Part III of the interview with National Geographic photographer Michael “Nick” Nichols, who is organizing an event called Look 3: Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Wayne: You’ve attracted both the photographers and the sponsors to make this event happen. Speaking of sponsors, how do you keep the commercial side from overwhelming the event? Additionally, will some of the photographers, at least the younger and emerging photographers, want to know more about the business side of photography?
Nick: As we grow, we’ll try to have discussions where you can have that. Or you can also just meet in a coffee shop to talk about it. But this is not going to be the kind of place where you’re going to find the great tripods, this is not the kind of place where you’re going to find the nice lighting devices.
It’s really how we set the table. One of the evening events we’ve added is having Sam Abell, who is a great storyteller, go on the stage, kind of like Mark Twain, and tell stories about pictures. All the events that we’re putting forth are [for] celebrating the images themselves. We’re not celebrating the trade or the tools.
Wayne: Going back to this lineup of photographers that you have, they include a lot of people that you say you personally admire. Is there anything that you specifically sought out in each of them—a particular diversity of viewpoints and styles? What was your thought process on that?
Nick: If you look at the genres of the three very simplistically—Bill Allard is a color photographer that photographs the world, but in a lyrical way. Bill’s not carrying an agenda. And Sally is a fine arts photographer who photographs the world around her, just literally around her. And then Eugene is a social documentarian who photographs the issues of our time in as straightforward a way as possible. That’s my world covered in a nutshell. It’s the world of photography that I love, personally. But I think a lot of us love that. There’s a whole lot of us who make a living doing what you would call editorial photography, who love fine arts photography. And there’s a whole genre of fine arts photography that likes to photograph real moments. Then there [are those] photographing the global community. Allard is kind of a voice of [that].
The difference between this [event] and [those that have been in] my backyard is that we’re really celebrating, in a great way, Sally, Eugene and Bill. Eugene’s show is called “Thirteen Books,” and it’s going to have his book process laid out for you, and how he carried those [book] dummies around in a bag for years—some of them were just glued together on paper. Sally’s is going to be all wet plate stuff—and new stuff [“Recent Photographs”]. Bill’s is literally “Five Decades” of color photography—back to Kodachrome 25. I think the shows are going to be something very special.
All the other work that we’re showing, like the Work Night and the Shots Night, [will be] nominated by our board of advisors. [The voting will then include Nichols] and our master of ceremonies Vincent Musi, who is a really good photographer and historian. I have hundreds of nominations that I have to get down to something that we can show on Friday and Saturday night. And I know I have to make these entertaining. But I’m frustrated that [we have not yet figured out how] everyone who comes [to the event] can show […] work. If we have a thousand people, that’s pretty hard, but even if we had 300 who wanted to show their work that would be pretty hard. We’re going to work at that. That’s why I’m interested in Lightstalkers, because in Perpignan, the Lightstalkers [members] who found me were all like the people who showed up in my backyard. I really don’t want people to think of this as an elitist thing. We’re going to find a way to show work, we just don’t know how to do it yet. Maybe one year we add an extra day. Maybe we have a big field we find out in the country.
Wayne: What else are you hoping to accomplish in the future events that you’re not going to be able to accomplish this year?
Nick: One of the things that the team is pushing for is more print exhibits. Perpignan does about 40 exhibits. It’s a real gift to the world and community. There’s a huge expense there, and I’m cautious about taking that on. Jean-Francois Leroy, [the director of “Visa Pour l’Image” in Perpignan, France] it’s a full-time job for him, and I’m still trying to have my photography. I’m determined to have that. I think I would die if I didn’t have my own work.
I hope that this festival grows around us. We keep the core, and we do the core very well, which is the “[Insight] Conversations” and the shows for the legacy bunch, and then the two big projections. I think we’ve got a really good heartbeat. We have to establish our identity, while we’re still being perceived, but I would like for it to [eventually] grow on its own impetus.
