Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Focus On: stephmel

painting my dreams

If there’s one thing we all have in common, it's that we’re all different.

We come from different places; we have different life experiences; we have different styles.  Our training is different; our vision, perspective, message, goals, they’re all different.   We’re all, each and every one of us, products of the entire sum of our existence.  And being different, we all draw on different parts of ourselves to create our images.  Some of us dig deep, while others, not so much.  Is it any wonder our final products are so varied?

The person I’ve “Focused On” this time out makes her living in the arts and lives 10 time zones away from me in a place I’ve never been; how’s that for different?

The work of Stephania Dapolla of stephmel first caught my eye several weeks ago, and need I tell you I was impressed?  Looking at that work you can see reflections of just who she is.  I recently had an opportunity to have an extended conversation with Stephania; I’d like to share that with you now.

Steve:  When I encounter artwork that interests me, not only am I curious about the work, but I also want to know more about the artist.  What is it about this person's background that set them on their current path?   What is their perspective and what were the circumstances that imposed that perspective on them?  So, Stephania, with that in mind, would you tell us a bit about yourself?  Who are you, and how did you get to be you?  What's your family like?  What's your life like outside the bounds of photography?


Stephania:  I believe that what makes the difference in an artist's life is a special vision of the world rather than his every day's activities.

Taking the example of Emily Dickinson; she depicted the whole world having spent most of her years in a room. But her seclusion from social life and her lack of experience did not prevent her from writing the most enlightened poems about life and human condition.

I suppose that my Mediterranean roots and a certain artistic background have something to do with my involvement with photography. Apart from them, my everyday's life seems to be quite normal. I only try to keep my soul's eyes open, watching the world around as a constant source of wonder, as something new and undiscovered every day, every moment. This is a natural ability in childhood, usually lost or reduced in time. Where it remains, art is always present. I try to let my inner child guide me and this keeps me in constant conflict with reality. My photos are usually the reward of this exhaustive but always fascinating process.

once upon a time

Steve:  What was it like growing up in Athens? What is your family like?

Stephania:  I was raised in a small suburb outside of Athens, which soon became a big and crowded place.

My father transmitted to me his love for photography, poetry and travelling.  I remember him with a camera in hands while he wasn't at work. He also loved travelling and we have spent some lovely summer holidays driving around Greece and Europe. He was always coming back with lots of film in his suitcases and I was waiting for the photos to appear with great anticipation. I still keep a large collection of them. They have a multiple value for me- artistic, documentary and personal overall.

Through my father's eyes, I learned to observe the world, focusing on particular moods and details and trying to find out the hidden stories in the most neglected and forgotten places and things. I am always attracted by the charm of buildings in decay and try to depict their timeless beauty in many of my images.

Books are my other source of inspiration. As a child I spent long hours reading poems and trying to transform the words into images with my imagination. This is why I often love to borrow phrases from poems and adjust them to my photos. Books are also valuable as objects by themselves for me.

My city Athens has changed a lot through the years. Despite of the disadvantages, I still love urban life and can find the same appeal in a crowded street with neon lights and in a quiet sunrise by the sea. I love to discover beauty and poetry everywhere and I am glad that my camera is such a loyal companion in this search.


I share with my partner our small family business for many years now.  We are based in Athens, Greece and have a studio for painting, a lab for printing and a small gallery-showcase for selling our work. Our main work is related to eastern Christian religious art, including icon-painting and wall-painting in churches all over the country.  I have been into visual arts since I remember myself, but started to work in photography the latest four years- which has become a passion for me.

Steve:  I'm intrigued by the description of your business; the studio/lab/gallery and the religious art. I think I may have more than one question for you about these things, if that's OK. Let's start with the religious art...who is doing the painting? Is it you, your partner or both? Do you do more icon painting or wall painting? When I think of wall paintings in your part of the world, I think of frescoes; is that what you are doing?

Stephania:  In Greece religious art is very old but still popular.

