CK Interviews

Name: Nicolai Morrisson
Hometown : San Francisco, California
Interests: Pinhole, photon detection in all forms
Website: Photon Detector
Posted: 04.19.2007



How did you get into photography?

I've wanted to learn for as long as I can remember, but went through a long series of false starts. My mother was an avid photographer who let me snap 110 and Polaroid SX-70 frames like crazy when I was little. She had two Minolta SLRs in storage, which I asked repeatedly to use. She was game, but we could never find them in the over-packed hellhole of our attic, despite several years of looking.

When I was about 12, my grandmother gave me my grandfather's old 35mm Zeiss folding rangefinder. I bicycled around the Danish countryside without any real clue what I was doing, shooting carefully but psyched as hell. Soon after, I moved back to New York, and the advance started chewing through the sprocket holes instead of moving the film. I couldn't find anyone to fix it (it was pre-Web), so I was done until my father offered to buy me a pocket digicam in 2000. Somewhere in there the idea of actually making good pictures fell off my radar, and I used the digicam like most people use camera phones now. (The seemingly nondeterministic nature of its shutter lag and auto exposure system didn't help, but I shouldn't blame the equipment.)

I got my father's medium format Hasselblad 501C/M SLR and 35mm XPan rangefinder when he died in 2004. I figured that they were really nice cameras and I should at least try to become worthy of them, so I started paying attention to what I was doing. My friend Seth told me about the Sunny 16 rule, and after a delay of several weeks while I worked out how to load the film, I was off and hooked.



Who were some of your first favorite photographers and why?

Robert Mapplethorpe: I liked pretty much all of his work, from the lilies to Mr. Ten and a Half. He shot the cover of Laurie Anderson's Strange Angels album, which is a studio portrait of her having a kind of silent moment… not something people choose to share every day. It was probably the first message that got through to me about what might be worth looking for while shooting and editing.

Charles Gatewood (NSFW): I've long been interested in body modification, and he does excellent portraits of modified (as well as fetish) people in a really direct way. I don't get any of that "haha look at the circus freaks" or "we are documenting the backwards savages" feelings of seedy, exploitive distance from his work. He's just right there, showing people being themselves, and it really struck a positive chord with me: I was in the early stages of a tattoo apprenticeship when I learned about him and picked up his Primitives book. This was before Nirvana and Green Day had made it big and there was a "punk supply store" in every mall, and having piercings, tattoos, brands, etc. or looking punk was still actually dangerous in the US. People were really hostile and regularly wanted to kick my ass, even in the little artsy-farsty towns of Woodstock and New Paltz, NY. Mothers would grab their children's hands and move them away and people would lock their car doors when I walked past. (This seemed not only silly, but flat-out misguided, as punks were the ones you were most likely to see literally volunteering to carry groceries for little old ladies at the time). In the midst of the near-constant negativity, it was good for me to see other modified people depicted in a sane way.

As a side-note, he's written a book called Photography For Perverts, which is a very practical guide for shooting nudes. While I have little experience with it, the book should be useful whether you shoot your significant other at home or paid models you've never met in a studio.

Joel-Peter Witkin: one of the first pieces of his I saw struck me like a baseball bat. It was a portrait of the disembodied heads of an elderly couple sitting on a table, poised to kiss—which somehow looked genuinely beautiful and compassionate. You can throw out the whole bit about the shock value, because to me, it seemed completely beside the point… it was about life and love, and not in some kind of art crit bingo bullshit abstract way, I just looked at it for a while and that was the message I got. What can I say? It utterly blew my mind, both in terms of the result and the sheer balls of it, and it made me look at things in a new way.



What are some of the reasons you like pinhole photography?

How did you discover it?

What were some of your first shots?


I guess I like it for the usual reasons: it feels more like an actual memory, which is fuzzy and rough around the edges. When was the last time you remembered something in perfect f/64 Scheimpflugged contact printed 11x14 high definition? While I make and like crisp lens photography, it's bullshit to me as far as being representative of a moment goes, my mind just doesn't work like that. Of course all photography is fiction to some degree, but pinhole feels closer to home.

I like that it eliminates distraction at every step of the process. Normally when I shoot pinholes, it's just me and a box. No meter, no tripod, no viewfinder, no camera controls except a sliding shutter… it feels very pure. Not in a purist technical sense (*barf*), more in the way that being near the ocean somehow feels uncomplicated and good. I feel more like I'm collaborating with my surroundings to make the picture than taking it and then kicking the context out of bed. I feel less like me and the subject are discrete objects and more like there's a continuum of matter—which is, of course, the physical reality—that stretches between me, the camera, and the stuff in front of it, all connected to everything.

