This happened. And this is what it looked like. A conversation with New York based forensic and documentary photographer Nikki Johnson about her photobook We Buy Gold, self-published through Artscow

webuygoldfullcover

 

Mirelle Thijsen (MT):

You call yourself a “social explorer” on your website. What does that exploration involve?

Nikki Johnson (NJ):

The label “Social Explorer” is from the infamous quote by David Carson, “The criminal, like the artist, is a social explorer.” For me, social exploration involves immersion in certain surroundings, and always being open to being affected by what is in front of me.

As an artist (and I suppose, like a criminal) I am almost constantly searching for a way “in.” I try to transfer the things that I see that personally affect me into something that could possibly have that effect on someone else.

MT:

Which surroundings, what kind of world are you exploring? Where do you go?

NJ:

Oh, certainly. Whether it is parties within the SM community or vampire parties which involve some SM but not necessarily. It is almost like role-play, a lifestyle for some people. I go in and try to talk to them and to develop relationships with them. There are a few people that I have known for years. I revisit them, check up with them. I have recently been invited to a vampire wedding that is going to be interesting….

Basically those are people I have met over the years and have developed long relationships with. I spent thanksgivings with a friend of mine who was an adult entertaining actor in the 1970s and 1980s. He is in his 70s now. It is about going home with people and talking when the make-up and the costumes come off. It is about getting a sense of whom they are, why they do what they do. I have two very good friends, in fact, one of who is a dominatrix. She is in her 50s. And Jean Valjean – named after a protagonist in les Miserables – is a black actor. In fact, he was one of the first in the business. It is about meeting some of their co-stars who are now older, too, living in the suburbs, having children, grandchildren in some cases. They go to an adult entertainment fair, sign autographs; they get recognized.

MT:

Where did you meet them for the first time?

peepshow page 3

NJ:

It is weird. Once I started going to fetish parties I was invited by someone who was a writer and knew some of these people. He used to be a manager of not necessarily a strip club, but a booth experience, what they call ‘booth girls’ at Time Square. He hired people, because some of the actors would come by, managers as well. Once you have been introduced to this industry, people open up and introduce you to someone else. He was covering a series of underground parties which were called “peep shows”. Those were held in lofts around the city and every now and then would move locations. I was intrigued by some of the goings on at these SM parties. At the same time I was intrigued by the normal life these people lived outside all of that.

MT:

When did you start to work on this particular part of your oeuvre?

NJ:

That started in 2004. The parties I was going to were happening at that time. I have known many of the people since then. It was something that started to happen, before New York became more conservative. The major at that time gave it a big push to make Time Square more into a vacation and leisure oriented place. The sex industry people were disenfranchised. And the Internet has become more of a go-to place for people to meet each other. So in those days there were more of these parties where people felt comfortable going and showing themselves. There is a website called Craigslist where people into SM would contact each other to meet offline. The Internet kind of took over that social aspect of it.

MT:

And that’s what you call “searching for a way in”, I guess.

NJ:

Yes, definitely. And staying in, wondering, finding out why I am there. And engaging with people on a personal level. They meet a lot of photographers, and I actually got a complement from women in the scene, saying they enjoy there is a woman photographer doing this kind of work because they don’t have to deal with the predatory male photographer, not being interested in giving him the images he wants them to pose for.

MT:

It is an ongoing series I understand?

NJ:

Yes it is ongoing. Sometimes I spend regularly quality time with people in the business, and I won’t go to an SM club for a while. It has been about a year since I have shot inside a party. I am in contact with everyone and photography them off site.

MT:

Please explain how your early works are dealing with “Idolatry”, showing for example blood from a stabbing victim outside your apartment building.

idolatry1

NJ:

The name for the “Idolatry” exhibition came about by being in pursuit of my photo subjects and trying to gain access to their lives, and to them as people, not just as faces. My subjects mean so much to me, that I continue the act of creating image upon image of them, then picking one or two to represent this person or that moment, then making a large print which is then lovingly framed. In that sense, in a way, it almost smacks of idolatry but more on the level of hero worship.

