Nick Zinner has been a friend of VICE ever since his snaps first graced the pages of our magazine almost 13 years ago. These days, we'll occasionally look up from our desks and see him drifting around the office, flashing a little wave and a smirk before slinking into an office for some shadowy meeting with our events people. Later, we'll find out he was planning something ridiculously massive, like leading a super group to help us celebrate our twentieth anniversary, or conducting an orchestral ensemble of 41 string instruments in the middle of midtown Manhattan. That sort of thing.
Everyone knows Nick as a guitarist, firstly for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and more recently with his hardcore band, Head Wound City. Not everyone knows he's also a hyper-accomplished photographer, but hopefully his new show, which opens this Friday at Lethal Amounts in downtown LA, will help to change that.
Last week I took a stroll with Nick over the Williamsburg Bridge. While suspended high above the East River, we happened to catch the light at that perfect "Miller Time" moment when everything's all hazy and sickeningly beautiful. Nick is a really soft-spoken dude. We chatted about his upcoming show, his photographic technique, and anxiety. Then I went back to the office, ripped the interview from my voice recorder, and tried my best to decipher what the fuck he was saying over the eardrum-stabbing skree of the passing J train.
VICE: So tell me a little about this show. What's in it?
Nick Zinner: It's 601 photos, all my favorite images from the past 20 years, nailed to a wall.
Wait a minute—that's a huge number of photos! How did you even begin to conceptualize such a large body of work?
Well, about five years ago, Levi's took over the old Deitch Projects gallery in SoHo, and VICE asked me to do a show there. It was such a huge space, so I thought the only thing I could really do was put up 1000 photos. So I did. [ laughs] Most of them are four-by-six photos, and some are framed. It's really a pretty clear representation of me: animals, weirdo street shots, band things, musicians and friends—it's kind of all over.
Do you see this show as individual photos, or as one giant mess of images?
I see it as individual photos. They're all singular moments, and I have very deep memories attached to each one. I get kind of weird about them, and a lot of the super personal photos I just didn't put in. I'm a very private and vulnerable person, but I still have this delusion in my head that I can present images that are worth looking at no matter what they're representing. But, at the end of the day, these are images from my life, and I'm still pretty vulnerable when I share them.
Were there any that you were hesitant to share?
There's one of a friend of mine who passed away, and even though it's really blurry, I know what it's showing. It's a photo of a couple in their apartment, from about 12 years ago. It's just a couple standing there getting dressed, surrounded by their belongings.
Would you tell that story to someone who was standing in front of the photo? No. Absolutely not. [Laughs] Also, some of these photos are from when I was much younger, and just out getting wasted or something. That was a few years after September 11, when everyone in New York was just going fucking crazy. Most of those pictures don't interest me anymore, especially now that we have Instagram, and there are 20 million party photographers. That's literally the last thing I want to see.
You recently moved to LA. How's the photo world out there?
I don't know man. I've always been outside of that world. I've never really tried, but I've never been a part of that community. LA is this weird sort of dichotomy of me being a musician, and when I do photo things, it's always like "Oh, you're a musician crossing over." It's always in the shadow of my music.
Does that bother you?
A little bit, but maybe that's just how it goes. I've never tried to get an agent, or tried to really define myself publicly as a photographer. I don't really care. Any photo work has mostly been for myself.
Are you looking forward to the show?
Yes, but I'm in that period now where I start to get a little nervous about it. I try not to think about it, but I'm exposing myself through these photos. I feel the same way when I do a record or something—I never think about it until the final stages, those last steps you take before it goes out. That's when it hits me, and I think, Oh, fuck. People are going to see these! That makes me nervous.
What's the worst-case scenario for you?
Eh, I don't know. It's just my own anxiety. I don't really read comment sections or anything. Just like, the work not being as good as it can be, I guess. Although maybe it's not that concrete.
Do these photographs serve as a bit of a surrogate memory for you?
Definitely. I feel really fortunate that I have access to them. Every moment feels significant, and to be able to access it quickly makes me really glad. And that's just at a personal level. For my bandmates, it's good for us to go back over these as an archive, especially because when you're touring, everything blends together. But with music photography, it's such a fine line to not end up with something like a Bon Jovi video still. I hate nostalgia, but I always find myself representing the past. I think these photos are more about being appreciative than nostalgic.
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