Molly Steele's photography is as effervescent as her approach to life is. She grew up in Melrose, Florida on her family's herb farm - a quiet place surrounded by lush greeneries and a vast expanse of forests and swamps. Her photographs of wild camping and train hopping gives you just the right amount of jealousy and sheer joy. They are both wildly intimate and voraciously beautiful. You almost want to be where she is, right there in that photograph.
We had a chat with her about life, escapism, happiness and well... what she's snacking on.
What was your first experience with the camera?
My first experience with a camera is not a notable one. More than a decade before I ever considered applying myself to photography, I made videos as a teenager mostly documenting the local punk scene in Florida. In general, documenting has always been woven into my habits in the form of visuals and journaling. My first film camera “found me” in a way, when I walked by a man selling items on the sidewalk around the corner from my retail job when I was 18. I took pretty terrible pictures, but a seed was planted though it would not germinate for some time.
Do you remember the first bunch of photographs you took? What was that like? I remember photographing some cliché California road trips with my boyfriend at the time, up the California coast and around LA. There was no message in them and I completely lacked any knowledge of how to use my camera or how film worked, it was just an action back then. Over time, while still not developing a technical relationship to it, I found myself drawn to shoot more over the years though the growth was slow.
How has your photography evolved over the years and what have you learnt from it?
Initially, I rarely if ever took photos of people. After modelling for many years and never feeling comfortable with it, I projected my personal fears onto the people around me and thought I should save them the discomfort of being on camera. Having been born into the digital era, I feel hesitant to add more cameras to the mix, and I want people to feel respected and consenting.
However, I’ve been balancing that with my drive to document, so I’m integrating a lot more photos of people into my practice slowly but surely. In addition, I’m much more technically proficient and able to an extent am better able to imagine the end-result while I’m shooting. I’ve grown to understand what I’m looking for, what I like in a moment, as well as things like lighting conditions, the ethics and critical thinking involved in photography, as well as an increased courage to posture myself confidently as a photographer.
Do you feel that your photography is a reflection of who you are at that given moment?
I do. Because my work is a visual journal of my life and the things around me, I feel like people who have followed it over the years have seen the shifts and tides. I often travel when I’m unsettled in my life or going through something really difficult, and in these moments I make some of my best work without a doubt. Additionally, the transition out of landscapes and into relationships and political discourse has changed my photography and is most definitely a reflection of the changes I’ve made in my life.
Escapism and happiness seems to be a big theme in your photographs, what is your relationship with finding happiness?
This question makes me laugh because of a recent realization about my photographs. I’m a person who really takes pleasure in intensity and depth, and I think my work has almost always representing lightness, joy, etc. This is not an accurate depiction of my personality, but instead a quest to explore those things. I feel like in a lot of ways, I was robbed of my childhood at an early age and had to witness a lot of struggle. It’s something that’s very hard for me to work through and I face it daily. In many ways, photography is a way to investigate some of what I feel I missed out on, and I like to look back at the work when I want to remember these moments of joy preserved in the images.
How would you describe your body of work.
Timeless, inclusive, warm. A glimpse into a life worth living where other ways of living and relating are possible. A safe haven for the lonely and wayward to be lifted into a dream. None of the work is staged, it’s a catalog of experiences lived.
5 things we can find in your backpack when you are on the road?
A knife, my Nikon F3, some Juniper Ridge tree resin cologne to ground me, a comfy sweater, and a book.
Okay, you’re on a train, you don’t know where you’re heading and you can only listen to a playlist with only 3 songs on repeat, what would these 3 songs be and why?
This is a really hard one for me because I listen to A LOT of music, so I’ll pick 3 that are in my current rotation.
The Combine by John Maus
You Won’t Be Missing That Part of Me by Melody’s Echo Chamber
Flower Duet from Lakme by Leo Delibes
What are you up to these days, any upcoming projects?
Right now I’m focusing on being in school, which anchors me in LA and leaves little room for travel or work. I know that once school ends for the year, my restlessness and hunger to shoot will get me to other countries.
Describe your surrounding as at the moment you are answering all these questions?
It’s an absolutely flawless hot spring afternoon in LA. I hear wind through the canyon outside my window, and some bamboo wind chimes that are my best purchase in the last few years. I’m eating a guilty pleasure snack of mine that I call “Hunger’s Tears” which is fancy French butter served cold on a saltine.
Are you happy now?
Thank god for the timing of this interview, yes, I am happy. I’ve spent the last year working really hard and feeling the payoff, which has opened the space for me to take a break from taking pictures for work in order to go to school again. Spring is an invigorating season for me, so with the blossoming of the lupines and wisteria, I too feel a bloom.
What will you be doing after answering these questions?
It feels like a perfect afternoon for a quiet walk around the block and then I’ll follow it up with a book I recently got about the true story behind the photographer Gerda Taro, who took many of the photos that are today thought to have been shot by the pseudonym Robert Capa. It’s a really incredible example in history of a woman and German Jew in the early 1900s who has to take up a male American alias in order to protect herself and gain credibility as a photographer.
Photography by Molly Steele