MT:

Two more notions you used to characterize your photographic work are: “passive-aggressive portraiture” and “discomforting close-ups”. Would you please explain both to me?

NJ:

I want my portraits to have the same impact as if the viewer was physically close to this person in real life. Intimately close, kissing distance close, and in some cases literally staring eye to eye with them. As for my still life images, I find that I am drawn to some things that, upon closer inspection, may not be as appealing as one would think, or even something anyone would want to be close to. The blood on the street was something that was symbolically stronger than if the victim had still been lying there. I spent the next few years looking for blood spots on the streets finding them at random. What caught my eye about it was the color, usually standing out against something banal like a concrete sidewalk or a subway seat.

MT:

And before we get to your recent book, please elaborate some about the on-going series on erotica and the world of SM with emphasis on the members of the Afro-American community. What is it you want to bring out into the open?

NJ:

I wanted the humanity to come through, the passion that people invest in BDSM and Vampire culture, and I must say I was genuinely surprised by how many African Americans were in the scene. It’s not something that is really addressed very often in the community.

MT:

You mention “BDSM” and “Vampire culture”. Could you explain to me what the abbreviation stands for and the notion vampire culture as such?

NJ:

Sure. “Bondage and Sadomasochism”, which involves more of the SM elements and parties, where people are whipped or have candle wax poured on them. In some respect there is an erotic element, in other respects there is more of a sexual element. As far as the vampire culture: there are these elaborate parties where people dress up as vampires. They actually had certain groups they would call “families” and would congregate with each other. Some of them had their teeth permanently bonded, to look like fangs. These people work at Halloween stores or costumes stores, so the teeth would blend in. It would be very hard to work in a bank if you have fangs! HAHA….

MT:

I was just about to ask what do these people do in their daily lives, apart from the exceptions you just mentioned? Are they nurses, doctors, or teachers?

NJ:

Yes, some of them are doctors, lawyers, or professors. And the same counts for the SM culture. At parties I always ask people for their permission to take pictures and the ones that declined, did so usually for professional and private reasons. “No, my girlfriend would not go for this”. Or: “No, I’m in the middle of a messy divorce. It might somehow come out”. Many of them, after the party is over, just take off their costumes and do whatever they need to do: go to the bank and go to the post office.

MT:

When you are among these people what do want to depict, what do you want to record? What do we look at?

NJ:

I want to capture the energy of the music, the physicality of the dancing, the costumes, the interactions between people, the humanity of it. I record the things that make it unusual and yet unique at the same time.

MT:

I would like to mention a quote from you in The Weekly Guide to Arts from May 2006: “Some of the images I create seem to switch back and forth in style between documentary work and the glossy commercial ads, much the same way there is a shift back and forth in a persona vs. the person who actually inhabits it” To what extent does this phrase relate to the series on erotica and maybe as well to the publication We Buy Gold?

NJ:

We are so overrun with images at this point that there is a bleed over of one genre of photography to another. I am attracted to some elements of fashion and I feel like there is an unintentional crossover, especially since some of the people I photograph use fashion as part of their image.

MT:

Would you please elaborate more on the quote: What attracts you in exploring the shift back and forth in a persona versus the person?

NJ:

I am intrigued by how costume and performance… no matter how much is invested in a character, or a particular look of who they can be, there is still a glimmer of who they are underneath. The way they laugh or smile, or tell a joke. People basically tell something personal about themselves; there is a flicker of who they are. No matter what they are trying to conceal or create for themselves. And I really enjoy that aspect.

davis orton gallery photobook show

MT:

We Buy Gold was showcased as one of 20 artists’ books on photography and mixed media in the Photobook 2013 Exhibition at Davis Orton Gallery in New York.  Tell me more about that selection; how did it come about?

nikki johnson previous book natural history

NJ:

My previous book, Natural History, was chosen for exhibition there a couple of years ago. When my new book was finished I entered We Buy Gold for consideration in Davis Orton Gallery. Gallery directors Karen Davis and Mark Orton chose it for the 2013 show. Their gallery is dedicated to exhibiting photography and mixed media, as well as trade and self-published photobooks. This exhibition celebrates the artistry of Photobook creation, and encourages viewers to page through them at their own pace.

