The summer “season” has started in Newport. Its progress is gracefully slow, presenting a good occasion to capture its players early, at home, at play, enjoying their leisure…
Nick Mele’s role as a portrait photographer is a fitting one, for he has lived his life with and among those who represent this very private side of our community. His sincere desire to leave his viewers with a sense of who each person is, yet also with a desire to know more about them makes for a singular read. As does his fascination with and affection for the tradition, culture and mores of the town he calls home.
One of his favorite subjects is his grandmother, Marian Oates Charles, one of Newport’s “grand dames.” It is Oatsie, as she’s known by all, who penned the preface to my first book, Private Newport: At Home and in the Garden. Her chapter in the book gives an elegant perspective on just the kind of life that Nick has so successfully chosen to focus his lens upon. Nick, so glad you could join us today…we’re looking forward to your thoughts.
I’m a photographer. I’ve spent years photographing life in Newport. When Bettie asked me to write a guest blog about my photography and my affinity for Newport, I was immediately excited and…a little nervous. I was excited because I love Newport. It is such a unique place: fabulous houses, fabulous art, fabulous jewelry. And the parties – oh, how fabulous!
But, truth be told, what really interests me is the world of manners, culture, and grace that seems to be slowly fading away. I’m fascinated by those generations of families who still use a finger bowl between dinner courses.
I think it’s great that you still have to wear full tennis whites to play at the club and that a sport coat is a necessity for a night on the town.
Newport has such a rich history of wealth, style, and tradition, and I have been lucky to grow up in it. I have been even luckier to be able to capture some of this world through the lens of my camera.
In many ways Newport, Rhode Island is one of the last bastions of old school American high society. The grand houses of yesteryear still stand, often untouched by modern renovation and style.
Things like artwork, fine china, and the importance of good manners are passed down from generation to generation. It is a town that refuses to forget its history and tradition.
Walking through people’s homes, I can almost see the ghosts of parties past – splendid cocktail affairs and marvelous dinners that have left a palpable imprint behind.
My photography is an attempt to capture this side of Newport – the things that set it apart from every other summer destination – a charming patina from generations of being.
For example, the houses – only so gently touched by modernity – are often extravagant, understated, and livable at the same time. Case in point: Newport’s kitchens. Last summer, The New York Times Magazine published a photo series of mine on the subject (see the full story here: NYT Summer Entertainment Issue). These kitchens are not opulent or fancy. Many haven’t been updated in years. They are functional, not showy. Their modesty is a delightful contrast to the magnificent ballrooms, dining rooms, and gardens whose purpose is entertaining.
Newporters can be as interesting as their homes. Everyone has a story. And as a portrait artist and documentarian, I try to capture as much of my subjects’ stories as possible. The more a photographer pulls back, the more detail she/he will get. I like to capture people in their own environment, around their own things – where they feel the most comfortable and where you can see a story start to form.
One of my favorite subjects is my own grandmother. Many view her as one of the last surviving grande dames – a legendary hostess and fixture of society in Washington D.C. and Newport since the 1950’s.
She once told me, “Life is a theater. Unfortunately, not everyone knows how to act.” It was a quote that immediately ingrained in my psyche. The words resonated with me, particularly because they so succinctly encapsulated what makes my grandmother great. She knows how to act. Better than anyone I’ve ever met. She is the consummate host. There is a sense of grandeur in everything she does, topped off with a biting wit and just enough charm to ensure she will never be without her admirers. It doesn’t hurt that she has just the hint of a southern accent left over from her childhood as the Governor’s granddaughter in Mobile, Alabama. These are the things I like to try and capture in my photographs. I want to leave my viewer with a sense of who each person is, yet also with a desire to know more.
At the end of the day, a picture is just moment in time. With any luck, I can be honest with my photos and when I am done, I will have created an ode to Newport.
Nicholas Mele (pictured below) is an East Coast-based photographer who specializes in portraiture of all kinds. Mele’s work is an agglomeration of his varied interests. He is at the same time an artist, a documentarian, a film junkie, a partygoer, and a family man. Between capturing stills on movie sets, taking concert shots of bands, snapping partygoers for Patrick McMullan, and spending several years documenting the lives of America’s last remaining Grande Dames, his work has been featured in such publications as The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Interview, Town & Country, Quest, and Manhattan Magazine. More on Nick and his images can be found at www.NicholasMele.com.