On a sunny morning - one of those warm lazy Durban mornings where the air is crisp and clear thanks to the previous evening’s rainstorm - I met up with local photographer Myllo Menora at the Coffee Tree just off Alan Paton Road. I came across Myllo’s work about a year ago when he contacted me over a lens I was wanting to sell. When I saw his work I was immediately captivated. Myllo seems to have a way with his images of people that immediately draws the viewer into a priveleged viewpoint of the action. You feel as if you are in the frame with the actors. There’s an immediacy to his images that is hard to describe, but you know it as soon as you see his pictures. It’s like looking at the images of some of the best known reportage and lifestyle photographers of the 1970’s and 60’s. Myllo is just there, and his subjects either don’t see him, or are so comfortable with his presence that he becomes invisible to the action. When they do see him, he is still invisible, creating a direct connection between the viewer and the photographed. His compositions also remind me a little of Sam Abell’s - everything seems to fit just right. The composition isn’t forced, but it works beautifully and harmoniously.
My goal is really to plumb the thoughts on creativity, success and photography from several photographers over the next while. Intrigued and inspired by Myllo’s images, his is now the first in a series of interviews that I hope to conduct on a haphazard, but continuing basis. So as the sun bounced of the ridiculously green and lush verges of Alan Paton Road (even the pink storm lilies were in abundance as we were meeting shortly after the start of the new year and the municipal garden services hadn’t gotten around to shearing the grass to it’s usual stub shortness). Myllo Menorah is not new to the field of photography, having worked professionally for some time under another name. Then, several years ago he took a sabbatical from photography to work as a church pastor in his home community outside Amanzimtoti. He describes the move as just getting off the radar as the pressure of commercial photography was impinging on his personal life in a way that he didn’t want it to. (warning sidenote! - this is a long, largely transcribed verbatim, interview. That's what happens when you put two individuals absolutely obsessed with what they do together)
MM “It’s almost like system shutdown. I just do it [photography] now, just to survive. It becomes like an arrogance thing if I so, no I can’t take the job [referring to when he worked under a different name]”. So, to avoid saying no, I just disappeared. Went off the radar. Shut down my Mlululeki Dlamini Facebook profile, shut down the business, deregistered, took everything off Google, the business names and connections the traces, of whatever, and then changed my name…Now I shoot maybe three, four times a month.”
From this we quickly started talking about the business aspect of photography and whether it is possible to make a living out of this field and a sustainable one at that. Myllo’s son, who is currently studying photography in Durban seems to be following in Myllo’s steps, but he’s like it to be in a more systematic approach to his own.
MM “My target for my son is this; if you make R15000 a month now, you can be successful ultimately. But if you don’t, while you are at school make R15000, you are going to be in big trouble. Unless you are going into it for fulfilment, for expression, for art…for art first, then money isn’t a problem. But I’m not rich so you [talking as if to his son] are not going to get a lot of money when I die. You need to make sure that you have the freedom to do what you want to do. And the only way to do that is to do one wedding a month, do three events and then with that ten or fifteen grand, juts hustle with that. Go meet people, be friends with students. I’m sure as a 21 year old now you will meet all the pretty girls you want in the next two to three years. You are sure in five years time that if you connect with say fifty people in three years, a good twenty of them are going to get married. That’s weddings already done. To connect with them, they pay for that connection. They come into the studio every week or so. If you charge them a minimum fee you make maybe ten or twenty bucks, but the relationship you get from that…because they are going to be professors and professionals in three years as well. It’s about relationships. That’s probably the foundation for life. You can’t be in business if you can’t relate [with other people]. Not that you must be friendly with everyone, but you must have a way that is healthy in relating with people. This is my philosophy to him [my son], because that is how I got into it as well. Through relationships at tech. I befriended all the graphic designers, befriended all the fashion designers, befriended all…everyone I could meet while I was at tech. The tear off of that is that I don’t have to go bother a security guard at SABC because I know a lot of those cameramen there. The most popular Zulu presenter there is one of my best friends because I met her at tech. I met her at tech when she went to work for the SABC. I met her when I had a contract with the tourism department for a couple of years. I used to go to all the fancy 5 star places and shoot them. I would get paid for that, but I would also befriend all the hotel members, befriend all the top chefs. This then spins off to become something else. I can say that I have been to all the boutique hotels I could go to for free up until 2011. But then that gives me an option to do a cookbook. It gives me an option to do a book on hotels. It gives me the option to do a portfolio. I can have genuine relationships when I travel for myself and for my family. That is the only way. It doesn’t matter how talented you are. If you can’t relate to other you are hopeless. You must have a way.”
