Michael “Nick” Nichols – Conversation

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David Alan Harvey: Now the thing is that you were a photographer first. When I met you, you were a Magnum photographer. Now you   are Editor at Large at National Geographic. Pretty obvious though, this doesn’t seem to be an office job.

Michael “Nick” Nichols: I’m only a photographer.

DAH: You’re only a photographer. Well no you’re more than that. You do other things.

MN: But it all comes from photography.

DAH: I know it all comes from photography, but what I want to talk about, in today’s world, and you evolved your photography and also into the…well you created the Look3 festival for one thing which is for other photographers beside yourself. So, you do a lot of stuff outside, you teach workshops.

MN: And that’s since you and I are so joined at the hip because we both for some reason feel it is important to give it back to the next generation.

DAH: Why did we ever think that was a good idea?

MN: The reason it happened to me was because Charles Moore, my start came from somebody else saying, oh I’m going to help out this kid.

DAH: Right.

MN: And I like that, so I’ve always felt that it’s important. And history is important to me, so building on something and not leaving it behind…if I meet a young photographer that doesn’t know Alex Webb’s work, or your’s or Eugenes, I’m like, well what are you doing? You’ve got to build on stuff.

DAH: That’s right. So Charles Moore helped you and then when he did that you felt like payback some day when you made it.

MN: Yeah.

DAH: Yeah, same for me. I felt that way when I was at my first Missouri workshop. These Life magazine and National Geographic photographers were looking at my contact sheets and I thought well, that’s just the coolest thing…If I make it, I’m paying back too. So we’re similar that way.

MN: And just in full disclosure, I love you dearly, your one of my best friends, I never get to see you, I’ve followed Burn from the beginning although I’m not part of Burn. You know, I’m fully supportive of everything you do even if I’m not there.

DAH: You are part of Burn.

MN: You know this is my first appearance in Burn…this interview. But I’ve been with Burn from the beginning because I believe in what your doing. Always. And I know that you’re with me when I’m with the lions. Somewhere there.

DAH: Oh, always with you when your with the lions.

MN: Were going to some day sit on the porch and do what we say were gonna do.

DAH: Yeah, the only problem we’ve got is that for some reason we’re like work-aholics or something. We can’t get to that porch. You’ve got a nice porch to sit on. We’ve done some of that during Look3 and previous visits to your house. And you’ve come down and visited my family at the beach and I got an extra bedroom for you at my house, so you’re welcome.

MN: And that’s the other thing…my family feels like your part of our family.

DAH: Well we feel that way about each other, yes.

MN: And your kids treat me as if I’m part of the family. So I want everybody to know that we’re not just casual acquaintances.

DAH: Well that’s right, that’s right.

MN: Yeah.

DAH: I mean and we have a lot of fun together. Somehow we always manage to have a lot of fun together. And a lot of laughs, but you’re way different from me in one respect because, and Bryan has even told me this, Bryan who went to the Ndoki with you and made his first film on you on the Ndoki, told me…basically told me that well, Nick works way harder than you do Dad. And I think there’s no doubt about that. When I look at the films, when I look at the stuff, the logistics, the things that you have to deal with to get those pictures, you have to go through a whole lot of logistical stuff before you can even begin to take…

MN: Easily by the time I get to an assignment I’m completely exhausted because of the money I had to raise, all the gear I had to put together, all the…this last one’s 50 boxes going to Tanzania, two years of fundraising, you know, literally almost 10 years of talking about lions, and then you, of course, your pictures have to start to live up to all the hype that you’ve…not hype…whatever you’ve done to…and if I had to say who my favorite photographer on earth was, it would be a battle between Alex and Eugene because I love that complexity. And to do that in natural history is incredibly difficult. So, you know, I’m not satisfied with a telephoto lens but sometimes that’s where you are. So, it’s incredibly difficult technically, but I don’t want anybody to see the technical when they see the picture. You know, when they look at that tree, if they’re thinking about how we put it together, than I missed them. I didn’t do it right. It’s supposed to be spiritual. And so I’m trying to get back to the simplicity that David Alan Harvey uses in his photography. But the level of work that takes…but you know the part about working so hard is I am incredibly driven. You know, I drive myself to collapse, and the only other person I can compare that to is Jim, on the fact that we’ll work ourself till we die, but I don’t know any other way. I don’t know half. I don’t know thirty percent. That’s why I’m gonna quit, because I can’t figure out how to slow down.

