Featured Interview

The Gravel Ghost: Interview with Photographer Merilee Mitchell

Merilee Mitchell is a photographer who features most of her photography on her blog “The Gravel Ghost”. It’s a photo blog, but sometimes there are stories that go along with the photos. She love’s the desert and in particular, Death Valley, California. It’s her muse since the age of six.  She specializes in black and white photography.  She enjoys a variety of subject matter including people, places and things.

Gravel Ghost is from the Latin name Atrichoseris platyphylla Family, a wildflower with asteraceae color that grows in the desert.  It is  purple-tinged white, sometimes with small spots. Looks like a daisy.  The wildflower that grows in the Mojave Desert and Death Valley National Park, and sometimes in Arizona and Utah.

“Gravel Ghosts like living
in gravelly washes and ravines
where their delicate, white,
daisy-like blossoms hover
quietly above the ground
in a ghostly haze.
They smell good, and
whither quickly in the sun.
Gravel Ghosts bloom in spring
if there has been enough rain
during the fall and winter
in the desert.”

Merilee often gets up before dawn and enjoys photography as well as writing and painting in her studio.  You could call her a sort of nomade photographer of the desert.    When in the desert, she is working from dawn to dusk, scrutinizing and refining her craft.

Merilee has been kind enough to grant Featured E-Magazine this interview.

Merilee, can you describe a typical day in your life?

Well, that would depend upon if I’m at home or traveling in the desert or elsewhere. My life in the hills just inland from Malibu is an ordinary one. I have a family and a large home that I take care of, so when I am at home, that is my priority. Usually I get up early and go into my studio with my coffee and sit down at the computer to go through photographs.

If it is not a busy day, I will spend the majority of my time with photos, writing, thinking or painting. But there are some days when life takes over and I must do that which is necessary, like shopping, cooking, cleaning, etc.

If I am in the desert, I’m working. Up before dawn to photograph, driving, searching, learning. I tend to work all day long while in the desert, from dawn to night. I like to think that I have two separate lives. My normal life at home, and the surreal life in the desert. I straddle two worlds, one of reality and the other is a little like a dreamland in the desert. That’s the only way that I can describe it.

Most of your photos are shot in the desert and what appears to be the ‘old west’. Where do you do most of your photo shoots and what do you enjoy most about them?

I tend to do most of my work in and around the Death Valley region, the Mojave Desert. I also like working in Nevada. I lived in Las Vegas for a few years and fell in love with the large expansiveness of Nevada and the desert. It’s where I feel the most free and alive. The Death Valley area is like a second home to me. It’s an addiction. I am constantly learning about it, the history, the people who live there. I feel a strange affinity with things of the ‘Old West’, miners, cowboys, prospectors, adventurers. I also like driving down Route 66 and shooting the abandoned homes, businesses, trains, etc. I love ghost towns like Bodie in the Eastern Sierra.

I like to go to big cities like New York and Chicago. The Midwest and its farmland attracts me because of the large, geometric shapes of farmland, ranches, farm buildings and fields. There is a simplicity of life that I love in the Midwest and in the desert. While in a big city I naturally gravitate towards the buildings. It’s the geometry and shapes. Gritty streets. Reality. Movement. But my first love will always be the desert and Death Valley.

What are some of the most important lessons that you have learned from photography in terms of how you get the right shots?

Don’t waste time. Work FAST. Always, always be looking, seeing, and never hesitate to stop and get the shot. If you stop to think, question yourself, feel shy, you will lose the opportunity and you won’t get it back again. Hesitation is a killer. Don’t drive down the highway and admire how the late afternoon sun is hitting the sagebrush. Stop the car, get out and shoot it. Now. Because it may not look the same way tomorrow and you may never be in that same spot again.

A trip that normally takes five hours will take me eight. Why? Because I’m always ‘seeing’. So I stop and get the shot. Now. Not later. Procrastination will kill work.

Also, when you find a subject that inspires you, don’t just stand in front of it and shoot it as you normally would see it. Walk around, look at it from other viewpoints. Get down on the ground if you have to and force yourself to compose your shot in a way that is surprising. Think of yourself as an ant, or as a giant, and shoot your subject so that it gives you a different feeling from an ordinary viewpoint. It will make the photograph much more intriguing.

Did you choose black and white photography by accident or did you plan it that way?

“I consider myself
to be an art photographer…
an artist.

I will never be
a commercial photographer.
I don’t want to be.

