Nick Zinner’s Thoughts on photography and 601 Photographs.
Interviewed by Aaron Montaigne,
Los Angeles 1500 hrs,November 4, 20015.
AM: I am here at Chateau Zinner, Studio City here with Nick Zinner, legendary guitarist of Yeah Yeah Yeahs and prolific photographer. The first thing I am curious about before we get into talking about your show is to ask about the first thing that inspired you to want to take pictures.
NZ: I think, as with many things in my life, it started with a girl. I had a girlfriend who I was in high school with and she introduced me to photography. So I took a class and liked the aspect of taking things from normal life, which is always a struggle in high school, and transforming it into something else and crystalizing that time. I remember the summer after meeting her between my junior and senior year of high school I traveled around Europe and took a lot of photos, a few of which I still really like. At the time I was very shy and weird and taking pictures gave me a sort of purpose. It gave me a sense of in any given situation a way to interact and experience what was happening around me instead of just being a shy kid in the corner.
AM: At what age did you start taking photos, what was your format and what was your first camera?
NZ: I was 16 shooting black and white. I didn’t shoot color until I was in college at Bard. When in college I bought a Nikon F2, it was a camera that fell off of a cliff and survived. It became my camera of choice for the time being. I always shot black and white and I always developed my own film and got pretty good at printing. I went to college to study photography, it was my major so when I moved to New York City printing was the only real skill I had and did that for a few years.
AM: I met you after College wandering z streets of Williamsburg and we would spy each other across train platforms recognizing each others taste in black clothes. Upon meeting you I soon discovered that locals considered you the “Mayor” of Williamsburg.
NZ: (Laughs), At the time I was.
AM: Then, like now you always had a camera with you and I always thought that was really cool and I was always curious if that was a tool for you to break z ice in any situation.
NZ: Yeah, its still the same and will never go away. But also it was a way for me to capture a moment. Even if its a shitty photo, it still a moment in time captured forever.
AM: At that time in z late 90’s early 2000’s you were playing in a band called Challenge of the Future, pre-Yeah Yeah Yeahs
AM: At that point of time was music becoming more important to you, or was photography?
NZ: I think at that time it was probably music. I moved down to New York with the Challenge of the Future guys, we all went to Bard together. At that time it was like ’98, ’99. We really wanted to be a successful band, you know make records and play shows and that just didn’t happen. All of our lives and jobs got in the way, same story of any band, you start fighting and things don’t go how you want them to. It was hard, move to New York with a dream and failed (laughs).
AM: Ultimately no…
NZ: But in that band, as a band we failed but it was a great experience, we’re still friends.
AM: but at that time music was taking over your passion?
NZ: I tried working as a photographer, I didn’t learn any technical skills because I studied under art photographers. I never learned to “light” anything or be employed as a photographer, I took band photos, I shot your band The Witches
AM: The bloodbath show?
AM: Nice! I would love to see that.
AM: Cool, well obviously your style of photography is “shooting in z moment” candid style, but who has been your greatest muse?
NZ: Definitely Karen O
NZ: A lot of photos I take are while I’m on tour. I always shoot Karen and Brian. A lot of my favorite pictures are of them.
AM: I realized early on that art and music go hand and hand. I discovered this when it came time to actualize making record covers for my bands. Did any record cover or band photos ever influence you? For me it was always pop art or Roxy Music. Did any inspire you?
NZ: I never really thought about that….. I like Anton Corbin’s stuff, classic work. When Robert Frank followed the Rolling Stones around, when he made Cocksucker Blues which is more film but he is one of my favorite photographers. His stills from the film made it to the cover of Exile on Main Street, I like the gritty candidness and starkness. As for record art, a lot of photos are posed and I never really knew how to do that.
AM: Tell me about the show your doing at Lethal Amounts on November 20th. The Brvtalist himself is wondering if this was a conceived exhibition or did you realize you were sitting on an archive of really killer pictures and decided to share?
NZ: Its something Iv’e been wanting to do in LA for a long time. Its based on some shows Iv’e done in the last three or four years. Iv’e done two shows where I had 1,000 photos and for the Photoville festival in New York around 2 years ago we brought it down to 500 images. Danny from Lethal Amounts approached me to do a show ,so I am showing 601 Photographs which is the title of the show. Basically its a bigger space than my last show and i wanted to show some newer photos too. This show I am trying to re-emphasize the music aspect of my work where as in the new york show it was more of my documentary and traveling work. There is also another section of the show where I show “slept in beds” which is something that I do. Everywhere I sleep, when I wake up I take a picture of where iv’e slept.
AM: (showing me z bed photos) Wow some are glamorous, some not so much.
NZ: I feel like its such a big overlooked part of traveling or touring, or just living. Obviously you spend, in my case as much time as possible sleeping (laughs), and when you’re on tour or traveling its just not something you think about and when you put the photos together there is an interesting, potentially lost narrative.
AM: So anyone that knows you or has ever visited z Zinner maison in z past 25 years has known that you are sitting on like 9 million photos.
AM: So what I am curious is how did you decide which 601 to use out of 9 million for this show?
NZ: Its not easy to be totally objective, what is a great photograph and what is not. I was working with a curator for my last show, there would be images that I thought were great. It would be a photo of someone who I was close to or a time or moment that triggered some significant emotion, and the curator would be like that photograph is not interesting at all. For me choosing the images to present, I’m looking for something special that maybe inspires a reaction, An image that suggests more than it actually is. Or sometimes just something sort of funny , or creepy. There are no dates or titles on any of my photos so I want each picture to be specific and also vague so you can imagine half a dozen before and after or during scenarios, like a film still.
AM: To me looking at your photos is like looking into a microcosm of your life.
NZ: Yeah, I actually don’t think about that as much as I should. Thats always at the end when everything is up on a wall and I think Shit, this is actually my life.
AM: Well and you are a fairly private person.
NZ: Yeah, and so if its really personal, I wont show it.
AM: (Looking at one of Nicks photos of Justin Pearson) Does JP really have “punk” tattooed in his lip?
AM: I am curious about the photo of z ladies with the masks thats the header shot for your show.
NZ: I take pictures of every crowd I play to. I like Robert Frank and William Klein from the 1960’s and 1970’s. They have photographs I like where there will be a street shot but there will be 25 faces or heads in one frame and I love the way crowds look, so many faces and the idea of all of those faces in formation for one time and one time only is inspiring. So that particular image was from a Yeah Yeah Yeahs video shoot for the 2007 EP Is is. So we shot the video with Lance Bangs who is in the photo. This video was shot at Glasslands in Brooklyn in the dark. We had two shows, one which was only girls and the second was co-ed. We filmed them in the dark, had the audience wear glasses and shot it in night vision.
AM: Do you think Lady GaGa is hot?