DAH: But you’ve been saying “i quit” for a long time.

MN: Yeah but I’m serious. When I said last waltz, what I mean literally is that, like they did, they didn’t quit playing music, or I’m not going to be a National Geographic’s guy after this project and I’m not going to move on to the next project. I’ll extend this one as long as I can, but then I want to go back and say, can I be David? Can I be simple? Because there’s too much volume in what I do. There’s too much noise.

DAH: There’s a lot of moving parts to what you do.

MN: Yeah, and the stress level and the fact that I’ve got this incredible woman in my life, who has been there for the whole trip, and you know you can fuck that up, and I survived all the chances to fuck it up. And so the fact that she’s still with me and we’re tighter now than we’ve ever been.

DAH: Well I see that, I see that, it’s amazing. Well Reba is an amazing woman and you’ve been gone, you’ve been out in the jungle, you’ve been in the top of a tree for months at a time, and she’s still there when you get back. Part of it probably is that she’s an artist herself.

MN: She was attracted to me because I was an artist and I was attracted to her because she was an artist. So we support the obsession of being an artist. And I, you know, people can cut and slice any way they want, I was gone while the kids were growing and I didn’t get penalized for that. You can get penalized for that. But now that they’ve grown, I’m sitting there with them. I’m with them.

DAH: No I see that, I see that. Well let me just go back just for a second here because when I met you, I mean now you’re a senior editor, what is your exact title? Editor at large?

MN: I’m Editor at Large.

DAH: Ahhh busted, you had to stop and think about your title Nick. Size does matter.

MN: Laughing..Well no, because I work so hard to get that word staff photographer off my title. I hate that word. It’s venom to me. You know, because it means ownership. I’m not owned by anybody. I assure you that. I’m milking this place like nobody in the history of photography.

DAH: No, no, don’t  worry  this is an honest conversation…. it is too late for either of us to get fired.

MN: Well, I’ve given them more than I got.

DAH: Well of course you have and they know that. That goes without saying. They know that.

MN: But I like the tone of editor at large because what that means is not in the office. It means out there. So I fought really hard for that title.

DAH: And you’re keeping readers for them too. You’re good business.

MN: Some of my colleagues think that I’m old. I’m not old.

DAH: David Alan Harvey doesn’t think you’ve ever been old. When I met you, you gotta remember, you were a Magnum photographer when I met you and you shifted from Magnum to National Geographic, from an institutional standpoint, spiritually you are a Magnum photographer. Funny how we literally “traded places”..But you needed the capital resourcing. Period.

MN: Yeah exactly, Magnum is in my DNA.

DAH: But the thing is, I can go out and do my thing for ten dollars and where I need ten dollars you need a hundred thousand dollars, therefore you needed the National Geographic behind you. NatGeo has been good to you…and to me.

MN: And I can’t justify what I do if I’m not reaching the planet. I gotta have a huge audience because my work is about saving the planet, you know. Its not about me, its about tigers and elephants and stuff like that. So if I didn’t have this microphone, I’d just be pissing into the wind. This is the only place on earth that I can do what I do.

DAH: That’s right. Ok Chris (Johns) in his article was talking about being driven. I feel driven, and sometimes I feel like it’s a burden almost to be driven because you can’t get off of it. When you were a kid, I saw a picture of you in the 4th or 5th grade in Alabama. That’s where you’re from.

MN: Yeah

DAH: That’s where Reba is from.

MN: Yeah, that’s why I’m called Nick. My best friend’s growing up we’re Bubba, Fuzzy, and Stevie Wonder.

DAH: My nickname was Heavenly.  I know your mother. Partied with your mother and you and the gang. I photographed you and your mother together for my family project. Where’s that drive coming from? What’s the nut of that thing? Where’s that fire coming from? Where’s that work ethic coming from?

MN: Fear, first off.

DAH: Fear works.

