Storytelling has always been an integral part of what we do at STEADY—executed in our creative and embedded in our pieces. Often, these are stories tied to present and future aspirations. In this new segment, we’re completing the trifecta. CHATTERBOX addresses the past, specifically—the origin stories of kindred individuals.

CHATTERBOX continues with San Francisco’s MELISSA CATAHAN, photographer and unabashedly vibrant—here’s how she came to be.

— Over Contraband Coffee Bar —

MELISSA: One of the things I started with was scrapbooking. I liked having old magazines and cutting them to make collages and random things.

CAL: What magazines were you cutting out of?
MELISSA: I had these magazines called… Highlights? And I had Teen Beat.

CAL: You took the quiz in the back? (Laughs)

MELISSA: Of course, yeah! There was also this Nickelodeon magazine that had these constructable cut outs. My parents magazines too. My mom’s People magazine and dad’s National Geographic. I would just cut them up and put them all together to make things.

CAL: And photography?
MELISSA: [Growing up] my mom used to have a whole bunch of cameras lying around but I wasn’t allowed to touch them. So naturally, I did. I wanted to see what they did.

My mom ended up buying me this terrible, plastic camera. No flash. Nothing cool. It said “My First Camera” on it. So I took it and had a photoshoot with my younger sister in our backyard with our garden fruits. It was so funny! I didn’t realize it but that’s kind of how I got started using a camera..

A few Christmases after that… when I was about 16, I got my first digital camera.

CAL: Canon PowerShot type?

MELISSA: Yes! Exactly that! It was huge and clunky.

CAL: How’d you like it at the time?
MELISSA: I used it mainly for taking photos of my friends. I didn’t have that many friends in high school. I came from a very small one. I was really shy and I didn’t know anyone.

As for the camera, I was like, “Wow. It can actually make really beautiful things. I can look at these later.” It became a memory placement type of thing for me.

CAL: Is a piece from that era that when you see it now, you think “Wow this was pretty damn good!”
MELISSA: The earliest one is one that I did was of the Bay Bridge from inside a car. It was just, the skyline at sunset. It wasn’t even that great of a picture. I just personally hadn’t seen that before. So seeing it in photo meant a lot to me. My mom took it and said we should blow it up.

CAL: Is that when you began to take photography more seriously?
MELISSA: Fast forward, I got my first DSLR in 2010 while in college. I was a computer science major and I had no idea what I was doing.

And I was like.. “Mom, Dad. I want to change my major to photography.” Of course, they said “No” and I asked “Why not?” and they asked me all the follow-up questions like, “What are you gonna do with that,” “How are you going to make money,” or “a living.” I cried the rest of that night.

CAL: It seemed like your mom had a strong interest in photography herself. How come there was a resistance in you getting into the craft?
MELISSA: My mom had her first camera when she was 19-20, it was a Canon AE-1. (Which I use now.) She was someone who did it as a hobby. I think part of her has a soft side for me taking this path but, on the other hand, didn’t because she was scared like most parents.

I’m the second child and my older sister is very “by the books.” She works at Google, went to college, played on the volleyball team. She was kind of like the golden child. I didn’t want to go that route. My parents saw one child being one way, and they weren’t sure of me going a different way.

CAL: What’d you do then?
MELISSA: I listened to them… partially. I changed it to advertising but, I couldn’t forget photography so I added it as my minor.

CAL: I’ve actually never taken photography courses in school, what was that like?
MELISSA: One of my classes was in film, and I was excited about it. It reminded me of my mom. It was really nostalgic.

Eventually, I ended up quitting school. I told them [my parents], I’m gonna work on photography. Of course once again they were like “You’re gonna have to fend for yourself.” I told myself I was going to work 10x harder on it.

That was me four years ago. Since then, I’ve been asking myself: What more do I want to do with photography?

CAL: One of the hallmarks of your work [today] is the colors—Is there a story in that?
MELISSA: I wanted to bring my childhood back to life, but in a way that would make sense to me. Growing up, I loved bright colors and glitter—Lisa Frank!

