Old-town portraits

Frances Melhop's photo series of Comstock residents debuts after four years in the making

Frances Melhop, seen below at her University of Nevada, Reno studio, recentlyfinished a series of life-sized photographs of Comstock residents, like Rick Ireland, left.

Frances Melhop, seen below at her University of Nevada, Reno studio, recentlyfinished a series of life-sized photographs of Comstock residents, like Rick Ireland, left.

PHOTO/MATT BIEKER

The Comstock Portrait Project runs from Sept. 28 through Dec. 1 at the Haldan Gallery at Lake Tahoe Community College,1 College Drive, South Lake Tahoe, California. On Sept. 28, there’s a reception from 5-7 p.m. and an artist’s talk at 5:30 p.m.

After leaving her native New Zealand, Frances Melhop spent over two decades as a fashion photographer. She traveled the world, crafting meticulous, dreamy imagery for magazines like Vogue, Marie Claire and Elle. In 2010, she moved to Reno with her husband and experienced a very different kind of culture.

In the barren hills and tiny towns of the old Comstock frontier, she found a new type of inspiration for her work—one bred from the enduring traditions and isolated lifestyles of the people she met there. Now enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts program at University of Nevada, Reno, Melhop is debuting her newest exhibition, The Comstock Portrait Project.

Since conceiving of the project in 2013, she has captured stark, honest portraits of the residents of towns like Silver City, Gold Hill and Virginia City. The exhibition will feature almost 50 life-sized prints, along with audio tracks of recorded oral histories. RN&R sat down with Melhop in her studio at UNR to discuss the inspiration for her portraits and how she went from creating narratives to archiving them.

I can imagine coming to Reno was a bit of a culture shock. What were your first impressions of the town?

Yes, it was a huge culture shock. But there was something really strangely familiar because we've been observing the Wild West on TV our whole lives. I used to run home from school to watch Bonanza.

Some of it’s a bit staged, but most of it is actually people doing their lives in the exact way they’ve done the whole time. And it’s kind of geographically isolated, so, yeah, it was strange and familiar all at the same time.

Did you have the idea to start this project upon seeing these towns, or was it vice versa? Did you know you'd be moving to this “Wild West” and want to do something there?

No, I totally didn't have a clue, because I had no idea that Reno was part of the extended Comstock. Basically, when I first arrived here, my husband was showing me around all over the place, showing me skiing mountains, which I was really happy about.

We went all over Nevada and checked out lots of ghost towns and all sorts of things. It was super fun and super interesting, and super different than anything that I had been to before. And also just the high-altitude desert took me a long time to get used to, physically. And then also just to understand that, if you look really closely, it’s not all dead. There are these tiny little violets growing between the rocks and things like that. It’s just another way of looking at things, I guess.

I didn’t have this project in mind at all. It’s just that I kept meeting all these amazing people who were just really individual and just cool, and I wanted to photograph them. But I didn’t want to put my stamp on them, or I didn’t want to put my interpretation of who they were on them.

What are your plans for the future of the prints once they leave the gallery?

I'm going to give each person a print … but then I just feel it's really important that the recordings and the images—at the very least, the digital copies of the finals—go into some sort of archive there, a community archive.

One thing I did find was that someone else had actually done this before in a more contemporary time, and that is Peter Feldstein. He set out—I think about 20 years ago, maybe in the ’90s or ’80s or something—he set out to photograph the entire town of Oxford [Iowa], and then, 20 years later, he went back to do the same thing. And the images are just—they’re the same sort of thing. They’re taking people out of context, and they just stand alone. They’re just such amazing characters.

And is that something you think you'd maybe even like to pursue in future as well? Coming back and photographing these same subjects?

Yeah, I feel like, you know, the Comstock might change really dramatically quite soon. It's stayed the same for so long, just with the tech companies coming in, and they're right there, they're really close—Tesla factory and things like that.

Less space for everyone?

Yeah, I don't know what's going to happen, but I just feel like this is the moment to photograph everyone now, and then it's going to be fairly different.

What were people's initial reactions when you approached them?

I actually didn't approach them. I left fliers around in bars saying, “If you would like to have your portrait taken,” come down at this time to wherever I had set up a studio.

And the audio aspect of this project? What kind of stories were you looking for? And why did that become something you wanted to do at the end?

I felt like it added more dimension to the project. … [Filmmaker] Mary [Works] and [arts advocate] Quest [Lakes] had actually told me a few of the stories, and I was like, “This is so hilarious. This is so brilliant. Just these crazy things that happen out at Comstock.” And so it became, “We've got to record this. We've got to save this because it's so incredible.”

And so I didn’t give them any specifications. … And, like I said, Mary was fantastic because she grew up there, and her dad ran the Red Dog Saloon. And, so, they were kind of fairly central to the whole story, and she could prompt people if she remembered something from when they were growing up.

In your artist's statement, you wrote about how you're so used to creating narrative in your photography, and you went from creating narrative to documenting it. What was the biggest challenge you found in that?

It was super challenging, because I'm used to being kind of a control freak about my photographs and my subjects, and it's always about a narrative story. So, I'm always molding them with the help of a crew—hair and makeup, loads of pre-production, and I storyboard everything absolutely—like making a little movie. … It's all planned out. There's nothing left to chance. … So this was just bizarre, allowing people to just float in, talk to them and start photographing them, and then for them to come down and tell stories to Mary, who was recording.

I guess the most difficult thing—like, once I got my head around that, it was fine, but the most difficult thing was possibly in the post-production stage, where I’m used to perfecting everything. I’m in Photoshop, and I’m making my character the real Alice in Wonderland, or whatever. So it was really hard to not fix up skin and take away wrinkles. … I have done some post-production on this: cleaning the floor or the background or whatever. But they—I don’t know—I just think everyone’s beautiful.