One sign of continued enthusiasm in an artist is when you ask them what was their favorite picture of all they have taken over their career and the reply is, “The one I took yesterday.”
David DeMelim goes back a long way. When he was growing up, Route 295 didn’t exist and there wasn’t a strip mall in sight. As a press release announcing an exhibit of his work in North Kingstown rather sentimentally puts it, he was a “little boy who lived on a lake surrounded by apple orchards [when he] “could get on his bike and go for a ride.” And photographer David DeMelim did just that growing up in Apple Valley, a section of Johnston on the border of Smithfield, R.I.
But the grownup David DeMelim makes images that are far removed from that time and place. His pictures are urban, raw and starkly architectural. He uses light and contrast to show us that cities are made of solid blocks of space and light and any sentiment you bring to it is a product of your imagination. For all that, some of DeMelim’s pictures of buildings evoke certain pangs of nostalgia. In one photo of buildings in Providence, an older, beaux-arts influenced building towers over an even older building and the both of them are dwarfed by a huge slab and glass skyscraper in the foreground. It is a micro-lesson in the history of urban architecture, whether the architects had that in mind or not. But DeMelim planned the picture that way, after he found it downtown.
But that is the accident of art and if there is one thing an art photographer thrives on, it is the series of events that lead them to their art, including the accident of birth. According to the biographical notes, DeMelim came by his interest in photography naturally – his dad was a printmaker and his family enjoyed traveling and taking pictures.
“One day, DeMelim wandered into a junk shop that happened to have a box of cameras for sale. The cameras intrigued him and so, with his own money, he bought the assortment of cameras.”
It’s not unusual for teenagers to become interested in photography but few of them settle on it as a career, even if they do maintain it as a hobby. DeMelim originally attended the University of Rhode Island to study marine biology, but he found himself taking art classes, primarily in photography and printmaking.
“Pretty soon,” DeMelim says, “I had enough credits to graduate with a BFA.” He studied with photographer Bart Parker, who DeMelim says, “focused on world view and vision rather than the technology of image making.”
The idea of making a living as a fine arts photographer struck DeMelim as impractical.
“After graduation, DeMelim found that photo interns were expected to work for free,” according to the BankRI press release. “Unable to afford the entry-level internships available to him, DeMelim took a job at a local trade printer. His career in printing took off as the industry transitioned from analog to digital systems.
DeMelim found himself at the forefront of desktop publishing with access to equipment and technology not generally available to the public. He incorporated that knowledge and experience into his image making.”
DeMelim continued to take photographs throughout his printmaking career and today he has left the field to concentrate on his photography, but still having food and shelter as reminders of reality’s indifference to art, he expanded into commercial photography. Not surprisingly, both his printmaking and photography experiences have merged into DeMelim’s unique vision of the world and he harbors no grudge for the commercial side of his photography.
“The fact is, the business side has its own special challenges of giving people what they are looking for,” he said. “I find that interesting as well.”
But he’s at his best when he’s on his own. DeMelim uses high contrast imagery and strong singular colors to find and isolate his subjects. The results, abstracted portraits and landscapes, are quite unlike the high dynamic range (HDR) photography so in vogue today.
“There is so much detail, you’re not sure what you are supposed to be looking at,” DeMelim explains as he speaks of HDR. “I take the opposite approach – throwing away most of the detail to focus on a particular piece of the picture. Less information, less detail can be a way of creating a more powerful image.”
The world of commercial printing and studio photography has afforded DeMelim a versatile tool chest made up of a blend of screen-printing, strong graphic imagery, bold colorful shapes and exaggerated lines. Signs, labels, machines and nature manage to get DeMelim’s attention and they all show up in his work.
“Pretty much I record the world in front of me,” DeMelim says.
“Construction Zone: High Contrast Photographs by David DeMelim,” Jan. 3 through April 3 at the North Kingstown branch of BankRI at 1140 Ten Rod Road in North Kingstown. Hours are Monday through Thursday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Saturday 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, contact www.bankri.com.