MT:

You mentioned your book Natural History, what is the publication about? And what does the title refer to?

NJ:

This project is almost like cataloging the different elements of people I met during these parties, in the scenes, depicted in different series that I worked on at that time. There is a chapter devoted to David, the self-amputee, who has been amputating his own fingers since 2001. There is the blood series that I started in 2001-2002. I was stepping out of my apartment building, very early one morning, just a regular day, I was literally putting my foot off the step and somebody outside said: “No, No, No…look out”. And I looked down and there was blood just up and down the sidewalk…spread everywhere. I moved around so as to not step in it, and started photographing it. I was mesmerized by it. It was very fresh. Something must have just happened. There was some blood pouring in front of a toy store, near my apartment. It actually covered quite a bit of territory. And that became one of the photos that I enjoy most from the blood series, which continued for years.

MT:

You described two series, are there other thematic series in the Natural History book?

NJ:

Yes, it covers the bondage series, a specific series covering a dominatrix named empress Coco. She used to be called mistress Coco, but she promoted herself…

MT:

What does “dominatrix” stand for? I’m sorry, but I’m not familiar with the term!

NJ:

It’s okay…a woman who works professionally to timing up in spanking a person, in whipping, in creating these elaborate fantasies in which she is able to control the situation, and it is a non sexual situation. At least for her it is, she insists on how it works for her. There are elements of containment, being chained up, whatever the person involved might request. But it is on her terms.

MT:

I always wonder, why would someone like that? But maybe that is too much of a psychological issue…Where does the need come from?

NJ:

Definitely! She says that many of the men who have this fixation… It was something that happened to them when they were young, or in the military, something they saw, or experienced. There was one man she told me about, his mother stepped on his pet that gave him a fascination for people stepping on small things. So the dominatrix would step on toys for him…it became a thing that for some reason sparked his sexual desires. Oddly enough!

MT:

We Buy Gold is self-published through Artscow a company that offers digital templates for the production of different types of personalized photobooks. There is no limit to this edition of books. Your printer in China prints the books upon order. You wrote me that you have sold all of the copies on hand, but at your request the printer can make complimentary copies.. Why are you making a book with Artscow? And what was the initial print run of this edition?

NJ:

I had a book signing at a venue called Saints and Sinners in September 2013 and sold all of the copies I had on hand. I had worked with Blurb before on a few previous projects, but the aesthetics of Artscow were more to my liking for We Buy Gold. I wanted everything to be different from what I had ever done before in its overall look.

This is an open edition, with no limit imposed on the number of copies, so that We Buy Gold can belong to as many people as possible.

MT:

You say you wanted everything to be different from what you had ever done before. How did you do that?

page 10

NJ:

I wanted a different publisher, from a different approach. At that point I had concluded Natural History for two years. Curators and reviewers enjoyed that publication, but said it was too dark, a little too disturbing, they weren’t sure they wanted to own it. We Buy Gold is different, both in the way of content, format and layout. I wanted this book to be larger, something that would be unwieldy large. I wanted it to be very glossy, containing new imagery. The publication is not an assessment of everything I have seen before. It was immediate and more iPhone-oriented, rather than the traditional camera. Utilizing things like Hipstamatic. Although, I was not an Instagram person at the time.

Nikki Johnson notes

MT:

When did you start photographing for We Buy Gold?

NJ:

I would say November of the previous year: at the very end of 2012. I had it rattling around in my head. I just sat down and started laying it out. And I usually don’t make photography in a square format at all. We Buy Gold is more meditative, contains still lives, landscapes – I never went into landscape photography before. A fresh start!