MN: Fear of failure. I’d love for people to understand that no matter where you get it, if your not afraid, something’s wrong with you. Every time you go out, you should be afraid. But then the work ethic of being poor…my mom raised us, my dad left when I was a kid, she’s had no education, and my dad was in the picture but he always thought, your just a lazy hippy. You know, I’m obsessive, I’m obsessive compulsive and photography gives me a….

DAH: a kind of  hippy.

MN: I’m definitely a hippy.

DAH: And yet you’ve got a work ethic.

MN: I’ve got a pop side to me. My stories are very popular. I can tell you that the readers love them.

DAH: Oh yeah, I love them too.

MN: But the work thing is…I don’t know anything else. That’s the problem. I don’t know how to turn it down. Once that train left the station, and I got on it, I haven’t figured out how to ever get off.

Photo taken by Kyle George

View Nicks personal website at www.michaelnicknichols.com or go directly to his iPad app here.

Related Links

LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph

 

32 Responses to “Michael “Nick” Nichols – Conversation”


  • Great to see you two old guys batting it around a bit. Good stuff. From another old guy – John.

  • “….You know, I drive myself to collapse, and the only other person I can compare that to is Jim, on the fact that we’ll work ourself till we die…”

    Am I correct in thinking the “Jim” mentioned here is James Stanfield?

  • Another great interview. I wish I had a fraction of that energy.

  • Great read!
    I always enjoy these because they are just conversations….very informal even if they have the title “interview”

    Awesome slideshow too!

    I’m thinking “Jim” is James Nachtwey no?

  • CARLO

    actually i have called them conversations in the past…i am going to change it right now

  • SIDNEY

    i was assuming Nachtwey…for sure Nachtwey…but Stanfield was a tireless worker too..Nick didn’t know Stanfield well i am guessing..Nick was in Magnum with Nachtwey….but i have often compared Stanfield and Nachtwey work ethic-wise …both really into the labor part of the work…the work ethic becoming a part of the end result in their minds i think..

  • Very cool.
    Didn’t realize he was another ‘Ex’ Magnum photographer.
    Certainly in the company of some excellent,modern day ‘greats’ who
    made similar choices….Salgado,Nachtwey!

  • Yep! I remember…
    They are always insightful, many thanks!

  • MTOMALTY

    all make different choices for different reasons…but look/read where Nick’s heart is even today…..people make changes based on their personal needs….Nick went from Magnum to NatGeo…I went from NatGeo to Magnum….Jim went from Magnum to VII and then to no agency….photographers are never really “with” any institution …they are always alone..only by being honestly independent and alone can you ever do anything of significance…the labels are just labels…however, Magnum a pretty good one, so good that if you quit you gain status!! hmmmmmm..well Salgado would not be Salgado and Nachtwey would not be Nachtwey had they not been Magnum photographers first…a huge break for both of them..and for Nick…y moi….

    cheers, david

  • Michael, good to read you here: I remember the first photograph from the cover of Nat Geo – Ndoki Nation Park as I remember. I looked at your photographs in that issue for months. If I get anything from this interview it is work, work then work some more: that and pay it forward. Thanks for the interview to you both.

    The Jim could be Natchway or Stansfield. I read once of a writer who accompanied Jim Stanfield on an assignment (possibly Turkey). They photographed in a village and the writer said that after being there a week Jim could have stood for mayor – he had shook every hand.

    Speaking of Jim, I watched an old VHS video last night (remember VHS) of three one-hour programmes from the BBC about the Magnum Photo Agency and low and behold there was Jim Nachway being voted into the agency. I believe the year was 1986. He looks tall dark and handsome (now he’s tall grey and handsome).

    Enjoy the lions, Michael.

    Mike.

  • , Magnum a pretty good one, so good that if you quit you gain status!
    ——————————-
    same with not showing up in the Oscar ceremony to pick up the award…!!!

  • no9 from slideshow such a famous photo… seen it everywhere…superb/intense!

  • David,
    I guess in my rush to be brief my comment reads a little like a
    shot at Magnum. Wasn’t my intent.

