By Miriam King
On the 11th March a group of students, artists and photographers gathered in the Rory Gallagher lecture theatre to hear Jackie Nickerson speak. She spoke about her background as a fashion photographer and her subsequent life as an art photographer, telling us the story of her three successful projects so far, in a talk that I found fascinating and inspiring.
Jackie began by telling us about the first camera she was ever given when she was about 12 years old. It was a Kodak instamatic and she ran straight outside to take photos of the trees, using up her first roll of film within minutes. That was the moment that she connected with her passion.
She continued to take photographs throughout her teenage years and learned to work in a darkroom and make black & white prints. When she didn’t get into the only course she wanted to do after school, she flew to New York at age 18 because that was where all the great photographers were. Over a period of 5 years she took any job going to gain experience. Then she moved to Milan to start up as a fashion photographer herself. Later she lived in London and worked for all the big fashion magazines of the 90s; Marie Claire, Elle, The Face, Wallpaper etc.
She showed us a series of photographs from some of these shoots. She commented that fashion photography at the time was more pure and simple than it is now, there was less fantasy and less retouching. She liked to put her own stamp on fashion shoots, keeping hair & make-up simple and preferring to photograph clothes that she herself would wear, like Comme des Garcon & Yohji Yamamoto. She liked the character of the model to shine through, so that there was an element of portraiture in her work.
Eventually Nickerson became dissatisfied with fashion photography and when an opportunity came up to go on holidays to Africa with a friend she went, and ended up staying for 3 years. When she first arrived she was completely burnt out and had given up photography altogether. She was living in a cottage on a farm in Zimbabwe, but over time she began to feel uncomfortable with the separation between the white farm owners and the black farm workers.
She finally picked up the camera again to try and understand and connect with the place she was living. At first she went out into the bush with her Leica Rangefinder and took black & white photos of branches and trees. Then she progressed to photographing the farm and village, but she felt her photos were very much the ‘standard’ photos of Africans as poor victims, which was not how she felt or what she wanted to portray. She admired Africans and felt they had a freedom and happiness that she didn’t have. So she moved on to taking still life photos and realised that her background in fashion photography meant that her strength was in attention to detail. So she started to take portraits linking the land with the people. After photographing the people on the farm and in the surrounding areas she bought a truck and travelled around Africa, to Mozambique and South Africa, photographing people until she had to leave Zimbabwe and move back to London.
One more crucial step in the process relates back to a time, as a fashion photographer, when she had tea with Henri Cartier Bresson in his apartment on the Rue de Rivoli (lucky girl!) and he told a story about Matisse, when they both were on holidays in the South of France. Matisse said to Cartier-Bresson that he had it easy photographing in black and white, colour was far more difficult because the bright sunlight kills colour. She remembered this and realised that the bright sun in South Africa did the same. For example the sky is not really blue but cyan. So you have to look with your brain and not your eyes to see what colours are actually in real life.
When she returned to London she had no ambition to become an art photographer. The photographs sat in a drawer for over a year until her printer introduced her to an agent who offered her a book deal. The book is simply called ‘Farm’.
Part 2 coming soon!
‘Photographs’ an Exhibition by Jackie Nickerson continues in the Sirius Art Centre in Cobh until Thursday, April 1st.
Images from Une Nouveau Ideal,