On a muggy July morning, lifestyle, fashion and interior-design photographer Nick Mele and I sat outside the Harvest Market in Newport to discuss his photography book, “A Newport Summer.” This glossy, hardcover book is a collaboration with interior designer and painter, Ruthie Sommers (whose work has appeared in Town & Country, Veranda, House Beautiful, and Architectural Digest, to name a few). The book portrays life within many of Newport’s storied old mansions, still privately owned and often handed down through generations. The story unfolds with Mele’s tongue-and-cheek, signature-style photography and is meant to be both Mele’s and Sommer’s personal love letter to summertime in Newport.
Mele grew up in Washington, D.C. and spent his summers visiting his grandmother in Newport, who lived in Edith Wharton’s home, Land’s End. Today, he still summers there with his family. He has a thriving photography business, all based on word-of-mouth recommendations. His work has been featured in many publications, including Town & Country, The New York Times, Avenue, Architectural Digest, House Beautiful, Vogue and Vanity Fair. His commercial clients include brands such as Ralph Lauren, Sam Edelman, J.McLaughlin and Lilly Pulitzer, as well as several high-end hotels and interior designers. Veranda magazine calls him “a modern-day Slim Aarons,” who was an American photographer (dec’d. 2006) known for his glamorous portraits of celebrities.
As we browsed together through the pages of the book, Mele gave me insights into the photos. Do not expect captions for many reasons, including matters of privacy as well as redundancy, but primarily because he wants viewers to form their own impressions and use their imaginations. He wants the photos to speak for themselves.
Mele and Sommers chose to concentrate on Newport as they appreciate what a unique place it is. Not only does Newport have deep history, Newporters take great pains to preserve it. Many of the houses featured have furniture and heirlooms that span generations. The families do not throw them out for new things, no matter how old or worn. Heirlooms have great personal meaning and value. But, too, the cost is high to maintain these big old houses, and the photos may very well act as a time capsule of a dying age; many of the homes may not be able to be passed down to family members.
Mele’s collaboration with Sommers is the result of a long-time friendship and their mutual affection for Newport. One of their projects together included Sommers commissioning him to photograph the antiquated kitchens in many of the old Newport mansions. The photos were published in the New York Times (July 22, 2015). Several of these kitchens are shown within “A Newport Summer” and are a look into an older time when kitchens were strictly utilitarian – not as they are today: the heart of the home for family gatherings and sometimes luxurious showplaces.
The book is also divided by the summer “season,” June through September, with beautifully-written insights by Sommers for each month. In brief, June is still foggy and the homes’ inhabitants are just arriving for the summer, opening their homes and getting settled in. July is for family barbecues and swimming. August brings the parties and galas, while September is for closing up the houses for the next season.
Many of the photos show Mele’s family, as he loves photographing them. In addition, one can see the high jinx the family gets up to regularly on the Mele family Instagram site, @a.social.life. In a recent post, for example, he and his wife, Molly, are having a staring contest, which she clearly wins.
Mele is very proud of this book and feels it is a true representation of his style as a photographer. His forte is creating photographs with a “whimsical take on timeless American luxury.” He enjoys composing narratives with his photos and embraces the imperfect for it expresses character and gives a photo interest, whether it’s a photograph of a home or a portrait. The imperfections also make the photos relatable. Who can’t relate to cluttered rooms and overflowing wastepaper baskets? These are real people living in their homes just like anyone else.
“A Newport Summer” may not be everyone’s Newport, he comments, but it is his, and he hopes the reader will find it interesting. And despite these big mansions and the lucky few who have and do enjoy them, Mele’s photos are still relatable, because some things are just universal, like the book’s strong emphasis on family. There are many photos, for example, of children at play. As a final thought on his book, Mele says, “I want people to smile when they open it.” I’m sure they will as demonstrated by own friends, ages 11 and upward, who perused the book together this past weekend with great interest, and yes, genuine ear-to-ear smiles.
“A Newport Summer,” published by Vendome Press, is widely available locally throughout Aquidneck Island from Charter Books and the Newport Mansions Store to Barnes & Noble to name but a few. It is also available on Amazon.
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