CD: Mark, thanks for participating in the FUSEVISUAL 5×5 interview series. When we met at Palm Springs earlier this year I was impressed with your drive and low-key Irish manner. Lets start there. Why did you attend the Palm Springs Festival and what was the response from your portfolio presentations? Also,I introduced you to my producer at Corbis. Have you started shooting stock and if so, how is that progressing?
Mark Nixon: Hi Cameron, one of the highlights of the Palm Springs Photo Festival was meeting you and your friends. I was there on my own and felt taken under your wing, so thank you for that.
The reason I attended PSPF at all was due entirely to Much Loved. I got a nice 5 figure advance from Abrams for the book and I decided to spend some of it on photo education and projects. It’s not cheap from Ireland and I never would have done it only for the advance. I think because I’m self taught and feel like I’m winging it all the time, I can’t get enough of hearing about how other photographers, who I admire, work. I also thought the reviews could get me some work or at least some good contacts.
I learned so much on that trip, Art Streiber was worth it alone, I really got so much from his class on working in editorial photography, he’s incredible, both his photography and his work ethic and we’re still in touch, he sent me a photo of Much Loved for sale at his Car Wash in LA.
I haven’t done anything about stock yet, I simply don’t have enough time in the day, between running my portrait studio and trying to build the commercial/editorial side. I hope to make some headway on this front next year.
CD: Much Loved is a killer personal project that became a book. Tell me about how the project started, how it grew into a book and your responses so far. Also, you are known as a portrait shooter. What was it like to shift gears and shoot table-top images?
Mark Nixon: I got the initial idea after seeing how close my son Calum was to his Peter Rabbit. Something about this awakened some very old, deeply buried memories and feelings of my own childhood Panda. I couldn’t quite explain what I was feeling about all this, then out pored this poem, which was a little embarrassing, as I don’t write poetry and never have, but it was the only way I could express it. I’ve been getting lots of great comments about the poem as well as unbelievable responses to the book.
From an email yesterday, “I just bought your book Much Loved on impulse because it made me cry uncontrollably in the bookstore. Several hours later, I still can’t get through it. Thank you for validating the love for these precious creatures.” That’s only one, maybe a little extreme, but I have had so many in the last month, lovely heartwarming stories and compliments.
Anyway, I had a Teddy Day in my studio and sent out a call to all my clients to bring their teddies in. I thought it would be mostly children, but to my surprise, it was mainly adults, and mostly women. As I was photographing the bears, they would tell my receptionist some story about their bear, so I got her to write them down and they became integral to the whole project, as the stories really bring the images to life. I had the exhibition, got a lot of local press and when I put it on my site, it went viral. It was featured in news sites, blogs, and magazines all over the world, 6.5 million hits in a few months.
The very day I had the first thought that it might make a book, Abrams emailed to say that everyone in their office had fallen in love with my project and would I consider making it a book?
I did a quick check to see who they were and when I saw they had published Richard Avedon’s Into The American West, I picked myself up off the floor and said yes.
Then the real work began. I felt I had to shoot more bears, so I photographed over 120, including Bono’s which I’d been after for a year and a half.
I approached this like a portrait shoot and although I photographed them pretty much the same way, each felt different and very much like a portrait shoot, where I would try to find the best way to photograph them.
I know it sounds funny, but It felt like they were communicating with me and that we collaborated together on the shoot. There was a beginning, middle, and an end to each session, some took longer than others, so it didn’t feel that much different to what I always do, which is start with a nervous feeling that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, go through a process and arrive at the end with images I’m happy with to some degree. It began as a still life project, not something I usually do, but it changed into portraiture very quickly.
CD: You have a musical background. This is common with many photographers who also play an instrument. You shoot many portraits of musicians and actors. How did you make the transition from playing guitar and writing songs to being a full-time portrait photographer? Also, you have photographed many well known musicians and actors. How do you respond to demands or difficult situations that may present themselves when shooting celebrities?
Mark Nixon: Yes, it’s strange just how many photographer are/were musicians isn’t it? One is visual and one is aural. To me it’s all about emotion/feelings and expressing them, that’s the same with music or photography, but I can’t speak for anyone else.
