“The natural world will throw things at us that are totally unexpected,
and that can make for spectacular photographs.”
—Jim Nickelson, artist


interview NANCY GORDON

Artist Jim Nickelson.
Pyrotechnic series
Pyrotechnic #35
Pyrotechnic series
Pyrotechnic #185
Adventures in Celestial Mechanics series
Dancing Moon
Adventures in Celestial Mechanics series
Chestnut Moon I
Harmony of the Spheres series
Ouroboros #1
Harmony of the Spheres series
Pale Fire, Canton One III
Harmony of the Spheres series
Prelude #2
Harmony of the Spheres series
Prelude #8
The Anthropocene Surveys: Annals of the Former World
Svinafellsjokull, Iceland #1
The Anthropocene Surveys: Annals of the Former World
Badlands Snowstorm #4
The Anthropocene Surveys: Annals of the Former World
Snaefellsjodull, Iceland #1

Tell us a little about yourself and when you began your photography career.

Photography is my third (and final!) career. My undergraduate degree was in aerospace engineering and I worked for a few years at NASA in Houston, working as a flight controller (Mission Control). It was then that I first started photographing as a part of hiking trips, but it was still pretty casual.

In 1995, I decided to switch careers—not to photography, but to law. I practiced intellectual property law, mostly patents, for about 12 years in a combination of law firms and corporations. During that time, I became much more serious about photography and started laying the groundwork to switch into photography as a career. Once my daughter was born, 13 years ago, I decided to begin the three-year process of building up my photography and printing businesses and phasing out of my legal practice.

I’m certainly extremely happy and fortunate that I was able to make such a transition.

Any words of wisdom from your early career that have stayed
with you?

Don’t quit your day job! I heard that advice from so many sources and it is very good advice. While I ultimately ignored it, I did take from it a mind-set in being very careful and methodical in making the transition, and thinking carefully about what a career in the arts would mean.

Has your photography been influenced by your time at NASA and the images you experienced?

When I was a kid, space was one of my biggest interests, leading naturally to aerospace engineering and NASA. Once I left that path I was essentially disengaged from that interest, but photography was a way for me to reconnect to that passion. My first Adventures in Celestial Mechanics project studying the full moon allowed me to embrace that early passion for space in my own personal and creative fashion rather than as an engineer.

Do you go out to photograph with a plan in mind?

Absolutely! I tend to choose a time of day and location and have a pretty good idea about what type of photograph I’d like to take. Very often, though, the best photographs from a shoot are ones that I had no idea were possible—the natural world will throw things at us that are totally unexpected, and that can make for spectacular photographs.

Is there a time of day whose light you favor?

I think one can make great photographs at any time of day (or night), but I’m partial to the time from sunset until dark.

What part does Photoshop play in your creative process?

Every photograph I take touches either Lightroom or Photoshop [photo editing software] to some extent, but for some of my newer bodies of work the abilities of Photoshop are essential. My Harmony of the Spheres project, for example, involves using Photoshop as a creative tool to combine multiple photographs, sometimes hundreds, into a single image, and that project would not exist without that tool.

What do you love about photography, or what drives you to photograph?

What I love about photography is it helps me see the world in a new way. When I’m photographing I notice things I would otherwise pass over, and it also drives to me to new and wonderful locations. That discovery drives me to photograph, as well as the desire to share my own twist on these discoveries with others.

You do your own digital printing. What are the key elements/considerations involved in making a great print?

First off, it helps to start with a great image. After that, there are many technical aspects such as color management to nail down, as well as the appropriate settings, but usually once that is set up properly one can print pretty consistently.

To turn it into a great print, one key aspect is to choose a paper that is a perfect match for your artistic intent for the image—I have many photographs that were just OK on one paper and then really sang when printed on another.

At what point in your creative process do you consider the final print/printing process?

I think about the final print all throughout the printing process. As one example, if it is a project where I’m printing large, I have to be more careful in the field for technique to make sure my raw materials are as perfect as possible. Very often I’m imagining the final print when I’m in the field—for me, the final print is the whole purpose of the process.

As an artist, what do you feel is your responsibility to your community of fellow artists, as well as upcoming artists?

As a working artist, I do feel responsibility to help out the community of current and future artists, and I try to do so as much as I can. I’ve worked with high school students studying photography at school, advised people on photography and printing, and taught many classes and mentored many photographers. Others have helped me similarly, and I’m happy to repay their generosity to the community as I am able.

You’re showing four very distinctive series of work (slideshow). What story are you telling with each?

The meaning of my art to myself (and hopefully to others) depends very much on the project, but in all cases I’m trying to show people an aspect of the world in a different way.

For my Pyrotechnic series, I photograph fireworks from the local fireworks shows here in Maine and, through abstraction, find forms and elements of these captured fireworks that are reminiscent of the natural world. During a fireworks display, things are moving too quickly and are too ephemeral to notice the amazing beauty of a single moment of an explosion. Through the magic of photography, a moment is captured and can be studied and appreciated.

For my Adventures in Celestial Mechanics series, I photographed each full moon over a period of five or six years from different locations in Maine. The cycles of the moon are a stunning natural occurrence that few of us ever think about (and I really didn’t, before beginning the project), and I hope through this project to show how beautiful this natural occurrence can be.

My next project was Harmony of the Spheres, where I took photographs of the night sky and celestial objects and then combined them in the digital darkroom to create something entirely new. Drawing inspiration from the history of photography and astronomy as well as cosmological ideas, I try to convey a little of the wonder of the night sky as well as an appreciation of how humans have always tried to explain their place in the cosmos.

My most recent project is The Anthropocene Surveys: Annals of the Former World. This project differs from my earlier ones as it is overtly political, and in that context, plays an integral role. Inspired by the Great Western Surveys in the 19th century, I’ve imagined a world where surveys are commissioned right now to document what is threatened or will be lost due to climate change. This will be presented in the form of a hypothetical museum exhibition 100 years in the future, looking back at what we once had, an elegy for what was lost.

Looking at the history of photography and environmentalism, it seems that the most successful activism has been showing something beautiful that is threatened. Most people, wherever they are on the political spectrum, can appreciate something beautiful, and can imagine a situation where their children or grandchildren would not be able to appreciate it. We live in a complex time for environmental activism, but I hope that my work can help sway at least a few hearts and minds to the necessity of taking action to combat climate change.
Represented by Kingman Gallery, Deer Isle.

. . .

Comfort food and time of day or night you most enjoy eating it?
I have two … Samosas and really any type of dumpling—whenever I can get them or make them, which is not particularly often, especially here in Maine.

Those caramel cream candies, and as for time of day, whenever I might be doing a long trip—they are my favorite food to grab at a gas station on a road trip. It is too bad that American gas stations don't have samosas, though.

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