INTERVIEWED BY JESSE PEARSON
Nick Zinner is a photographer and a member of the band Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
Jesse Pearson: You started taking pictures in high school, right?
Nick Zinner: Yeah. My first girlfriend had a camera and I used to take pictures of her in the forest, looking goth. I eventually took a photo class.
Was it a regular public school?
I went to an alternative high school – a progressive, liberal arts place. So they actually nurtured the arts. My high school was like a breeding ground for future graduates or dropouts of colleges like Bennington, Bard, Hampshire, or Evergreen.
So this girlfriend was inspirational because she had a camera in the first place.
Yeah, but then there was also a requirement at my school that you take a month off and do something productive with your life, for academic credit. So I went traveling around Europe with a friend of mine. That’s when I started taking documentary style photographs.
Were you planning on taking a lot of pictures when you left on that trip?
Well, that’s why I went, but it was way more unconscious then conscious. When you’re in a new environment and you’re kind of intimidated by it, the camera is the perfect tool to make sense of where you are and what you’re seeing.
And it’s a nice way to distance yourself. You can sort of be there and not be there at the same time.
That’s actually what pushed me in the direction of taking pictures of people I knew and situations that I actually was in. After I had been doing travelogue stuff, I just got tired of that outsider perspective.
Right, the foreign person in a foreign place.
In that situation you’re striving for something that you think is objective, but there’s no way that it can be. So I went super subjective and tried to focus on things that were happening around me that I would probably forget the next week. [laughs]
Was that shift to taking personal photos more about doing it for you or was it about doing it to show other people what you were enjoying in life or what your friends were like?
I never really think about the whole aspect of presenting photos to people. I had that show at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise last year or six months ago – whenever – when I put up 500 photographs. I worked on it for three or four days straight, hanging it, but I didn’t really make the connection that people who I didn’t know would actually be coming to see it and asking questions about it. I’m totally naïve in that way. So I went to the opening like an hour late.
Were you nervous?
I was totally freaked out. I walked in, there were all these people like, “Hey, congratulations, it’s so good to see you.” And I was like, “What are you doing here?”
“Why do you want to look at my fucking diary?”
Right! I had this really weird antagonistic reaction. It was totally fucked up.
Photographing is so different from making songs. I guess the ultimate goal is to get the song out to the world for sure.
Yeah. But even then it’s not something you should really be conscious of while you’re writing it. That kind of destroys everything.
I’m interested in the fact that a photographer who you really liked early on was Henri Cartier-Bresson.
I went to Bard. They had a really good photo library there and I also worked at a museum on the school grounds. I ended up spending all my free time looking at photo books. Cartier-Bresson was definitely the first one who really spoke to me.
What about his work did you latch onto?
At the height of my documentary photography period [laughs], I liked the fact that the whole approach was one person with a camera against the world. His thing was always the decisive moment, where random elements line up and present themselves in a very beautiful way. It was making something special out of nothing.
His photos teach you how to look at things differently, to make observations you wouldn’t have made otherwise.
Definitely. The things that I like most in his work are just gestures or a certain expression on somebody’s face. Even though while it’s happening it only lasts a second, it’s something that is so powerful it can be frozen and declared a moment forever. It’s basically the idea of a photo as a film still.
But if you’re too conscious of the decisive moment, you’re not going to get it because you’re going to photograph every moment, you know what I mean? You would be a stop action Sports Illustrated photographer instead.
So that makes me wonder if being a photographer makes you alter your behavior when you’re out in the world. Do you try and put yourself certain places because you’re a photographer?
Sometimes. I don’t really like to think of myself as a photographer, but I have put myself into really stupid situations much sooner then I should, just to see if I can get a good photo out of it.
What kind of sketchy shit are we talking about?
I once got thrown out of a brothel in Indonesia.
Yeah, I know. That was kind of an example of like how far can I take it without actually getting hurt. I certainly wouldn’t skulk about there looking for sex.
Does that element of looking for some kind of dangerous or strange situation apply to photos of your friends too? Is it about having the late night, being there when people are going to extremes?
I guess so, yeah. Extreme behavior is always the most interesting and the most fun [laughs]. The experience is usually more important than the photograph.
Why the shift from travel and documentary pictures to personal things?
I showed some photos to a curator. He totally tore apart all my work.
Did he call you an imperialist for going on vacation?
Yeah, a “visual colonialist.”
Oh man, is that a quote?
That’s great. I’d love to get called a visual colonialist.
Even though I should have hit him, it was definitely an awakening. I realized that a photograph from someplace else was interesting because of the element of the unknown — exoticism. Edward Said talks about all this in his essay “Orientalism.” But that’s such an empty aesthetic, because what’s exotic to one person is totally normal to another. I have one photo that I took in Bali at a Hindu ceremony. It’s just a photo of a bunch of people looking up, but in the background of these trees, there’s like this floating spirit head. It looks just like Rama, the prince from the Ramayana story. [laughs] It’s crazy. But I showed that to a Balinese kid I knew and I was like, “Wow, look at this insane photo!” He was like, “Uh, yeah. Yawn.”
It’s like showing an American kid a picture of the Empire State building. “Big whup.”
Exactly, it’s like nothing. I guess that was when I started to focus on things around me personally. I also got into this feeling of nostalgia.
Nostalgia in what sense?
Maybe nostalgia for things that were happening in the present. Looking at things that were going on and knowing that half the people I was surrounded by I’d never see again, and they’d probably die before me. Or vice-versa.
That’s interesting because — and I never know how to say things like this gracefully — but that’s so about this fucking subculture or culture that we’re both involved in where you meet people who you might not ever see again almost every night. Usually around dawn.
And you do things that are a little more nutty. It’s not like frat brothers, where they’ll know each for eighty years. I’ve forgotten more people in New York than I’ve known intimately anywhere else. So you started to become aware of that too?
Yeah, and to embrace it.
Do you have a lot of pictures of people that you don’t even remember anymore?
Most of my pictures are like that. [laughs] These are chance encounters. Even the crowd photos at Yeah Yeah Yeahs shows feel that way to me.
No, that makes sense.
All those crowd pictures are about places and events that only could have happened at that time with that collection of people.
It’s almost like the concept of occasional poetry, where you write a poem only to memorialize a certain occasion, like a wedding or a wake.
Did you move to Brooklyn after college?
Yeah, into an apartment with a friend of mine who I was playing in a band with. There are about two years of photographs from that time, which are only of my friends. Or of friends in bands. It seemed to me that going to New York and doing street photography or whatever would have been the most boring thing, like why should I do that?
You have to get in line to take a picture of a choice piece of urban decay in New York anyway.
Totally, it’s like four photographers for every homeless person. [laughs]
You worked in a darkroom for awhile, right? What did that experience teach you about photography?
I worked in several black & white labs. It was probably the least constructive thing I could possibly have done, but I was broke and it was the only skill I had besides delivering pizzas. I worked with good people and had free darkroom access, but there’s nothing like spending ten hours a day printing wedding and fashion pictures to make you completely disinterested in being creative. I got so bored with the medium. That’s another reason why I bought a point and shoot camera, switched to color, and started dropping my film off at crappy Chinatown photomats.
Do you still prefer shooting in color?
If I had more time to print now, I’d shoot more black & white. It abstracts everything in a really beautiful way. It’s almost too easy, like putting reverb all over your record. It will sound good no matter what.
Ha, that’s true.
A producer friend of mine told me that Depeche Mode used to say: “Reverb = girls.” They said that if you put reverb on your songs, they’ll sound really good, more people will buy your records, more people will go to your shows, and more girls will come backstage or whatever. Anyway, color is much less sentimental. Color is unforgiving. [laughs]
Was there ever a time when you felt discouraged as a photographer?
When I first moved to New York, I went around to some galleries and magazines and showed my portfolio. Everyone was like, “You have too many styles, it’s confusing to look at” and I sort of went, “Err, fuck you” and stopped showing things to people. I gave up all aspirations of being a ‘professional photographer’ or whatever, and just did things for myself. It was kind of a relief, because in New York everyone is a fucking photographer. You go to a protest or the Halloween parade, and you can’t even see anything because all these dudes with Leicas and tan vests are all up in your shit.
How did your social life change when you first moved to the city? I know that when I got out of college and came here it was like this explosion of going out every night, a totally different mode of hanging out.
Oh yeah. You go out and meet people and sleep with people and do bad things every single night.
Then you burn out after a year and spend three months as a hermit.
Then you get back in it.
Or you drop in for visits and sometimes they’re extended visits. [laughs]
Do you think the people you were hanging out with then thought of you as a photographer? Did you have your camera out a lot?
Not that much. I think I got tired of having it around for awhile. I let my camera sleep.
Was it because you weren’t finding pictures you liked, or were you feeling self-conscious about it?
I was unsure of what I was doing. The classic post-graduate conundrum. I knew I still had this instinct to react to things photographically. I probably started taking pictures more and more again whenever I was leaving a circle of friends. I also got a point and shoot camera then, which made it much more of a socially possible extension.
Point and shoots increase the immediacy of picture taking so much, but they also look really casual, like something your grandma could use. Did you ever find people were performing for you when the camera came out?
Maybe for the first five minutes it was out but after that, no. I guess it’s different now that everyone on the planet has a Yashica T3, but five or six years ago the only people who were really conscious of getting their picture taken were other photographers or photo editors.
Now it’s everybody, every high school kid. Did you start getting into contemporary photographers at any point? Did you ever have a period where you found someone like Nan Goldin inspirational?
When I first saw her work I thought it was really kind of crap. I was like, she’s just taking pictures of her friends. [laughs] Then I realized that was a good thing. They’re actually beautiful documents as well. It seemed like she also had, not that I’m comparing myself to her, but she also had that sense of like a dying time in her photos.
That’s an interesting thing though, because to be inspired by that and for that to continue to work you kind of need to perpetually feel like you’re in a dying time, right?
Do you still feel that way?
Things move so fast in New York and bands don’t last forever so yeah, absolutely.
Very Buddhist – just kidding. I want to touch a little bit on how your photography was affected by your band getting bigger and moving out into the world more. Were you overwhelmed by it at first?
When things started to get busy with us and we started to get a lot of attention, we all knew that it was almost a fluke.
That’s a funny way of looking at it.
I’d already played in a rock band for a couple of years and I’d never seen any band get signed. When we suddenly started getting courted by record labels every night, other bands in New York did too.
That moment must have been strange for you guys.
Yeah. It wasn’t the reason that Yeah Yeah Yeahs started, so we all took this detached view of it. And also it was such an insane experience that I knew that taking photos of what was happening then and looking back on it a year or two or ten from that time would probably be the only way I would be able to understand it.
What was that period like?
I started getting freaked out really early on. I mean, we had songs in the top five of a dozen college radio stations when we were still assembling CDs in my apartment, way before any labels were involved. Trying to get good shows in other cities was impossible, but nightclubs in Sweden somehow were playing our music and kids were freaking out to it. The first realization that things were getting really crazy was probably when we played at South by Southwest in Austin in 2002. We were touring in a mini-van, and Dave Sitek, now of TV On The Radio, was with us to help drive and roadie. We were supposed to play at a tiny club as part of the Kill Rock Stars showcase. But a day or two before we got there we found out that we’d been moved to a much larger room, like a 1,000 capacity place, because SxSW was worried that the demand to see us would be so large it would be a fire hazard in a smaller club. We played first and the room was packed with A&R people and curiosity seekers from all over the world. When we finished, the room cleared out and stayed half-empty the rest of the night.
So that’s a pretty clear sign that you were the most exciting thing there that year.
The next morning we were on the front page of both newspapers about the festival. We were all like, “Fuck!”
Oh, and that’s the other thing about getting bigger. Not just bigger venues, but you’re dealing with the press. Which is a pretty mixed bag to say the least.
Totally. During our first European and UK tour, we did so much press, like eight interviews every day, all with pretty much the same questions. “Where are you guys from, why no bass player, what’s this New York scene really like?” Brian and I were flying home from London and the stewardess was handing out landing cards. She came up to us and asked, “Where are you from?” We both spat out, “Brooklyn! I mean U.S.!”
That’s hilarious, but it also probably reflects the heavy burnout you must have been feeling.
I had nervous breakdowns and so did Karen. We didn’t feel like we deserved all the attention we were getting. When the band started, we were bored and angst-ridden, and never thought anything would come of it. So, there were several times then where we almost broke up out of confusion and fighting and pressure. But it happens to a lot of bands, you know? They lose sight of the reasons they first started, and begin to care more about the band than the people in the band. Then it’s over.
So maybe even all through that time, the camera was a distancing measure to maintain some sanity.
Because when you put the camera between your face and what’s happening, you’re kind of mediating the reality of it, right?
Totally. And every day was kind of crazier and more intense then the last one, so I needed that.
Do you build up a big stock of film and then get it all processed at once?
Usually I do it in batches. Every time we come back from a tour I’ll have 30 or 40 rolls of film. I just get drug store prints. It’s good because it’s the only way to make sense of what just happened, of what tour happened. It sounds kind of stupid – maybe Henry Rollins is the person to talk about this [laughs] – but being on tour is a fantasy world.
Of course. That doesn’t sound stupid.
Nothing about it is normal, and if you’re playing mostly the same songs every night to different people at different places, it’s really easy to make them blend together. Karen especially. After every tour she collapses for two or three weeks.
Yeah, she must be fucking drained.
Completely mentally and physically exhausted.
I’m remembering different things I’ve read about touring and conversations I’ve had with people who’ve done it. It’s a common thing on tour to detach from your body. Like, get up, play a show, go out, get up, play a show, go out, get up play a show… So once again, the camera is like an anchor. How much of a chance do you get when you’re on tour to take pictures in the towns that you’re visiting?
On the earlier tours there wasn’t really any time. We were in a minivan and always either driving or sleeping so pretty much all I would see would be highways, venues, and hotels. It was like, “Oh look! We’re in Milan!” But we would have to drive for six hours after the show. Then we started touring in a bus, which made things much better. When you tour on a bus you can wake up in the city that you’re going to play at in the afternoon and can usually have three or four hours to walk around before soundcheck or press or dinner. Also, if we play somewhere far away like Japan or Australia, at the end of the tour I’ll try and stay for a week or two. Just to hang out, take pictures and run around.
I’m wondering what it’s like to photograph one person over a lot of time, the way you’ve done with Karen, and Brian as well.
Yeah, on tour I take pictures of them at least three or four times a day.
Do you think that they have some aspect of performance going when you take out the camera?
No. They have none. Everyone who we’ve traveled with or toured with, after the first day or two, just continues what they’re doing if the camera comes out. Although I do have a lot of stupid face photos.
I’d hate to have images of people looking to the side — like that fucking emo photograph thing, that look-to-the-side face that everybody does.
Like a MySpace or Friendster photo.
Exactly. What’s the editing process of this book been like? How much stuff did you start with?
I started with something like nine or ten thousand photos.
Are you serious? From how many years?
Like four and a half years. Every time I get film back, I put the ones I like aside. Six or seven months ago, I started going through everything again – every negative – and that was almost like starting fresh because there were all these things that at the time I didn’t think were interesting that I like now.
Was that about time passing or was it more thinking about the pictures in terms of a book?
Both, definitely. It’s kind of amazing how much people age even in four years. That’s always really interesting.
Yeah, it’s kind of scary. Is there one picture or kind of picture of yours that, when you think, “I’m a photographer,” pops into your head? I guess I want you to say that you feel that way about the crowd shots! [laughs]
It’d probably be the crowd shots. Usually I’ll do three or four at each show. It used to be only one, but as the venues and stages and crowds have gotten bigger, I have to do more. It’s interesting to do a few because on the first shot, people haven’t noticed that I’m taking their picture. So on that one there are just people in the middle of a rock show moment, maybe just staring straight ahead or caught up in that experience – or sometimes looking totally bored like, ‘This band sucks.’ And then as the people get aware of the camera, they start freaking the fuck out. [laughs]
Do you go out and meet your fans and take pictures of them face to face? What’s that like?
It’s great usually, but I guess it depends on where it is. I always try to go out and watch the other bands that we’re playing with. Sometimes I can talk to people and just get other people’s stories, which is rad. But sometimes, like in England where the whole celebrity culture is so sensational, it can be hard to go out. I’ll get hounded for autographs and people’ll be taking pictures on their cell phones. That’s weird – people aren’t supposed to interact like that. Sometimes it’s fun too, but it’s a totally different experience and it can be very distracting.
I blame the British music press for that. Every band that comes out is the second coming of Christ. It’s scary.
The slept-in beds photos are such a perfectly realized series. Did those develop when you realized you’d been randomly taking photos of beds, or did you set out to document an aspect of touring and go: “These things I sleep in every night are interesting”?
It developed over time. I like to sleep a lot, and I used to do this project when I first moved to New York where I would photograph myself sleeping with one exposure, like a seven or nine-hour exposure. I also liked this series that Uta Barth did where she would have people pose against a wall or whatever, then when they moved out of the frame, she would take the photo, trying to capture the person’s essence. Beds always felt that way to me, like they held remnants of sleep and dreams, but in and of themselves were very lonely. Anyway, at this point, I feel guilty if I don’t take a picture of a bed I slept in.
You know, there was also a series Sophie Calle did where she had friends come sleep in her bed and photographed them. Are there any other series-oriented works that inspired you? I remember for awhile Terry Richardson was taking a picture of every meal before he ate it and then the pile of shit when it came out.
Oh, weird. I know a bunch of people who’ve done that. I also like the Bechers’ work, where they travel around and photograph outdated factory and farm machinery from the exact same perspective, then show them in giant grids. It’s very German. I like old high school yearbook photos too, as long as they’re not of me.
What’s your favorite kind of bed?
I’m quite happy if there are two fat pillows, a nice firm mattress with jersey beech cotton sheets, and no bed bugs or wet dogs in sight. [laughs]
So what are you going to do in the next couple months? You’re multitasking so much. If I were you, I’d want to hide in a cave for a year.
I try not to think too much about what I’m doing, or what I’m going to photograph. Over-analysis breeds mediocrity. I think I would like to make movie soundtracks in the future, and do some short films about some of my friends who make music — just without any journalistic pretensions! But as soon as this book is finished, I’m going to Japan for a month to try to write music for the next YYY record, and to just clear my head.