That was Quick. I Have a Lot of Things to Say
Nicholas Simenon says Eggleston was wrong and some other things about his process.
I was 18 I met Nicholas Simenon at FIT where I remember him holding the most distinct aura. He was sure of himself, talented, and confident. When I think of him now, after knowing him for 6 years, that first impression still rings true. He holds the most distinct memory from my first year at FIT for his talent, his presence, and his passion for photography. It was unmatched and I think, at the end of the day, remains unmatched. When I started this newsletter I was eager to ask him to participate. He was at the top of my list even before expressing his distaste for modern Instagram. As an artist, he holds many talents I wish I possessed. He creates gorgeous black and white photographs, he captures the world and actually makes it look as beautiful as it is, and he understands art a lot more than anyone else I know. When I started typing out the questions I wanted Nicholas to answer, it became an outpour of curiosity. Question after question came to my mind hoping he would actually like what I was asking enough to answer. I was overwhelmed with the idea that I would finally, once again, hear his process in-depth. Reading his replies I was surprised, but everything also fit exactly as I might expect. It has been a pleasure knowing him, talking with him, and learning from him. He gave me the title of this piece so kindly as I expressed distaste in naming anything. He also gave me another title option “Eggleston was Wrong” which I think is just the perfect summary and intro all at once. So with that, I present a Q&A with the artist Nicholas Simenon
Ava Williams: Tells us a little more about yourself as a person, who are you? Where did you go to school? Where did you grow up? Who are you beyond an artist?
Nicholas Simenon: Nicholas Simenon, 27yo. I grew up in Switzerland in quite possibly the most dreamy place you could ever think about. Mountains, lakes, and forests are all 20min away from where you are. I guess you have that in the States as well, though. After high school, I went on doing 1.5 years at law school, still in Lausanne. I grew up wanting to discover the Earth and thinking it would be a shame not to. When I understood a lawyer career pretty much goes against that, I stopped. More or less at the same period, I wanted to just stop doing what I thought was right, but what I felt was right. I decided I wanted to be a movie director because I had some great experiences putting on shows and telling people how to do stuff. This brought me to truly discover cameras. I understood I was way too bad to direct movies, so I stopped at still images. Three later I quit, moved to Paris to pursue photo school. Completed my courses there and stayed for 1.5 years. Afterward, I thought about where I should continue my studies. No idea how the States came into the discussion, but half a year later I was arriving in NYC trying to figure out what was happening. I still don’t really know. I guess beyond being an artist I’m just as lost as everyone around me trying to figure out the best way to spend my time before dying.
AW: How old were you, or when did you start pursuing photography as a career?
NS: 19, when I stopped film school. I had the chance of travelling a lot when I was a child, and even then I had a camera with me. Before 19yo I had never been crazy enough to dare attempt making a living with it. I now dare, but it’s a hard life.
AW: Why did you pick photography as your medium?
NS: See first answer. —I chose this art form because I sucked at drawing. Which I’m really sad about. To me creating Worlds out of nothing but a piece of paper and a pencil is incredible. Of course, writers and musicians do the same. Photographers really are artists in need of concrete technological tools to express themselves.
AW: What or who has been the biggest influence on your career as an artist?
NS: Expanding on question 1, during my (brief) film school studies I went to see Salgado’s Genesis in Lausanne. This completely struck me and made me say “ok, now I know.” I most definitely wouldn’t be talking to you right now without this exhibition.
AW: Your photographs are mainly presented in black and white, is there a reason?
NS: Colors are boring and too complicated for me, they’re distracting. I don’t want to show how colorful life is, I want to show it as I feel it. When I’m outside I’m looking at how the light reacts, bounces, or is blocked by objects. Salgado being my first big push in photography helps, as well. Being color blind helps to discard colors, also.
AW: You do photograph people, but when I look at your work it seems that what is truly important is the surroundings and space. What draws you to a particular space you are shooting?
NS: The feeling. Since NYC I’ve been interested in the feeling big cities create. This city is the best tool to trigger that. One week you love it, the next you’re consumed by despair. This completely changed the way I photographed and what I wanted to show. I arrived there being a color landscape photographer. I shifted to a street black and white photographer.
I’m not so much interested in showing the cities I’m in. When you look at my pictures it’s hard to know if it’s taken in New York, Paris, Lisbon, or anywhere else. I’m interested in showing the feeling of loneliness one can get. I think it’s pretty universal and not tied to a particular city. It’s basically what Mattafix was singing about in “Big City Life”. It’s good to know other artists have expressed themselves about this, so I know I’m not just in a very self-centered point of view.
What I’m looking for in the spaces I shoot in is the light. How it’s hitting, how the architecture is melding it. I compose my image as a landscape, and then I wait for a figure to arrive where I want it to be. Click, repeat several times to get the gesture I want, like the legs in a triangle shape, or someone running, and continue.
