Part II of the interview with National Geographic photographer Michael “Nick” Nichols, who is organizing a photography event called “Look 3: Festival of the Photograph.”
Wayne: A lot of photographic events here in the United States are focused on equipment than on imagemaking. You wanted to create a venue that was focused on photography itself. What kind of discussion do you want to see the event inspire?
Nick: Off the street, Charles Moore the famous civil rights photographer—black & white [film] guy—helped my career. And I’ve always felt like, wait a minute, that’s what we should all do for each other. He saw something in me, it was just about pictures, and he encouraged that, and I’ve always tried to do that with young photographers, any photographers I come across. I teach workshops. And one of the things I try to define early on in a workshop is do you want to be “me,” and if you want to be me, I’m going to be really tough on you, but if you just want to be a photographer and take better pictures, then it can be more relaxed. If you’re telling me you want my job, then I’ve got to be rough on you because it’s a rough world.
The last thing I’ll ever talk to photographers about is my equipment. I get forced to sometimes. And I love the equipment, but I just want it to be there. I see photographers on the sidelines at sporting events—it used to happen to me when I was a young photographer—people would want to talk to me while I was working, and I’m like, “What? I’m in the zone. I’ve got to put 500 percent focus on [what I’m doing].” There’s a club of photography that I’m not interested in, that club that’s just talking about the business of it, all the peripheral noise.
What I want this [event] to be about is the images. Looking at Eugene Richards’ body of work brings me to my knees. I’ve been a fan of his since I was out of the box, and Allard and Sally. I don’t think anyone has ever seen Eugene’s body of work. You [would] have to be a scholar. And I don’t think anyone would know Bill’s work the way you’re going to see it. We’re doing the interviews in the old theater. That’s where they’ll sit and talk with an interviewer about their work—photographers don’t [normally] do that. When you give a lecture, you kind of entertain the audience. Rarely do you get introspective, because it’s hard to do that when you’re talking about yourself. But if you’ve got a really good interviewer, they can bring that out. I’m going to bring everything focusing back on what we call the “inside conversation.”
Wayne: Can you explain what you mean by “inside conversation,” by making the conversation introspective?
Nick: When you give a talk, you’re limited because you stand there, and you show your work. If [instead] you sit down in a chair with Alex Chadwick, [who is a] world class interviewer, [he] doesn’t insert his personality. He tries to bring out the essence of Jim Nachtwey or the essence of Elliott Erwitt. We did it this year [at the National Geographic seminar] with Jim about his new project he shot for Geographic on war medicine. It’s very hard for Jim Nachtwey to talk about his work because of the subject matter, and he doesn’t want to [converse?] on it. It’s all about what’s on the screen. So even though he didn’t say much, what Alex brought out of him in that hour was very much more than what he would ever say to us if he were talking to us directly. By Alex saying, “Well, Jim, you know, your pictures are disturbing,” …and I think that’s all Alex said, and then Jim was like, “yeah, well, they’re meant to be disturbing. War should be disturbing. We should be disturbed by war.” If that’s all Jim Nachtwey had said in an hour, that would have been enough.
Wayne: Clearly, you have an impressive lineup of master photographers. Can you talk about how each of them became involved?
Nick: I’ll talk to each one, because they’re so individual. The first thing I had to do was come up with these three [photographers]. I talked to Bill about it, and Bill being from here, and at the point of his career here, he was like “great, yeah.” Bill sees this as a retrospective of his life. He’s calling his show “Five Decades,” five decades of shooting color the way he shoots it. If you go back somewhat Bill is as contemporary as he was then.
And Sally I met when I did my first book with Aperture. We were both really young, and we did a fundraiser in New York where we went around the island on a yacht, and I didn’t know what a fundraiser was then, but I do now! I didn’t know who Sally Mann was, and then I started seeing her work, and I was like, “Man, this is exquisite.” So I got to know her a little bit, but we’re not social. We hadn’t talked in ten years. But I called her, and I could tell, she was like, “I don’t do this sort of thing. I’m not a big public appearance person.” But Sally tells me, “well, I’ll do this for Virginia!”
And Eugene… huge amount of pressure on Eugene to put this show together, and deal with all this. He was careful, and I went to see him in Brooklyn, and he said he would do it. Then we brought him down to show him his exhibit space, “he was like, ‘man, this is two floors in a gallery, I mean, it’s like a whole schoolhouse.’”
Eugene said, “when I first went to [the photography festival in] Arles, we sat in chairs, propped up our feet and talked about photography. Maybe your festival will be like that, for a while anyway.” So you do have a moment in time, you do have your brief, our three days of “peace, love and photography.” Maybe Eugene will be able to sit and prop up his feet with somebody.