“Photography is a people business. It’s a profession. Now the flip side of that is working for people that you don’t like. You still have to relate to them. They are not your friends now. They are your boss. They don’t have to like you. You don’t have to like them, but you have to have proper business etiquette and you have to deliver and that for me was something I only learned later in life.”
EvM “Okay, but has social media changed the game in the way that it creates connections?”
MM “It’s definitely changed the game for the good in a way if you are willing to learn. Not just social media, but technology, digital photography. One of the barriers that I found when I was younger was that there was a barrier with the labs, getting photographic materials. You show up to a shop and you want to try out a camera. Impossible. You can’t do it. You’re too young. You don’t have the money. They just presume that you don’t have the money. They just presume that you don’t know what you are talking about. They just presume. Probably the last time that happened to me was last year. It was one of the guys on one of the forums. We were arguing about the size of a scan. I mean, I have been doing this for almost my whole life. I know that a scan on a ‘rubbish’ Frontier gives me about 50mb. This guy tells me no, I can live with 500kb. Dammit, I print 1metre by 1 metre prints. Something I was taught by someone else to do. Those kind of barriers, social media removes that. Even though they own the shop, even though they are the supplier their voice becomes diminished because now you can meet actual photographers. You can discuss and showcase your work to complete strangers who don’t care who you are. They just want to see your work. No one can tell your accent online. Nobody can tell the colour of your skin if you want.
“It is absolutely brilliant that no one can tell who I am. It is absolutely phenomenal. Now people don’t care that I actually stay in a rural area. I have pitbulls in my yard. I drive an old BMW that’s rusted, looks like it’s stolen. People don’t care. People look at the pictures, and they see the name and it doesn’t sound really foreign, it doesn’t sound really local. The face looks a little weird, but that’s okay. That’s better than if I showed up myself.”
EvM “And in the real world, have you found being black is beneficial or a detriment to being a photographer?”
MM “You can use it as a tool [your colour] depending on what you are doing for a living. You see this shirt. It says Terwyl. I go to the Northern Cape a lot. My car has a John Deere sticker on it and I fit in as long as I don’t say anything. As long as I keep quiet and just shut up and present a camera,looking like I am working, looking like I am meant to be there then nobody bothers me. I think that the beauty of the digital world.”
EvM “You studied at tech originally?”
MM “I did photography after saving some money because I couldn’t afford it. I was a photographer since 93, 94, but I only went to Tech in 98. So it took me 3 or 4 years to save up the money.
EvM “So you were self-taught before you went to tech?”
MM “Definitely self-taught. I would first work for someone. First assist, quit, go to tech, then work for someone again and then go it alone. I think if you could find as many different people as possible to work for, good people. I think those jobs are available. Well, I’ve offered those jobs to people, but then they run (says laughing). You know what it’s like. No one thinks that’s being a photographer, when you almost fall off something or get hurt trying to photograph something. They [the assistant] are never coming back."
“I shoot stories now. Things that interest me. I haven’t made money from it yet.”
EvM “So you’ve gone from being a successful professional photographer to…
MM “being an unsuccessful photographer (says laughing)”
EvM “So what do you consider a successful photographer?”
