Between Mexicasa and In a Mexican Garden, photographer Melba Levick and I were all set to collaborate on a book about Indian folk art, but we dropped it when suddenly it seemed India and Pakistan were on the verge of nuclear war. By the time things calmed down and the book was back on the table, my circumstances had shifted and I didn't want to be away from my family for more than a couple of weeks at a time, so Melba went forward (with my blessing) with another writer.
Melba's photography has been exhibited, published, and licensed internationally for over two decades. She has more than 45 photographic books to her credit, mostly about architecture, décor, travel, and gardens.
Gina: I remember that when the notion of doing an India book first came up, someone told us that "India makes Mexico look like Germany." Was that your experience?
Melba: Betsy McNair said India is like Mexico on steroids! In a way it is true. There are more surprises in India. More wacky, unexpected things...more animals all over in weird places, colors are psychedelic as is the way they are used. But in many ways, it is similar. I think it is more interesting to see the similarities...folk art, rugs, jewelry, etc.
Gina: How much time did you spend in India and how did you wrangle deals for two books with different publishers?
Melba: I went for one month the first year with a contract for IndiaColor from Chronicle Books. When I saw the palace hotels we were staying in, and others we visited, I realized that it was a separate book entirely from the one I was working on, and that the material could not be integrated into one book. It was a unique opportunity and I did not know if I would ever return to these places. It was a fascinating and unexpected aspect of India. I decided that two books were in order and I shot some of the palaces and brought them back on spec. There was a great deal of interest in the palaces book (eventually titled India Sublime), and Rizzoli was the publisher I went with on this. I returned the following year for a month and completed both halves of both books.
Gina: What sort of toiletries do the princely palace hotels stock?
Melba: Same as in upscale American hotels -- can't remember exactly, but very good products.
Gina: Of the 21 hotels profiled in the book, which was your favorite and why?
Melba: I loved different ones for different reasons. I loved Kuchaman Fort because it was old and they opened fabulous spaces for us (sheesh mahal, mirror room, painted rooms...there was an amazing view from the palace onto the town and countryside below). It was a palace fort with a lot of atmosphere. I loved Devi Garh Fort Palace because it was old and a very tasteful mixture of old and contemporary. I loved Udaivilas because it was completely new and so well done (to look like an old palace). I loved Samode Haveli for the amazing wall painting and decorative artwork.
Gina: I'm teaching a travel writing workshop in San Miguel de Allende in a few weeks and one of my students says she aspires to be a travel photographer. What's your advice for people wanting to break into the field?
Melba: Passion, luck, and perseverance! Also, think about marketing because the publishers always will, so if you don't, it's a waste of time (i.e. they will not accept a book that they do not think will sell at least 8,000 copies because books are so expensive to produce and, of course, they do not want to lose bucks).
Gina: What are you working on now?
Melba: A book about Venice Beach bungalows for Rizzoli.