Although icon painters of today try to reproduce the work of the old masters, there is still a large field of experimentation and research. When I work on an icon, it is like I open an old book and try to reconstruct the phrases hidden behind the faded letters.  An icon is an expression of a living experience rather than of a doctrine. We work always with respect to the tradition, using the old materials, such as natural colours, eggs and golden leaf. This work needs great patience and discipline.


I have worked for many years painting with my partner, both in icon and wall painting. Most of the wall paintings of today are processed on canvas and mounted on the church's walls. It is such a wonderful experience to spend some days in a remote place in the mountain decorating or restoring the walls of an old monastery.

In Greece the fresco is a technique which is used less and less because of the increased cost. In our job, my partner is the manager, as he has more advanced technical knowledge in many fields. I mostly enjoy painting but I have to divide my working time between painting, photography and printing.

Steve:  I can totally respect the patience and discipline you must have for your work! When you speak of "restoring the walls of an old monastery" I envision something quite old, perhaps even ancient; that's really quite fascinating!

What takes most of your time, the painting or photography? It sounds like it's the painting that pays the bills, is that the case?


Stephania:  In Greece, there are thousands of old churches and many of them need restoring. Some of them are ancient relics of the early Christian years. Because of our history and many centuries spent in occupation, the condition of many of these monuments is not so good. Some of the masterful old paintings have faded and some others have been covered with layers of smoke or humidity. There are also old precious icons in the same condition.  The restoring job needs a lot of patience, special knowledge and respect to the work of the old artists, but it's really rewarding to see a figure appearing slowly from a black surface and reviving again.

Apart from art, painting has become our way for living for many years now. Photography is relatively new to me. I love the freedom of expression and its endless possibilities, especially with the use of the modern digital techniques for treatment and manipulation. However, I think that it's too early for me to rely on it as my regular source of income. There is still much work to be done on this direction.

Steve:  I take it, then that your studio and gallery is primarily focused on painting; are any of your photographic works displayed?

Stephania:  In our gallery, there are lots of icons displayed, original paintings and prints.
However, I always keep a space free for my photography and I love to show some of my prints mounted and framed. I hope to be able to organize an exhibition during next year with some of them. I have recently converted part of my workspace into a photographic studio.


Steve:  I know you said your father was an early inspiration for your photography, but since you started shooting 4 years ago, I'd like to explore what it was that motivated you to get started in photography. So, what was it that made you pick up a camera? Why 4 years ago? Why did you pick one up at all?

Stephania:  My interest in photography has developed slowly through the years. I had always to use a camera at work for making archives or just reproduce the original paintings and sell the prints. I started thinking of a new perspective just four years ago, when I discovered the endless possibilities of digital methods of processing. I was fascinated by the possibility to take a photograph and drive it to a painting-like result without the use of paints and brushes. I had suddenly discovered a new path to visualize my dreams and emotions. So my journey into this magical world began.

Steve:  Looking at your work, I can see that many of your images have a resemblance to time encrusted paintings. I see brush stokes and other textures, from what I assume are digital layering. What can you share with us about your process?

Stephania:  I often use layers to add mood to my photos. I usually prefer to combine more than one texture with my image in different percentages. The technique is quite easy and the results can be really impressive.

I use brush and eraser tools to enhance some selected spots, and then play with colours and tones. There is no guarantee of a successful result; it depends on the subject and the artist's imagination.  I prefer a strongly textured effect when I want to add a dramatic mood in an image. This is the case of my photos which show urban decay or human emotions. I use lighter textures when I want to create a more peaceful atmosphere and a lighter contrast of tones. I keep a collection of textured layers, most of which are made by me. I love to experiment and let my subject and mood guide me.

I wandered lonely as a cloud

Steve:  I was going to ask you if you created your own textures, what with your painting background, but now we know!

Do you have any favorite subjects or themes you find yourself drawn to more than others?