MT:

We Buy Gold has the format/size of an illustrated children’s book, but the front cover picture is pretty obscure, showing a salty cracker on a paper tablecloth with, what looks like, a visceral clam on top. A delicacy. That also counts for the gloomy close-up portrait of a black Afro-American woman on the back cover.
My first impression of this book was, that it is containing something forbidden: this is a dark world I am not familiar with, which makes your heart beat faster, makes you sit very still and opens up your senses. You write in a short preface in the beginning of the book: “We Buy Gold is about flesh for fantasy, altars, neon, mind games, soft spots and hard times. Everything is a delicacy if served appropriately”. So what does the title refer to, other than the pawnshop?

NJ:

The photo on the back is actually a self-portrait. It is gloomy, and leaves nothing to focus on but the gold earring and my lips. I shot that “selfie” as something that left out most of the elements that even identify me, so that it is, in a way, a representation of every woman.

In looking at images I had shot at the time, I kept coming back to that image for the cover. What can be more vulnerable than a smoked oyster? A pearl-less, shell-less perfectly innocent oyster. It is a sexual metaphor on a saltine and paper towel and lends the title a hint of sex industry connotations, whether industrial or societal.

Aesthetically I wanted this book to be the polar opposite of my previous book, Natural History, which is dark in tone and representation. It is over twice as thick and packed with photo stories that cover over 12 years. Some of the photos represented were shot with film. We Buy Gold is glossy and lurid. I wanted to convey something that even in spots that seem brightly lit there is a hint of decay. The body of We Buy Gold is half as thick but twice as large. I wanted the design to bring to mind a children’s book or an album cover. It is filled with recent work, all of which is digital.

MT:

Back to your preface: “We Buy Gold is about flesh for fantasy, altars, neon, mind games, soft spots and hard times”. Please tell me where do you find that?

wbginvite

NJ:

I focused more street photography than ever. I was more examining things inside people’s homes: objects that were pre-existing, things that I myself had. I have quite a few skull decorations in my home. It’s like when people collect ceramic cats, or something like that!

Harlem vanitas, 2013 page 5

MT:

You collect Vanitas symbols!

NJ:

Definitely! And if you put a skull in a picture, whether you want it or not, it becomes a Vanitas symbol…

Regarding your question about the pawnshop: Pawnshops are so ever present. They literally are everywhere in some spots. My favorite one is from a store that has been closed but the awning is still up, tattered but proud. It is featured on page 10. The yellow and black awning was my inspiration. I love the bold proclamation, colors that you can see for blocks. It seems larger than life but when you reach the store there is nothing there. That combined with the neon signs with that phrase everywhere – it just locked into my brain. In a literal sense it plays off the nightmare of this economy and the ever-present lure of quick cash for precious possessions; the idea of buying, pawning and trading everything as currency. On the other hand, those three little words have a weird mantra effect for me. Just letting them roll through my brain can make the opposite sound true. As if nothing is so valuable that I can’t own it.

MT:

Could you explain what you mean by “the idea of buying, pawning and trading everything as currency”? It is quite a critical point of view.

NJ:

About the time I had finished the book project Natural History I had to leave the neighborhood that I lived in because I was priced out, rent wise. I had to move to a totally different section of New York. This completely changed my viewpoint, getting to know the streets I was not familiar with. The area was filled with pawnshops. In Mississippi, the state where I am originally from is a huge pawn culture. And I remember my mother always said: “Don’t bring in anything; it becomes an addiction. Don’t ever do it!”

So here in New York, where I live now, were al these amazing stores filled with gold and diamonds. And all these signs: “We Buy Gold & Diamonds”/ “Buy or Sell”, I see them every day, walking around, and getting lost. Trying to figure out from which point the train leaves. It brought back a lot of memories. Just seeing all these precious items, and you know they belong to someone who probably lost an engagement ring, or got into a desperate situation.  Many of these jewels, some of which are monogrammed, are pre-owned, and probably carry with them an elaborate history. It is this weird economy of luxury, but also of loss.

