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Back from Bolinas

Updated: Jul 6, 2020

I got back recently from the bay area where I attended the opening of my solo show at the Bolinas museum just north of San Francisco. The museum was packed for the opening and I made some new friends – it was great!


Photographer Nuez finds beauty in urban blight

PUBLISHED: March 29, 2012

AS XAVIER NUEZ prepared for a trip to Marin earlier this month, he wasn’t too interested in hiking Mount Tam or exploring Muir Woods or walking the Golden Gate Bridge like most tourists do.

Instead, the Chicago resident wanted to go to the seediest parts of the county, the abandoned buildings, neglected neighborhoods and blighted alleys.

“We live surrounded by order and carefully constructed spaces. When you’re in one of these abandoned or neglected urban spaces that no one’s taking care of, there’s chaos and anarchy. The elements are taking these places down, they’re creating textures and tearing down walls,” says Nuez, a photographer who has spent the past 20 years venturing into the worst areas of cities across the country for his theatrical, somewhat eerie but vividly colorful images. “At the same time, you see things you’d never see anywhere else. They’re filled with stuff, old and obscure objects. You can see and feel things you can’t in the ordinary world. In a way, it’s like an oasis within a city.”

There aren’t many places like that in Marin, which is nice for those of us who live here but a bummer for him. “Some locations are difficult, Marin being one of them,” he says almost mournfully.

Still, he was happy to have stumbled upon decaying bunkers in the Marin Headlands when he lived in the Bay Area for a few years in the 1990s. “All those old bunkers are pretty amazing,” he says.

A solo show of Nuez’s photographs, “Alleys & Ruins,” is at the Bolinas Museum through May 6.

“His photographs transcend the gloom and uncover the sublime,” notes Land + Living blog. “While some photos display an aura of foreboding, many reveal an uncanny sense of calm seemingly at odds with reality.”

Nuez’s interest in the abandoned and neglected started early, fueled in part by the stories his father told him of being a street kid in his native Spain.

“For years I believed that that was, if not my destiny, then a good chance this was going to happen to me,” the 47-year-old Montreal native says.

Because of that, Nuez developed social anxiety in his early 20s. Oddly, he notes, that anxiety has helped inform his art.

“It’s funny. I have all these irrational fears but one of them doesn’t seem to be walking down a dark alley at night,” he says, laughing.

When he was feeling anxious, “I didn’t want to be around anyone. I knew that if I walked into an abandoned building or down a dark alley at midnight, I would be there alone. Nobody in their right mind is going to hang out there,” he observes. “I felt very calm and kind of at home. I felt very peaceful there. At the same time, 1 percent of me was on red alert, vigilant of the danger.”

And he has had more than his share of heart-pumping moments. Anyone hanging around a city’s seedy parts at night, settling up expensive strobes and spotlights and flashing 50-year-old Hasselblad film cameras for a half an hour or so — because he shoots at night, he has to leave the camera shutter open for a long time — is bound to attract attention, and not necessarily the good kind. Nuez has been confronted by drug dealers, gang leaders, alcoholics and addicts and police officers. That’s why he often brings a friend or two along, not that everyone’s eager to join him in his escapades.

“Every time something happens, it’s a big drag, there’s no question about it,” he says. “I don’t do this for the adrenaline rush. I do it for the peacefulness and quiet. And I continue to do it because the rewards are so great. It’s part of the cost of getting my images.”

Although he has occasionally climbed fences or entered places he shouldn’t have, the majority of his shots are in public places.

“I like the idea that these are places anyone can see,” he says. “I want the viewer to feel like they’re there. I want them to create stories in their head, to imagine all the people who have come and gone, the stories that have taken place. I don’t want them to be afraid. I want them to feel like I do, that it’s a magical place.”

When he’s not on the road, Nuez calls Chicago home. He moved there a few years ago in part because it has some amazing old architecture.

“There’s something about an old building that has so much more character than a new building. It develops personality and takes on wisdom. It has all these stories left over from the elements or people,” he says. “These are places most likely rich in history and stories … but there’s no one to ask, so all you can do is imagine.”

Vicki Larson can be reached at; follow her on Twitter at @OMGchronicles, fan her on Facebook at Vicki-Larson-OMG-Chronicles

IF YOU GO What: “Alleys & Ruins” When: Through May 6: 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 1 to 5 p.m. Fridays, noon to 5 p.m. weekends Where: Bolinas Museum, 48 Wharf Road, Bolinas Admission: Free Information: 868-0330;

They are dark, dangerous places where you are warned not to go. But for Chicago photographer Xavier Nuez, bleak urban settings are his inspiration and second home. For many years, late at night he has ventured into some of the country’s most threatening corners, frequently leading to trouble. Whether it is an eerie alley in Compton, California, an inner-city ruin in Detroit, or a dead-end back-lot in Chicago, he wants to create monuments out of these shunned places.

A selection of Nuez’s photographs will be featured at the Schneider Gallery, located at 230 W Superior St, in Chicago, IL, that runs from March 2 to April 28, 2012. The opening reception is Friday, March 2 from 5 to 7:30 pm. The show will feature six 32×40 Ultrachrome prints.

Nuez’s first solo museum show opens March 17th, 2012 and runs to May 6th, at the Bolinas Museum in Bolinas, CA. The New York Times has called the Alleys & Ruins series a “masterpiece” “I’ve been chased by violent street gangs, accosted by crazed addicts and drug dealers, and have been held at gun point. If the police see me lurking in a dark alley, often I am questioned and searched. And yet under these trying conditions, and within the filth and stench of the city’s gutters, I find inspiration. With a family history of homelessness and with a belief that I was next, I found the need to dignify what has been rejected.”

Nuez shoots his photographs with 50-year-old Hasselblad film cameras. To capture the vivid colors in his images, he brings battery-powered lighting equipment and colored gels that are combined with long exposures – sometimes more than one-hour.

Xavier Nuez’s photographs have been featured in solo and group exhibitions in museums and galleries throughout North America, including the Marin Museum of Contemporary Art in California; the Attleboro Art Museum in Massachusetts; the Masur Museum of Art in Louisiana; the Museum of the Living Artist at the San Diego Art Institute; the Florida State University Museum of Fine Arts; and the Farmington Museum in New Mexico. His work is in numerous public, corporate and private collections, including those of the University of Richmond Museum in Virginia; the University of Michigan; the Norfolk Southern Collection; the Arts Commission of Greater Toledo, Ohio; and the Vicente Fox Center of Studies, Library and Museum in Guanajuato, Mexico.


While I was in the area, I went over to Sacramento to visit Chicago Fire Restaurant. Last year they purchased four large alley pieces and I wanted to see them installed. You can see the photo below – needless to say I was very pleased with their new home.

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