Stephania:  As I mentioned before, I am hugely attracted by urban decay - everything forgotten and abandoned, but still keeping the traces of human presence. I try to hear the whispers from the past and to read the old stories hidden behind the locked doors. I am very happy to hear someone saying that in one of my photos they recognized even vaguely a moment or feeling from their own personal history. As my photography is mostly personal and emotional, portraits are my other favourite subjects. I like to create sceneries and place a human figure in them in order to create a story. The mood is what matters most for me, much more than the technical perfection.

Steve:  Do you have any favorite places to shoot?

Stephania:  Some places that I have loved and photographed are roads captured in motion - from a train or car window; the old market of my city after closing time; the vast Lido beach outside Venice in wintertime; cities of eastern Europe (still under reconstruction); old train stations in the south of Greece; the sea; and, my room.

There are still so many to be discovered...


Steve:  Do you ever get an itch to photograph something, an itch that must be scratched?  What do you do when that happens?  Are your photo excursions planned or spontaneous? 

Stephania:  It always depends on the moment and conditions. Carrying always a camera with me, allows me to capture scenes that I accidentally encounter. Most of these spontaneous shots are never used, but I love to exercise my eyes and create my own sketchbook with a range of various subjects. Sometimes I browse them to pick an element and add it to another image.

I rarely schedule my photographic sessions. I let my intuition work and feel happy when my subjects surprise me. I think this interchange is the most exciting part of the process. Keeping my eyes open and my mind in constant wonder, this is only what I feel that I need to do. The rest will be added at the next stage- the processing part.

I remember a documentary showing the life of Sophie Calle, a great French photographer of today. She started her carrier being drawn by her sudden impulse to follow anonymously, a man unknown to her, on his trip from Paris to Italy. She made a gorgeous set of photos spying him in the streets of Venice among the crowd. She didn't have any special knowledge or equipment, but her art was recognized later as prominent among the technically perfect photographs of many professionals.


Steve:  That's usually how I go about my shoots, or "photographic walkabouts" as I call them; I'll go to an area, immersing myself in it, shooting whatever my eye finds interesting.  And you're right, much of what I shoot turns out to be detritus, but the gems I it contains make it all worth it!

I'm always curious about what other photographers are using, so, Stephania, what do you carry in your camera bag? What are your favorite tools?

Stephania:  I'm glad to know we are similar in this :)

I started to shoot digital with a Nikon D80 four years ago. I have used it with a Tamron AF 28-300 zoom lens and a Nikkor 50mm 1:1.4. Two years ago, I bought a Sony a900 with a Tamron 18-300 zoom lens, which I prefer to carry with me when I travel. When I need something lighter, I carry just a small Pentax in my handbag. I have also two tripods and some smaller accessories.

Steve:  If money were taken out of the equation, what would you like to add to your camera bag?

Stephania:  A Zeiss 10-20 lens would be my first selection.  I would also love to have a set of old cameras with film.

birds of passage

Steve:  Do you have any favorite photographers, perhaps some you've been inspired by? And if not photographers, what about artists? Who are they, and how have they influenced you?

Stephania:  I could mention a long list of photographers that I admire, from Man Ray until the young generation of modern experimental photography. I love to study all the styles, but I am particularly inspired by the conceptual photography of modern female artists such as Francesca Woodman, Diane Arbus, Sophie Calle etc. Among painters, Van Gogh and Klimt are my favourites. Cinema is also a source of inspiration. However, it would be hard for me to speak about a particular influence in my work, as I just feel as a beginner and an amateur. So, I prefer to keep in mind what Henri Cartier Bresson had said: "Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst".

Steve:  Where is photography taking you, or where are you taking it? From a photography standpoint, what does the future have in store for you?

those winter sundays

Stephania:  Although I have worked in visual arts for many years, with photography I have felt as in the start of a long and exciting journey. It is important for me to enjoy every moment of this journey and the sights and experiences coming along the way. I certainly have some wishes and plans related to the promotion-recognition part, but I try not to focus too much on them. My interest in photography is kept alive as long as I feel that I can say things that can't be said and show images that can't be seen in other ways.  If there is a practical result, this will follow naturally as a consequence of hard work and constant progress.  From this point of view, the magic of the journey is more important than the destination itself.

