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Melody Melamed, Carley, The Book of Skin: Shangri-la (2023)
Melody Melamed, Carley, The Book of Skin: Shangri-la (2023)Photography Melody Melamed

Powerful portraits of queer people baring it all

Shot in her Brooklyn studio, Melody Melamed’s The Book of Skin: Shangri-la illustrates the connection between queer bodies and the natural world

Over the past five years, Iranian-American photographer Melody Melamed has been working on her most personal project yet. It’s a series called The Book of Skin: Shangri-la, in which she places nude portraits of queer individuals in sequence with photographs of the natural world. Folds of skin and transition scars are mirrored by grains of wood; the creases of a neck by sea foam; the pores of a back by rain-dappled sand. At turns majestic and tender, this dynamic sequence of bodies with organic textures and forms grounds the queer experience in nature, and creates what the New York-based photographer describes as “a Rolodex of queer euphoria”. 

“The project began with a focus on ‘gender euphoria’,” Melamed tells Dazed, describing the feeling of joy that trans and other genderqueer people can experience when their gender expression aligns with their gender identity. “I’d been working with trans bodies and trans identities since my college days more than a decade ago, exploring the emotionality behind transitioning and stepping into one’s true self. But the concept expanded over time to become more all-encompassing, about euphoria and identity for all queer bodies,” she continues. “I wanted to create a visual space where the subject and the viewer could feel the power of this phrase ‘euphoria’ through portraiture.” 

The process was an intimate one. Melamed’s subjects, a mixture of friends, acquaintances and strangers, posed naked for her in her home studio in Brooklyn. Shot against canvas and enriched with strobe lighting, their portraits possess an almost regal quality. “I’m glad it reads as regal,” she says, smiling. “I’d often describe the way I wanted them to feel as being like a superhero. I’d present the work very simply as being about queer euphoria, and wanting to see their strength.”

‘I wanted and needed to weave together the story of a beautiful queer euphoria’ – Melody Melamed

Though she remained behind the lens, Melamed began to see the work as a reflection of herself. “This project came at a time when I was coming to terms with my own identity. Despite creating queer art for years, I didn’t identify as queer for most of my life. I think I was in denial for a long time,” she explains. “I grew up in a Persian-Jewish household, which was extremely heteronormative, where getting married and having children was a significant part of becoming an adult, and a significant part of being acceptable and ‘good’. With The Book of Skin, I was finally putting the pieces together and touching base with my own sense of euphoria, my own power, freedom, and light.” 

For Melamed, turning towards the natural world was a vital part of reconciling her identity with her spirituality. “The connection between queerness and nature was a big idea in my head, like, how do I fit into the world? If this is not natural, then why is it me?” she reflects. “Judaism is, at its core, quite a spiritual way of life, and I’ve found space for my queerness in its mysticism. This idea that we’re all connected to nature, all connected to each other, and that everything is a pattern. I used diptychs to mimic this relationship between the body and the earth we’re surrounded by.”

By deconstructing age-old associations of heterosexuality with ‘natural’, and queerness with ‘unnatural’, Melamed’s project etches out its own kind of queer ecology. And she’s not alone in this act of reimagining, whether it’s science writer Sabrina Imbler finding glimmers and gapes of queerness in the fluidity of the ocean in their memoir My Life in Sea Creatures (2022), Lars Horn exploring the trans experience through meditations upon water, fish and mythology in their lyric essay Voice of the Fish (2022), or the artists and poets untangling links between queerness and mycology. The Book of Skin similarly draws parallels between the vulnerability, resilience, and potential of queer communities and that of the natural world and its inhabitants.

“It wasn’t a conscious thought when I was making the work, but as things come to fruition, you see all these threads start to form,” Melamed says, returning to the idea of connection. “I wanted and needed to weave together the story of a beautiful queer euphoria, to draw lines to my culture, my religion, my family, our society, and to who I’ve become today. I want others to see it and feel seen by it and make those connections too.” 

Melody Melamed’s project The Book of Skin: Shangri-la is available to access as a pdf here

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