Alley no. 1, Electric Sky, was shot in September of 1991, so it appears I have an anniversary to celebrate!
In 1991 I was shooting a lot at night and I already knew that out-of-the-way urban areas (the more decrepit the better) were drawing me like a magnet. Electric Sky is not the first image of urban decay that I shot at night, but I think it’s the first where I managed to create a fairytale version of the rundown urban scene I was looking at.
I didn’t know why I was doing this at the time, and I certainly didn’t have a series planned. It wasn’t until the summer of 1993 that I had the required epiphany. Once I came to recognize the vision that I had been dancing around for so many years, the series took off. That summer was the true beginning of the series.
I was drawn to areas where people don’t go, inside a busy, loud city – they were small, grungy oases, where it was quiet and where I felt comfortable. And there I would be, surrounded by incredibly stimulating newness – stuff you wouldn’t see anywhere else but in places society shunned. Since they were barely, if at all maintained, the scars left by the elements (including the weather and people) only accumulated, making them more and more interesting the older they were.
I needed a lot of time to myself, and I needed to take pictures. The perfect solution was to walk down dark alleys alone with my camera at night. Okay, there were some obvious flaws with that solution! So after a year of this, I started asking friends to come along and watch my back. I’m grateful to the many, many people who have been foolish enough to assist me over the years (haha!) – no, I truly am grateful!!
The series has evolved over time. In the late 1990’s I started bringing lighting equipment and colored gels. I would use my lights sparingly, but year after year my images had more and more of my light. In 1997 I switched to a 120mm Hasselblad camera – a big upgrade from the 35mm Nikon I had been using, resulting in incredibly sharp and detailed images. In 2004 I found myself in a position where I could sustain myself through my art alone. I stopped doing the commercial photography that had been my bread and butter, and this allowed me to travel extensively, adding dozens of new cities to the body of work.
But the heart of the series has always been my drive to dignify the places, and by extension, the people who are cast away. By transforming these locations into theatrical sets (made way easier when I started bringing lights!), I have always tried to create a stage without players, leaving it up to the viewer to create their own characters and drama, and hoping that ultimately the viewer feels compelled to step into the scene themselves, as I did 20 years ago.
Weekend Workshop Nov 19 and 20
And on that note, I’ll be giving a weekend workshop in my Chicago studio Nov 19 and 20. On Saturday I’ll give a class on technique, both camera and lighting, including how to arrive at a personal vision. I’ll be using a digital Nikon SLR. The Sunday class will be devoted to the business and marketing side; lessons on how to start or improve a career, both commercial and art. Before becoming a full-time artist, I was a commercial photographer, with various specializations.
If you are interested let me know – firstname.lastname@example.org – and I’ll send you more info, including pricing, as the date approaches.
And finally, Canadian photographer Darwin Wiggett interviewed me recently for his blog: “Life and Learning Through the Lens”
Photographer of the Month – Xavier Nuez
This month I’m excited to share the work of artist and photographer Xavier Nuez. Born in Montreal and now living in Chicago, Xavier’s work has been featured in both galleries and museums and is included in numerous corporate, public and private collections.
Darwin: I notice that many of what I consider the best photographers are also musicians or musically inclined and that these photographers have some of the most evocative visual compositions. What is it about music and photography that gel so well?
Xavier: I’ve never considered the relationship between my music and my photography, so this is a new puzzle. There is something very meditative about the two, both in the production of the art and also in the appreciation afterward. When I’m shooting or playing music I can focus so intensely that nothing else exists, while I find it hard to concentrate most any other time!
They both seem to be art forms that require both left and right brain. In both cases you are channeling emotion through a mechanical instrument, an instrument that requires years and years of practice to master. And I must say here that I’m hardly a master with my guitar. I play just well enough to enjoy myself. There has always been a different level of passion and dedication to perfection with my photography.
It requires patience to master any instrument, and while I think most people understand that to be true with a musical instrument – that it takes years and years to develop the muscle memory and dexterity – I think most people underestimate the commitment required to master the technical skills required in photography, which includes not just the camera but the lighting equipment. So I guess another relationship is patience.