Steve:  Thank you so much, Stephania! I've enjoyed our conversation very much!

Stephania:  You are so welcome Steve! I enjoyed our conversation too!


PhotoGrunt is Steve Raley, a photographic documentarian from Seattle, Washington.  He captures images wherever he goes, and he  frequently even uses a camera.  His work can be seen on his websiteblog and his Etsy shop.


creationsbyeve said...

lovely interview!I love Stephania's work, it's amazing and it was a pleasure to read more about her and her work!Thanks for sharing!

shash ... said...

so wonderful to read the words and see the beautiful creations of this excellent and favourite artist ... stephmel is extremely talented and this is a very interesting read with beautiful accompanying artworks :)

Lucie said...

Wow! It's great to know more about you Steph! I love your work:D

Dina Fragola said...

I love Stephania's work! So dreamy and surreal, pure beauty!

Rita alias alatvian said...

Congrats to the feature, Steph!
Your work is great!

heartshapedcreations said...

A truly enjoyable interview from an amazing photographer!!! Thank you so much for sharing Steve and Stephania. It was a real pleasure to read!

donauluft said...

The Photos are awesome! Great post,Congrats!

stephania said...

Thank you so much, Steve! I am very honoured for this feature and I loved our conversation as much as the final result. I'm truly grateful!

Kallia's Wonderland said...

Amazing work for an amazing woman :))

Congrats for the feature!!!

First Light Photography said...

These interviews always seem to bring us all together a bit more and more each time. Stephanie is a world apart from me here in Illinois, but I find many similarities between us through this wonderful interview. Her work is stunning and her texture use is exquisitely used! I'm happy to know you, Stephanie and I love your work.

Nancy van den Boom said...

Wow Steve and Stephania. Congratz on this wonderful interview. I love the setup, the time you take, the depth of it. So nice to read more of your art Stephania, your background and your approach. Thanks both for taking the time, although I think you had a wonderful time together talking. Thanks again!


stephania said...

I feel very moved and happy for these kind and encouraging words on my work and would like to thank all the friends who visited and commented on this feature.

Anika said...

Beautiful interview. Stephania is a true artist. Her photos and methods speak to what I love most about photography. I admire her work a lot and enjoyed learning more about her and her methods. Thanks!

artistico said...

lovely interview! you know that .YOU ARE A GREAT PHOTOGRAPHER AND YOU DESERVE THIS !!!! Stef i love your work :)

readingsully2 said...

Wonderful interview and very interesting. I love her work. Great choice.

shash ... said...

i'm so happy to see stephania getting this recognition and showcase ... an extremely talented artist i've long admired ... her soulful works and modest attitude so rare and precious ... congratulations to all involved for a lovely and fascinating read and insight!

antigoni said...

I looooooove Stef's work!!!..
it's more like poetry than photography...♥ real artist!

Nancy van den Boom said...

Steph, I am very happy to see all the wonderful comments on your interview and your work. It's recognition and you deserve it, lovely lady and wonderful artist!

kraplap said...

fantastic interview ! was a great read, and I am sure that I look at Stephs work with different eyes now.

Naomi said...

What a wonderful interview!! I adore Stephania's work, and it was great to hear about the thinking behind it all. I love your philosophies Steph dear, you are a true inspiration! Especially that last part about the journey being more important than the destination. Inspiring :-)

Star of the East said...

Great to find out more about you, Stephania! Very interesting to read about your restoration and religious art work, must be very fasinating to bring new life to those old historical buildings!
Love your work, congrats to the feature!

milloo said...

This was truly one of the most interested interviews i've read for quite some time.Your work is absolutely magnificent .Well Done !!


Annuk said...

Wonderful and really inspired interview with a great Artist whose work I deeply admire! It was so great to get to know about the inspiration behind Steph's work! Thank you so much for sharing!

Mary Jane said...

Wonderful interview with an outstanding artist. Photos all have a story lurking to be discovered by the viewer - the secret of good art of any kind. Steve does a great job asking the questions we all would ask. Great job all around.