Light, People, and the Illusions of Photography

In 1973, I dropped out of high school in New York City and hit the road. Fifteen months later, after hitchhiking as far as Buenos Aires, I landed in San Francisco. There, I joined my brother Doniphan, and with a few friends formed a small arts commune called The Modern Lovers. I had in my possession a Leica rangefinder camera loaned to me by my high school friend, Anna Reinhardt, who had inherited it from her father, Ad, the abstract expressionist painter. My brother introduced me to Larry Bair, a photographer friend who owned a car. Larry took me under his wing and started teaching me about photography. Together we explored the Bay Area photographing, occasionally venturing south to Santa Cruz and Los Angeles. I discovered that travel and photography are overlapping activities: simplistically both are about being in the moment and looking around. 

 In 1976, we created Ancient Currents Gallery in the storefront of our commune. We hosted art and photography exhibitions, poetry readings, performance art, and musical events. People did their own thing. Different artist/traveler types stopped in for weeks or months at a time. Members would head off for long trips. One friend, Gary Halpern, showed up with a 28-piece French circus band and for a few weeks they all crashed on the gallery floor and shared our one bathroom. Eventually, two babies were home-birthed there. 

Before long, Larry introduced me to the esteemed photographer and teacher, Henry “Hank” Wessel.  Hank invited me to sit in on his classes at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). He taught me how to overexpose and underdevelop film to preserve shadow detail, and advised not printing negatives for a year in order to separate the evaluation of images from the emotional experience of taking them. It was exciting and revealing to watch him review my work. I could tell how much he liked an image by how long he looked it over. Eventually, thanks to his mentorship, I earned my MFA in photography at SFAI without an undergraduate degree. 

As long as I can remember, my father, Vachel Blair, a cinematographer, showed me photography books, in particular Henri Cartier-Bresson’s "The Decisive Moment." We would discuss composition, lighting, and the image’s narrative. Now, studying with Hank and Larry, I was perfecting a method of candid street photography that entailed pre-focusing the camera before quickly bringing it to my eye and releasing the shutter. Interesting moments could be fleeting. Anticipation and intuition were critical. The goal was to suspend premeditated thinking and see things with “fresh eyes,” a form of non-specific or natural awareness. The rewards were photographs of serendipitous moments connecting the interplay of light, people, and their surroundings. I was fascinated by how the camera sees things and transforms the three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional image. A photograph could meticulously describe reality while remaining an illusion at the same time— it was both a truth and a lie, and many of the most interesting photographs describe this ambiguity either with its content or form.

Understanding how perception is transformed into photographs is the alchemy of photography. Shoot, print, reflect, and shoot again. This is the self-actualizing loop of photography. It’s the same whether one’s predilection is for spontaneous or pre-visualized image making. Looking at my prints enabled close scrutiny of transitory moments, crystallized gestures, juxtapositions, and the geometric structure created by objects in the frame. Oftentimes, I caught people looking into the lens in a way that is both revealing and enigmatic. Some images suggested a backstory, like mise-en-scène from a film. 

Starting in 1977 I took a number of lengthy trips wandering with my camera. First through Mexico, then for over a year in India and Europe. New York City was also a favorite spot to photograph, since I spent a lot of time there visiting. Traveling and photography reinforce each other. Both are about discovery, being aware, being present: being in the moment. 

In the late 70s and early 80's I was drawn to the energy and excitement that was rapidly growing in the so-called "gay paradises" in San Francisco and New York, and began regularly photographing in these neighborhoods. I was encouraged by the publication of my work in a number of periodicals including the local San Francisco BAR (Bay Area Reporter), the national Advocate and the French weekly Gai Pied Hebdo. Eventually this led to the publication in 2023 of Castro to Christopher, Gay Streets of America, 1979—1986

In 1985 my travel experience led to  a professional assignment photographing and assisting a film team documenting the famine in Ethiopia. This led to more travel assignments and the beginning of a parallel career in filmmaking.

It is my intention to present the viewer with unique moments reflecting the ethos of a place and a time through the window of my photographic sensibilities. 

Nicholas Blair,  2023

Blair has worked internationally as a photographer and cinematographer for organizations including CARE, the United Nations, HBO and PBS Television. His filmmaking projects include the documentary America’s Culture of Crash about the rural American sport of demolition derby, and Our Holocaust Vacation, a journey through Poland with his mother and family, revisiting her Holocaust experiences there.
He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, and Jerome Foundation. His photographs are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, International Center of Photography, Brooklyn Museum, and Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.

Watch an interview with Nicholas Blair discussing his work and photography  on Juhl Media

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