National Geographic photographer Michael “Nick” Nichols is organizing an event in Charlottesville, Virginia, that he says will celebrate photography. The event has its roots in the informal 1980s gatherings that Nichols and his friends hosted in Berkeley, California. The gatherings then moved to Charlottesville with Nichols, who hosted them on his backwoods property. This year will be the first time that the gathering becomes a formalized festival to be called “Look 3: Festival of the Photograph.” Sally Mann, Bill Allard and Eugene Richards headline the event. Nichols explains how the event has evolved, and what he and the event’s other organizers hope to accomplish. “We’re in our first year, so we’re not going to be perfect.” He welcomes ideas on how more people can show images at the event. The “overwhelming” goal is to create an intimate festival that is “about the image.” Part I of the Interview.
Wayne: My understanding is that the event has its origins in informal outdoor gatherings?
Nick: It started in my loft in Berkeley in the ‘80s. The Bay Area photographers that were around, editorial photographers Frans Lanting, George Steinmetz, Ed Kashi, all of us in the early part of our careers. Like Lightstalkers without the Internet. But at the same time, carpenters and doctors and philosophers, anybody that came would show their work. The philosophy was that whoever showed up could show their work. And when we moved to Virginia, we started doing it in our backyard [in] downtown Charlottesville and that’s where I met Jon, [Jon Golden, a photographer friend of Nichols, who is the Technical Producer for the festival] .
It started out with maybe 100 people, and it got so big. And then we moved to the country, and I think the last one probably had about 500 people. We always talked about having a festival, but we were afraid of it. It’s a huge task. But the genesis of [the event] was [that it was] always for the community, and by community, I mean the community of photographers—which is what I presume Lightstalkers really is. The idea that you could show your work at the same time as Bill Allard and Dave Harvey [David Alan Harvey] was very cool, there was some networking that would go on.
The last one was so complicated because you had to raise money—and the amount of food we had to provide—we had something like 350 people camping on the property—we just decided that maybe we should move to a real festival. We were missing the business aspect. I didn’t want to become a businessman, and Jon was [just] going to take care of making the screenings and that part of the work. Luckily, a local philanthropist stepped up and said, “wow, that was a cool party, maybe we should do that as a festival.” Her name is Jessica Nagel. She’s been helping me sell it, finding business partners. A huge amount of this is dealing with the town, and how we get the venues and all that stuff, they’re really handling that.
Wayne: How supportive has the town been at this point?
Nick: Overwhelming. Charlottesville is a historic town, it’s got a big university, so there’s an intellectual element and an art element. About 20 years ago they paved over the downtown and made it walking, and planted some trees and started the evolution of a rebirth of a downtown. We’re coming along at just the right time where we can mimic Europe to some degree. I hate the sprawl in the United States, I hate the way we grow here, so we’re trying to make this festival so that once you get here, you never have to get in a car again, and you can see everything within a few hundred meters, literally. The overwhelming goal is to try and make this thing intimate. In Perpignan, one of the best things about it is sitting around in coffee shops and talking to people. We want to be able to have that aspect. The town hasn’t given us any money yet, but I suspect next year that they might.
Wayne: You’ve talked about the intimate feel of Perpignan, and the fact that you’ve started out informally. What else are you trying to do to keep that intimate feel, that kind of backyard [atmosphere] that you have had?
Nick: That’s the scariest part of this for me, because you can’t be uncurated anymore. I can’t have a stay until four in the morning policy. Now that we’re dealing with the real world, all of a sudden you’re dealing with those restrictions. That’s one of the frustrating things for me, that we can’t have everyone who comes show work. [Nick hopes for ideas from the Lightstalkers community. He says that a lot of Lightstalker members were young /emerging photographers with an enthusiasm “like some kind of virus running around.”] We do have an exhibit space called “Your Space,” and everybody who walks in there can have a print made and hang it on a clothes line, that’s kind of mimicking ““Here Is New York,” [a “democracy of photographs” created to document 9/11]. Of course, the work won’t be as cohesive. As “Your Space” grows every year, we can come up with a theme. I really want the idea of [young and emerging photographers like those on Lightstalkers] sitting around, showing work and talking about it. Because that’s the thing of the festival that I’m most concerned about losing.
Wayne: You’ve talked about the fact that a lot of logistical concerns have helped propel you to think of the festival in more formal terms, but was there anything else happening in the photographic world that was an added impetus? You were talking about meeting these hungry young photographers or people who are looking for venues for their work.
Nick: Exactly, when I started out, there was a rebirth in picture magazines. Life and Look [magazines] had died, [but] when I came along, Geo was stimulating the world, Life came back. Nowadays when I meet young photographers and I see them frustrated—trying to have my job—you know, I’m still at the top of my game, and I’m thirty years in, I’m not passing along my position. I think something like this festival [will help encourage] photographers to build their own groups. You know, when I was in Magnum, I felt like, “God, there should be hundreds of Magnums. Why is there just one?” If you have seven photographers, you’re seven times stronger than if you’re one. And they just haven’t proliferated. It’s hard to keep going, I guess. One of the ways that you deal with the Gettys that swallow this industry, and the fact that there aren’t that many publications that publish the work, it’s having something like this to celebrate [photography]. Perpignan is a place for that. [While] I want to make sure that we’re not “Visa pour L’ImageEast,” we’re not the “Redneck Perpignan,” even though that’s a fun name to use, we’re really set up to celebrate three great photographers every year, and use that as a reason to gather. I’m all about the image, not all the other stuff. I love looking at pictures, and I really feel like that’s what we want to be about.
We’re going to try to show the work in the way that the photographer wants it to be shown. You know, when you give your work to a publication, you kind of give it up. The photographer will drive the way that the work is shown in this festival. The industry has changed, [but] I want to be able to say to people who take pictures, “Don’t despair. What really counts is the image.” I know we have to make a living, but the bottom line is the images.
Wayne: It looks like you’ve made a lot of effort to keep things, I don’t know what the proper word is, but let’s say “democratic.” For instance, you’ve kept the festival passes at a surprisingly modest price.
Nick: We’re trying to subsidize the festival with our founding partners. I can’t really disclose them all [since the details are being worked out], but National Geographic is one, there’s a local bank, and then there’s a camera company, and there’s a computer company. The sale I make to them is that “look, we’re a non-commercial festival, and we’re not a tradeshow, we’re for the spirit.” They seem to be getting that. That’s our unique spot in the field, and if we can hold that, then we have a chance to be like Sundance, and hopefully… and I’ve never been to Sundance by the way…
Wayne: Neither have I, so I won’t be able to call you on it… broadly speaking, though, what kind of photographer are you hoping to attract…?
Nick: The perception of Sundance 15 to 20 years ago was that it was for the work. And as long as I’m involved with this thing, as long as I’m alive, it’s going to be about that. If you see that I’ve quit in anger, it’ll be over that issue. I don’t want so much control, I don’t want to control the images, but I do want to get to a certain kind of photography. I’m afraid to preface too much, but I believe in the moment. The kind of photographer that I’m trying to attract is those who want to take images that “happen.” I prefer photography where things happen rather than images that happen on a computer. If you look at Sally Mann, Bill Allard, Eugene Richards, if you made a photographer out of those three, that would be the photographer we’re looking for.