Melanie Pullen | They Said if the Confession Was Sincere There’d Be Prada on Lock, but So Far I’m Skeptical
A voyeur at heart, photographer Melanie Pullen keeps her eyes peeled for the revealing detail. And as she crafted this issue’s cover image, it seems she put more than a little of herself into her work—it’s hard to think of a better image for the photographer than an extravagantly dressed woman peering intently through a pair of binoculars. But what is she looking for with that glistening patent leather trench coat and those prying eyes? Turns out that when you’re looking closely, you see things that other people pass right by.
When the photographer—best known for her High Fashion Crime Scenes series—recreates real-life murders with contemporary fashion, there’s something greater that she’s trying to shed light on than just the obvious. Take her “Half Prada” image, for example. All the viewer sees is a limp female body from the waist down, dangling, presumably after hanging herself. It’s a lot to take in. But boy, those red and white Prada heels she’s wearing are stunning, right?
“It’s the juxtaposition of violence and commerce,” she says. “I’m wondering, ‘Can I get the viewer to notice the shoes before the murder?’ Maybe they’ll go home later and think, ‘I was looking at a woman who hung herself.’ It’s a very manipulative thing that I’m doing, which in the end is a commentary on what’s happening every day in our common lives.”
The Angeleno’s (by way of a New York City upbringing) objective with work like this is to highlight the exploitative tendencies of the media. Ever notice how when the affluent and gorgeous are either physically or financially harmed, that those are the stories that tend to lead the evening news? Pullen does. She knows that the story of a vixen being killed in Beverly Hills will fatten the pockets of a TV executive thanks to the viewers and ad dollars it’ll draw much faster than a brief of a comparable instance in Compton.
“I’m creating a more overt version of what the media does in order to draw attention to it,” she explains. “Like the way women and violence are exploited by mainstream outlets like Fox News. I’m taking the most violent subjects and playing with the idea of advertising where I’m making the shoes stand out even though the woman wearing them just hung herself. Fashion becomes a story.”
This summer, Pullen’s work will be featured as part of The Getty Museum’s Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography, 1911–2011 exhibit, followed by a solo show of a more recent series at Leica Galleries in September. There’s also a 2019 exhibition at MOAH in Lancaster to come.
The lineup offers a lot of opportunities for Pullen to perform one of her favorite little experiments. She gets a kick out of seeing how people react to her scenes. Some become sleuths, wondering just how the victim met their demise. Others, possibly desensitized to death because of the way news of it is cycled in and out of our feeds, act as if they’re looking at something that doesn’t even require pause. To further complicate the reactions of the nonchalant, she often places semi-reflective materials over her photographs, so that they become a type of mirror.
“Sometimes you’ll catch people fixing their lipstick in the image of a crime scene,” Pullen says, recalling the site of a woman puckering up to the reflective plexiglass that separated her from gruesome death imagery. “It’s a real crime scene, it actually happened! They’re recreations. It’s weird on so many levels,” she says, obviously delighting in the revealing variety of reactions. “My work in life is a lot about voyeurism, looking at interactions and studying what makes people uncomfortable. I want to go to the place that makes you uncomfortable.” If you go there with her, just know that while you’re observing her work, she may be observing you.
Written by Brad Weté
Interview by Sid Feddema.
Photographer: Melanie Pullen.
Stylist: Santa Bevacqua.
Model: Cara Marie Ruetz at LA Models.
Hair: Amber Duarte using ORIBE Hair care at Walter Schupfer Management.
Makeup: Mynxii White using Burberry at Photogenics Army.
Photography Assistant: Miguel Chavez.
Styling Assistant: Leonard Murray.