I would really like to do DVDs and books of the three photographers and of the festival. So in year one, there would be a book that you could buy that had the festival, all the cool documentary pictures that people shoot while they’re at the festival could be part of this, plus work from the three legacy photographers, so a kind of greatest hits of the festival book on DVD. But right now, if I put that on the table, I would have to negotiate with Eugene and Bill and Sally about their work, and I can’t do that. What I tell them is that anything we do, you get more than your fair share of. So you see, it’s kind of a trap. If I want to market the festival, and when I say market, what I really mean is document: because if we can only see the 1,000 people in the Paramount, that’s a moment in time that may never happen again with Sally that we should get out there. But it becomes a promise then.
If I can find a way where these things don’t threaten the artist, and they don’t feel like I’m exploiting them, that’s one of the big growths that I would see. I would love to make these things available to universities, then we could be in curriculums, we could be used. Then it would be really worth the photographer’s time to come and be one of the legacies. You’ll see this in your own career if you haven’t seen it already. As soon as I feel like I’m being exploited, I want my piece of the pie. If I see that everybody is a volunteer and no one is making anything, I’ll give you 500 percent. But as soon as it becomes a product, then I’ve got to have my eight percent or whatever it is. So I’ve been very cautious about that. But I desperately want to document these things. And we will document them, but we won’t market it until we have the permission of the artists, and I’m not even going to ask for permission until I can show them that this festival really is what we’re telling them.
Wayne: Can you talk a little more about why you feel it’s important to give back to the photographic community?
Jon Golden: We’re creating a space where the education and the passion, all the things that got us into photography originally, are all there for three days. That seeing the print come up in the developer for the first time. The magic of that. Sometimes when you work, and commercially, you sometimes forget what got you involved. We’re trying to create [a place], where all this passion and all this magic and all the reasons you became a photographer, are there for you to enjoy and celebrate and “live in.” Let’s step away from what you do, all the pressures in life, for three days, just to be in the [photographic] zone with the rest of us.
Nick: What Jon says takes me back to Magnum, and the conversations we used to have all the time. Once you get into this as a business, it’s rare that you do what we’re talking about here. At Magnum, there was always someone who would say at the end of the meeting, “We didn’t talk about photography. All we talked about for four days was how to pay the bills.” And we would fight and fight, because paying the bills puts pressure on you. Every year someone would say, “is that why I got into photography?” I think about the phone conversations with my colleagues now, it’s usually about rights or how we’re going to archive our pictures or business. It’s once in a blue mood that we talk about the work. And we don’t compliment each other, either. It’s the weirdest thing, rarely will photographers say, “goddamn that was good.” We don’t do that with each other, it’s just the weirdest thing. Let’s get away from the noise for three days, and let’s just look. When we would do the backyard—this would go on from dark until two or three in the morning, Allard would always look at the first set of pictures and look at the last set of pictures.
Wayne: Speaking of “look,” you mentioned how that became part of the name of the conference…
Nick: Yolanda Cuomo is our creative director. She designed the last Diane Arbus retrospective, she designed Telex Iran with Gilles Peress, she designed my big book, and she designs Aperture Magazine. She’s part of this “family” for the festival. Her and [New York Times Magazine photo editor] Kathy Ryan and Melissa Harris [Editor in Chief of Aperture Magazine] drove from Charlottesville to Richmond Airport. I think they had some drinks when they got there! The festival at that point was called Festival of the Photograph: A Moment in Time. And “FOP” was our acronym, and we were like, “man, that’s a scary one.” FOP! That’s [like] “Fraternal Order of Police.” Yolanda says, “how about ‘Look Three?’”
We were like, “What were you guys drinking?”
She designed a logo. You know, that’s what a great designer does. And she even coined “three days of peace, love and photography, because after their fourth meeting with us, that’s what she saw was coming. She saw that’s what we were trying to do. That’s what a great designer does, they see you, and they try to sum you up in a few words. It’s the three days of “peace, love…” Woodstock is a hippie thing, but it’s this time, and the way the world is going, it’s not a bad thing to have this year, I tell you.