience, for a short time, what another kind of life is like.

Tent City outside of Sacramento was the first of these projects. I kept hearing about the effect the downturn in the economy was having on every day people. They were losing their jobs and homes and being forced to live in makeshift “tent cities.” I set out to document these displaced people, but what I found was something very different. The people I encountered had chosen to be homeless and had been so for quite a while. I was quite nervous going in and had brought a friend along as reassurance, but there really was nothing to be worried about. The people I met were quite welcoming. It broke down a lot of misconceptions I’d had. I went in fearful and came out realizing they were amazing people with some compelling stories.

My second project, Selena’s Story, grew out of the Tent City project. Loaves and Fishes, a non-profit in Sacramento that provides daily lunches and support services for homeless people also had a program for first time homeless families. This is where I met Selena. She was a mother of four who had lost her job and ended up losing her home. She and her family would stay at different churches for a week at a time, moving every Sunday to a new church. Loaves and Fishes also provided Selena with job training, childcare and school for the older kids and really helped get her back on her feet.

Selena was very inspiring because she was such a strong woman. Every day she got up at 6am to get the kids ready for school and go to job training and she didn’t seem to let it get her down. In one sense it gave me hope but also made me realize that this could happen to anyone.

POP: What’s next?

I’m always on the lookout for my next personal project and I’d like to continue to combine my love of photography and travel. I have two dream jobs. One is to shoot for hotels and resorts and the other to shoot for NGOs. Although both have the potential to take me around the world, one lets me create beautiful images and visit some gorgeous locations as it helps support the other which is especially fulfilling and allows me to give back.

One Response to “Q&A with Photographer MELISSA BARNES”

  1. 1 Ashley

    Love your photos, especially the camel! I like the 30 in 30 challenge and might try it sometime. Y ou really helped me with a school project I have to do. Thanks!

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