MM “Well it depends if the definition is about money. But you know what it is not? Being unsuccessful is taking a lot of pictures, getting paid for it and hating what you get left with. That’s horrible man. Absolutely horrible. When you look at the pictures and you feel sick. Not because they are bad, but because you look at them and…is that it! That’s the end of my life now. This is what I am going to be doing for the rest of my life and I am just going to get paid more and more and more, and I am going to make piles and piles of pictures that I hate. The quickest way to make money, well if you are black, is to shoot government events. That’s a load of money. but there’s a lot of handshakes as well (as in photographing handshakes). You have people opening clinics, cutting ribbons, handshakes, politicians or whatever on someone’s retainer…
EvM “But some people must enjoy this”
MM “But nobody enjoys this. Who enjoys this? Nobody. They enjoy the money and they are embarrassed that this is what they do. I hate weddings. The phone calls after. The phone calls I have to make. the phone calls the bride and groom makes afresh. “Why did you hire me. Why did I take this job?” - But then I am going to do weddings again, but I am going to shoot them black and white only, documentary only and then that becomes my style…the only thing on the menu!”
EvM “Okay, so how how important it is to have a style".
MM “Does style really exist” well if they can recognise….”
EvM “Is it important that your images are recognisably yours, or should you be able to be a generic photographer in other words?”
MM “I think you should be able to recognise your pictures. You should be able to say either that looks like something that I shot, or that it is exactly what I would do or Wow, I wouldn’t have done it like that. You get some kind of reaction from something that you see or some kind of connection. I think that’s very important for me. Because I shoot a lot of people, faces… I don’t know if you could have a style of headshots.
EvM “Yes you can” - I talk about Martin Schoefler and his currently very popular and recognisable style.
MM “I do that as well, but I don’t think that is my style. You know the Brenhauser technique?”
MM “You see this is the thing, this is the thing about style. You do a lot of stitching right?”
EvM “Yes panoramics"
MM “Brenhauser does the same but for a people and weddings. That’s a landscape technique. But it’s not his style. He doesn’t own it.”
EvM “But it’s what he’s become know for”
MM “Ja, but that’s what he puts out there. He doesn’t own that. It’s like a flavour of milk. Can you tell which cow gave you the milk. To me style is like that. It is something that can be learnt but I don’t really think that when you have mastered a style in industrial photography or a particular genre of photography that if you put up your work here, and put another picture behind the other wall someone would be able to say that this was shot by the same guy.”
EvM “Some photographers would say that you need a recognisable style while others will say that your style is what the client wants you to have.”
MM “Exactly, and what you can reproduce predictably. if you can be consistent with something. But the thing is, if you are an industrial photographer, or a commercial photographer, you’ve got to be very good with your technique. It doesn’t matter how creative and how off the wall you can be, you gotta know your stuff. If you have a client that says I want a diamond shot. De Beers approaches you and says we need a diamond shot. You should be able to shoot that. If someone says I’ve got a shipwreck for you to photograph, you should also be able to do that. If you get a contract for five years that says we’ve got a series of wrecks that have to be photographed in Nigeria. If I took your technique on how to stitch, if you taught me how to stitch - because I still don’t know how to, does that mean I am using your style - Can you recognise some people’s style?.
EvM “Some people yes, Like Obie Oberholzer’s work”
MM “I’m thinking about him. But if he shot that style would you recognise it. If he shot now, the same thing, what was it a 6x7 Pentax and one flash.”
EvM “Well he likes his light painting a lot. He uses one of those million candle power torches. Have you seen his latest book though, “long time passing”. It’s all about the Karoo. Done last year. It’s a different style. I would say darker, more melancholy. whereas his older stuff was quite bright, happier.
MM “Has he ever been happy (smiling), ja he started here at the Tech. So you are saying you could recognise his style?”
EvM “Obie’s yes. But the problem was that his style he taught to all his students so there was a whole bunch of little Obies running around.”
MM “So? This is the thing. If you as a student master that style, and then master Avedon’s style, then master this person’s style then at any time you can dial Ansel Adams, dial in Obie, dial in this thing, dial in that.”
EvM “But then do you become recognised as an individual?”