MT:

People put their lives on the market…

NJ:

Yes, a life on the market…

MT:

Then you continue writing about witnessing one night a street fight and 7 or 8 people drew their cell phones to record it. You left your camera in your bag. There were different kinds of reactions to the scene: one guy got too close; another was stirring up trouble, with his phone up in the air. And you joined the silent ones, watching them catching the action. You were amazed how many people were watching their screens instead of the actual fistfight.

And while slowly walking towards the train station you contemplated on your role as a professional photographer: You “admired the tenacity they had to record/shoot/save this to Facebook/Twitter/YouTube. Now the appeal of being a fly on the wall has spread far and wide, and technology now enables anyone to do what I’ve trained and studied for. So now they can feel the rush too, pursue image making to a whole new level, and not rely on an outsider like me to tell their stories. And in your last sentence you make this recommendation: “I don’t mind, but please don’t walk into my shot while trying to create your Internet meme or instagram entry”. What do you consider to be your role as a photographer?

NJ:

I feel conflicted because it’s hard to be the only person capturing something dramatic happening on the street these days. I love the democracy of most people having access to a camera and video with their cellphones, and sure, everyone has their own approach and perspective, but ultimately things can literally get crowded. That was the first time that I ever fell back to watch everyone else rush forward with their phones up, snapping away.

MT:

From this perspective, knowing what is going on, what do you consider to be your role as a professional photographer in the 21st century?

NJ:

I think it has changed. At the time the street fight was happening, I became fascinated; here is a ring of people surrounding one man beating another one on the ground. And leaving this person unconscious. And the fact that these people made photos of the scene was not enough. I wanted to photograph the spectacle, but just stood there and watched it.

Everyone is racing to get a shot of virtually anything. I was in two weddings last year, and you barely see the bride because al these arms go up with cell phones at the climactic moment! It was fascinating!

MT:

What do you want to contribute to? Documentary photography?

homecoming oasis page 51

NJ:

I want to continue to record, to be there: to go out into the street, see and interpret things. There was a time I thought, I am done, Instagram is doing it for me…But I can’t…It is part of my life. I hope, even if no one else ever sees it, it feels real for me: taking pictures involves internalizing the external world for me.

MT:

And what does a day for you look like, working on a book project as We Buy Gold?

NJ:

We Buy Gold was actually born out of frustration with not having as much time as I would like to work on my art career at that particular time. The front and back cover was created and about 60 percent of the content was the result of a period of 24 hours creative lockdown that was very cathartic for me. The photo sequences changed as I edited in and out things that I preferred, I also added new material. The final version as it is now was done in 3 months. I kept it a work in progress.

MT:

Why was the book born out of frustration? What did you do with your time?

NJ:

I have a day job, which is still a photographic job, but so different. I needed to re-boot myself in my creative process. For the last 9 years I have been working as a forensic photographer. It involves being observant, impartial, and capturing what something is, as it is, and as clinically as possible. So in some ways they are completely separate worlds with similar approaches. Intense scrutiny is required in both. Otherwise these two do not intersect.

MT:

What do you do exactly? Because I feel that is an important part of your ‘persona’: the forensic photographer. What does a day in the life of a forensic photographer look like?

page 48 and 49

NJ:

I photograph autopsies, weapons. I photograph people before and after and while being examined by the pathologist: during the physical part of the examination. I always point out to people in the art world that the blood series doesn’t have anything to do with my work! When I started working in forensics I lost that lure of looking in the streets for that physical aspect. To see what happens beforehand, the actual crime scene itself makes a photograph unromantic in a way, and not as mysterious.

In my job, though, I am bending over someone’s misfortune and have to create photographs that doctors can use for teaching, and for examination, for proof during criminal cases in court. There is no room for error. There is no room for interpretation. It shuts out almost everything else. There is no room for artistry either while I am shooting forensic photographs. So it pushes my own work to after hours.

MT:

The picture on page 48 is showing this shocking scene on a street corner: an orthopedic leg, bandages with bloodstains, and a respirator. To me it comes across as a forensic photograph!