I also find that there's less to get distracted by in the results. No bokeh, no focus transitions, no razor-sharp nothing. No selective focus means you have to rely on composition to direct attention. Less tricks to hide behind = more direct, more direct = less bullshit, and often, less bullshit = good. (Not the only good, but a good.)

I discovered it, like a lot of people did, in school. My first attempt, I think in third grade, was a total failure—we were using wax paper rather than photo paper or film (no idea why, or if that can even work) and nothing came out—as was a later attempt in a high school photography class.

Once my father's cameras landed in my lap and I'd tried to "get serious" about photography, I saw some work from Nancy Breslin's Squaremeals project project on fotolog, in which she makes an exposure of herself at every meal she eats out. My mind reeled at the possibilities of capturing movement like that, so I bought a pinhole camera, just in time to miss that year's Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day.

Most of my first shots were self-portraits made in the bathroom where I could set up the camera and leave it pointed at myself doing one activity in one place: showering, toweling off, brushing my teeth, masturbating, shaving, etc. I wanted to know what these things looked like as a whole, as they might to the sink, or something for which time is on a different scale.



Do you have any favorite books, movies or artists that have influenced your work?



This is harder to answer than it seems it should be for two reasons. One is that we're all influenced in one way or another by everything we see, hear, feel, smell, and touch: if you pull any thread in the right way, you can unravel all of existence. The other is that while I'd probably like to think I'm on my own path, it's simply got to be bullshit because of number one. I think that for me, the question boils down to the degree of directness of those influences. There are a bunch of books, movies, and artists that have made substantial impacts on my world-view and behavior and therefore have contributed to and shaped who I am as a person, which in turn shapes my work and my approach to it. Direct? Indirect? I don't know.

Things I can easily point to include: Nancy Breslin's Squaremeals project opened my eyes to the possibilities of pinhole motion.

I actively try to remember the lesson of not choking a scene that Ektopia brought home for me in this photo, which is part of his project, The Subconscious Art Of Graffiti Removal. Had I been there shooting with him, I would have strangled the life out of it, whereas he let it breathe with great success.

This photo by my friend Josh Briggs made me think, "Oh shit! Lens hacking!!". He worked at the photo store that I came to for help and supplies when I got the 501C/M and was trying to work out how the hell to use it. He told me that if I was hard up for subjects, I might want to have a look at shopping carts (trolleys), which he was already shooting very well. We went on regular cart shooting expeditions together, and I ended up doing my own series of them. I also discovered that although we were often shooting the exact same things seconds apart, there was no way one's work could be mistaken for the other's, thus illustrating Bayles & Orland's truism from Art & Fear that you can only make your own art.

Noah Lyon and I were good friends for a few years when we were teenagers. He has since abandoned photography in favor of drawing, painting, collage, and music, but he used to be really into it and made some astoundingly good pictures of New York punks in the early and mid 1990s. While he never put it into so many words, observing him was my first exposure to the concept of the "decisive moment". He'd watch us through the viewfinder of his camera, waiting, until everything was right for him. (I had no idea who Cartier-Bresson was at the time, but he undoubtedly did.)

Bruce Grant's work inspired me to stop trying to look for some tricky angle that does nothing more than meaninglessly indicate a direction, and embrace the fact that facing things head-on is sometimes best. While I got the message through his abstracts of buildings, I've found that this has probably had the most influence on my landscapes. Funny how this stuff works!

Victoria Slater has made me think there might always more to see. A fair bit of what she posts on Flickr are portraits of her daughter. I'd think a steady stream of pictures of the same person would get stale and boring in the roughly two years I've been following her work, but that's somehow not the case. It's one stunningly good shot after the next, each fresh and engaging, often taking days to really absorb. I'm beginning to suspect that I've stopped well short of fully explored with some projects, and that it's been at the fear of beating a dead horse rather than arriving at the animal itself.

Then there are the things that are harder to nail down, the people whose work affects me deeply and sticks in my mind and undoubtedly whispers to me, but where I'm not sure I can point to any specific thing and say, see that there, that's person x. I'm hesitant to name anybody, because I'm certain to leave out at least one of the insanely talented people whose work I get to see regularly online, and I don't want to do that.

That said, photographer Katie Cooke and I have lucked into a transatlantic artistic relationship that I value beyond words. Having someone care enough about my work to make me smell the shit of my own failures as well as make me see the successes I sometimes try to cast aside is an invaluable and immensely powerful thing. This isn't to say that she's out for blood (she isn't), or that she doesn't always try to find at least something that works in a piece to explore in the future (she does). But if something sucks, she tells me flat out and explains why. I try to do the same for her. If you find someone willing to offer you and your work this kind of constructive honesty—as opposed to the coddling sort of "grandmother compassion" that will say "great capture!" to a piece of utter crap, thereby making it much harder to learn from your work—for fuck's sake, take them up on it!

