Photographer Mellon Tytell talks about the Beats, Dalai Lama, music and her travels around the world

"The Beats have a youthful way of looking at life and questioning the status quo, which is why youth will always be attracted to them."

Mellon Tytell: Outside The Comfort Zone

Mellon Tytell is a photographer with a diverse career. She has produced photographs for fashion clients such as Ralph Lauren, Givenchy, and Christian Dior, and worked for W Magazine in Paris; portraits of celebrated personalities including the Dalai Lama, James Taylor, Christian Lacroix, Patti Smith, Norman Mailer.

Paradise Outlaws, portraits of the Beat Generation—including Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Larry Rivers, and younger generation Beats such as Patti Smith was published by William Morrow (1999). Her editorial work has been published in over sixty countries, during her tenure at Gamma-Liaison in New York and Sipa Press in Paris. Her work has appeared in People, Geo, Playboy, Liberation, Figaro Magazine, Photo, Der Stern, Camera Arts, The New York Times Editorial Page, and The Magazine of Natural History among others.

Mellon with the Freedom Tower background. Photo © Beth Rogers Katz 2013

Some of her extended documentary series consists of a major body of work on Haiti, made over several years on numerous trips; opium in the Golden Triangle; the Rainbow family; life on the Ile Saint Louis in Paris; the bulls and wild horses of the Cammargue region in France; documentation of young Americans on a psychic pilgrimage to sacred Inca sites in the Andes; the Afro-Caribs in Suriname.

Her photographs have been exhibited extensively in Europe including the Villa de Medici in Rome, the Munchner Stadtmuseum in Germany, Amerikahaus Berlin, Mannheim Kunstvairen, Gallerie Agathe Gaillard, Paris, the French Institute in Athens and Neikrug  Photographica in New York City. Her work is collected by the International Center of Photography, in New York, the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and numerous collections. She is married to the writer John Tytell. They live with their dog Frank in the West Village and the Green Mountains of Vermont.

Interview by Michael Limnios     All Photos © Mellon Tytell

When did you begin photography?

When I was a stylist for the great still life photographer Tosh Matsumoto, he told me I had a good eye and that I should get behind the camera and become a photographer in my own right. My stepfather was an illustrator, and I spent much of my life looking over his shoulder as he worked at his drawing board. He would photograph all the members of his family and use us models for his illustrations. So from a very young age I was photographed by my father and experienced the magic of photography, especially the immediacy of Polaroid. There were a lot of magazines around our house as well as art and photography books. I was very lucky to be surrounded by so much visual stimulation.

How would you characterize your work?

It’s not up to me to characterize my work. I started out wanting to get outside my comfort zone. I try not to be intrusive while still getting very close to my subjects. I meld with my subject whether portraits, fashion, reportage, or fantasy. Robert Frank once remarked that my work is a witness to my life.

John and Mellon Tytell in Bali. © Mellon Tytell

What did you learn about yourself from your travels? What has travel offered you?

I’ve lived in different places and was lucky to go around the world for a year with my husband, the writer John Tytell. I had received a grant from National Geographic Magazine. In conjunction with the United Nations Development Program, I did a reportage on opium in the Golden Triangle, which was rejected by the magazine because it was too graphic. I had worked with the photographer Weegee as a young student and was influenced by his raw approach to imagery.

I’m not trying to learn about myself but rather to forget myself. A photographer is not a neutral observer: you always bring your personal prejudices and background to the subject at hand. One can try to achieve objectivity and have an awareness of the situation, but total objectivity is impossible. I want to get close to my subjects, and at the same time as a photographer I am always on the outside of things looking in.

How important was music in your life? How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

As a child I played the flute and piano. There were musicians in my family, and I was exposed to classical music. In high school I would play the Spanish language stations on my portable radio. I enjoyed the energy and rhythm of that music. I would go to Izzy Young’s Folklore Center on MacDougal Street. I was addicted to Symphony Sid and would stay up late, listening to the music that he chose like Lambert Hendricks and Ross and Gerry Mulligan. After graduating from university I worked at one of the first clubs in New York City called Salvation. It was at 1 Sheridan Square and on the site of the famous Café Society club from the forties. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Sly Stone, Liza Minnelli and Todd Rundgren were all there and we would hang out together. I also worked at The Church (Club Sanctuary), which was eventually closed by the New York State Liquor Authority because they thought it was blasphemous. I worked for Circus Magazine with a freelance writer and photographed bands such as King Crimson and Johnny Winter. Then in the 80’s the scene changed to the Mudd Club. I was there a lot and got assignments to photograph musicians like Nina Hagen, Klaus Nomi, James Chance, Debbie Harry, and Joey Arias. I love all kinds of music from Funk to Folk to Rap.

Allen Ginsberg & William Burroughs in Boulder, CO.,1982 Lawrence Ferlinghetti, William Burroughs Photos © Mellon Tytell

What advice would you give to a new generation?

It’s good to know something about history. But also unplug and look around. In these uncertain times, young people have to follow their hearts and do things that help other people. Lay off the technology. The young photographers who show me their work have problems with editing. You have to be able to edit your work in order to shape it. It seems to be more of a challenge with digital photography.

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from your shootings with the Beats?