NJ:

Yes…It does seem reminiscent of a scene. The orthopedic leg was just something discarded on the street. Our office is near a very large and famous psychological hospital. That also takes people in that are homeless dealing with other issues. So homeless people can’t bring things in there, or they have themselves been taken away from the street. You see these wild scenes of discarded masks, bottles of alcoholic drinks in the street. And here was this leg and all this clothing. It made me wonder: what has happened before and what is going to happen afterwards?

And as far as the bloodstains on the next page (p. 49), that was from a separate scene. I was on my way to work, and I passed by and looked around what are the visual keys as to what may have happened here? There was watered up Kleenex filled with blood nearby. Perhaps it was from a nosebleed. Someone came right outside a bank with a spray bottle and delicately sprayed it on the sidewalk, and sucked it up like it was never there.

In general, I also get freelance work, but mostly I pursue my inspirations.

MT:

I like the way you express your goal in life: “I pursue my inspirations”. Could you please give me one or two examples, referring to the book?

NJ:

I still find joy in finding something odd and unique, and filing it away for later use. In that way it is almost like my personal evidence, of New York, the streets, life itself. It also works introspective in a way, because I had to re-arrange my life at that time, and I still do…I think we all do, as we progress through new experiences and new places, and live our lives and meet new people.

page 14 and 15

MT:

Would you please connect that pursuit to the spread on pages 14-15? The spread is depicting twice, a moment after a moment, a smoking black guy in a circle-shaped aureole.

NJ:

Oh, that is Jean Valjean. I love the almost sculptural element of the smoke… The picture is like a bullseye, a rifle scope…In Mississippi people have guns, In New York it is a whole different story. At home I had to learn to use a gun. So it is almost like a rifle scope: the ultimate forcing of your tension, to confine things. I like the circle-shaped portraits and made them of several people. A few of these shots I felt needed to be juxtaposed. In case of Jean Valjean the double portrait shows just the curling of the smoke is changing, otherwise they are the same.

MT:

In the beginning of the book, opposite of your text page, popping up from a pitch-black background is a silhouette of a young man in front of a neon sign announcing a peep show. Followed by a series of square colour photographs, one per page, showing jewelery hanging on the walls of a pawnshop, next to a golden skull and a vase of pink roses on a side table; a black man in a suit his whole body bent over, sitting amidst street litter; people on the streets of New York; more ‘we buy gold’ signs; more skulls opposite a Buddha of soap. Please comment upon the juxtaposition of these images.

no loitering page 7

NJ:

The skulls in normal household settings represent contemporary vanitas pieces, referencing death and morbidity in modern surroundings. The jewelry in the store window is almost like hanging amulets. The Buddha photo was the result of going to wash my hands after a fashion photo shoot and finding that someone left something so striking in such a banal setting.  These elements of humanity and spirituality and their symbolism in everyday surroundings can also cast them in the same environmental details that photographing their owner does. And these can be just as revealing. What can be more decadent than a gold skull? Then, of course, outside of the homes and stores there is the street, where there is not much decadence at all.

MT:

Following the sequences of photographs: A white man, looking like an art collector, sitting on his sofa, followed by a picture of displayed wigs. Further a spread showing black muscular break dancers in an underground station. Further on a dead rat dangling above the sewage system next to a picture of the belly side of a turtle under water (pp. 46-47). Would you please guide me through these sequences?

pages 46 and 47

NJ:

I wanted to convey the juxtopision of luxury and indulgence versus odd found object quality of the street, and that the images would play off of each other, and in some instances create a diptych. The turtle and rat have different fates, but in their images, both lack their heads. The turtle come up for air while the rat lies dead in a sewer and about to go down through the grate. I have no idea where the flowers came from. It was almost like an offering.