The only books I'm aware of having direct influences on my artmaking are Art & Fear: Observations on the Peril (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles and [Holga photographer] Ted Orland, and Orland's follow-up, The View From The Studio Door: How Artists Find Their Way In An Uncertain World. I truly cannot overstate how valuable they've been to me, and I'd shove them down the throat of everybody even thinking of making any kind of art if it didn't constitute assault. They're probably the best $20 (combined!)
I've ever spent.

Books that have affected who I am as a person include:

Ishmael, Daniel Quinn
Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, Kurt Gödel (not technically a book, but damn)
The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster
The Hacker Ethic, Pekka Himanen, Linus Torvalds, and Manuel Castells
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, Douglas Adams
The Talisman, Stephen King and Peter Straub
How to Lie With Statistics, Darrell Huff
A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking
Chaos: Making a New Science, James Gleick
The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell & Bill Moyers

While there's heaps of movies I love, sorting out the influential from the merely
enjoyable is tough.

The obvious ones are the original three Star Wars movies, which are the popular mythology of my generation, and undoubtedly influence how I see things in ways I can't really imagine.

Roadside Prophets is brilliant and somewhat indescribable mythical masterpiece. I suggest watching it as soon as possible, paying particular attention to Sam's (played by Adam Horovitz, aka Ad Rock of the Beastie Boys) hallucination in the desert.

Mystery Train is a movie by Jim Jarmusch of three overlapping stories of people in a hotel in Memphis. (If you're wondering which is the rip-off, Mystery Train pre-dates Four Rooms by five years.) One of the stories is about a rockabilly-obsessed Japanese tourist couple who are making a pilgrimage to Sun Studio. The man carefully takes pictures of all this random crap like the phone in their room, explaining that they'll remember the major events of the trip, but the little things will be forgotten unless he documents them.

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. While you're laughing at me, I'll point out that the line, "if I'm not back in five minutes… just wait longer", is actually a fairly heavy-hitting, broadly-applicable philosophy.



If you were going on a long trip, which camera(s) would you take and why? 

I try to pick the right tool for the job, whatever that turns out to be for a given situation. It's hard to pick without a specific destination or goal, but If I wanted maximum versatility in a small package, I'd probably get a medium format SLR with a focal plane shutter, like a Pentacon Six, Pentax 67, or Kiev 60. This would allow me to bring a bundle of interesting optics hacked into flexible tubes and body caps, including Diana, Holga, Lex 35, Spartus, etc. lenses, pinhole, zone plate, and slits, as well as normal glass. It would give me the choice of optical signatures I want, through-the-lens viewing, and front movements without hauling around a view camera.

I'd also bring a Contax G2 35mm autofocus rangefinder. For me, it's the ultimate in-the-fray people-shooter, having all the benefits of a standard rangefinder (small, quiet, unobtrusive, hand-holdable at lower shutter speeds than SLRs), only getting the job done faster. I stopped losing shots to the time it takes to focus manually when I switched to it from a manual focus Hasselblad XPan rangefinder, and it has modern film loading and a fast motor drive (*cough* Leica? *cough*). It makes perfect intuitive sense to me and disappears in my hands. Since it's got active infrared-assisted autofocus up to 3 or 4m, it can focus accurately in low light where I have a hard time seeing a standard rangefinder focusing patch. The meter is great, the lenses are stellar and cheap, and its normal is 45mm rather than 50, which suits me perfectly, as I find 50 a bit long.

If I were going someplace to shoot portraits or certain types of landscapes, I'd bring my Toyo 45CF, which is a light, compact, and relatively cheap function-over-form 4x5 field camera, some of my warbly old shutterless brass barrel lenses, and a stack of ND filters so I could get the shutter time long enough shoot them wide open on modern film and time the exposure accurately with my hand or a lens cap. But with the required tripod, dark cloth, film holders, loupe, changing bag, meter, etc., it's not kit I'd bring unless I knew I'd use it.

I want to close by saying I knew getting to know Nicolai Morrisson was going to be interesting. His Spacetime pinhole work has inspired me to see my own pinhole work in different way. I can see myself in the future traveling through time with my pinhole. Watching the time all blend into each moment...

Nicks humor and experimental nature made me feel right at home during this whole interview process.
If you're not familiar with Nicolai's work, I suggest you do that NOW.

Thanks Nick for making taking the time to make this happen. -Chris

All photos Copyright © Nicolai Morrisson 2005-2009 and reproduced by permission