Most people know musician Graham Nash through his folk-rock days with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Fewer people know of his first passion: still photography.
Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Graham Nash will gladly tell you that he was a photographer first, a musician second. Strange words from a man who already was playing in his first rock band by age 13.
Nash, a founding member of the English pop/rock band The Hollies and later of Crosby, Stills & Nash, is one of those rare musicians who have maintained a loyal following for more than 40 years. As a solo artist and in ongoing projects with his former bandmates, Nash continues to record, tour and play to sold-out crowds who shout out requests for everything from "Marakesh Express" to "Our House" to "Teach Your Children."
What few knew until recently was that the man constantly onstage and in front of millions, live and recorded on film, has been wild about film himself from an early age. In fact, he claims, his passion for photography predated any dreams he might have had about backstage passes and worldwide tours.
One of the earliest images in his new book, Eye to Eye: Photographs by Graham Nash, due out from Steidl Publishing this April, was taken in 1953, when Nash was 11 years old, at a zoo in his native Manchester, England. "It was a shot of a giraffe. Rather ordinary," he laughs, "but quite a nice first effort."
Nash only vaguely recalls his first camera, a small box camera with a fold-out bellows, but he vividly remembers his reaction upon being introduced to photography. "I was turned on to the magic of it all by my father, who was an amateur photographer," he says. "He was a very hard-working man — we were a very poor family — and he got a camera from a friend of his at work. On the weekend, he would shoot me and my sister at the zoo, and then he would come back and make a makeshift darkroom out of my bedroom. He showed me that very first time that an image can float into view from a blank piece of paper — from colorless liquid! It was magic to me when I first saw an image appear."
Nash focused on establishing a name for himself as a guitarist and songwriter during the next decade, but credits a late-1960s trip to the U.S., with his new bandmates, David Crosby and Stephen Stills, with giving him the inspiration to once again pick up the camera.
These days, Nash rarely travels without one. The images found in Eye to Eye chronicle 50 years of his fascination with light, proportion and the people who have surrounded him. "What I shoot are moments that disappear in the blink of an eye if you don't have the courage or the discipline to have your camera with you," he says. "I can't tell you how many [expletive] times I missed Elvis coming back on the elevator . . . and it pisses me off! I still try to carry my camera every single moment."
Famous faces, gritty details
Nash acknowledges that his book and rare gallery showings include lots of famous faces, including musicians Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, as well as his bandmates Crosby, Stills and Neil Young. However, his work also includes many images of his wife of more than 25 years, Susan, their three children and the kinds of absurd, abstract, everyday scenes that Nash, now 62, calls magic.
Marita Holdaway, owner of the Seattle-based Benham Gallery, also uses the word magic when talking about Nash's work, but is careful to emphasize that by magic she doesn't mean pretty or cute. "One of the things about Graham's work is that it's real," muses Holdaway, "and is often as complicated and gritty as life really is.
"We had a showing of his work a few years ago and are currently preparing for a new one," she adds. "What we can always count on with his work is that people, clients, will actually stop to look at the image. His work is not always expected, not always pretty, but always compelling. Oftentimes we'll have people exclaim over the work without knowing it's Graham's work or even knowing who Graham is."
Nash also credits his working-class roots in northern England with much of what allows him to see the unglamorous details of life as art to be captured on film. When asked to describe what photographic style he specializes in, there is a long pause. "Well, I only know what I don't shoot," he says, finally. "I don't shoot kittens with balls of wool. I don't shoot sunsets. What draws me? Ironic, surreal, unexplained, timely moments."
As an example, Nash describes a scene at a fast-food restaurant in Los Angeles. "There's this three-year-old girl sitting at the plastic counter in front of the window with an Uzi next to her — an Uzi machine gun! Yes, it was a toy, [but] it was so realistic. Now, normally, you'd go, 'Ah, now there's a pretty girl.' Well, I don't want to shoot a picture of a pretty girl, but the [expletive] Uzi was a whole other statement."
Running, shooting, collecting
At the urging of fellow musician and artist Joni Mitchell, Nash exhibited his work for the first time in 1988 at a Tokyo gallery. But even 15 years later, and after having received critical acclaim for his work, he rarely shows it publicly. With the exception of his spring show at the Benham Gallery in Seattle, his only other planned exhibit for 2004 is in Manchester, England.
Nash is savvy enough about marketing to understand that more shows and photography books would increase the demand for his work from collectors but, when questioned about it, he becomes a little uncomfortable.