  • Another great installment in the series… thanks for doing this David (and to the person who did the transcription)…

  • What I wouldn’t give to pick Nick Nichols brain for an hour.. what a fascinating photographer. The use of photo technology, planning, talent.. I remember reading the NatGeo article on redwoods (i believe it was redwood trees) where they showed the process of taking the the distortion free compiled photograph from the base of the trunk to the top of the canopy. Wild. or trekking into a jungle in the Congo for weeks (months?) at a time tracking elephants. Cool stuff.
    When I was at school studying documentary photography I remember there being a resistance to newish photo technology, strobes, digital editing, autofocus.. made me think of something I read where Nick Nichols said (and I’ll try not to butcher the gist of the quote) that photography at it’s core IS the use of technology, and the better one is able to manipulate that technology the more possibilities the photographer has to create compelling images.. thats not to say that using an FM10 with some black and white film isn’t an amazing way to make photographs (and to learn the basics of photography)
    Thanks to David, Nick, and all the other photography greats who are helping the rest of us learn.
    @ DAH, I hope to someday take one of your lighting courses.

  • I also feel a spiritual connection with the jungle and animals through Nick’s photos. They are nothing less than haunting…but in a good, fascinating way. I was in Brazil last summer and picked up a few Nat Geos in Portuguese…I was lucky to get the one about Africa from 2005 with David Alan Harvey’s “Nairobi” photos and Nick Nichols’ shots of baboons and elephants. Such a great issue…a witness to both photographers’ dedication and vision concerning African culture. Thanks for the conversation here…I just love the insights and personal reflections as well.

    @DAH Check your Facebook feed about the mask from Puerto Rico. I had the correct answer about an hour after you posted the shot of your mask on Instagram. I know those are from Ponce, and are called Vejigante masks…they are some of the only carnival masks that have the horns on the bottom. Didn’t you say that Facebook would have a winner as well? And no, I’m not from Puerto Rico! Keep up the great work!

  • I’m always on the lookout for great quotes that capture what’s ailing National Geographic, and this one certainly qualifies:

    >> MN: And I can’t justify what I do if I’m not reaching the planet. I gotta have a huge audience because my work is about saving the planet, you know. Its not about me, its about tigers and elephants and stuff like that. So if I didn’t have this microphone, I’d just be pissing into the wind. <<

    I don't blame Nick, of course. The Global Microphone *is* perhaps the biggest reason photographers (and writers) want their work published in National Geographic Magazine. But that sentiment — a global microphone vs. "pissing into the wind"; and that urge to "save the planet" — well, I think both are misguided, esp if you care about the future of the Society… and our society:

    1. Nick's earlier effort to "save the planet" meant teaming up with one of Africa's long-ruling dictators — a trade-off that, in my mind, is a disastrous one:
    http://societymatters.org/2009/07/13/befriending-thugs-who-love-the-planet/

    2. A Society like National Geographic that has millions of "members" — but that still embraces that "one-to-many" model of communication – is doomed to continue its current nosedive. Photographers like Nick & David might be able to get access to that microphone to tell their stories every few years, but I don't believe that microphone will exist for all the next-generation photographers who Nick & David are also trying to serve.

    Put another way: The future of publishing isn't the one-to-seven-billion model that evidently convinced Nick to move from Magnum to NGS; the future of publishing is in community-focused platforms like… BURN.


    P.S. I *do* think National Geographic has a future. But it'll be as a community catalyst — as a way to empower millions of (citizen) journalists who share a particular set of values — esp freedom, democracy, and open societies. After all, those are the values that make real journalism possible. … But I'm convinced Nat Geo will wither & die if it insists on sticking with the old publishing model that's collapsing, namely: Pushing lion & elephant pictures to the people formerly known as the audience.

  • I feel that Nick (along with Frans Lanting) is one of the very few nature photographers who has pushed the envelope and given us something original. Neither have relied on the “long tele; shallow depth of field” crutch that most nature photographers rely on. They both have used the “show me what it feels like” ideal. They have thought outside the box.

    Landscape photographers seems to have reached a plateau where most seem to rely on rule of thirds; blurred water; rock in foreground, sweeping landscape/seascape; over-used HDR etc… I’ve always admired (and still do) Freeman Patterson; his landscape work comes from within, it doesn’t imitate. Cheers :-)

  • While Freeman’s nature work may have moved the goalposts forward a little back in the late 70′s- early 80′s
    I don’t think he’ll leave a body of work that will have much impact on current, or future, generations.
    Much of his legacy will be centered around his teaching abilities.

