TODD SNYDER: YOU’RE A MIDWESTERN GUY FROM ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI. WHAT DREW YOU TO CALIFORNIA?
DEWEY NICKS: My father was a creative director for an ad agency in St. Louis and would bring me to set with him, so I got to see the cameras and lights and models. He would travel to California to do TV commercials and stay at Chateau Marmont, and every once in a while we would get to go with him. Staying on Sunset Boulevard, getting to see all that Hollywood glamour, was intoxicating. So after Washington University, I went to Pasadena to study photography at the Art Center College of Design.
TS: DID YOU KNOW BACK THEN THAT YOU WANTED TO BECOME A PHOTOGRAPHER?
DN: I was pretty much a tech head as a kid and could load a Hasselblad by the time I was eight years old. It started becoming apparent to me that photography worked well with my personality and my curiosity and maybe a little ADHD mixed in there. Lots of photographers are dyslexic, and I am, too. When you communicate visually, your memory has to play a huge part in it, so it worked well for me.
TS: DO YOU REMEMBER YOUR FIRST PROFESSIONAL SHOOT?
DN: Yes, it was with Tom Waits. I got hired to shoot him for a magazine called L.A. Style. It was really great, just me and a camera at a Chinese restaurant in Silver Lake near his house. Then he came to my studio to see some prints and ended up getting his record company to buy some of the prints for a tour poster. That was the start.
TS: HOW HAS THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT CHANGED SINCE THEN?
DN: In those days, before everything was completely automated, it was a good combination of technical proficiency and good math skills, and then the visual acuity and ideas. Because film had to be exposed correctly, you had to keep a lot of numbers in mind, like how sensitive the film is to light, what shutter speed should you use, the equations for perfect exposure. The only preview you had was Polaroid or instant film, but even then they took three minutes to develop so the process was slow.
TS: AH, POLAROID. IT HOLDS A SPECIAL PLACE FOR A LOT OF US IN THIS INDUSTRY.
DN: When I did the Polaroid book [Dewey Nicks: Polaroids of Women, 2018], that was a real love letter to the process. I still have that camera and purchase as much Polaroid film as I can find. There’s something I find really sacred about it, since at some point it will be extinct.
TS: WHAT DO YOU MAKE OF HOW NEW TECHNOLOGIES HAVE CHANGED PHOTOGRAPHY?
DN: The newer systems can work so fast and take so many pictures in a second, which could never be done in the manual world because you couldn’t physically move film past the shutter that fast. I love shooting action and people doing things that defy gravity, planes and tires and smoke, waves crashing, and so on, so the biggest benefit to me is that you can cover it all and have more opportunities to find that one frame.
TS: ANYTHING YOU REALLY MISS?
DN: Today, cameras collect so much information. The file sizes are huge and can be interpreted in any way, Photoshopped or filtered on your phone. Then I think of those Richard Avedon covers of Vogue shot on film, which don’t have nearly as much information as a digital file, but are every bit as beautiful and even more inspiring at times. It’s not really about having so much detail as about the right detail.
TS: WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE CREATIVE WORK YOU DO?
DN: I enjoy the collaboration, because with film and photography it really takes a crew. I’ve worked with some incredible people. But lately I’ve also been doing projects working with no crew whatsoever, just taking the camera with me — really slowing it all down. Projects where it’s not about doing 35 shots but about finding the portrait light that really describes the mood you’re experiencing.