Drew Nikonowicz's wonderful recent body of work, This World and Others Like It, won the 2015 Aperture Portfolio Prize, and rightly so -- it's stunning! He calls upon a mid-20th century nostalgia and idea of our place on Earth and in the cosmos, portraying ideas of our world and what we imagine of others, in grainy black and white. It looks back at a bygone era while simultaneously questioning the future. Nikonowicz has also been busy building a new contemporary art gallery -- in Minecraft. Details after this great interview!
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Hi Drew! Just looking at your website, you were born in Missouri and are currently living in Treviso, Italy while you undertake a residency. Can you tell me a bit about yourself in general? What first interested you in photography?
That’s correct! Right now I am a resident artist at Fabrica Research Centre. I am 23 years old, and I grew up in the suburbs of Missouri. My initial interest in photography was sustained by discovering its ability to reveal completely invisible perspectives of the world. I was initially self-taught, but later changed high schools so I could formally learn about camera functions. Then, in college, I was taught how to see, and the history of photography. It was there that I learned about people like Louis Daguerre and Eadweard Muybridge, who pioneered the technology that we now take for granted. But also, through my mentors, I discovered my heroes - Joan Fontcuberta, Taryn Simon, and Andreas Gursky, to name a few.
Who or what influenced you the most, whether to begin with, or currently (people, books, other work, etc.)?
My strongest influence as an artist has always been my mentors. In college especially, I was incredibly lucky to learn from three great photographers whose patience and excitement helped me most of all; Joe Johnson, Travis Shaffer, and Dan Farnum. That does not include the whole community of artists, professors, and colleagues I had the privilege to work with at the University of Missouri. Everyone there was the initial source of knowledge and inspiration that has helped me feel prepared and flourish now that I have graduated.
Your work explores the idea of being or living on earth when technology has played a major role in your life experience -- when did you start playing around with this theme? Why does it speak to you?
The internet was born before I was, and I have always had a relationship with it. It isn’t an idea that I saw and began to play with, but the opposite. It was something so completely infused into my life experience that I almost had to discover its presence. Over the past 5 or 6 years I slowly found a way to help describe my worldview through photography. New technology has always altered our experience of the universe, whether that be the invention of fire, the railroad, photography, or most recently the internet and everything that followed/follows. Through Muybridge’s early photographic motion studies, for example, the specific details of a horse’s movement went from being an argued uncertainty to an observable fact.
What is it like when you take photos, or how do you go about it? Do you purposefully go out looking for images, or do you tend to "happen" upon them?
Both actually. I have more success with the latter, but I think both can be useful approaches to making almost anything. I keep a pen and an 8.5x11” piece of paper (folded 3 times) in my pocket at all times and I write down little notes or ideas when they come to me. I’ve been doing this since high school. But I also keep lists on my computer and in notebooks. Many of the ideas have never been realized, but I revisit them from time to time. I just made a photograph that I ‘thought of’ 4 years ago. So I think my default setting is to brainstorm ideas and grind them out, slowly finding the best results. There are times where I see something and make an effort to go photograph that exact thing. I have been doing a lot more ‘purposeful looking’ here in Italy, but the reason I go out is rarely the result I come back to the studio with. It’s more of an excuse to get out the door.
What is the residency in Treviso like? Why do you consider doing a residency (or more than one!) to be important?
At first it was really difficult for me to find my bearings; I felt lost in another country where I couldn’t speak the language. But over time that passed as I learned a bit of the language. It has been one of the best experiences both as a photographer and as a person for me. I have had the pleasure to work independently on new photographs, and we are now working on finding a space to exhibit the new work.
Residencies often offer an artist one of the most valuable things that tends to be the hardest to find - uninterrupted time. Time to read, time to make work, etc. I don’t think they are for every artist, but I certainly managed to find my footing here. I do not intend to do another because I have other plans for the near-future, but I would love to do more in the more-distant-future.
You're still pretty young, but is there any nugget of wisdom you've picked up along the way, or wish you would have known when you were just starting to explore photography, that you would offer advice about to someone just getting started?
Something that has always stuck with me: My photo professor would often introduce a new project or assignment at the end of class. After he finished the explanation, he would dismiss the class with the simple statement, “Start yesterday.”
What do you find most fulfilling or exciting about what you do? What compels you?
In the end, what stays with me are the friends I’ve made and the conversations I get to have with the people I meet. I live and breathe my work, but what makes it worth living is when I’ve finished and I get to share it, and see the work of my friends and colleagues. Art isn’t made in a vacuum and even if it was possible I wouldn’t want to.
What is the most challenging aspect of pursuing your work?
Self-doubt and bureaucracy.
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or projects?
I will be exhibiting my work at the FORMAT International Photography Festival in Derby, UK from March 24th through April 23rd. There are a few more exhibitions in the works that I can’t announce yet, but I announce new things through Instagram regularly and my mailing list every few months for those interested.
Anything else you would like to add?
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