AW: You also photograph landscapes quite beautifully, is there a reason you photograph landscapes? When did you first start shooting landscape images?
NS: When I started photographing seriously, landscapes came naturally to me. Never I had never thought about any other sort of photographs. So much as when I saw portraits, I was questioning why people are interested in people. I saw the medium as a way to live the life I wanted and express myself at the same time. Landscapes seemed evident. Ansel Adams was more of a model than Avedon to me. I guess I started with landscapes because that’s what I had around me.
AW: To me, someone who sticks to NYC, it feels like you’re always somewhere different. Do you have a “home” that you enjoy photographing the most? A place that feels ever inspiring for work?
NS: I try to be somewhere always different, yes. The Earth is so big, and we have so little time. As I said, any place that feels like home is the worst place for me to create. I’m convinced my practice comes from pain, otherwise I would do something else. I would open a cocktail bar made of ruff wood on a beach somewhere and surf all day.
New York never felt like home. Koyaanisqaatsi resonated so much in me because that’s exactly how I felt. Nevertheless, without living in New York I would pretty much be a much worst artist right now. It shaped my art in the best ways possible. So, ironically, the best creative place for me is where I don’t feel at home.
AW: Your project Isolation feels more relatable than ever, do you think it has a different impact now than maybe 2 years ago?
NS: It’s interesting. A lot of people could relate to my photographs more now that we’ve lived through several confinements and social distancing. But the first COVID spike has been a very social moment for me. I had a group of friends with whom I was going out in the park to play Spikeball or soccer every day. In Switzerland, we were allowed to do that. I understand it has been a very lonely situation for a lot of people, but not for me.
I began Isolation in one of the densest and populated areas on the planet. That completely changed the way I created pictures. Now that it’s been two years since I’ve left NYC and came back to Switzerland (a country with NYC’s population), I don’t feel isolated as much anymore… or I do but in a different way. I’m leaving Switzerland again, because I’ve come to the conclusion I need to hurt to produce, and I need to produce to feel whole. It’s a weird feeling and I hope I don’t seem too emo by saying that. It just seems that my creativity comes from negative feelings more than positive ones. When I feel great, like in Switzerland, I don’t feel the urge, the need to produce. When I don’t, It’s my medicine, the way to get all my emotions out. It’s an antidote.
AW: On top of Isolation, your Shadows project also feels highly relevant and relatable. When you talked about your shadows project I understood what you were saying, but now I feel like I have experienced it. Do you look at your shadow work or even your isolation work any differently? Do you feel any differently towards them?
NS: Shadows and Isolation are two faces of the same subject. Isolation is the Gravity kind of feeling, being claustrophobic in a vast area. Shadows is being stuck in a box. Since I left New York I haven’t really felt them anymore, but I know they’re here. They’re in a hidden place and I haven’t had a real occasion to work with them since I came back. They’re like a full sponge I need to press and get the liquid out from, but living in such a perfect place doesn’t allow me to do that.
AW: I feel like an artist’s work usually surrounds a singular theme. While we all may explore different projects, the underlying ideas we are naturally drawn to are like an invisible string tying all our work together. Do you have a singular idea you find yourself exploring? Underneath the surface of your photographs, what ideas do you find yourself returning to?
NS: I abide by this theme idea. I think artists talk about the same theme throughout their life in different ways. I would be very surprised to see you giving up on the Twin Project in any way at some point. It might evolve and change, but I think it’s so powerful for you it will stay until the end. Nevertheless, I also think an artist’s theme might be best to understand at the end. Analyzing the red cord when we see it all. For instance, at the time being, I would be inclined to tell you the feeling of loneliness and numbness is my singular idea. Maybe in 20 years, I will understand It was something else, like relationships.
Up until now, I think the superior idea I’m exploring is the vacuity of existence. I have vertigo when I think about how life has no sense or meaning. How even the most important beings on this Earth are just little amalgam of atoms in such an enormous universe.
AW: As an artist what lies beneath your work? Why are you shooting the subject matter you are? What pushes you to take a photograph?
It’s very selfish and cliché but what lies beneath my work is simply me. I try to purge myself from bad feelings. Sometimes it gives decent work and I let it be seen. Sometimes it’s just bad and it gets stored in a hard drive labeled “trash”.
AW: Can you talk a bit about your process? What do you shoot on? How long on average does it take for you to get the shot that you want? How do you plan your photographs?
NS: My main fuel is bad feelings. I think if I was a happy person I would not be an artist. I don’t need to feel bad to shoot, I often don’t actually. But I need some kind of baggage beforehand. Afterward, I wander anywhere I can in search of a good light spot giving interesting shapes, or gigantic architecture, or patterns that would dwarf the figure. At this point, I note the location, come back when the light is good. I set up my camera and just wait for someone, an isolated subject usually, to come to the right spot.
