It was Vogue’s famous 20th century editor, Diana Vreeland who said “the eye has to travel.” Photographer and fellow Condé Nast alumni Catherine Mead has taken Vreeland’s words to heart. Since the age of 19, Mead has crisscrossed the globe, shooting on assignment for newspapers, galleries, hotels and top travel magazines.
Favoring medium-format film cameras, Mead has covered everything from UFC bouts to life in the slums of Kolkata, travelling from Thailand to Polynesia, Turkey to Belize, and Morocco to the US, in the process.
Her exquisitely well-executed images caught the eye of collectors a few years ago and, in response, Mead began offering limited-edition prints of her work. Now she is one of the select few circumventing the gallery system and offering her work directly to the public via Artspace. In this Artist Direct interview, Mead describes the early lure of the camera, life in lockdown and what she always does when she arrives at a new destination for the first time.
How do you describe what you do to people who have never come across your work? I’m a travel photographer and photojournalist, still shooting on old medium-format film cameras. I travel the world taking images of the unexpected beauty that surrounds us, from a picture perfect doorway found in a quiet little backstreet, to kids playing in the cobbled streets of Cuba and the rugged landscapes of incredible locations such as Iceland and Morocco. Showcasing what I see as special, I try to reframe the ordinary for others to appreciate. My aim is to inspire wanderlust, and to create a perfect focal point in my collectors’ homes to spark conversation on travel, and start to plan adventures of their own!
When did you first start taking pictures and what drew you to the process? Photography is all I’ve ever known. As a very young child I was given a little compact point-and-shoot camera by my grandad. I was obsessed, and frequently took the camera into school with me, taking endless ‘portraits’ of my friends in the playground around 7 or 8-years-old. I had to work through a lot of chores in order to pay for all that film and film processing! My parents thought I was crazy.
Aged 13 in high school I applied to study photography on a new course they were starting, as a special after school class. Just eight of us were allowed in the class due to the tiny darkroom we had, and my incredible teacher Mrs Trayler-Smith spent all of her time nurturing our skills. She even opened up her home to us in the school holidays to allow us to work on our projects on the school computers that she’d packed up and brought home for us to use, delivering cookies to us whilst we worked. She was the best teacher in the world. I spent so many hours in the darkroom after school developing my films and printing work. It was all I became interested in. I then campaigned for a higher A-Level class to become available at school, which they agreed to, and I was the only student.
Next came a University degree in Photographic Arts aged 18 in London, where I spent three years in my idea of heaven. Developing, printing work and shooting every day. In my second year of University I started work experience with some of the U.K. ‘s top newspapers, which was the start of my career in photojournalism. I spent a month working alongside Mrs Trayler-Smith’s daughter Abbie, an incredible photographer and mentor. These two amazing women are the reason I’m a photographer today. I was then a runner up in The Times Young Photographer of the Year, which led to freelancing for The Times and a number of other publications, once I’d graduated from University.
Can you remember your first commission? My first, and probably still my favorite assignment, was a shoot in the Maldives at a luxury hotel that was due to open. I’d been flown in to photograph the hotel just as the finishing touches were being completed, ahead of its official opening. Unfortunately the Maldives had suffered from weeks of awful weather which had delayed construction, but we were up against the deadline for publication, so I had to make the best of it. When I arrived there were huge JCB construction vehicles everywhere, hundreds of builders, an empty concrete tub where the swimming pool was meant to be, and a giant tanker moored up with all of the building materials. It was far from the paradise that it would later become.
I had to photograph everything at such a tight angle, looking up, to avoid building works in the images. I shot close ups of everything I could in order to make it work! The storms picked up for the three days I was there, and all of the furniture on my room’s deck flew into the sea as I was shooting it, with me clinging onto a table as it was about to fall in! It was a tough first assignment but thankfully it worked out and led to a great feature in Condé Nast Traveller Magazine, in time for their print deadline. Needless to say the resort looked incredible when it opened to guests a few weeks later!
An assignment in Kyoto, which coincided with Typhoon Hagibis, was another weather complication which made it difficult to shoot. I’d been flown in for three days, especially to photograph the new Aman Kyoto hotel before it opened, but with the typhoon making landfall the day after I arrived, I set to work photographing everything I could before it hit. All of the lovely hotel staff were sent home on government orders, and so I was alone in the hotel with just myself and a security guard to keep watch, and given the keys to the onsen (bath house) pools! The kind chef cycled in from home especially to make food for me – cheese sandwiches – I was pregnant at the time, and craved nothing but plain cheese sandwiches to stave off the nausea. He even surprised me as I was leaving by packing a box of them for me for the flight home!
What do you always try to do when you photograph somewhere new?The first thing I always do is rent a car to get a sense of the location and escape all of the typical tourist areas. Even if that means driving a car in the hustle and bustle of cities like Marrakech. I also try to always seek out locations where only locals go. I try to choose restaurants with long lines of locals outside, to know that I’m getting an authentic taste of the location. It’s always great to then get chatting to the locals about their favorite spots, which often leads to some great advice and images which are off the beaten track.
