L.A. Gets a Look at the Photos of Musician Graham Nash : Rocker’s black-and-white images focus mainly on the late 1960s and capture moments with his musical circle of friends
Graham Nash couldn’t find a camera anywhere. Not earlier, when the sunlight looked so nice falling through a shuttered window and across the bemused expression of his wife, Susan. And not now, when he needed one for a prop as he posed for a portrait marking the first public showing in Los Angeles of his own photography.
“He goes through a lot of Angst when he sees an image and doesn’t have his camera,” Susan had already explained. And now her husband was searching the rooms and shelves of their Encino home, cluttered comfortably with the snapshots, books, art and other possessions gathered during Nash’s nearly 30-year career as a celebrated rock musician and a lifetime of interest in photography.
If the need grew desperate enough, there was always that old, dust-covered Brownie camera back in Nash’s workroom. It shared shelf space with a collection of photography books labeled with names such as Weegee and Irving Penn, Bill Brandt and Walker Evans, Man Ray and a hundred others important to the development of photography as an art. Nash knows this history well.
Alongside a very public career as a singer-songwriter, first as a member of the Hollies and later with Crosby, Stills and Nash, the British-born musician also spent much of the last two decades amassing a giant, private photography collection. He sold most of it in an all-day auction early last year at Sotheby’s in New York, setting an auction record for a single collection of photographs with sales totaling $2.4 million.
And on Saturday, the first local exhibit of Nash’s own photographic works opens at the G. Ray Hawkins Gallery in Santa Monica. It’s a collection of black-and-white images documenting sometimes personal and often “strange moments” Nash captured largely during, but also since, the late 1960s. But before he was persuaded two years ago by longtime friend Joni Mitchell and others, Nash had never seriously considered showing his work.
“Mainly, I’m a musician,” Nash explained, pausing during a discussion earlier this month of his photography projects of the moment. “This is a sideline. But it’s taking more and more of my time because there’s a wealth of material that I’ve been shooting for the last 20 years that I’ve never dealt with.
“I got excited about the old images,” he added, referring to selections for the exhibition. “So I decided rather than put in a shot from ’69 with a shot from ’88, I will just do this time period. When you look at it all, you begin to get a sense of a sliver of what the ‘60s was about, what was happening to me then.”
Now 49, Nash has included a few newer pictures in the show, which continues through April 27. Among those is a 1981 portrait of his oldest son, Jackson, looking something like the Star Child of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” his face wide-eyed and floating above an unfocused foreground. Still, the majority of photographs are from 1969 and the years just after, when Nash and such friends as Mitchell, David Crosby and Neil Young were high-profile anti-heroes at the center of musical and social change.
Some of the pictures offer straight portraiture or photojournalism, capturing relaxed moments among his circle. Others display a more surreal quality, as in a 1969 photograph of Mitchell, with the singer’s starkly lit profile repeated eerily in a magnifying glass as she examines one of her own paintings. A self-portrait from 1974 has a thin, bearded Nash holding a sketch pad and glaring into a mirror as he’s reflected again in another.
“I’m sure that people that are known as musicians get looked at askance when they delve into other forms of expression,” Nash said. “Personally, I don’t see the difference between photography and music. To me it’s a very similar process. With photography, you go through it much faster; it’s that very cleverly worded ‘decisive moment.’ ”
By a combination of chance and design, the Sotheby’s auction was scheduled last year the same week in April as the debut of Nash’s own photography at the Simon Lowinsky Gallery in Manhattan. And by the end of the first day in New York, Susan Nash recalled, her husband seemed happier about the sale of some of his own images than the record-breaking auction of the collection, telling her excitedly, “I really am a photographer.”
The accelerating photography projects have led Nash to a new high-resolution printing technique that he is now promoting to other artists under the Nash Editions banner. Its $125,000 Iris 3047 printer was originally designed for color reproduction by publishing houses. But Nash has aimed the machine at black-and-white photography, its four ink jets firing vegetable dye onto paper spinning at 285 inches a second. The result has been a resolution high enough to create gallery-quality prints from the proof sheets whose negatives Nash lost on a Greyhound bus decades ago.
A few of these images from 1969 are part of the Hawkins Gallery exhibit, uncommonly sharp at 36-by-48 inches. “What this technology did was give me back all my early work,” Nash said.
Nash Editions has now attracted the likes of painter David Hockney, photographer-filmmaker Robert Frank and poet-photographer Allen Ginsberg, all of whom have expressed interest in trying the printing technique. And as Nash spoke in his workroom--surrounded by books, tacked-up prints, tape machines, an acoustic guitar and a keyboard--a nearby computer monitor displayed an electronic painting that Hockney had sent over for a test.
Nash suggested that he’s almost as happy just sharing his discoveries in technology as he is in using them himself, reflecting an enthusiasm for image-making that he has had since he first dabbled in photography as a teen-ager taking snapshots in England.
“That same openness applies to his art,” said gallery owner G. Ray Hawkins. “He’s not afraid of new technology, he’s not afraid of different types of image-making. He’s totally willing to explore something to see if it will take him to a place that makes sense.
“As a collector he was always open to new ideas,” added Hawkins, who first met Nash when the musician walked into his gallery soon after it opened in 1975 and left with a vintage Edward S. Curtis photograph. “He was extremely passionate about what he did, just believing in it 100%. His self-confidence as a collector was really amazing.”
In November, Nash was strolling proudly through the press preview of an exhibition culled from contemporary photography he and his wife had donated to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Pinned to the blue jacket Nash wore over a white shirt and blue jeans was a badge given to him by Ringo Starr, reading: “Art Saves Lives.” And on the walls were dramatic, surreal, or sometimes simply humorous pictures, including absurd English sunbathing scenes by Martin Parr, an image of human suffering in Calcutta by Mary Ellen Mark and a giant golden orotone print of an ant’s head by Sally Larson.
At the time, Nash explained that he had finally decided to part with most of his collection of about 2,000 images because it had grown into an overwhelming responsibility, a towering investment requiring museum-quality storage, insurance, inventory record keeping and other headaches. He began his collection when confronted with the horrific 1962 image of Diane Arbus’ “Child with a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C.” Nash bought that picture in 1971, and his search for other striking photographs led him into old shops and thrift stores during tours with Crosby, Stills and Nash.
“That search is much more pleasurable to me than having a collection.”
Soon, Nash added, his focus will be returning to his music. Indeed, before the interview at his home, Nash had been up until 3 a.m. writing a song based on a movie script sent to him by Bette Midler. He also plans to compile a five-CD boxed set chronicling the last 23 years of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s music, including previously unreleased material.
And Nash is still fascinated by pictures. He is turning his attention, as a collector and as a patron of LACMA, to avant-garde photography. He said that he was also about to embark on a search for some “mammoth daguerreotype plates of San Francisco that disappeared when they were sent to St. Louis” in the mid-1800s.
“I’m still hung up on photographs, I’m afraid,” Nash said. “The more you uncover, the more there is out there.”
Photographs by Graham Nash, Saturday through April 27, at the G. Ray Hawkins Gallery, 910 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica. Open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sat urdays. No admission charge. For more information, call (213) 394-5558.