I was quite happy sitting in my bedsit (one room with bed, stove, sink etc, shared bathroom down the hall) writing my songs, making demos and working a couple of nights a week in a restaurant as a waiter, for spending money. Until I hit a bad case of writers block. I thought, I need a hobby, something to think about other than music, then I can go back and start writing again. I’d always been interested in photography, but never did anything about it, as I was obsessed with music. So, I went out and bought a camera, the first photo I took was the guy in the camera shop (he was out of focus, the background pin sharp) and I never picked up the guitar again. I had found my new obsession and unlike singing, writing songs and playing guitar, I had found something I was actually good at it. I got work immediately, paid work, with more money than I’d ever made doing music or waiting tables and that was it, I was hooked.
I used to go into Hot Press music magazine with my demo tapes and gig listings, begging them to review my gigs etc and 20 years later, I end up shooting covers and features for them, same editor. I learned very quickly how to treat celebrities, sometimes the hard way! Generally speaking, though there are exceptions, they have no interest in you or your stories, so don’t even think about telling them any. Although you feel like you know them from TV or whatever, you don’t! Be respectful, professional, flattering, but not obviously so, be in charge, have a plan A, B, and C and be ready for all of those to be rejected. It’s real seat of the pants stuff.
I almost never get to suggest anything in advance, it’s usually, go here tomorrow at this time and shoot images for a possible cover and feature. It’s frustrating as I’d love to collaborate with the subject, get them interested in making a great image, have a plan, a budget, a location.
It’s not Vanity Fair, so they really don’t care. Get in, do the job and get out, hopefully with something I like.
Shooting hundreds of reportage style weddings in the first 10 years of my photography career was such amazing training and grounding for shooting celebrities or anyone else. You have no time, you are dealing with all kinds of people and personalities, in all kinds of situations, locations, weather, lighting, with no time and absolutely no re-shoots.
CD: Your burning man images are striking in their simplicity. Tell ma a bit about this personal project. Why you decided to go, what the experience was like, any problems shooting the event or people?
Mark Nixon: This was part of my Much Loved advance too! Again very expensive for me to get there, but after I’d read a very humorous piece in GQ and once I’d seen some images from Burning Man, I had to go.
It’s very hard to describe Burning Man, in fact impossible really. It has to be experienced. It challenges you on so many levels, it’s hard to get to, hard to be there, you have to bring everything with you to live in the desert for a week, food, water and more importantly, beer. But it was amazing, I would say it’s one of the wonders of the world. Remember that scene in Blade Runner with the dying Rutger Hauer, “I’ve known adventures, seen places you people will never see, I’ve been Offworld and back… frontiers! I’ve stood on the back deck of a blinker bound for the Plutition Camps with sweat in my eyes watching the stars fight on the shoulder of Orion…I’ve felt wind in my hair, riding test boats off the black galaxies and seen an attack fleet burn like a match and disappear. I’ve seen it, felt it…!”
So many incredible moments and experiences. I only scratched the surface and I have to go back and shoot more. I was half on vacation and half working and I need to go again and work harder and longer there. It’s hard to make a good image there. There is so much going on, hard to get a clear background, hot, dusty, so bright you can’t see anything even with sunglasses on, f/11, 250th, 100 ISO.
I’m glad you like the simplicity of my BM images. I like simple images. My photography idol was Irving Penn, the master of simplicity.
CD: I know you are starting to look for a rep. How has that search gone so far? Any leads or introductions? How are reps and producers responding to your personal projects?
Mark Nixon: I flew over to London recently to meet with a consultant/former agent who has helped me edit my work for the portfolio. I will spend a week there in January with the new portfolio, doing the rounds and hopefully pick up some work and/or an agent.
CD: What is your advice for a young or aspiring photographer about to enter our crazy business?
Mark Nixon: Never listen to any advice from other photographers! Especially if they’re trying to sell something at the end of it. I’ve fallen for that one many times!
But to be serious;
The internet is amazing, it’s almost like it was invented specifically for photographers, but you can spend all day looking at amazing work, which can yes, inspire you, but also depress you because you’ll never be that good, or freeze you into inaction because it looks like everything has been done. You need to just start, start a project, start shooting something, anything, just start. It might lead to something else you hadn’t thought of, but you have to start. Most never do. Then you have to work harder, longer and smarter than the next wannabe Avedon. I go into more detail on this in my 5 set DVD available at the back of the hall for only $795, today only!