What do you have to see to make you press the shutter button? As I’ve shot on film for over two decades now, I do get a good sense of what I’ll get as I click the shutter. Shooting on film forces you to slow down, and really study everything in your viewfinder before taking the shot. With only 16 frames to a roll, or just 12 when shooting on my Hasselblad, it makes sure you only photograph the things you love.
What do you look for when you go through your exposures? I’m drawn to color and light first and foremost. Anything that brings the vibrancy of a location, and feels like you could be there. One example is an image called School’s Out, which I shot in Trinidad, Cuba. I’d found yet another beautiful door to photograph – I’m obsessed with doors. I was lining my shot up on my Hasselblad, and as I was about to press the shutter a little girl suddenly started running down the street. I waited a couple of seconds to capture her running through the frame, and another afterwards. To me, she brings life and soul to the image.
How does it feel to go through your archive? Going through my archives brings such incredible memories flooding back. After two decades on the road, I’ve really put my heart and soul into the work. It’s everything I’ve seen on my travels along the way that brings me joy, or I find beautiful or inspiring. Curating my prints has been such a passion project for me, and is constantly evolving as I find new spots to share with my amazing collectors. Anything related to Morocco is especially important to me. I first travelled to Morocco with my best friend when I was 19, and have been back once if not multiple times every year ever since. To me, it’s like no place on earth, and Morocco instantly felt like home to me. When I met my husband over a decade ago, I made sure to take him there early on and encourage his love for Morocco too! So much so that we got married there, inviting our friends and family to experience it, many for the first time.
We love that image from Cuba, called Fidel. Where was that taken? I stumbled across a derelict building whilst walking around Havana. It was in a very dark entrance hallway, and I didn’t have a tripod with me. I braced myself against the wall, held my breath, and had to shoot at around a one-second exposure in order to capture it. I took many shots in case of camera shake, and prayed that one would come out! It’s one of my favorite images from my Cuba series.
Who are the photographers who influenced you?Dorothea Lange has been my hero since I was 18. During my first year in University, I studied the Farm Security Administration photographers’ work during the 1930s in America, and her work floored me. She shot with such grace and compassion for her subjects, and really worked to bring about change with the images she created. It’s been 20 years since I first came across her work, and as I’ve travelled the world I’ve serendipitously stumbled across exhibitions of her work, which I always draw such inspiration from. And of course Chrissie and Abbie Trayler-Smith, as I mentioned earlier.
Tell us a little about three of your works on Artspace.
I was shooting in Istanbul, and trying to photograph the incredible mosques and finding it tough. Shot from the ground looking up, they’re so large and imposing and I was trying to find a better angle. Whilst walking around inside, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a window high up on the wall that had a great view of the Blue Mosque. Usually I travel alone, but this time thankfully my husband had come with me. I sat up on his shoulders and managed to get high enough to shoot out of the window. I took a couple of shots, as we were pretty unstable. A pigeon decided to dive across the frame on one of the shots, and instantly brought life into the wintery, snowy scene.
I hired what proved to be a really awful and unreliable rental car to drive around Cuba, and by the time I made it to Trinidad, it had given up and needed to be parked on a slope and bump started wherever I went (a very useful skill I now have acquired!). I’d parked up outside the office, and was told to wait 12 hours for a mechanic to arrive and have a look. Fortunately the office was surrounded by amazing doors, which everyone knows I adore. Sat on the sidewalk waiting for the mechanic, a car parked up in front of me, creating the most perfect pastel tones. I think my heart stopped when I looked up at it, such was my excitement!
Everything in Morocco is beautiful to me, none more so than the intricate details that they put so much love and thought into. The pink hues of Marrakech, the simple but beautiful detailing, and the shade of a palm tree create the perfect oasis for me in the heat of the city.
Where do you like to see your work hung? Honestly, anywhere in a collector’s home where they’ll see it every day and be inspired by it. A hallway, a bathroom, the kitchen – somewhere where it provides a great focal point, invites conversation with friends, and gets them thinking about planning their own adventures.
What do you have on the walls of your house? I sit for many hours each day alongside a very limited edition artwork by the late Susan O’Malley. It’s an incredibly colorful, wonderful piece with the words, “It Will Be More Beautiful Than You Could Ever Imagine”. I love it, and draw such inspiration from it. It’s a limited edition of five, which I contacted her to buy a year before she sadly passed away. It holds even more meaning for me now and I often think of Susan when I look at it, and remember that life is too short not to follow your dreams. Alongside this, I have lots of travel photographs, naturally, family photographs, and of course a portrait of Dorothea Lange!
What’s next for you? I welcomed my baby boy into the world during the first lockdown of 2020, and giving birth during the height of Covid certainly brought some challenges, and also some unexpected silver linings. I’ve been on a plane several times a month for the past decade, so the enforced break really encouraged me to explore, appreciate and make the most of my local surroundings with my family! I’m really excited to start planning family adventures with my son, which is a whole new aspect of travel for me! I’m excited to show him some of my favorite locations, including Morocco, of course, a trip through Africa and Iceland, amongst many other spots. The list is constantly growing. Work wise I’m currently hopping back and forth from America, the Middle East and around Europe, and have some exciting plans for Rwanda, Zambia and Kenya this summer – it feels so good to be back travelling again.