Nick’s take was created from interviews made in 2000.
I’ve been taking pictures for close to 30 years, starting when I was 18. It started with my Photo 101 course in school, right before I got drafted in the Army. I had studied fine art, but the camera was more immediate, and I knew immediately that’s what I wanted to do.
Right after school, I got the draft notice. I was a hippie, so I was really ashamed of wearing the uniform. I was planning to go to Canada, but this was towards the end of the war. So instead of leaving, I decided to give an extra year to the Army so I could be a photographer instead of wasting my time in the infantry.
In that time I learned how to print black and white, and got to use equipment that I couldn’t afford. One of the things those guys used to say was “f/8 and be there.” Because they never used a light meter and, as far as I could tell, they didn’t care about quality. But I liked the concept of not depending on the technology so much and using your instincts.
I went back to school to get my photo degree, and during that time I started sending my portfolio to National Geographic, pictures of caves and infrared nudes of Reba (we were young artists). National Geographic had a famous photo internship program for young photographers (and still does). Bob Gilka, the director of photography at the time, sent me back a letter that said, “Why don’t you choose another profession — have you thought of being an attorney?”
That was my first rejection. The second one was when I told him I was going to graduate school at Syracuse. Basically, Bob said: “your work’s not good enough, but my son’s going to graduate school in Syracuse — you might see him there!” It’s funny, because later on when I became professional and well-known, I met Mr. Gilka again, and he did the same thing to me! Even after I supposedly knew what I was doing! But he was like that. He thought if he sent you back to the drawing board, you would improve.
When I started, what drove me was probably the fantasy of Robert Capa, the war photographer with the beret and the scarf blowing in the wind and getting all the girls and leading an adventurous travel lifestyle.
The way I approach photography is more like performance art. You can be a very quiet photographer; you can photograph rocks and trees and never see a human being and so on. But what I do, and what many of my colleagues do, is a certain kind of performance. It’s very much an ego-driven thing. I mean, if you sit around in a room with us, it’s hilarious. Go out with me and Bill Allard and Dave Harvey — all we do is talk about ourselves. You can’t get in a word edgewise for Dave talking about himself. And then Bill gets a word in, and then lastly I get some in. It’s funny if you can laugh at yourself.
I didn’t study photo essays in school. I used to sit in the bathroom in the college library until my legs would turn purple looking at The Decisive Moment. Sitting there, looking at it. Then I’d go get Ernest Hass or something. I think I trained myself with obsession. And I photographed nudes of Reba in infrared, movement studies, straight black and white. And then Charles Moore introduced me to the world of real commercial photojournalism. Charles told me what magazines and corporations and agencies really pay. And that’s when I was 25.
The other side of it is that I came from a little town; I had no real view of the world. I didn’t know what was really out there. It took me working at magazines — there was a European magazine called “Geo” that at the time was challenging Geographic, and they really showed me the world. I really saw the world on their money and matured a lot and evolved to where the work was right for the Geographic.
But with photography, as soon as I did it — this is it. I started and I haven’t ever blinked. It wasn’t like, I think I’ll be a photographer, and maybe an accountant to back that up. From the moment I did it, that’s what I’ve done. It’s my form of expression. And I evolved to have a style that’s very much like my personality, so I am expressing myself. I found the vehicle in photography, and I found the patron in National Geographic.