"I don't understand why anyone would collect my work," he says. "Please understand . . . it's like writing 'Our House.' It took me an hour, it was 30 years ago, get over it! But people say, 'No, no, it changed my life,' and I don't understand that.
I can't take that seriously as a producer of what I consider to be art. If they want to collect it, fantastic. If you see what I saw when I took it and it means something to you, then by all means collect it. If I make some money, um, fine."
If Nash's response sounds surprisingly sincere, make no mistake: few people have a more keen understanding of what makes collecting photography profitable, to the heart and to the pocketbook, than Graham Nash. Over the course of nearly 20 years, he has amassed between 3,000 and 4,000 images, mostly black-and-white.
When, in 1990, he auctioned off a select grouping of images that he'd collected — pictures by noted photographers such as Margaret Cameron, Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Edward Weston — Sotheby's sold the collection for a record $2.17 million.
Still, recommends Nash, "Collect for the heart, always. I never collected for the investment. It just happens to be that I think that I have a fine eye, and invariably they do increase in value.
"On the other hand," he adds, "I have a $20 print of Marilyn Monroe when she was 16, taken by an unknown photographer, that I won't part with."
The fact that his collection of photographs is so large in scope and investment value is a result of spending so much time on the road touring and having an unusual passion for photography. "I'd go to swap meets and flea markets and galleries instead of checking in to the Holiday Inn and ordering the cheeseburger and watching porno," he says. "I would go out there, searching."
It was the eye and art of a professional photographer in 1969 that helped teach him about the soul value of an image. "David and Stephen and I had done many anti-Vietnam War benefits to try to bring awareness of what was going on to as many people as possible, and I saw a photograph in a gallery by Diane Arbus that was called 'Child with Toy Grenade in Central Park:' a nine-year-old blond kid in shorts with straps over his shoulder, and in his hand he's holding a toy hand grenade. There's such a vehement, angry, violent attitude and look on his face that it shocked me.
"So," Nash continues, "I began to realize that photographs, these still images, have a tremendous power to move your soul. They can change your life by what you choose to get out of them, and I started to collect photographs."
Nash's collecting bug extends to other forms of art as well. "[Illustrator] Frans Masreel and an American, Lyn Ward — what they did were novels in woodcuts with no words, only pictures, and they've always fascinated me. German expressionism has always fascinated me. I love [graphic artist M.C.] Escher's work and I have a large collection of his original work."
Even more surprising than Nash's collecting prowess is his impact on the technical side of the art photography business. For nearly 25 years, Nash's best friend, R. Mac Holbert, was Crosby, Stills & Nash's road manager. Holbert also was an avid photographer who had earned a degree in fine arts from the University of California-Santa Cruz before slipping, unintentionally, into the music business.
Unhappy with the print quality and sizes available for gallery exhibits, Holbert and Nash, through yet another cadre of friends, became interested in image scanning and inkjet printing in the late 1980s. This was a time well before the term "digital technology" had become mainstream or, as Nash likes to joke, when "pixels were still the size of dinner plates."
When they were introduced to an IRIS Graphics printer, they immediately were captivated. As both Holbert and Nash like to tell the story, they paid $135,000 for one printer, and within 10 minutes of its delivery they had voided the warranty in multiple ways.
They modified the printer to accommodate Nash's specific needs for limited editions in large print sizes. A very short period of time later, in 1989, a new printmaking business was born: Nash Editions. Today, Holbert oversees the daily management of the specialty firm, which prints for some of the finest photographers on the West Coast.
Of course, clients have to find Nash Editions, first. "We've been open since 1989," Nash laughs, "[and] we still don't have our name in the phone book. You've got to be serious as a heart attack to want to work with us."
For their innovative use of technology, Nash, Holbert and Nash Editions have been recognized with a multitude of honors, including awards from the Center for Photographic Art, in Carmel, Calif., and the Monterey Museum of Art, in La Mirada, Calif.
Since his earliest days spent watching a print develop with a blanket tacked over a window, Nash, the serious shooter, digital printmaker and collector, still views photography with a passion and enthusiasm that is infectious and, at times, childlike.
In the forward to Eye to Eye, Nash summarizes what it is about using the camera for discovery that still knocks him out 50 years after taking his first picture: "We're influenced by every single moment since our heart starts beating. It's like we've got this secret in the palm of our hands. And the moment of taking a picture is an exchange of secrets between us and what we've been surrounded with all of our lives.
"I have no idea what it all means," he writes."I do know that it's up to us to invest our lives with meaning. There really is a kind of insane beauty around us all the time.
It's just a question of learning to slow down, take a deep breath and meet the moment."