My most vivid memory was the gathering at the 25th Anniversary of the publication of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in August 1982. Many of the writers, artists, and musicians of the Beat Generation were together at the Naropa Institute School for Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado. Robert Frank was doing a film called Song for Jack and I had a small show at the Denver Center for the Arts. Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Carl Solomon, Timothy Leary, Abby Hoffman, Jack Micheline, Joyce Johnson, Peter Orlovsky, and their young followers were all celebrating and performing. I met Robert Frank without knowing anything about him. We became friends because as photographers we were both on the outside looking in.

Would you like to describe one memory from Ginsberg's Farm that makes you smile?

I was very young and was basically trailing after John, who was interviewing Allen Ginsberg for his book Naked Angels. At the time I was doing fashion photography for Ralph Lauren and other clients. Going from fashion to the farm in Cherry Valley was a giant leap into another world. When we got there, Allen turned out to be very maternal and warm in a detached way, which made me comfortable and fascinated. Peter Orlovsky built us a bed. I have some of my most wonderful pictures from that experience.

Carl Solomon, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky and John Tytell in Ginsberg’s farm, 1973. Photo © Mellon Tytell

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory of Ginsberg, Burroughs, Ken Kesey, Herbert Huncke, and John Clellon Holmes?

Allen had a child-like curiosity about life, which I loved about him. He encouraged me to meditate, and we both attended Gelek Rimpoche’s classes at Jewel Heart Center in Soho. William Burroughs was steely and aloof, and I don’t recall having an actual conversation with him; however, he let me photograph him, and my portraits have been widely published. Kesey was full of whimsy and fun, and I got a taste of the Merry Pranksters. Even though the word junky comes from Huncke, he was in fact incredibly sweet and debonair. We visited John Clellon Holmes in Old Saybrook Connecticut. He seemed low key and conservative and took us out onto his dock.

You have come to know great personalities. Which meetings have meant the most to you?

I got an assignment from John Loengard, the picture editor of LIFE magazine to photograph the Dalai Lama on his first trip to the United States. His Holiness was staying at the Waldorf Towers, and I had the idea to shoot him waving to me from his hotel window. I thought of the Waldorf Towers as the Himalayas of New York. It seemed like an impossible request. But he agreed to wave from his window while I photographed him from the ledge of the 21st floor of the hotel. He must have been amused because he always remembered me after that. Being in his presence was one of the highlights of my life. His face was filled with compassion, humor, sincerity and goodwill; and occasionally a kind of irony. I also photographed Christian Lacroix for People magazine when he was working for Jean Patou. He was extremely cultivated, and his fabrics and designs were from a fairy tale. My assistant blew out the electrical system of the building where we were shooting and we had to go the Tuilleries Gardens in Paris with the models in their wildly expensive gowns.


Jack Micheline with Ken Kesey and crew, Herbert Huncke. Photos © Mellon Tytell

Why did you think that the Beat generation continues to generate such a devoted following?

There will always be a passion for the margins of society. The Beats have a youthful way of looking at life and questioning the status quo, which is why youth will always be attracted to them.

What experiences in your life have made you a good photographer? What are the triggers for creation?

At fifteen I attended school in Switzerland and learned French, and the next year I had the opportunity to live with the family of Edmund Rostand in France. Being exposed to European culture at such a young age, gave me a pioneering sensibility and curiosity about the world. I wasn’t formally educated in photography. I studied literature, philosophy, and art history at university, which gave me a good foundation.

Is your main photographic work in black and white?

I work in both black and white and color as well as Polaroid, and digital. Instagram and iPhone photography are fun. The whole industry of photograph is completely changed. I love the sensuality of film. I think some of the magic has been lost because you can see exactly what you’re shooting and alter everything through Photoshop. But there are a lot of exciting things about digital photography. Black and white abstracts life and has a subtlety that doesn’t exist in color; however, color enhances life and that’s also fun.

Images from Haiti, opium smokers in Golden Triangle, Rainbow Family Gathering, Texas 1990 Photos © Mellon Tytell

What are your hopes and fears for the future? What made you laugh lately and what touched you?

I fear for all sentient beings. I hope we don’t use up all the resources of the planet and have perpetual war. Greed and ignorance have caused the world to evolve in such a horrible way. Small things make laugh, like the way my dog wags his tail or the absurdity of life becoming just screens to look at. People think I’m funny and often laugh at things I say, which makes me laugh.

What can human beings learn from the behavior of dogs? What song do you want to dedicate to Frank?

Sometimes I think the wrong species evolved. Dogs don’t hoard; have simple needs: shelter, food, love, and play; and don’t care what you are wearing. My song to my dog Frank is "A Song For You" by Leon Russell.

What are you working on now?

Besides making pictures everyday, I’m working on YOU GOT EYES, a book about my 31 year photographic friendship with Robert Frank. I’ve been photographing Robert and June Leaf, his wife, for all that time, and have written down many of the conversations we have had together over the years. Recently, I showed some of the work to Robert and June and they said “make a book”!

An early slice of this project called “NO SHORTCUTS” appeared in The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats in 1999. Inspiring also was the presentation about Robert Frank I was invited to give by The David Turner Warner Foundation in Florida in 2010. 

Mellon Tytell - official website

Self-Portraits © Mellon Tytell

© MELLON TYTELL 2013 All Rights Reserved

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