Nev Nels is a photographer from suburban Chicago. He's drawn to pieces of spaces that are elemental to overall feel of place. His photographs act as brief but contemplative gazes, often packaging ironic or critical messaging into frames of beauty, humor or the everyday. Canons are his weapons of choice.
Over the last few years, I've had the incredible luck of meeting and learning from some truly inspiring artists. Visual artists at different places on their paths to finding their voices. Nev Nels is one of those who has been an inspiration, even though he may cringe at the idea. When it comes to the journey of being an artist, from meeting Nev and my experiences, I've learned that it is indeed a journey that never ends. I hope you enjoy meeting Nev as much as I have in getting to know him. ~ Kris
Getting the softball out of the way, tell us a little about you. Who is Nev Nels?
First, thank you for choosing to interview me! Second, this is not an easy question. I think I’m a relatively normal person who isn’t very good about talking about himself, so hopefully I do a good job with the interview. I’m kind of basic, really. I have a quiet online presence and don’t seek a lot of attention for myself. This isn’t always a good thing because I struggle with self-promotion, and photography is like 80% getting yourself out there. I’m not the most confident person and feel routinely humbled that anyone likes my photography. My taste constantly changes or varies wildly, so my workplace and my walls tend to be minimalist or even blank. I find owning art to be a strange concept; I prefer seeing it on my computer or visiting a museum to having it in my home.
It is interesting that you bring up and are aware of your reluctance to self-promotion. I had intended to ask you if you felt you were a reluctant artist. Do you feel this “reluctance” or confidence level manifests at all in how you photograph a subject? Or does it ever even cross your mind.
I’m so reluctant that I hedge at using the term. I performed well at a young age in school and was accelerated into a smart kids program with a particular name I found abhorrent and wished not to be part of the program because of it. This was at the age of ten. My mother still likes to tell the story of how a nonconformist was born, though until recently I had all but forgotten this had happened. The thing is, I haven’t changed much. I realize nonconformity has its hypocrisy, but there is a value in it for me. While I don’t particularly enjoy others sizing me up in a box, I certainly dislike it for myself to take up those reigns. There are so many examples of verbose self-championing platitudes called artists’ statements swirling around internet photography sites, and it gets grotesque. I’d rather be dead-center about what I’m doing and simply strive to get better. That’s my statement: getting better. Lower case. Any artist statement I conjure up is likely to be affected by my mood that day. Please don’t take me too seriously. I’ll try, but I know it’s an exercise in partial failure based on the kind of person I am.
I’m quite confident with camera in hand. I know when something is likely to turn out well or otherwise. It’s just a personal battle for me as to how I believe in myself. I don’t want to be blind and assume I’ve achieved some level of competence, so everything is flowers now. Due to the nature of my work, pressure is a beautiful thing. Feeling the twinge of discomfort in the process is part of achieving. I think I need that uncertainty. I need a competent portfolio I’m personally challenged by in order to put it in front of someone else and say, “care about this.” If I don’t care enough to have that same feeling as creator, what’s the point? I think a term like Artist is bestowed upon you. It’s consensus. No, it’s not about seeking approval, it’s just something that becomes understood over time. You don’t get to define that timeframe for yourself.
Photography isn’t your main gig but one you spend a substantial amount of time doing. Correct me if I’m wrong. You have done work as a wedding photographer and you have this artistic photography side. I guess many would call that fine art photography. What do you call your style? What genre does it most fit with? Tell us about it.
Actually, I’ve made my living off of photography, but most of it has been through video. Yes, I do weddings, and I enjoy it, but a majority of my working life is documentary news photography and production. There was a period of time where I drifted more into the production side of video and realized I missed cameras, so I bought a few Canons and got back into things for my personal enjoyment. I’m wary of the term Fine Art, because I think people misinterpret it to mean upperclass or high-rent, including myself sometimes. If you’re hinting at refinement or playing up aesthetics, I do enjoy that, and I hope that comes across in my photos. I have an appreciation for expressionism, but I prefer photography to be realism or even hyperrealism, if possible. Maybe something between social realism and expressionism would make the most sense, but I’m just guessing. I studied art in school, but I’m no expert. I’m like a street photographer who walked mostly through art museums, which is exactly what we did as kids.