MM “If that’s the only thing that you put out there yes. That’s the thing about specialising. Anyone who says they have a recognisable style, in my opinion is someone that has narrowed the work that they show or the work that they do. I don’t think they really have a a style. Not that they don’t have a style. What I’m trying to say is that I find it difficult to understand what people actually mean with style, because my mind doesn’t actually work in that way. The concept of style in photography is very difficult. It is not as complicated as painting, well it is complicated but its …. where you put the flash is different to how you use a brush. especially in the digital era. You can actually have presets and things. The more mechanised it is the more people’s identity fades away. I think that’s the thing that’s bad about digital photography, is that the amount of images we produce and the ability to mimic other people’s work becomes too easy. I get the feeling that it’s just another picture. It’s nice, but nobody cares. I don’t know whether it’s just me though.”
EvM “Going back to doing this as a profession, does it really matter? You look at Peter Lik’s stuff and they are not necessarily amazing photographs. You get photographers with Canon 100Ds coming out of college being able to take as good images if not astoundingly better”
MM “But do they put it out there? The moment they put it up there they can have claim to fame. They can say it’s their stuff…their style”
EvM “So is Peter Lik making good money because he’s Peter Lik or because he’s taking good and recognisable photographs”
MM “I think anyone you can quote now and say this person and this person and this person; they are making good money because they put their stuff out there. They have created their identity, their personae. It has nothing to do with their photo taking abilities. I look at Zack Arias’ stuff and I laugh. He is not a ‘brilliant’ photographer. He’s good though. I absolutely love him. The thing I like about him is ‘he' comes through. It’s not a machine making the photos. It’s like my son. He is an amazing photographer but he isn’t disciplined when it comes to photography. He says to me, “I am better than you”, but he doesn’t know what reciprocity failure is. He’s probably never even heard of it. He probably;y doesn’t care, but if you throw a camera at him it falls perfectly into his hand. I started giving him a camera to go to school with when he was like grade two. He just took pictures and when I processed mine I threw his films in with them. He grew up around it. It’s like music. For other people it’s music and what you grow up around. For him it’s photography. He grew up around it. He doesn’t necessarily know the people but he knows what he likes and what he doesn’t like. People like Peter Lik are people who didn’t push their technique.”
“The problem with photographers is that photographers care too much about what other photographers think. They forget the clients and they forget the consumers of photography. Like my photography - the people who are my friends don’t care. Some of them don’t even know what I do for a living. They find it very strange. Where are you going? Why are you doing that? But then it doesn’t really matter. They are not my clients. Clients might not be the people who give you your identity or the recognition. It’s the art director or other photographers that say “wow”, but they don’t pay you! Those people that make the comments online and like your stuff, they don’t pay anything. They just like you perhaps or wish they were there. They want to be your assistant. They want to be you. They aren’t going to pay a single rand. The client is a factor if you are wanting to look for money for your photography. It’s like that job we were talking about (we had been discussing a hiphop music gig). I might not necessarily like the people. I might not like the music. But if you want to be making money in music you gotta be involved in hiphop. There are no new Kwaito stars. The only new stars are in hiphop. Nobody cares if you shoot the latest Kwaito star.”
EvM “But if you are into something your images should show that you are in to it. If you love what you do, love what you are shooting, it should come across in the images surely? But if you are a good enough photographer you can also create amazing images of things that you don’t like I suppose.
MM "I think that is what being a photographer is about. You have interest in something. Be interested in something, because if you are not you are going to suck."
EvM "From that, would you say to someone starting out that they should specialize, or should one be a generalist. Is there such a thing as a niche? Can you afford to specialise into a niche?"