MT:

I would like you to describe how you find your subjects, starting with the white man on the sofa. My question is when do you take pictures, where do you go with your camera?

jason displaced to hotel page 16

NJ:

Aha…He is actually an old friend of mine who is a corporate lawyer, his name is Jason. Ironically enough…his own home looks something like that, but his apartment had been flooded at Christmas. So he was displaced by his landlord and put in this ludicrous hotel, which he hated. He did not like the art on the wall! In the midst of it he is still this suave character. He is in this hotel room and we are having this evening talking about the event. He was so tired of this hotel…Not everybody can suddenly be displaced, enforced into a new setting.

MT:

And then there is the picture taken behind a rusty iron fence, showing a stretched white pick-up, and some old chairs. Stuffed animals are squatting a yard full of weeds. Why did you take this picture?

stuffed zoo page 21

NJ:

I was walking in a section of New York in Brooklyn, and I caught something out of the corner of my eye. Oh, it is a stuffed animal. And the more I looked, the more I saw this weird tableaux, I was fascinated. I photographed it as a representation of the unique qualities of home. Home is: you do with what you have, your possessions. That is something I started revisiting in We Buy Gold. The things that people have, and what they do with it, even if they are on the street.

pages 28 and 29

MT:

And it is not a clam, the cover photo, but an oyster I understand?

NJ:

Hmm, an oyster…

MT:

Page 29 is the photograph on the cover. And on the left page we see the can the oyster was in?

we buy gold outtake

NJ:

Oh yeah, that’s their can… It’s the first tin of oysters I ever had in my entire life! They look like this, I wondered? You open it and there is nothing left to the imagination: here they are, they are in the oil… the person who suggested I should try them said, I should take them out of the can immediately and put them on something nice, because you are going to be freaked out by how they look! I became transfixed. I put hot sauce on the oysters, and that made it even more bizarre… I felt strange eating them. I had to photograph the oyster. Just loved looking at it…it is obscene and the situation was so low rent: saltines were all I had. There is just a paper towl and that’s kind of it.

MT:

A delicacy!

NJ:

A delicacy nonetheless! A delicacy in a can…

MT:

And how does that scene refer to We Buy Gold?

NJ:

I liked the strange sexual nature of the image: almost this disarticulated part of the female anatomy. It made me think about a sort of sexist currency and people’s expectations in sexuality and “serving it up” right away. The whole culture of sex-ting … I had tried myself online dating earlier that year, and it was horrible, because the men always wanted nude photos before they even want to meet me somewhere. I thought I’m not doing that! There is this grotesque idea of: “I want this”, to even possibly “give you that”. So I thought, if this is what you only want to see, here it is: an oyster! Will they even notice the difference?

MT:

I like to pose a more technical question. You have selected another portrait in a circle-shaped aureole of a young shorthaired woman drenched in a pink limelight (p. 18) and on page 55 a man’s portrait in, what looks like, a bar/ night club toilet. Do you work with Instagram, Hipstamatic or photo effects like vintage and retro snaps?

page 54 and 55

NJ:

I do love Hipstamatic and some of these images are Hisptamatic images. At the time these were made, I actually started an Instagram account, and then ignored it. In the last few months I have become fairly active. I think it was because I was a bit more into printing rather than simply sharing / broadcasting the results. I liked the circular format and was attracted to how it seemed to fence in the compositions in a unique way.

page 39

MT:

This woman is one of the individuals you portrayed, like the women on pages 18, 36-37, 39 and both men on pages 34-35. Who are these people?

page 18

pages 36 and 37

NJ:

The woman in the pink circular photo is singer Emma Zakarevicius on page 18. Page 36 is a model waiting for her hair and makeup chair for a shoot I was doing for designer Beth Pilger. The woman on page 37 is a stranger on the train. The men on page 34 are writer Guy Gonzales at an art reception, and page 35 is a photo of Dshaun, a very good friend and co-worker respectively. The woman on page 39 is Dianne Bowen, a writer, painter, and installation artist. Page 54 (in shadow) and 55 is filmmaker and writer Andrew Zoppa.

page 34 and 35

MT:

The book is interleaved with documentary urban landscapes, in which you take a distance from it all. Silhouettes of the New York skyline, some desolate ‘oasis’ along the train tracks, a view from an apartment complex (from behind a balcony fence) to an apartment complex. My question is how do you connect to the tradition of American documentary photography, and the world of photography itself?

