Chinatown Street photographer Dimitri Mellos documents the vibrant community of New York's Chinatown with his Leica M9

Dimitri Mellos, originally from Athens, Greece, but a New York resident for 12 years now, was instinctively drawn to photography. He remembers getting hold of a Kodak instamatic camera in the 70s and walking around his neighborhood, pretending to take pictures. Despite not having any film loaded most of the time, he still went through all the motions of taking photos – from looking carefully through the viewfinder to winding the imaginary, non-existent film. For Mellos there was something about the process of photographing, rather than just the end-product, that was really appealing. Photography became an antidote to the passage of time, the impermanence and transience of life. It gave him an illusory way to stop time and save a few things from oblivion.

Can you tell us a little about your Chinatown series?

New York City’s Chinatown is just about the only neighborhood in Manhattan that still retains some of the atmosphere of old New York, a city that was much less gentrified and much more down-to-earth: gritty, noisy, often dirty, a city of immigrants and the working class. 

Partly due to its geographical overlap with parts of the Lower East Side, today’s Chinatown makes me think of the immigrant neighborhoods of a century ago, allowing me to imagine what it must have been like on those crowded streets we see in old photographs. It is moving to see how in this part of the town, recent immigrants are still making a new home in America—in many of the same buildings that were occupied by generations of past immigrants from eastern and southern Europe 100 years ago. In no other part of today’s New York does the past still feel so alive, but I don’t know how much longer this will last. 

I started photographing in Chinatown several years ago, drawn by its history but also by its contemporary chaos and energy. It reminded me somewhat of the old city center in Athens, from where I originally come. More recently, though, my project has attained an added urgency and poignancy, as it is becoming clear that even Chinatown is, inexorably, succumbing to the forces of modernization and gentrification. Grocery stores are shutting down and old apartment buildings are being demolished in order to make way for fancy new hotels, boutiques, and the like.

In this work, I am trying to capture and preserve the everyday atmosphere and poetry of the streets of Chinatown before the neighborhood becomes unrecognizable and forever lost.

These photographs blend a documentary impulse with a street photography aesthetic. I like documenting life unobtrusively as it unfolds, striving for a fly-on-the-wall style as much as possible. My aim is to convey to the viewer the experience of wandering around a place as a curious and interested outsider.

There are a huge amount of NYC street photographers, how would you describe your own style?

A particular visual style is something that should evolve organically. I did not set out consciously trying to develop a distinctive style; in fact, my approach to photography is very old-fashioned. I started photographing because seeing the world gives me joy, not in order to stand out with a unique or extreme style. I don’t believe in stylistic innovation for its own sake. I strive for photos that do not prioritize form over content or vice-versa. I tend to use a lot of strong shadows and negative space in my photos, because I like the feeling of having various elements in the photo emerging from the void. I also like images that are sharp throughout, with a lot of depth of field, because I think this more accurately recreates the way we see in real life. Thematically, I tend to avoid cheap visual jokes, which seem to be a pretty common trope in a lot of street photography these days. I want to take photos that are emotionally nuanced, and I also try to be discreet: I am not impressed by a very aggressive style of street photography of blowing a flash on people’s faces from close range, for example; I think that’s a little too easy and crude, a cheap thrill.

What do you see as the greatest challenges when taking candid photos on the street?

For me the greatest challenge is overcoming my own emotional inhibitions. Street photography is really hard psychologically, at least if you’re not a super-aggressive and intrusive person. Even after many years of practice, for me it’s always a challenge to get in the zone where I can muster the courage to photograph strangers. The other, related challenge is how to do this as unobtrusively as possible, in order to not alter the scene by your presence.  

How has your technique adapted to deal with these challenges?

You just learn by practice and hard work, you get better little by little. The emotional component never really gets much easier – I just brace myself and deal with my own discomfort in order to be able to do the work. As for the more technical aspect of being as discreet as possible, with time I have learned to be very fast and also to position myself in space and to move around in ways that make me a little less conspicuous. But I have never really altered my technique in a significant way, for example I never thought of using a zoom lens (instead of a wide angle) as a shortcut for minimizing my own “footprint” on the street.   

Which camera(s) did you use to capture your Chinatown series?

95% of the time I work with my Leica M9.

What do you see as the benefits of using this particular camera for street photography?

Apart from the fact that I just love the sharpness and look of the images from this camera’s sensor, I appreciate the fact that my Leica is fairly small, and therefore a little more unobtrusive than a huge DSLR would be, for example. I also really enjoy the fact that it is back to basics with this camera – there are not dozens of superfluous menus and different settings, I do everything manually, and this simplifies my process and in fact gives me more creative control. Finally, I don’t like lugging a lot of weight around, so on this count the Leica M9 is a really good fit for me. It’s like a good whisky glass – heavy enough to have substance and to feel good to hold, but not uncomfortably heavy. It feels good in the hand.

What do you take into consideration from a technical point of view when shooting street photography?

Partly because I need to work extremely fast and partly because I love images that are sharp throughout, I usually pre-focus and shoot at f11 or higher.

How important is photo editing as part of your process and what techniques do you like to employ when editing?

Editing is an extremely important part of any serious photographer’s process. In my case, unfortunately the editing technique I have mostly employed up to now is procrastination! I have a day job, and as a result the time I can devote to photography is unfortunately very limited. And since I love walking around and photographing much more than I love editing, I often leave work unedited for months and even years on end. There is a positive aspect to that, because as more work accumulates you may discover that you have enough material for a theme or project that you had not anticipated, but kind of accumulated organically over time. One thing that I find helpful in editing is being systematic about organizing your unedited work in different thematic folders. After that, I usually make consecutive edits, raising the bar a little at every round of editing. I think the greatest challenge in editing is being very strict with oneself and severing your emotional attachment to your own work as much as possible.

What advice would you offer any aspiring street photographers?

I have a very simple piece of advice: Don’t be lazy, be ready to give up a lot of your free time to this. And, most importantly: be interested in the world, not in yourself.

How long have you been shooting with Leica and how has your relationship to the brand developed?

I bought my M9 in 2010. I would love to be able to get an M10 at some point (especially to be able to shoot at higher ISOs without noise), but it does not seem likely in the near future, unfortunately. But even if I have to keep shooting with the M9 for another 10 years, I’m fine with that. It’s a tool for life.

 

You can check out more of Dimitri Mellos’ work on his website and his Instagram.

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One comment

  • A wonderful series, and I feel that Mr. Mellos accomplished exactly what he set out to do. Being an American Asian myself-born in the US, but having very strong ties to the Chinese Community, he has captured the essence of the immigrant culture. Even more so, Mr. Mellos captures the heritage and customs of the old, which brings back memories of growing up among my grandmothers (who had bound feet) and their routines, while also offering a glimpse of the new generation, and in one particular image, he showcases both, showing the contrast between the generations.

    I left feeling melancholy–reminiscing about the days growing up, hearing the loud laughter and clicking tiles of mad mahjong playing in my parents basement. Chinatown has changed. My acupuncturist’s parents, had the first Chinese herb store that occupied 3 floors, which no longer exists. As a third generation acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist, my acupuncturist has since been ousted from the neighborhood, and forced to move uptown. I used to fill my backpack with Chinese goods from the Chinese grocery store Kam Sen, on my way to my appointments. Now I cross the street next to a Whole Foods, to go to his office.

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