Lastly, creativity and expression are muscles that need to be exercised for you to be a good artist. Musical and visual art are just different muscles, and I do believe there are intangible benefits to my images, having more than one creative outlet.
Darwin: Besides being a fine photographer and musician, you do things like glaze and paint china and then make stunning detailed macro images of your work. I love the fact that you create art and then make additional art by photographing your first creation. What other art forms do you practice?
Xavier: Funny you should ask! For 15 years I was an avid sketch artist (mainly pencil) and occasional painter, but this passion has waned. Coincidently last week I bought a sketch pad because I miss drawing.
And for some years in my teens and twenty’s I loved writing short stories. I still enjoy writing but I haven’t written fiction in years.
I’ve always loved improv comedy and for a couple of years I studied with a group in Toronto. I wish this had been a bigger part of my life because it’s clear to me that through improv you smash down so many barriers to self expression.
Darwin: Your alleyway work is mind-blowing! What is the worst thing that has happened to you while making your forays in the dark and dangerous heart of the city? And what is the best thing that has happened to you while making alleyway photos?
Xavier: Well thank you very much! When I look at this series, it’s a little hard to believe how often I’ve put my life on the line. But the older I get the more cautious I become.
I just got back from Saint Louis where I just added a new image to the series. I spent hours during the day roaming through rundown areas, looking for something to shoot later at night. I had a long list of prospects, but I kept wondering if I should hire a cop for some of these – something I’ve never done. In the end I didn’t, but I did bring several friends with me, unlike just one the way I usually do.
I’ve had many heart-pumping moments, and I’ve come close to becoming a casualty too many times, but the worst and best story has to come from Compton, CA. First, its Compton – made famous by the dueling gangs, the Bloods and the Crips. While in the middle of a shoot, a gang – 12 guys in black hoodies – chase me and my 2 friends back to my van. We have time to throw the gear in and lock the doors but then the gang surrounds the van and tells us to get out. It’s surprising how organized they were – they were literally standing all around the van. I get the impression that if I try to leave, bullets will fly. Also, and this shows you how truly insane I can be, I’m holding out for the slim chance of actually going back to re-do the shot I was working on!!
It’s a Latino gang and I speak Spanish so I lower the window a crack and try to explain what I’m doing, emphasizing that I meant no disrespect. We have a tense conversation for several minutes, until the gang leader (the only one without a hoodie) asks me if I’m Luis, the friend of a friend. I say, “Yes! Of course I am!” He then starts waving to the gang saying, “I know this guy! He’s cool he’s cool!”
In an instant I go from being a target to being part of the family – it was just a mind-blowing turn of events. I step out of the van and half the gang hugs me. They tell me I can go back to taking pictures, and that I’m safe within certain streets – I’m beyond thrilled that I can return to my photograph. Several of the gang members including Jorge, the leader, decide to hang out with us and I set up again for the earlier photo.
Ten minutes later a cop car appears around the corner skidding to a halt. Two cops jump out with laser guided hand guns and because I’ve jumped in front of the camera to protect the shot, I find myself staring at a vibrating red dot on my chest.
A minute later, we’re all standing with our hands on the hood of the cop car. I’m waiting for the cops to relax before starting to explain what I’m doing, but Jorge jumps in and says “Do you officers know lieutenant Menendez? He’s a friend of mine.” The cops turn white and wide-eyed. They stare at each other and quickly return to their car, saying “We’re sorry we thought something was going on here. Have a nice day.” They get in the car and drive away and we never see them again. This gang has been paying off the lieutenant and you don’t mess with his revenue stream.
Jorge then comes up to me and says, “You’re not Luis, are you.” I say, no, I’m not, and we both laugh. I ended up getting 2 of my best shots that night.
Darwin: You make fine art images and you do assignment work, which do your prefer or do you like both for different reasons?
Xavier: Assignment work was 90% of my income for 20 years. I haven’t done a commercial gig in a long time – I’m not opposed to it but my art keeps me very busy. I’m thrilled that I can thrive by creating the images I’m truly passionate about. It’s no longer something I have to squeeze in at the end of the day.
I enjoyed being a commercial photographer – being paid to create photographs was a dream come true. Shooting architectural interiors for magazines and interior designers was the bulk of my work, with fashion, industrial and product filling in the rest.