There exists a bittersweet joy in watching your kids grow up. As a father of two, I can only tell you how great it is to see them develop personalities, and how sad it is to concede to the bare memories of how they once were.
In that strange paradox where you end up becoming a father to yourself, Nick Nichols is LOOK3. The growth of the festival has become an extension of his career; maturity met with great pride and curiosity for what comes next. The thought of going out on top is no enigma, but it is bittersweet and it does concede to memory.
Standing shoulder-to-shoulder at a crossroads, there is a good chance that LOOK3 goes right and Michael “Nick” Nichols goes left. No turning back for either one, but you do get the sense of new direction. Quite literally, there have been plenty of yellow signs along the way.
As Nick stood before his children at the Paramount, all he could do was sob and gently wipe away the tears. The giant screen had played his career in retrospect, and it was obvious that a three thousand foot rope could not measure or scale his accomplishments. His children stood with him, unanimously applauding before he could even say the words, “Thank you all. Fuck.”
The expletive provided immediate levity, but it also carried a meaning deeper than the four-letter word by itself. It was a touristy way of Nick asking the crowd for directions like where to go, what to do, and how far he was from the location. They were interesting questions from a man who never would have asked them on the 455th day of the MegaTransect. But when you’ve traveled with J. Michael Fay for two thousand miles across the Congo Basin, the call for simple instruction is not hard to imagine. Because, really, what do you after that?
We know all about the work that Nick did before 2002 with Jane Goodall and Dian Fossy. And, of course, there are the intelligent Elephants, the three hundred foot Redwoods, and the happy Serengeti Lions that came after that. (Go see them at The Haven before its too late.) So, it’s not so much as what to do, but more like why he should do it anymore.
It has taken a toll on him. You could see it. He told you so himself. But the paradox between Nick Nichols and LOOK3 ends there, because as the photographer is winding down, the Festival is just getting started.
Since my involvement with LOOK3 in 2011, I could recite the names of the artists with the same effortlessness as I could name any of Nick’s work. Mary Ellen Mark. Christopher Anderson. Lynsey Addario. Hank Willis Thomas. George Steinmetz. Stanley Greene. Massimo Vitali. Alex Webb. Camille Seaman. Donna Ferrato. Steve McCurry.
The list goes on. I could sit in a tree for 19 days and listen to any of them speak without growing weary of their work. The same goes for Nick, but the notion of him being available for so many days is up for debate. It’s hard for me to understand.
David Quammen posed an interesting question to Nick during yesterday’s conversation. “Given that photography was invented in 1826, who would you be and what would you be doing if you grew up in the 1790s?”
“That’s a crazy question,” answered Nichols. “I’d probably be in prison. I don’t have a life without photography. If it weren’t invented yet, I wouldn’t have been there. I couldn’t have done etching because it’s too slow. You can’t shoot two hundred thousand etchings.”
And therein lies the contradiction. A passionate creative admits that he is nothing without the means to create; yet he is willing to give up his life in exchange for something new. Nick has said that he desperately hates following other people’s footsteps, but when you think about it, it is exactly what he has done for decades. The world would be absent of his photographic treasures had he not done so.
That fact the Nick would call it a career is an absolute sacrifice. (It should come as no surprise that his Lions are displayed in a church.) And in that strange paradox where you become a father to yourself, we are LOOK3; and the bittersweet joy becomes ours, having to assume role of the parent and concede to the memory of what Nick was, and forever will be.
A damn good photographer.
(Story by Joe Santa / Corbis)