But yes, speaking to refinement and aesthetic it’s more of a concept. Does it perform? How does it perform, and in what ways does it underperform? Is this all intentional? Is the joke on the viewer or the subject, or is it self-critical? All of these things are of particular value. It’s funny, because the “Fine Art Photography” I’ve come to know as a ready-made form is somehow the opposite of these things. It’s formulaic. Though meticulously conceived it isn’t necessarily involved in thought. It’s like it’s own concept of prettying subject. Makeup for the gaps in the built world. For me the gaps are the everything. I think i forgot to mention my interest in satire and tragedy. I struggle to find those ideas in Fine Art Photography. I guess that’s it - I’m losing an element that is elemental to what I’m hoping to be challenged to build. There’s something vapid in message for me there, so I don’t get inspired.
In a recent bio I read that you submitted for a feature in CCLaP Weekender Magazine, you say you are drawn to pieces of spaces that are elemental to overall feel of place. Talk to us about this. Is this your feel on a place or the feel others place on a space? Elaborate on what this means to you.
I probably could have written that better, but that’s part of the point, I think. Photography does really interesting things like replace language. You don’t necessarily need words if a photo works - though a contextual hint with a title or a few lines about some aspect of the photo can help a viewer from turning down an unintended path. There are always subjects within subjects that create meaning, and they work like little building blocks to fill up a frame in a communicative way. This is getting conceptual, so I’m going to stop writing like that, but for a photo to mean it often has to be more than accepting what is in front of us as established or having some kind of authentic storytelling ability in and of itself. We need to find elements in a frame and encourage them to produce meaning. There, I did it again. Haha. It seems simple to me, but when I try to write about it there’s really no way of explaining it concisely. Maybe it’s as simple as rather than photographing a church I see it as allowing the things that make it uniquely this church that I want to be aware of as I am taking the photograph. When I return in post I want to rebuild those feelings and the energy of the space through the details experienced in person. I’m not a proponent of space being author; I think the photographer has potentially as much influence on experience as place does. That’s where we start separating photos from snapshots, maybe?
We’ve known each other for several years and I’ve watched your personal photography work grow to a greater quality and focus. I’d like to know how you feel about that statement.
True, and likewise! For me, if I believed otherwise I’d be at the end and stopping shortly. I do go through lengthy periods of dormancy where nothing is good enough and I put my cameras away and dine on depressive realism and its validity for a spell, but I’m always back, eventually. This year has been a hard year. I’ve been more selective and less careful somehow simultaneously. That’s to say I’m choosy about what I do but not with any regard for some particular kind of output. What I’ve arrived at has been a lot more enjoyable to me, for some reason. When I first started posting things online I think it was out of some kind of proof to myself that I can do this or that, which meant dabbling in other peoples' styles which were often too loud or garish. Now I’m muted and in line with a more accepting point of view, I feel. It’s still too early to tell, always.
Visual design elements play very heavy in your work. Often many that are put together to make a many layered glimpse into that world you captured. How much do you think about these elements before you create a photograph? Or does it just click and so you click the shutter in response?
I probably fall into line or form before color, but maybe that’s changed a little. I do prefer layers and complexity, but it’s funny how that can deliver you back at minimalism or finding something simple to convey in spite of all the effort involved. Part of my disappointment in street photography is the nature of just clicking away, but it’s necessary in certain instances. Sometimes you have to stab at something to find what is possible, but I don’t think this is the norm for how I’m working. Most of my decision-making with regard to preconception and capture comes quickly, but I’ll also pass by a place or a space for months before deciding it is right to photograph. I prefer wandering about and looking for things, but sometimes they jump out only after repeat visits. I’m always very aware when walking around, and usually I have my camera in my hand. Visualizing and anticipating can be all the prep you need.
In your mind, is the “photographer’s eye” a learned or genetic thing?
I think you just asked me chicken or egg? Ha!