    Where individuals, such as Nick and Lanting, have inspired is in their willingness and abilitiy to
    get into the trenches and try and effect change through their images.

  • Nice interview! Thanks for giving us some time, Mr. Nichols! and also to Mr. Harvey (the interviewer).

    What a great work that you did last year at VISA-Perpignan 2011 with that huuuuuuuuuge tree picture in the wall. That’s a work-alcolic or work addict or ambitious person whatever. Great!

    P.

  • Thanks for giving us these conversations.. I like to get to know the WHY, to hear the more personal take.. what drives a person to get where they are, why they have become who they are.. thank you both!

  • Michael is one of the most important photographer there is, I’ve been looking at his work since high school and it’s been haunting me ever since. I love those conversation. And we have to thanks the gods for the drive those guys have.

  • But why,
    Dearest nick,
    Would you ever want to get off the train?
    :)
    ***
    The story of you and mike Fay in the Congo has stayed with me since I heard you talk in Jackson, Wy. many years ago.. (you even photographed me and my daughter looking at your exhibit at the national wildlife museum)
    Was Bryan Harvey involved with that story?
    Wasnt he the first to surf in a remote area in Africa, on a trip with you?
    Perhaps I’m getting stories mixed up?
    ***
    Thanks David and nick!
    And nick,
    Thank you for LOOK3!

  • SCOTT

    i missed your right answer…if you are indeed first, then i own you a good and thorough review…send me a link please to my email listed here on Burn, and i will do my best…

    MARK TOMALTY

    oh no, i did not see it as a shot..it was an accurate statement and i just wanted to add..that’ all..thanks for making a good point….

  • Hi Michael, thanks for showing us these.
    Epic stuff! Obviously an insane amount of work has gone into this slideshow.

    They’re all interesting, but I was particularly interested in the tripwire ones actually – the additional light provided by the flash makes them look so unreal.. almost like stuffed animals, but then the context makes you do a double-take, and think ‘hang on.. is that REAL?’

    Keep it up mate!

    B

  • I quite often wonder what’s the point of wildlife photography and then I think of Nick and
    Michael Fay and the 13 national parks in Gabon that wouldn’t of happened without them.

  • Beautiful conversation, another home run.
    I feel like I’m always running along side the train trying to jump in,
    …it’ll keep me spirited, yes? :)

  • So, 3 easy steps to become a photographer without peers:
    - Be really good
    - Join Magnum
    - Quit

    Doesn’t look too difficult :-)

    p.s. just start to read “Magnum” by Russell Miller. Capa is a hoot! Of course the book was written in the pre-Michael Dell era. Someone should do an 10th anniversary update….

  • HARRY

    yes, exactly…when people discuss the potential power of photography, it very often focuses on war or social conditions of one kind or another….where photography has really DONE THINGS to make the planet a wee bit better is in the natural history arena…and yes, Nick and Mike have hugged a lot of trees and saved a lot of animals and of course done justice to the positive efforts of man as well…thanks for pointing to this…

    cheers, david

  • RICHARD MAN

    smiling….hmmm, yes….well i just cannot seem to take that final step…nor Soth, nor Erwitt, nor Parr, nor Koudelka, nor Parke, nor Anderson, nor Goldberg, nor Sanguinetti, nor Peress, nor Meiselas, nor Webb, nor Gilden, nor Pellegrin, nor Davidson , and a bunch more , well, some of us just cannot seem to become all that we can be!!

    and yes, the Russell Miller book, yawn yawn, needs an update….

  • In 2004 I was considering doing my first photography workshop. Then one day a guy approached me in the San Francisco airport and said “Nice tripod, it looks like it would be good for the forest.” (I carried-on my green tripod – don’t judge.) I asked his name and as he turned away he said “Nick”. I had no idea who he was but his demeanor was ‘real’ if you know what I mean.. authentic if you will. Thirty minutes later I couldn’t take it anymore so I asked if I could talk with him and he said “No, I’m burned out.” I asked if I should know his photos and he told me he worked on a project across the Congo.

    So the following week I signed up for a workshop with David Alan Harvey and Kent Kobersteen (and Raul came as a bonus).

    A few weeks later I was on a bus to Mexico. And there it begins.

  • very good!!!

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