20 Aug Interview with Tom Niblick
KIM: What drew you to photography as an art form? Can you give us a little of your history as a photographer?
TOM: I grew up in a family that prized artistic expression. My father was an architect and my mother painted and taught music. Growing up, it seems like I always had a camera. My father took a lot of photos and he usually passed his unwanted cameras down to us boys. Being the oldest, I usually got first choice. Every week or so we would turn our only bathroom into a darkroom. Like most photographers, I loved the process of processing film and developing prints. Its alchemical magic. But as a career, no, I wanted to be a marine biologist. In fact, I started out in college as a science major. College, however, was a huge financial strain and I needed to work part-time to make ends meet. The biology lab had a position open for someone who could take photographs through a microscope and then make enlargements for display in the lab. I got the job. About 6 months in, I realized that I would rather be behind a lens. I changed majors to photography and graphic design and never looked back.
KIM: What (if anything) would you like to convey or express with your photography?
TOM: I’m not really “saying” anything with my photography. At least not for now. I’m shooting events like the last few hurricanes and I’m shooting tourists doing funny things at the beach. But no social issues right now. The last time I did that was the series I shot at Occupy Wall Street a few years ago. Not much happens on Kauai. Yes, we have our homeless and there is the poisoning of the aina by the chemical/seed companies, both are tragic and weigh heavily on my mind. But I’m not ready to tackle those issues yet – at least not with my camera. Maybe later. For now, I’m just looking closely at the beauty of the aina and trying to capture her spirit. Hopefully others will find my vision sufficient.
KIM: I have noticed that your personal art photography is all black and white, and you take a lot of photographs in nature. Kauai is known for its vibrant color and it seems like this would be the straightforward play for dramatic photos, and yet you choose to photograph these scenes in black and white. Can you explain why?
TOM: I’ve always done my personal work in black and white. They are several reasons. Mostly because I can control the process better. Back in the days of film, I could change the development time of the negative or the agitation cycle in order to get a negative that captured the tones I was after. You couldn’t do this with color, well at least not to the same level. You had to be more exacting with color. Changes in time or temperature difference caused color shifts. Today’s digital technology reduces the skill set required for color and now making a good monochrome print is actually harder than working in color. Then there was the financial/work end. Shooting color usually meant I was working on a job. Shooting black and white usually meant I was free to photograph whatever appealed to me. There is also a whole different vision involved when working in black and white. Monochrome requires seeing the light and how it defines form. Esoterically, black and white sees deeper into the spirit of a place or person. It looks at the essence of a subject. Its like the makeup has been washed away revealing a natural beauty. Compositions in monochrome need to be tighter. With color, you can get away with sloppy work if the color has the wow factor. Not so in black and white. Eyes need to be lead around the frame from one element to the next. S curves, planes or triangles, basic stuff. A picture clearly works or fails miserably in black and white. With color getting an “isn’t that pretty” shot depends more on aiming a camera at the sunset or a rainbow. The camera does the rest… and if you miss, well can always pump the color in Photoshop or Lightroom, backlight it, or print on aluminum. There’s always someone looking to buy your Velvet Elvis. Living on Kauai for the last 23 years, I have thousands of rainbows and sunsets in my files. Most are pretty, many have sold as prints and some have been used in ads. Few of these photographs are what I consider great images. None are really what I would call art. So yes, I have my collection of Velvet Elvis photos too. Guilty as charged.
KIM: What do you like to shoot and why?
TOM: Well I’ve shot a lot of things. When I first got out of school I worked for an ad agency. I shot whatever the agency needed for an ad or catalog – hair swatches for Clairol, editorial after shots for Weight Watchers, food, stereos, luggage, exotic house plants, office supplies, what have you. Later I found myself specializing in art reproduction and my photography became more recreational. I shot a lot of nudes in the 80s, mixed with nature abstracts. I was in Santa Fe at that time and the sense of place dictated the style. I worked in platinum and palladium using large format cameras. This is a slow and meditative process. I carried this style over into my early years on Kauai, shooting a series of landscapes and nudes in Kalalau back in 93. But somehow the joy of dragging 30 pounds of gear around with me lost its charm and I returned to smaller cameras. I’ve been shooting the amazing daily light show on Kauai for the last 23 years. I don’t really need to look for a great photo here, they just happen… every day.
KIM: Which photographers influenced you, and how did they influence your thinking and photography?
TOM: The photographers who influenced me most are Minor White followed by the Westons and Ralph Gibson. Minor’s work is poetry in print. His photos are meditations in form and light. The same is true for Edward Weston and his sons but their work is more like reading very good prose. Ralph Gibson has a special appeal because he cuts through all of the BS and finds the essence of his subject. Gibson’s work is clean and hard like a good rapper. Locally, I think Bruna Stude is an excellent, she’s more of an artist with a camera than a photographer.
As a printmaker, I’ve had the good fortune to have worked with many great photographers and painters. Georgia O’Keeffe, Eliot Porter, and Eleanor Caponigro were all clients back in New Mexico. And I’ve worked with hundreds of really good artists here on Kauai. Nearly every one of them has touched me in one way or another. A painting would come into the studio and I always took a few moments to look at the composition, color and technique. There is always something new to learn and sometimes there is just the joy of seeing something bold and unexpected. In fact there is no better art school than having a new painting arrive at your studio every day.
KIM: What is your personal strategy for getting an amazing shot?
TOM: I could just say “F11 and be there” but the truth is that I usually have something in mind when I go out with a camera. I know the light is going to be dramatic at a certain time and location. Or people may be engaged in activities where a camera is less invasive. In fact, now that I am a little older no one pays attention to me when I point a camera their way. I’m the white haired guy with a camera, probably just a tourist, maybe someones grandfather wandering about. Hell, I’m nearly invisible. Of course my choice of camera plays a role. I use Leica cameras. They are small, old fashioned and not very threatening. But they deliver big results. My current Leicas look just like the ones I used 45 years ago, they just have a digital sensor where the film once went. Every control is manual and in the same familiar place. And like 45 years ago, I have two. One has a color sensor and the other only sees in black and white. I think of them as a body loaded with Kodachrome and another loaded with TriX because those are the spectral responses programed into the cameras. I also work with a medium format digital camera in places where I want maximum quality and weight is not an issue.