We’re so inundated by visuals that at some point most of making images is learning or sponging it up either consciously or subconsciously. I don’t really have a good answer for this other than I knew good images before I could make them. I wasn’t very good at photography when I first studied it. I got my only C in high school in photography. You’re probably wondering if I got Ds in everything else, which may or may not be true. :) But there was something about the incommunicable nature of photography through language that wasn’t computing. My teacher would explain something to some point, but I wasn’t on the same page. We made cardboard cameras and exposed through pinholes to paper and it took a lot of precision to get it right. I wasn’t patient for the medium at that time, and I wasn’t sure how interested I was in making things rather than consuming them. Now I’m way more interested in making photos. You could argue this was a learned thing or I just came around to that something I didn’t understand in order to chase what I was naturally drawn to. I don’t know.
Where is Nev heading in regards to his work? What do you hope to accomplish or work towards from this point forward or next.
There’s no specific plan to do anything particularly new or different. I rarely make projects for myself. Photography is mostly an exercise in wandering for me. It’s an adventure that is natural and open to immediate surroundings, usually. I do need to get together more of a business plan or push my photos in front of people who sit on art pedestals and look down on them more frequently, but I’m self-aware of a reluctance with this particularly. It always feels too early in the process, but I like where my portfolio is going. It’s potentially more that I love doing the work but seem to struggle with the balance between work and enjoyment. They greatly impact each other. I probably need to find some best practices in terms of dividing time between art and workflow, to borrow a phrase someone else was kicking about in one of my photo circles.
For aspiring photographers who want to move their work beyond the technical details or documenting a subject, into communicating ideas and feelings into their work, what advice would you have for them?
I think getting a nice stash of technicals down first is the way to go. You have to work. You will help yourself see or think with a somewhat structured base. Then you need to stop thinking about that stuff and just go shoot. The right parts of your technical background will fall in place when you need them. Sometimes they will also be forgotten in opportune moments for doing things differently. Technicals should not become a hinderance. If they do, nothing will work. That’s when you have to battle through and decide what you’re going for, making perfect photos or delivering message. You have to find the right times to engage with the technicals. Knowing when to lean on them is probably the most important thing for delivering something of value, but strive not to be boring in approach.
Which artists/photographers inspire you?
I grew up with a group of friends that have done really amazing artistic things. If I told you what they’ve accomplished you might not believe me, but it’s really emotional to watch them succeed, reach and surpass goals that just seemed like imaginative ideas as kids. Of the few handfuls of relatively close friends I had their collective body of work is insane. I probably underreport these things in my own mind because I can’t believe what they are doing. I’m like the starving artist of the group, although one of us tends to be very bohemian in lifestyle. I’m potentially the normal one who stays within the lines too often.
I’ve never been too interested in photographers, unfortunately. I used to skip the photo exhibit save for a quick glance or two at the Art Institute as a kid. I wasn’t aware of Atget then, who is probably my favorite photographer now. I’m not sure listing all of your favorite artists is an attractive thing to do, but the names Thom Yorke, Banksy, Renoir, Vermeer come to mind. Flying Lotus seems to be the guy of late. I listen to music almost always while out shooting. I’m not sure anyone I list who is a visual artist would seemingly directly impact what I do. Maybe that’s a problem? Anyway, my list would go on and on, but there are just a few who kill it every time for me.
Are you aware of any up-in-coming photographers you would like to draw attention to?
I mean, have you seen what you’re doing with black & whites in the last 18 months? :)
I’m usually impressed with whatever Retel Tulio is doing. I don’t follow enough people to have a good understanding for what is out there, and I think people tend to discredit your ability by what you admit to appreciating. Taste can sour points of view. Also, too much of a good thing tends to wear me out. I only peek at others photos briefly or when I’m not creating my own, so I’m probably a terrible judge. Sorry. I do love my little photo community I’ve established online, though, and they tend to underrate what they do, which is awesome. They don’t know how good they are or can be.
Have I missed anything interesting you would like to add about you or your work?
You’ve missed everything. ;-)
The one thing I would like to touch on is something one of my favorite musicians mentioned in an interview. He was talking about the process of creating and how the music becomes visual when it is working. He struggled to describe this concept, but was adamant that when something truly great comes along in the process of producing it is visual. I understood this completely, because for me the process in photography is a kind of deconstruction. A camera captures something based on your input and gives you a rudimentary possibility. It is up to us to find the visual.