MM "I think you can afford to take a niche if you have some family money shored up somewhere (laughing). Like in Durban there are only a few photography businesses because most company headquarters are not in Durban. The decision makers are not in Durban. It doesn’t matter what niche you think you have got, if you are playing around in Durban you are not going to make a lot of money if you niche yourself. You’ll make a living, but not a lot of money. Being a professional is knowing what you are going in for, delivering the goods and looking at what is due to you. I think that is what professional photography is about . One person said to me a long time ago - I was trying to understand what made a black and white picture expensive - and he was straight up with me and he said, 'look nobody really needs a picture'. your business is to try and sell that picture. They might like it, but they don’t need it. Nobody needs a picture on their wall. They can live without your picture on their wall. It’s what you do about the sale, it’s what you do about getting it out their, making them interested, making them want that picture. But then you can let that interfere maybe with the process of making. You can let that be another factor in the recipe of what you do. I think there’s a balance you should strike if you are looking to get paid. I think some of the most brilliant photographers don’t make money. It’s up to you whether you want to be a professional photographer or whether you want to be a good photographer. There’s a huge difference there. Some of these people who are professionals, they make tons of money and what they do is rubbish. but who cares. They are not in it for the art, or the Facebook likes. They are in it for the money and they are getting it."
EvM "Which comes back to the definition of what is a successful photographer. Is it someone who makes money or somebody who creates art that is recognised."
MM "It can’t be someone who just makes money and can’t be someone who just makes art. If it’s just the money you get into problems with ethics, and on the other side you get into problems with the definition of art. It’s whatever you make it to be. If to you it’s art, then good luck. If to you it’s just a craft that can be learned and duplicated, show us the money then. It depends on what you think is going to be sustainable in your life. Whether you are going to live with no money and lot of gratitude and fulfilment then it’s fine"
EvM "That’s interesting. Your son in thinking of doing this seriously. You’ve got someone thinking of becoming a professional photographer and saying to you, “should I go for it?”. Would you say yes"
MM "I say go for it, but you have to spend a lot of time in it. Whether you go to it as an expression for art or you go to it as a profession, there has to be time in it. Time - not just in the clicks - but in meeting with people. Contacts. Even if it’s not clients but other photographers. Especially for things that you are interested in. You know I think that is the problem with my photography and with the photography of some of the people that I know. They are in to their photography so much that they lose interest with other aspects of life and they become really boring individuals. Nobody really wants to meet and have them take their picture and have them come to their office."
EvM "You need to be multifaceted"
MM "Stay interested in something. It’s the same with every business I guess. If you are an engineer you can’t just be the guy that fixes planes. You must be interested in aeronautics. You go to airshows and show interest in it."
EvM "This is maybe bordering on, not necessarily obsession, but passion in that case. Is passion a requirement to being a successful photographer"
MM "You gotta love what you do! Or love something and incorporate your photography into that. This is what I say to my son. As long as you are interested in something."
EvM "You see people who are accountants or clerks or something where you might not love what you are doing, but you are still good at it. Can you be successful as a photographer in the same way? Doing but not loving it?"
MM "I think you can do it and it will definitely kill you. You’ll eventually fall off a cliff or something. The photographers I wish I could be like are the ones that are interested in what they do. Like Flip Nicklen. That is interesting. It scares me, but that is something. It’s not just picking up your camera, scratching your head and wondering what to do with your life. It’s combining interests. This is the thing with other businesses as well. Somebody might grow up in a family business or shop, but they think to themselves, I can do better than this, so they still stay within that area that is familiar to them but they branch out. This is why I think ex-models make such brilliant photographers. They are interested in photography and in looking at other peoples faces. It’s two sides of the same coin and I think if you loved motorsports and you are a landscape photographer you should still make sure that you shoot some kind of motorsports. Even if just for yourself. Even if it’s just to remain human and connected to your passion. You can’t be a landscape photographer that does not want to travel. This is the thing about some wedding photographers. They are thinking albums equals money. They are really not interested in those events. In the wedding vibe. It’s a business rather than a passion. That makes for boring photography. There is a danger that there is no passion there. Also, what they are doing for a living happens at the most valuable time for themselves and their family. That’s going to result in some kind of horrible photography anyway. But if you love meeting brides, and you love the vibe, and you can schmooze the couple - it’s easy for you or you have learned how to - like you were saying you can develop a niche out of that, but it’s because you love it!"