I shoot with a Leica M9 Monochrome. It’s one of the two digital cameras I know of that shoot natively in b&w. They took out the filter in front of the sensor that divides light in RGB, which gives for incredible files to work with. It’s like shooting with a medium format camera. Also, I just love to shoot with these cameras now, the feeling of holding it, seeing directly what you actually see. I think you should love the tools you’re using when creating stuff.
AW: What photographers influence you most?
NS: Salgado, Takuma Nakahira, Irving Penn.
AW: What photographer who stylistically shoots nothing like you, inspires you the most?
NS: Sarah Moon—I would like to add something about inspiration. Apart from Salgado I don’t think photographers are my biggest inspirations.
The inspirations I’m giving are pinpoint, more like when I discover them afterward. I look at Nakahira and think “oh, ok. Of course, this is what I aspire to do.” But maybe that’s because I’ve got a very poor photographic culture. I easily forget the names and themes. My real inspirations are usually in other fields. The first and most heavy punches in the stomach I’ve ever experienced are musical and movie artists.
Radiohead is everything to me. The Night is maybe one of my biggest influences as well. I can’t really tell you that I’m mimicking or thinking about an artist when I create, it’s a whole confusing ball. The discovery of Caravaggio also triggered something in me. I thought that if someone that talented could just do whatever he wants with his creations, I could just do the same. If I want to brush off a whole part of my picture, I do it. It’s such a deliverance.
AW: You have a very distinct style of photography, when I see your work I know it’s yours, what draws you to this style?
NS: Thank you. You know that’s the best compliment you can give to an artist. The whole search of expressing myself. What allowed me to feel free and just do whatever I want with my pictures are Caravaggio and Salgado.
AW: What are you working on right now?
NS: Well, I do have two exhibitions coming on next week. So my past months have been working on that a lot. Selecting, printing, and whatever an exhibition demands. One is in Geneva and the other one is in Paris. I also have two other projects coming in the first week of July.
I’m also working on moving out from Switzerland to Lisbon. So I’m not creating much, but I’m completely submerged by big life projects until September.
AW: What do you hope people get out of your work?
NS: On some level, I don’t care. On some other level, I hope they feel what I feel. Since I was a child I wanted to have a magic flash drive that I could plug in my brain and plug it in others so they could feel how I feel. So that in a split second we could understand each other, the base we’re walking on to advance. I guess my art is my way of trying that, but it will never really happen.
AW: What do you hope to accomplish in the near or distant future as an artist?
NS: Very short term: I hope my two exhibitions will be a success.
Short term: My two projects in July
Medium term: live from my art
Long term: Not growing old and becoming my worst enemy. I don’t want to be 90 and think “oh well, you kind of didn’t do what you intended to”. That must be so devastating. There’s no save tape, no cheat code. If you start regretting, it’s over.
AW: Do you have any projects or plans for future works? Anywhere that you want to go? Any accomplishments as an artist you might achieve soon (exhibitions, prints, etc)
NS: All of the above. Plus not screwing up my time in Lisbon. The best accomplishment as an artist I could have is living from it. The very moment when you can say “oh. Really? The World is letting me do it? I do what I want, what I need, and that’s it? No more Clerking?”. It feels trivial, but I think any artist will understand that.
AW: What do you want people to know about you AND your art?
NS: People will know, understand, and think what they want. I just wish it will not be too distant from the truth.
AW: Where else can people find your work?
I know people suggest books quite easily. I can’t stress enough how reading “art/work – Everything you need to know (and do) as you pursue your art career” is the Bible/Torah/Quran you need to read. This is not even an option. Read it, bookmark it, frame it, learn it by heart. It contains everything you need to know.
But let’s try not to dodge the question and answer with my experience.
Being an artist is not about living from fresh water and love. It’s about living from pain and sweat. It’s not only about creating, it’s about shaping all aspects of your life around it. It’s doing your own taxes, your own bills, it’s about finding ways to live from it, it’s about doubting, all the time. Absolutely hating what you created 4 weeks earlier and needing to defend it, to show it to others at the same time. It’s about explaining concepts you’re throwing away without even completely comprehending. Talking about yourself more than you ever expected, more than you would listen to yourself.
But it should also be fun. A professor of ours said during our first semester “If you don’t have fun while doing photography, you’re doing it wrong”. That’s entirely true. Whatever you do and no matter how hard it is, it’s not working in a coal mine.
This Newsletter is Brought to You By:
Water, for keeping us alive
Friends and Family, for doing the same
Art, for letting us express ourselves without words
Haagen-Dazs Salted Caramel Ice Cream, for fueling my Sundays
The Covid Vaccine, for letting us hope about the future being like the past instead of the present.
He also said a 6th contender for “this newsletter is brought to you by…” would be me, for making this newsletter. I told him if I was feeling narcissistic that I would add it. I am indeed feeling a little narcissistic.
Our next newsletter collaborator needs no introduction, but here’s a little hint: