Sunday, August 1, 2021

Q & A with Nicole Jean Hill

Nicole Jean Hill is a photographer and teacher based in Eureka, CA, and the author of the recent book Encampment, Wyoming.

BA: I'm wondering if we could start with your first trip visit to Encampment. What was your initial impression of the Nichols photos?

NJH: During my first real trip to Encampment to look at the work, I couldn't see much of it. The only ones I could see were 100 images that some museum volunteers had made small prints of and put in a binder. The rest were on a very old Mac that hadn't been turned on since probably 1999. So my first impression was that there were probably some really incredible things in the 24,000 images but they were stuck in a weird technologically limbo. The negatives were sealed up in freezers so the only possible access was the files on the old Mac. Each image took about 90 seconds to load. So it took about two years from that point to really start looking at what was in there.

I guess that's an ongoing issue for any photographer, deciding how to store things with future viewers in mind. Digital formats change so fast. The book also mentioned that selection of 100 "greatest hits". What did you initially think of those 100? Would you have picked the same ones? Did any of them make it into the final book?

No, none of them are the same selections. I just had a chance to look again at those initial 100 favorites and I don't think a single image overlaps with the book.

Was that Nancy Anderson's selection? Or was it by committee? Or who decided?

I believe it was Nancy and a group from the GEM (Grand Encampment Museum) board. Nancy had done a small exhibition of Lora's work called "Tapestry" in the 1990s. Some of the images currently hang at GEM. They are lovely, but they were selected by people familiar with the family members and Encampment area, so those selections were really driven by knowledge specific to the area of historical relevance in a way that was outside of my experience.

So you're digging through these files on an old Mac. When did you first begin to sense that the archive was something special? Did her photos grab you right away? Or did that happen over time?

Well, I had read Nancy's book on Lora before I arrived in Encampment. It's a selection of Lora's diaries and I was really intrigued by Lora's voice as a writer. I knew that if she was also making photographs, starting off at such a young age and compiling so many of them, that there were bound to be remarkable things in there. So getting involved in making the work accessible was a leap of faith. 

I also really connected with Nancy. Although she's 40 years older than me and a Wyoming rancher, we were fast friends right away. We both have a strong interest in Antarctic maritime history (of all things), and I knew I wanted to be friends with her. And SHE knew Lora's work was special, and I trusted her instincts. I met her on that first trip, and she was just devastated that the work wasn't really viewable. Nancy and her husband Victor were the ones who scanned them originally and what they did was really top of the line technologically at the time, but it was pre-Internet and the technology became obsolete soon after the scanning was complete. But the original scans are exactly what is done today in terms of workflow. I used those files for the book and exhibition, I just needed to do the restoration. In a way, it's really incredible what the two of them accomplished.

I doubt Nichols would be remembered at all if not for Nancy Anderson. And of course your efforts were essential too. I think the lesson for photographers is that it's rare for work to find an audience on its own. It generally needs a patron or backer or friend or someone to promote and organize and funnel the pictures to public consciousness.

A big part of it too was Ezra Nichols, one of Lora's sons. He passed away before I came on to the scene, but he helped pay for the scanners, freezers, etc. He wanted his mother's work to be saved and shared, but didn't have the expertise himself.

What sort of person is Nancy Anderson? How would you describe her?

Hmmm...great question. She is incredibly smart, very funny, self-deprecating in a charming way. She was a high school teacher—taught drama, Spanish, and English. She has traveled extensively to look at art, and at the time I met her lived in a house at a place called Coyote Canyon probably about 10+ miles from the nearest neighbor. Their house was filled with books and plants and animals. I noticed she had a subscription to the NY Times and I thought, WOW this gal is not like anyone else I've met in Wyoming.

What were other people like that you met in Wyoming?

I’ve spent a lot of time there before the archive work and since then, and it’s an amazingly diverse place and it would be impossible to generalize. But Nancy has experience as a rancher, teacher, avid historian and writer and she has an encyclopedic knowledge of Carbon County history. She’s a gem. She now lives in Encampment after Victor passed away a couple of years ago. She lives in Lora's old house. 

What did she think of the book? What did people at the Encampment museum think of it? The book has a totally different selection than their choice of 100 “Greatest Hits". I'm curious if they liked your choices, or if they were puzzled. Or if it showed them a side of Nichols that they hadn't considered?

It seems like everyone really loves it—at least what trickles my way!  I know Nancy is pleased with it for sure. Everyone in town that I've talked to is very delighted by the fact that I named the book after the town.  I'm sure there is some puzzlement involved too, but they know I am a photographer myself so I look at form and content in a certain way. I know that Nancy was surprised by how much I love the picture of Lora's son cliff sleeping on the couch with his military jacket and shoes next to him. But she likes seeing things from different perspectives. 

As far as the different audiences, Nancy is definitely art savvy, and everyone else in Encampment that I've talked to has been really supportive of my efforts to get the work out there. I have given at least three talks in Encampment about the work, so they have gotten to know me and my point of view on her work. The only issue has been some of the more religious and conservative members of the community have been a little flustered by the bits of nudity in the book.

Now I'm scratching my head trying to remember the nudity. The photo of the boys swimming?

The issue was with the one of Guy Nichols in bed recovering from the flu.

Haha, I guess it didn't seem too pornographic or I would've remembered it. I just looked through the book again. I think nudity is a very minor element. Hmm. The picture of the boys swimming is one I saw online. I thought it was in the book but no. But it's awesome.

Well I think in the photo world we don't blink an eye at skin.

The book is named for Encampment and features the town. But her archive includes a lot of other material from Stockton and other places. Do you foresee future books based on that material? Perhaps a less portrait focused book? Or some other curation?

I made this book knowing I wanted to focus mainly on portraits because I do think it is the most captivating part of her archive. I also wanted to cover in the book both her work and the items she collected as a photofinisher. To create kind of an overarching overview of the collection that focused on the community she built around her. But I think now that this book exists, it frees up the possibility of a book that expresses more of Lora herself. I've started doing the very basic ground work on that, but I'm not in any rush. I'm also encouraging Nancy to finally publish part II of her book on Lora.

What do you mean a book that expresses more of Lora herself? 

Well it's in a very tender place in my mind right now so I don't want to say too much, but I can give an example. The image in the book of Lora that is double exposure of her with a banjo...I didn't originally have that in the book. Hans Gremmen, the designer, encouraged me to include it. I didn't want to initially include pictures that I wasn't confident were perfect in terms of both form and content, or could be labelled as a collection of snapshots, because I really wanted to the photo world especially to take Lora seriously as a photographer. Another component of the next book may include how Lora made use of the photographs as the physical objects in albums, diaries, etc. 

The book includes Nichols pictures along with photos by others which she collected. There are no captions or easy way to trace which photos are which. Can you tell me a bit about that editing decision?

For the photos by others, if one wants to hunt it down, the other photographers are listed in the plate captions. But I wanted to front load the book with images and decided that even if she didn't take the photographs, she was curating an archive making certain decisions, so it still reflects her throughout.

How did Hans Gremman and Fw:books get involved? And how much editing input did he have?

I met Melanie McWhorter, who used to work for Photoeye, at Photolucida back in 2008. I reached out to her in 2019 after a slew of rejection letters for the book to see if she could point me in the direction of someone that might take a gamble on the project. She suggested Hans because he's a great designer and also has an interest in Americana. I liked the idea of a European publisher. The original edit and sequence is mostly intact from what I provided him, and he made some page spread decisions, including selecting the cover for the book, and then the design. It worked out really well.  I love how he totally got the idea about making the images front and center without any directions as such.

Why do you think the book was initially rejected by other publishers?

I suppose I didn’t make a convincing enough argument for the need for an academic book on Lora, even one largely image-based. I’m coming from a studio art background and am not a historian. But rejection letters are just a part of the process and I’ve experienced them throughout my whole art career, so I know it’s just about keeping on plugging away. I pursued the academic angle first since most do accept submissions—that is not the case with many other publishers. 

It turned out great. I especially love the design choice of text set against a black background, with silver ink. The photos in this section have a ghostly presence. Very nice.

Yes, very classy.

The fact that it was rejected from a few places, and that it eventually found the right publisher, just reinforces the power of editing. I mean, someone else could take this same archive and produce a completely different book. But I think what makes yours work is that it combines Nichols pictures (which are strong), with a particular curation. It’s her voice, yes, but also yours. You mentioned that your selections were aimed at the photo world. So maybe that's what I'm responding too. But the book also seems very alive and animated, and looser than what I commonly associate with old historic photos. It’s not so much about the people she shot but the spirit of the place.

Yes, exactly. I think because she started photographing so young, in a geographically isolated place, and then continued throughout her life means two things. She both was able to really refine her craft, and also didn't have pretenses on what photographs needed to be. So it is all very genuine. And thank you for your acknowledgement on the curation- there are certainly an infinite number of ways her work would have been introduced through a book and I’m glad to hear that you have interpreted Lora’s work this way.

That kind of goes back to my earlier question. It does seem like a strong "photobook" which fits comfortably into the fine art genre. But I think it might also appeal to Encampment’s "Greatest Hits" crowd. Finding that balance is a challenge but you seem to have finessed it.

Her work has incredibly broad appeal. I didn't have to pick images to tell a specific story about the history of Encampment which the original 100 did. I could pick images based on a broader template. I needed it to be visually convincing in a way that Lora wouldn't get labeled as being only relevant to Wyoming and Wyoming history, although that's a big part of it too.

Do you think Nichols was aware of other art photography? Maybe she saw pictures in museums or galleries? She may not have thought of her work that way. But perhaps she absorbed other photographic influences somewhere?

The only other photographer she mentions in her diaries in George Irving who was an industrial photographer from NY that came to the area in the early 1900s to photograph the copper mines. They ended up being pen pals and wrote about photography...but mostly just tech talk. I am sure she found her way to magazine articles and other items put out by Ansco and Kodak, but not in an art context. I don't think museums or galleries would have been part of her experience, at least not that I could find in her writings and not from what I have heard from Nancy. So her photo practice was largely homegrown and organic.

When I first contacted you I sent a link to a New Yorker Mike Disfarmer article. I see some parallels there, and to Vivian Maier and Atget and Bellocq, and several others photographers who found fame posthumously through the efforts of admirers. Disfarmer's archive is now tangled in a big legal battle. What's your reaction to that story, and were any of those issues on your mind as you embarked down the Nichols rabbit hole?

The Disfarmer article illustrates a lot of incredibly valuable issues with archives. Most notable to me was when it mentions the concern moving forward that archives would be hidden from view for fear of litigation. Taking a step back several years, I had heard of the Charles Cushman archive at Indiana University on NPR a few years before I became involved with the Nichols archive. It's public domain, searchable, really incredible. I have also been loosely aware of litigation around Vivian Maier’s work. So when I came into the project, my hope was that Nichols' archive could end up something more like the Cushman archive, not behind a paywall but as accessible as possible to historians, researchers, students, etc. (I should also mention that I wasn't actively searching out archives to get involved with!)

The balancing of ownership rights with public access is complicated. I mean, Neither Disfarmer or Maier would be known today without the efforts of dedicated enthusiasts. And sometimes the only way to generate resources for curation is by monetizing the images. But then again the collecting impulse can trample the artist's rights/wishes. What do you think of Disfarmer’s photos or Vivian Maier’s? I mean on their own merits, and also realizing that you’re seeing both artists as they were later curated by others.

I am enamored by Disfarmer’s work. My favorite part of Disfarmer’s work is that provides a sense of place and time within the vacuum of the photo studio. It is both very narrow and expansive at the same time. The Twin Palms publication on Disfarmer is one of my favorite photobooks and I had the design of it in mind when I started working on Lora’s book. It’s remarkable that there are some overlaps with Encampment, including the use of black pages, because I don’t think I ever mentioned that book to Hans. It makes space for the photographs to do their thing. Maier’s images of children are my favorites of her work, they remind of some of Lora’s photographs.  I try to keep my thoughts about their work separate from my thoughts about how the archives have been handled. I’ve tried to learn from the paths these archives have taken, but try not to let those logistics overshadow my appreciate for the work as it is.   

As I understand it, a museum has agreed to own, store, and organize the Nichols pictures? Is the sale of her books and prints funneled into funding those museum efforts?

The family officially donated the negatives to the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming, and in the process, although I'm oversimplifying here, they designated the work as public domain. Both the AHC and the Grand Encampment hold a copy of the digital files of all the photos as well. The GEM was donated Lora's diaries and letters. I am currently a one-person operation managing the outfacing components of the archive, including the traveling exhibition, book sales, etc. I have been able to do some grant writing for that through my home base at Humboldt State University. I'm currently in the process of creating an entity that will be the umbrella for all of this, possibly creating a gallery or residency in her memory. 

The book seems to have struck a nerve in the photo world. Have you been surprised by the reaction? I know it was technically published a few months ago but mine just arrived this week. And I think other orders were only filled recently. So it may be about to get a new wave of attention.

Yes, I’ve been totally surprised. I mean, I think the work is completely amazing and Lora's story really resonates with me on so many levels. But I know other things I am really excited about (like Antarctic maritime history- hahah!) don't resonate with others. And of course, having received so many rejection letters, I was preparing to have a garage full of books to sell for years to come.

Now instead of your own garage full of books, your book can join someone else's garage full of books, haha.

As long as my garage has not books I'm happy. I live in a rainforest as you know. Mold city. 

I found it hard to evaluate the book based on online info. But after I saw the photos at Blue Sky I ordered a copy.

Alec Soth posted a video about the book about a week after the first printing arrived in the USA. Most of my copies of the first printing were donated to public libraries right away, and after the Soth video (which I didn't know was happening) the rest of first printing sold out within a few weeks. 

It's kind of scary that Alec Soth (or any single person) can have so much influence.

Yes, Alec Soth was certainly influential, but I think too a bulk of the copies also flew out the door because it hit the media in France really big in February too. So in Europe where the books are stored, the book was gone pretty quick. 

Darn Europeans, always a step ahead of us.

The first run was only 1000 copies and the publisher decided to do a second printing of the first edition, and that second printing just arrived state-side early July. And it really hasn't been in many other USA-based media until very recently. I had the show at Blue Sky in April and didn't have any books available because it was in between the first and second printing. I suppose that was a good problem to have in a way.

The show was great. But I think it's even better in book form. The picture quality fell off a bit in larger exhibition prints. I think they were meant to be in a book.

Yes, I know what you mean about the scale. It feels odd to look at something 14"x 20" that was originally printed as a 2” x 3" print for a photo album. But I also recognize that finding different avenues and formats to create an audience for her work is an okay thing. It’s a show that can travel very easily. 

What about doing a show of her original prints? Hint hint.

I like the idea of the original prints too. It would have to be a particular kind of space for that.  They are very small and there aren't many that have survived.  

What’s your favorite Lora Webb Nichols photo and why?

I have too many images that I love immensely that I couldn’t pick a favorite. But I can say that I really appreciate the pictures of Nina Platte. She’s in a few images in the book and she has such an intense gaze for a teenager. She was one of Lora’s muses and must have been such a pleasure for Lora to photograph. In the pictures from a few decades later, I also really love seeing images of Ted Higby, one of Lora’s employees whose work is also included in the archive. With both Nina and Ted, I feel like I really know them through their photographs. 

(All images above from the collection of Lora Webb Nichols)

1 comment:

Luppolo Francesco said...

Comprehensive and passionate conversation. It is incredible how some photos, despite the weather, seem current, a photographer very ahead of her time, told in an extraordinary way.