(Photo by Melanie Dunea)
Carnegie Mellon University

Scenes Behind the Lens: Melanie Dunea

Peering below the tall buildings spaced one after another, you can finally see the people, packed to a density it feels like no square foot is unfilled. Look even more closely, and you can see a great variety of cultures and ethnicities in the crowd; within each culture, there is another multitude of personal styles and tastes. The food is just as reflective of the diversity: walking through the streets looking for restaurants, you can find all the different cuisines imaginable.

Towering above it all separated by a harbor: the Statue of Liberty, the enduring physical mirror of the spirit that drove the founding of America and a reflection of the melting-pot nature of the megapolis. Hello, New York City.   

***

Long lens and lighting gear in hand, Melanie Dunea, a woman with amber curls tumbling down her shoulders, walks through the perpetual hustle-and-bustle of her home city of New York, on the way to her next client’s photoshoot — probably someone with high name recognition — or simply finding the next interesting item to spotlight at the right angle, which often happens to be food.

For all of us, food is the thing that sustains life.

But not all have the ability to turn something as common as food into art.

And all of us can try our hand at shooting portraits of people, but not all have the ability to arrange the setting just right to show the viewer a glimpse of who the subject is.

Dunea, the professional photographer behind six books and many portraits of some of the most famous names in American society, has both abilities and that makes her successful in a freelance world. In an interview with HS Insider, she offers a glimpse of what happens in the scenes behind the lens.

melanie street Scenes Behind the Lens: Melanie Dunea
Here she is, hiding behind the lens! (Photo courtesy of Melanie Dunea)

***

As a teenager, she was already a camera carrier, always on the lookout for the next thing to catch her eye. At that time, the photography landscape looked very different — it was still the era of developing film negatives in darkrooms when we didn’t know the quality of the photo before printing it. But what has not changed over all these years is the heart’s passion behind the lens.

“I’ve always wanted to take pictures, and I’ve always wanted to tell stories,” Dunea asserts. Thus, that camera-carrying teenager grew up to to become a journalist who took on both the writer and the photographer role, which she saw as a “more complete way to tell the story.”

The spirit remains strong even in cases where she is not writing the story.

“When people see my pictures, I hope they understand and see who these people are,” she said of her photo portraits.   

***

Like the global nature of her home city, her career has led her to all kinds of cultures and experiences — and of course, stories.

In Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, she tagged along with one of Italy’s best truffle hunters on a expedition hunting for the elusive underground fungus starting before the crack of dawn. In a blog post, she took readers on a journey through the unmarked woods, slippery steep slopes, and mad dashes after the truffle-hunting dogs that take off in the direction of the aroma, racing to get there before the dogs devour the prize themselves.

In Afghanistan, she put on an abaya and hijab and found a story of hope away from the ongoing warfare, shooting a story among the saffron fields that turned back the curtain on how the saffron harvesting process for the spices chefs crave empowers local women.

Closer to home, she found nearly the entire spice world in a New York Lexington Avenue shop selling spices and various kinds of exotic foods from dozens of countries. She lets herself be overwhelmed by the number of choices the shop offers in their small, upstairs cafe.

***

Dunea has covered many food-related stories, but she is perhaps best known for her glossy, magazine-style portraits of celebrities she is commissioned to do for books or media — Ann Curry, Jill Biden, Julie Andrews, Anderson Cooper, just to name a few.

It sounds like a job description fans of these people might envy. But in reality, “there’s nothing to envy, trust me,” she counters. “I joke that I’m just a mover. I move people around and things around,” she says.

Part of the challenge is having limited time with the subjects — sometimes she gets as little as five minutes with him or her. Occasionally, she would arrive two or more hours before the photoshoot starts and have a perfect plan for the style and setting in mind, and the subject would come in and refuse to do what she planned. In a picture-perfect photoshoot world (no pun intended), the first thing she wants is more time.

***

Combining her twin passions in food and portrait photography, she devotes an entire category on her website in addition to two photo books in her “My Last Supper” series (on answers to the question “what would your final meal be?”) to chefs.

“I started photographing chefs when there were not very many celebrity chefs, so I was interested in this new movement,” she reflected. “There weren’t millions of TV shows [on cooking]… when I started,” she said.

She has seen the movement evolve a long way: today, food TV shows are multimillion dollar industries and celebrity chefs can make upwards of 20 or 30 million dollars a year.

***

Drawn together by their mutual love of food and art, she befriended many of the chefs she photographed. These include cakemaker Sylvia Weinstock and television personality and celebrity chef Rachael Ray.

“She is a wonderful friend, an insanely good gift-giver, great cook and generous patron of the arts. I knew we were truly friends the day she let me help her wash the dishes after dinner,” Dunea wrote of Ray on Instagram after the latter was profiled in the New York Times Dining section.

One literally just breaks into a smile when reading the second sentence.

And true to the classic saying that living to old age means learning until old age, she “[tries] to learn something from everything [she] does.”

Recently, Dunea had the opportunity to photograph an astronaut, whose name she couldn’t disclose, for an upcoming book.

“[The astronaut] was telling me how the moon was really dusty, and I thought that was so interesting,” Dunea recalled. “I had no idea.”  

She allows her subjects to inspire her with their good qualities, including and especially the ones she develops closer relationships with.

“Ninety-nine percent of [her photo subjects] work really, really hard,” she reflected.

Dunea cites Ray as an example of this work ethic that Dunea is inspired by.

“[Ray] rolls up her sleeves… has a wonderful work ethic, and stays true to herself, and I find that very inspiring,” Dunea said.    

***

She takes her followers on so many food-related delights and she has published two books on the “last supper” game in the restaurant world, so of course, I had to ask her what her dream dinner party would be like. “Ooh boy… I suppose you’re asking me what my last supper is,” she said with a smile in her voice.

“I think that my favorite dinner party always involves lots of people coming and going… all the people that I love and care about,” she asserted.

As for the food, there would be a wide variety of choices, reflecting the eclectic taste she has developed throughout her life. The dinner “could start with a delicious glass of champagne, and then there could be some wonderful oysters, [and] some delicious… potato chips and some cheese and some wine. Just lots of different tastes,” she thought aloud.

blue corn taco melanie dunea Scenes Behind the Lens: Melanie Dunea
Showing the colors of the different foods and cultures she comes across is one of her passions. Here is a stuffed blue corn gordita she found in Mexico (photo and information about it from her website, melaniedunea.com).

***

She has seen and continues to have a colorful, storied career. In her heart, she seems to have an infinite source of hope and love.

What gives her hope?

“Other people, people like you!” she exclaims. “People who believe in doing good [give her hope]… that’s part of why [she does] what [she does]… to share the good.”

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