CAL: Yo Lisa Frank! My sister and I collected that stuff! (Laughs) I can see it in your work.
MELISSA: I started taking pictures of people—mostly girls and I’d ask them, “What would you like to picture yourself as?” or “What do you want to represent you?” They would tell me, “I want to feel like a princess” or “I want to feel beautiful” etc, etc.

CAL: Yo Lisa Frank! My sister and I collected that stuff! (Laughs) I can see it in your work.

MELISSA: I started taking pictures of people—mostly girls and I’d ask them, “What would you like to picture yourself as?” or “What do you want to represent you?” They would tell me, “I want to feel like a princess” or “I want to feel beautiful” etc, etc.

I put them back in a setting familiar to them at a younger age—a happier version of themselves free of responsibilities and say “Let’s just see what comes out.” The photography is a collaboration of my childhood and theirs.

CAL: How important is that to you?
MELISSA: I want to keep this childish spirit of mine. It keeps me and my creativity, for lack of a better term, burning.

CAL: How much backdrop paper is that? (Laughs)
MELISSA: I had one pink background and it carried me. (Although it’s on its last leg.) I’ve changed it [on Photoshop] to so many colors and tricked people into thinking I had a wide spectrum even though I didn’t. (Laughs)

CAL: We’re some of those people!

MELISSA: I have more now! They also range in size. So if they aren’t big enough, I still fake it. I’d say, 40% of my photography is real. 60% is editing. (Laughs) My creativity stems from taking one thing and turning it into a ton of other things.

CAL: You said “mostly girls” earlier—Is that something you do purposefully?
MELISSA: I don’t consciously do that, I think it’s just easier for me to approach girls. Girls are more willing to do certain poses—girls are less afraid to look excited. Guys seem to just want to have a more serious face. This again all comes from my childhood. Growing up, I wasn’t really about boys. I came from a family of all girls. Boys were gross and you don’t want to hang out with them.

It’s not that I intentionally don’t work with guys. I just think some don’t want to be seen as a brighter person. Or, generally, feeling less masculine.

CAL: Looking at your body of work, I’d say it has a strong style and sense of identity. Do you feel that way? Where you can say “This is my calling card.”
MELISSA: I’m not where I want to be. I’m not satisfied with my style.

If you go back, even to just last year (circa 2016), everything is different (a film and dreamy look.) I’d say it’s progressing toward where I want it to be… In the past months, I’ve only been focused on colors and lighting. I was concentrated on making the colors look perfect but before that it was on making digital look perfect. And before that, making film look perfect. Moving forward, I want to put all of that together.

I don’t think I’m ever going to stick to one style. Technology is always changing and I don’t want to get stuck in one style. My mind just wants to new things.

CAL: What’s your relationship with your older work then?
MELISSA: I haven’t had much time to go back, look, and appreciate my older more colorful work. I still cringe at it. But one of the now older pieces that I love is where I put glitter all over my best friend’s face. I’ve been trying so hard to get the perfect close-up portrait and I finally did it. I was really excited about it.

CAL: Is there a time you recall where you really had to stick it through and say to yourself, “This isn’t the most comfortable place but I need to get through this”? Creativity wise.
MELISSA: I go through that every single day. I feel like I’m not good enough all the time. Every day, I struggle with giving up.

But if I gave up back in 2010, I wouldn’t be here with you guys. I wouldn’t have made the connections I’ve made throughout the years—I wouldn’t have gone anywhere. I’d be a different person. Less happy, at that. So I tell myself that I’ve come so far and there’s no way I should give up now. I’m excited to see what the future holds, no matter good or bad. And you can fail and keep failing, but the one time you don’t is going to feel so good.

CAL: What would your younger self think of your current self?
MELISSA: It would definitely be empowering. No matter what work I do, I always feel empowered. I feel like a cool kid. I was never the cool kid!

A younger me would definitely be like, “Wow.. you’re cool now.” You know?

When you find something that you really like to do, and you can tell yourself that, I think it’s rewarding. If it makes me feel good? Then I’m cool to myself.

Photos: M. CATAHAN // Contributors: S. Lee


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