NJ:

I feel a powerful connection to photography and am glad that I have been able to continue on this road for over 20 years. With more people documenting their own lives and everything they see and experience, documentary is now more at the forefront than ever. I hope I can contribute as much as I can.

MT:

I am eager to know how you connect to traditions in documentary photography in the US? Do you move in the world of art or rather in the world of photography?

dad's crash in hand

NJ:

They have their crossroads: everything is so wide open now. And there are amazing images created by people in the streets. It is a huge change: everything is in the cloud now! And the cloud is full of images. I went to a lecture a couple of years ago, there were several curator from photography museums in New York, like ICP and such. And one person said something that struck me: “What are we going to do with the cloud? How are we going to qualify all the images that are in the cloud. What is going to happen?” We just don’t know. It is very interesting: How is this material going to be catalogued? Will we ever know how much of anything is out there? In that respect it is an exiting time. The possibilities are endless…

MT:

Do you feel affiliated with certain photographers? Could you mention a few names?

NJ:

I do feel affiliated…I get compared a lot to Nan Goldin. Because the neighborhood I lived in then was actually the same she lived in, but in a totally different period. I love the work of Donna Ferrato, I love the work of Barbara Nitki and Carrie Mae Weems. And more formal work by Richard Avedon and Helmut Newton. There is intriguing imagery in fashion…I like going to archives and research material that nobody has seen before. That’s what influences me. And Weegee, I love the crime scene work by Weegee.

2311

MT:

That seems so relevant for your work. I like that!

NJ:

It was the first photobook I owned: Naked City. I bought it years ago in Mississippi. I even managed to find through eBay a copy of Weegee’s autobiography. I keep it on my desk so I can see it. I love the idea of photographers as searchers, explorers…

MT:

And it all relates to that one little image: a framed image of a car wreck in the house of your parents.

dad's crash

NJ:

When I was a child, my father proudly kept a framed photograph of a car that he had been driving during a horrific accident. He kept it as a symbol of having survived something that, to look at the wreckage, seemed impossible. I was always struck by the “realness” of it. He had a photo on the wall and a small version on his desk. On one he is standing beside the car, looking well dressed, suave and smiling. And this car is just completely destroyed. A crumpled wreckage. And that was in the time that cars were really made of steel. They were like ships! The car was hit by a train. Basically, he was able to get out in the last moment. And there is another photo of just the car itself. It’s horrific. My father could look at it and say: “It is great, I survived. Here is the proof, here is the document”.

MT:

Very interesting, this is the first forensic photograph…in your house, you could say!

NJ:

In the house, in the house…definitely!

MT:

And the thrill was there, which you are still looking for…

NJ:

Indeed, where I was from, there was not much of a filter for the public. There was all this farm land out there, but you basically had to drive through a desolate, flat landscape. The photograph from the trailer on page 51 in We Buy Gold is from my hometown. It’s like this big sky and this little trailer. That’s a memory I had, seeing car accidents along the road. And my parents had no fear of death whatsoever. They would regularly go over to the mortuary and said: “Oh, that is someone that used to live next door to us”. They went through a lot, living down South, and had a whole different relationship to life and death than most people.

MT:

That’s why you do what you do…

NJ:

Yeah, that’s why I do it…As a child, looking at that photograph at my parents house, made me imagine what it must have been like to be there – which of course, I did not want to experience. It scared me, but made me unable to look away from it because it satisfied my curiosity about it, and made me appreciate that someone took a photo. It had a physical quality to it…

Whenever I looked at it, I thought: This happened. And this is what it looked like.

Now available on Amazon.com

We Buy Gold
by Nikki Johnson

Link: http://amzn.com/0983050546

webuygold

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