From her first dark room class at the age of 13, Melani knew her life’s work would be about creating imagery. A native of San Diego, she left California to move to Manhattan where she earned a BA in Art History and an MA in Fine Arts from New York University on full scholarship with magna cum laude distinction.
This Renaissance woman has a sophisticated understanding of aesthetics and composition and her earlier career pursuits explain her profound ability to create moving works of art in her photography.
Melani enjoyed a career as a professional dancer while earning her undergraduate degree at NYU. Dancing with the world renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, she also danced in numerous off Broadway productions and as a featured commercial dancer during the birth of MTV when dancers were highly sought after for the emerging music video genre.
The Show Must Go On
While working as a dancer fed her artistic soul, Melani was routinely frustrated with how women were treated in that artistic world. Sexism and inflated egos were rampant and even though she stayed with it for a while, Melani knew this was not a long term career for her. She started her Master’s program at NYU while still dancing on the side but an injury precipitated a permanent change which launched her in a new career direction.
On full scholarship – plus a stipend, which was extremely hard to come by at a private school like NYU, Melani began her graduate studies in the Art History division of the Institute of Fine Arts. Her focus was on two subjects: 17th century Dutch and Flemish artists and Ancient Roman sculpture groups. At the time she thought she would advance directly into the PhD program and pursue a career in academia but the birth of her first child changed her mind.
While at the Art Institute she studied photography and would archive works of art with photos as a way to catalog and study individual pieces. Melani worked with a studio in the basement of the Institute to photograph these historical artifacts from Ancient Roman sculpture to fine paintings and antiquities.
Through her NYU program she also studied photography at the famous Parsons School of Design in New York and learned the nuances of lighting, composition, and photographic technique. She further enhanced her study with a year at the International Center for Photography in New York and fell in love with the art form, especially the lighting which remains a favorite part of the photographic process for her today.
Open for Business
Friends started asking Melani to take their photos and before she knew it she had clients before she had an official photography studio. By this time she had three kids and it was a great way to earn money, go on location for a shoot, and then spend quality time at home with her kids. For 15 years including her school days, she enjoyed city life in the Big Apple before moving to Connecticut where she built a photography studio in her garage.
In the middle of her emerging photography business she got divorced which changed how she could spend her time growing the business while also caring for three children. He former father-in-law was extremely generous in sharing his entrepreneurial and business acumen to help Melani establish her business in Connecticut where she is now thriving.
With a full studio in her garage, Melani learned the essentials of tax ID, business insurance, trademarks, etc. and the necessity of beautiful brochures and printed samples showcasing her photos to share with prospective clients. In her line of work, customers expect something tactile, not just a website image, when considering whether to hire Melani for a shoot.
The showroom space was a big expense and Melani is at a point where she can say that she is now earning her living as a professional photographer. Initially she would reinvest a lot of her earnings into the business to upgrade equipment and keep products in stock. She recalls the importance of having a strong line of credit since in the early days she relied on that to get her business up and running.
In 2004 Melani went digital with her photography which gave customers more immediate gratification and the ability to see their photos faster. For example, Melani will upload highlights of a full wedding shoot to an iPad or smart device so a newly married couple can enjoy a sampling of wedding day memories on their honeymoon. The trend is to share these highlight photos on Facebook and Melani is able to use social media to her advantage in this digital age which makes her customers very happy.
Melani wants budding entrepreneurs to understand how intense running your own business will be. She advises others to be prepared to work harder than they ever imagined and be ready to lose sleep. Her former father-in-law was very helpful in coaching her on how to deal with clients. In addition to old adage that the client is always right, he encouraged Melani to become an active listener and to validate her customers since building a trusting relationship was essential for her kind of business.
Always prepared to keep things professional, Melani learned to check her emotions at the studio door when she was ready to meet with a client. They deserved 100% of her time and focus and she learned that the referral was the key to her business growth and currently forms 95% of her business clientele from referrals.
Poetry in Motion
The bread and butter of Melani’s business is wedding photography but she also does commercial, editorial and architectural photography, as well as custom portraiture, engagement and special occasion sessions. Melani’s images define a moment in time. With grace and playfulness she captures the poetry of the ordinary and her work clearly celebrates life. Blending journalistic truth with artistic vision, Melani captures moments in time that delight her clients.
Her studio offers complete post-production services including archival printing on museum quality cotton rag papers, cutting-edge printing on Plexiglass and large scale framed prints on canvas. All of the albums and books are hand printed and Melani’s art history expertise is evident in every inch of the finished product.
Fluent in Spanish and French, this multi-faceted artist also travels the world to pursue photojournalistic and editorial assignments in addition to on-location weddings, and portraits beyond her studio walls.
Melani looks forward to future projects where she will photograph cancer survivors and exhibit these photos in museums and art shows. Her exhibition “CarHavana” showcasing pre-embargo autos in Cuba has earned international acclaim and will be exhibited in Vienna in 2012. A sought after authority on wedding photography, future plans for Melani also include offering best practice tips for wedding photography on TV and in an online blog. She has won “Best Wedding Photographer” 2010 and 2011 in Fairfield County and is a member of the esteemed WPJA. Her work is regularly featured in magazines including Connecticut Brides, atHome Magazine, Architectural Digest, Greenwich Magazine and The Knot.
While growth can be good for a business, Melani has a desire to keep a boutique-y feel for her studio so customers feel special and honored in the process. A true artist with multiple layers, Melani Lust is living her passion as a professional photographer. Her roots as a dancer are evident in the movement of her photos and she is living the life she designed.
Melani’s Advice and Action Steps:
• Be willing to take a risk to grow your business.
• As an entrepreneur be ready to work your ass off.
• 95% of any business is referral so stay current and be ready to change and adapt your business as the market dictates.
• The customer is always right!
• Believe in what you love.
“Play the game for more than you can afford to lose. For only then will you learn the game.” - Winston Churchill