I can’t take
wedding photos.
That would be a disaster.
I would be fired instantly
for taking pictures
of partially-eaten wedding cake
and the bride’s shoes
underneath the table.”

Years ago, before digital, I would experiment with black and white film. There has always been something much more powerful about black and white photos than color for me. Not that color isn’t impactful, it is and it can be, but for me, black and white is simple and straight forward. Something about it cuts through the facade and goes deeper.

I feel I can make a more poignant statement with black and white than with color, however there are times when I must use color because it’s part of the story of the subject matter.

When I went digital, I just automatically started converting my photographs from color to black and white. It’s a language that is easy for me to speak with.

Is photography just a hobby or do you want to pursue a professional career?

I am a painter, but I picked up a camera in order to record shots of what I was working on in the desert so I could continue on in the studio at home. I discovered that the camera is another tool that I can use to artistically express myself, tell stories about what I see, where I go and who I encounter along the way. I will never be a commercial photographer. I don’t want to be. I would be a lousy commercial photographer. My images are much too quirky and out of the ordinary for that.

There are professional photographers who are much better qualified and talented than I am for working in the commercial world. I consider myself to be an art photographer…an artist. I can’t take wedding photos. That would be a disaster. I would be fired instantly for taking pictures of partially-eaten wedding cake and the bride’s shoes underneath the table.

What I really want to do are books. Not just photo books, but books that tell stories with photos and with words. Through my blog I have discovered that I love to write. The photographs tell me the story that they want me to write. I am currently working on a large project that I plan on turning into a book. But along with that I eventually would like to offer both photographs and paintings for purchase, hopefully to have shows of both when the time is right. But at this time my full focus is on my book project.

What are some of your most memorable photos that you have captured?

I recently had an extraordinary experience with a thunderstorm in the desert. I so very badly wanted to get just one shot of lightning. It was absolutely agonizing waiting for those lightning strikes. After a whole day of this and thinking I got nothing, I ended up finding lightning in at least three of those shots. That just thrilled me.

It’s a hard question to answer as there are so many, but I think it’s people, really. Shots that I have taken of people where it seems as if their soul has been bared for the camera. That always shocks me. It’s a great honor when that happens.

Do you do a lot of retouching in your photographs or do you like to capture a moment untouched?

I don’t do a lot of Photoshop work. I use Lightroom 5 to edit my photos. It’s simple and is perfect for what I do. I convert from color to black and white, then, if I need to, I alter the contrast and amounts of dark and light in the photo until it tells the story that I want it to tell.

I really don’t do much other than maybe some cropping if there is something distracting to my eye, and then altering my contrast, etc. I don’t do anything else. I really prefer to do only as much as I need to in order for the image to say what I want it to say.

You also photograph many people. Do you have any interesting stories that go along with some of your photos?

You know, that is a hard question for me to answer because when I photograph people, quite often they tell me things. Things that are very private and personal to them. So I would never repeat those stories. It would be a betrayal.

I think the main thing I can say about really photographing a person is that you have to gain their trust. Once you have that then their soul will come through in the photograph. Really and truly I think people are my favorite things to paint and photograph. When you truly connect with another human being, there is nothing else like it. Nothing. Well, except animals.

Have you presented any of our photos to a gallery or exhibition?

Yes, I have shown some work in a gallery in the Death Valley area, but for the most part, I’m holding off on that. I have been approached before, but I’m not quite ready. My main focus is on my book project for now.

Links and Resources

Merilee Mitchell Official Blog
Photography 101: Shooting in Black and White (Daily Post)
The Man Who Owns His Own Ghost Town (Freshly Pressed)
The Outhouses Of Bodie Ghost Town (Freshly Pressed)


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Merilee Mitchell is a photographer and artist living in Los Angeles who picked up a Nikon a few years ago and never looked back.  “I mainly love black and white for photography because it’s simple, straight forward and not distracting. It gets my point across. But there are times when color is called for. Just because.”


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17 replies »

  1. I enjoyed your interview with Ms. Mitchell. I was very interesting. As a poet I am very visually oriented, much of my work finds its genisis in graphics of one kind or another so I am always curious what painters and photographers have to say about their process of making. So much of what they encounter and say about what they to is easily transcribable to working with words for me. Great choice. >KB

    Like

  2. I’m a huge fan of Merilee’s work – partially because I love the Southwest but also because her images are so good that you cannot help to love her work. I completely agree with her shooting suggestions – work fast, don’t hesitate and get the heck out of the car 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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