Nicholas Prior: Unmasking Innocence
Photography revealing shrouded ideas of childhood through the exposing of childhood realities.
By: ANTHONY PRICE
Series: Age of Man - "Untitled #44" as seen on Brand New's The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me. Image courtesy of Nicholas Prior.
Performance presents truth with the acknowledgment of its own falsehood. Photography, in a sense, may be used to promote a performance rather than the truth of the situation — one must stop, pose, and smile for the camera. Children learn to shed their emotions for a stiff and static smile so that years later, their family scrapbooks can recall what a happy and innocent child they were. Nostalgia, bred by the separation from the photographed moment through age, can confuse the idealized and contrived happiness of youth for the reality that while it was happy at times, growing up was a complex and bittersweet experience. Photographs remind us of moments that cannot be relived, specific sorrows and joys impossible to repeat. Instead of giving us immediate access to the experience, a photograph can serve as an idealized, performed reminder of an event that actually happened.
The works of Nicholas Prior acknowledge and honor this duality of performance and reality found in photography when treated as an artistic medium. His collections explore theories including Freud’s thoughts on the inaccessibility of childhood once the individual becomes an adult. He also examines how the existence of a camera creates a sort of fiction. Prior has had his work exhibited in locations around the United States and Switzerland.
Series: Conspiracy of Silence. Image courtesy of Nicholas Prior.
How did you get your start in photography?
I’ve considered myself an artist since childhood, but I didn’t really start using photography as a medium until I was in my twenties. I shot for a while with a manual 35 mm and then taught myself large format photography and darkroom.
What drives you?
Before graduate school, I think I was primarily driven by aesthetics, and now I think I’m primarily driven by ideas. But I also think the idea of inspiration can be a trap for an artist. Artists have a job to do, and just like other professions, the work has to be accomplished in the absence of inspiration.
How would you describe your style of photography?
I’d like to distinguish between two concepts, either of which might be referred to as “style”. The first, with which I have negative associations, relates to visual affectations which often serve little purpose other than to declare the photograph a work of art. The second concept has more to do with the decisions we make in pursuit of our ideas – the decision to shoot with a particular camera or lens or, for example, the decision to shoot only on overcast days. It is more about having a voice, the way a writer creates a voice in writing a novel. I often think of the former as a mask to cover up a lack of ideas or bad photographs, and the latter as fine-tuning, eliminating the visual noise to help bring clarity to the idea.
In my series “Conspiracy of Silence,” the photographs have a very painterly look. But the visual “style” relates directly to my decision to shoot the images through obscured windows, because the windows served both a physical purpose, to prevent the children from seeing inside the structure, as well as a metaphorical purpose (representing the informational barriers that adults create to shield and protect children). So those pictures have a distinctive visual style, but it’s not my personal style – it’s just the voice that I created for that project.
Tell us about some of the exhibits you have held.
Several have been particularly meaningful. My show at Yossi Milo Gallery in NYC was important because it was my first solo exhibition and also because I’d held Yossi in such high regard. Yossi has an incredible eye, strong convictions and an indefatigable passion for photography.
In 2005 I was included in a group show at the Musée de l'Elysée in Lausanne called ReGeneration: 50 Photographers of Tomorrow. All of the artists were invited to Switzerland as guests of the museum, and we spent a week in the company of curators, collectors, and sponsors. A book was published under the same title, and the exhibition traveled to the Aperture Gallery in New York and dozens of other institutions around the world. I retain many of the friendships I made during that week in Switzerland.
I really enjoyed the Presumed Innocence exhibition at the DeCordova Museum. It’s a beautiful museum, and the exhibition was expansive but expertly curated. They also published a book in conjunction with the exhibition, and I was invited to talk about my work and join a panel discussion.
Is there a darker side of growing up or childhood that you wish to explore?
One of my initial, driving thoughts while working on Age of Man was not that childhood was dark, per se, but rather that it contained all of the complexity and depth of adulthood – an idea that I believed was sometimes lost on adults, who often treat children with condescension and create affectedly precious images of children, which are obviously contrived to shape perception and memory in a manner which I believe is intended to be positive but is ultimately disrespectful.
In the year preceding “Age of Man,” I visited a classroom in Brooklyn with a 4x5 camera to talk to the kids about photography. While there, I took their portraits. With each child, when I was about the release the shutter, the child would suddenly turn plastic, and offer flat, perfunctory smiles. Kids get conditioned to perform in front of cameras starting at infancy, their parents so eager to start creating a documentation of happiness. I took those pictures, but I also took the second picture of each child, in which I simply told them that they were allowed – but not required – to smile. These second pictures were infinitely more layered, more interesting, and more meaningful.
Series: Age of Man. Image courtesy of Joe Pagac.
Describe the impact of your photo “Untitled #44” being selected as the cover image of Brand New’s acclaimed 2006 album The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me.
Being associated with that album has been very important to me for several reasons. Initially, it had more to do with feeling that the band’s tone and lyrical themes were layered and complex, so pairing it with the photograph kept the photograph outside of the patronizing and precious domain I spoke of earlier. In the ten years since the album has been released, what’s been most important to me is the personal connections I’ve made with fans of the band. A lot of these people are artists in their own right, and I feel a natural kinship with them.
Recently I’ve been thinking about how, when I was about ten years old, my brother and I took piano lessons in the back room of a music store. During my brother’s lesson, I had nothing to do but look at album covers. My introduction to the album covers was disassociated with the music, so I formed opinions based on their visuals alone. I’ve been fascinated by album covers ever since.
In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes wrote, “the photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.” What do you believe are the properties of photography that separate it from other media?
One of the most important and uniquely distinctive properties of photography is the perception that it’s is rooted in fact. Another is that it’s the most ubiquitous and democratic medium. Almost everyone has access to a camera.
These two properties create all sorts of complexities around photography as a vehicle for creating art. Photography’s many uses outside of fine art – for example, to provide scientific, legal, or historical documentation – blur the line between what constitutes art. At the same time, photography’s ubiquity blurs the line between artists and other practitioners of the medium.
Photography also has some unique complications in regard to how to attach a quantitative, artistic value to photographs. This is due to two things; the first is that photographs can be reproduced indefinitely, which disrupts the notion that a work of art is unique (this is usually resolved by limiting the edition of printed photographs); the second is that the aura surrounding the work of art is displaced, since photographs are, by definition, reproductions. To some people, these distinctions are important; to others, they are as relevant as caring whether a novel was written on a typewriter or a computer.
The Barthes quote implies that all photographs represent something factual; I believe that all photographs contain at least some element of fiction. Regardless, our perception is that photographs are connected to a specific time and place, a small piece of reality that lives forever and becomes part of a shared experience, a universal memory. That’s not a quality that can be claimed by a painting.
What is a key takeaway you want viewers to have when seeing your work?
When I really love a photograph it functions on multiple levels for me: aesthetic, intellectual, conceptual, etc. It doesn’t happen often. I’d be really happy if my photographs occasionally did that for others. I also think it would be nice if they felt something that aligned with my intentions. But sometimes people respond strongly to an image and it has nothing to do with my intentions. To reference Barthes again, punctum are completely subjective. And that’s okay too.
What is a piece of advice you give your graduate students?
In my Master Critique class, I once had a student who, when surveying another student’s work, asked her “Why am I supposed to care about this?” I told him that the day that an artist attempts to make art to please others, she’s already failed. Instead, I told him that if he was trying to help her then it was his responsibility to find out why she cares.
I believe that in the heart of every artist there is a compulsion to express something. So it helps to start with something that’s meaningful to you and to make enough pictures so that you come to understand why some of them succeed in expressing your vision.