Danielle Nicol’s (fb, Instagram) photography, when I first saw it, made me immediately recognize how real she is. Perhaps it’s because a lot of her work is self portraits, but there’s no denying that it’s human and exposed. She has a beautiful balance of catered perfection and half hazard causality. The very essence that makes cool I guess. I think this speaks a little bit for the fact that it’s mostly in black and white, which always eliminates any distractions and gets right to the point.
Her lighting is always spot on. Shadows either drift off into a dream, or they provide the landscape for the drama she’s pushing for.
Something Danielle does very well is capture imagination with location shooting. The subject may be sitting in a smallish room, with an old office desk and a few stationary items on the desk, maybe a 70s computer chair off-centered and the size of the room necessitates a wide angle lens, and she manages to make the viewer sit right in that room with her and not feel distorted or askew with gimmicks or decoys.
This is something that draws me to a photographer, or to a good image; the way that a photograph can look as though every element of the image has a place there, yet also seem so serendipitous. It reminds me of David Burton or Guy Aroch or even Ellen von Unwerth whom I’ve previously explored on here.
I finally had the opportunity to sit down and ask her a few questions about her work. It’s raw, it’s emotional, it’s strong, and it’s real.
COT: I’m looking through a lot of your work on FB, and I see you do a lot of self portraits. Because they’re black and white, I think, it makes me feel very introspective while going through them. How do they make you feel when you’re preparing to shoot them? I know for me, it’s a very interesting play with self comfort, and just releasing. It’s a different preparation then going to shoot a model for me. I go inward more. less formalities.
DN: I never meant for the self portraits to become a thing. When I first started photography I did them more as lighting experiments when I did not have models but I was itching to shoot non stop so it became an almost daily thing. It started to become a form of therapy for me. I was trying to get sober at the time, was diagnosed bi polar and was in an abusive relationship. Having time alone with my camera helped me to explore my emotions and perception of self and in turn work through some issues. I found a freedom in it to go places I might be too scared to go in a real life setting. As far as prep goes, the self portraits happen pretty organically. They usually come from an emotion I am feeling at the time that I need to express. Despair, anger, sexual desire, love etc. Many of them are just straight documentation of my addiction or abuse or mental illness. Many of them before I got sober were just me a drunk emotional mess. It has helped me to look at myself honestly. I am also in love with texture and grit so some of the portraits have come from me seeing a space I need to shoot and popping myself into the mix.
COT: Yeh, I really love the spaces you find to shoot in. I don’t know if they’re just the spaces you have around you or what, but it always seem that you manage to work them perfectly. Do you prefer shooting on location or do you have a preference?
DN: I have been lucky to find a lot of character spots. I do prefer location for sure. I like the reality it brings. Studio feels a little to sterile for what I like to do though it is necessary for some of the things I would like to do.
COT: Yeh, I can see that you’ve started to incorporate more strobes and lighting into your work. What’s made you shift a little bit more into that realm?
DN: I think it is a natural progression. I want to learn as much as I can so I am playing with strobes now. It’s new and exciting you know? I used construction lights for years though, and to be honest I prefer the effect they give more than flashes at times. It feels more raw which suits my esthetics better.
COT: You do have a really raw aesthetic, for sure. I think that’s something that I really enjoy seeing in your photographs. As I look through some of your photographs, I see how it’s shifted a bit from more classical poses to images that speak something very emotional. I guess this is maybe accounted to your battle with drugs? Allowing it to become more of an outlet for you?
DN: Thank you. I think when I started, coming from a modelling background, I went to that space.. The I am a pretty model space. ha. But I hated that people shot me that way when I modelled so that also became part of the process. Getting beyond that comfort and how the world says I should be and showing who I really am. It has helped me become confident in my own skin.
COT: That is a beautiful process. I think that’s a wall that many artists hit and never overcome.
DN: It was so important for me to do and is a never ending process. I did not realize how much societal expectations had effected my perception of self and I was able to find beauty in my differences once I questioned those expectations; which in turn helped me gain confidence, which in turn helped me stay sober.
COT: Yeh, I’ve been coming to those realizations too. Identifying and breaking those down one step at a time. I just started this book and it expresses how a higher spiritual path is the identification of the difference between real and perception. Real being the truth of you’re self, and perception being what you’re perceiving as proper and supposed-to. I think this is the journey you’re on?
DN: Exactly and I would love to read that book.
COT: It’s an introduction from Aldus Huxley for a translation of the Bhagavad Gita.
So, you’re a photographer, and a model. Which one did you get into first, what drew you to the photographic image, and how come you started taking photographs? It almost feels like maybe everybody of our generation has always had a camera around?
DN: I modelled first but I think that is more because I was always told I should. I like art modelling because I can be myself but commercial and promo modelling has always made me sick to my stomach with anxiety. It makes me feel like a phoney and I can’t live up to the standard of beauty. I have always loved what an image can do though and started bugging photographers I know to teach me things. When I was young I wanted to change the world (naive I know) but I spent a great portion of my life trying to figure out how… I wanted to write when I was young but I moved out on my own st 15 and could not keep up with school and my jobs, so I only got my GED which kinda messed with my plans… I could barely figure out how my next meal was coming nevermimd how to change the world. Ha. I started modelling at 17 after a local designer in Edmonton approached me. I thought it could be my ticket out of poverty so kept with it. I am still poor lol. At 21 I went to university and started taking political science courses as I was going to change the system from the inside until I realized how ridiculous that notion is. So I was back to the drawing board. At some point I realized art is the only way for someone like me. My goal with my art as I go forward is to question everything, and in turn I hope to provoke that in others; to hopefully influence a change in thinking here and there which I believe is the only hope for the world. A change in consciousness.
Also I have to say I don’t think my art or me alone could do anything but every little thing adds to the picture you know?
COT: Wow. Powerful. Is this why you’re open about your sobriety?
DN: I am an open book always have been. To a fault some times. I think it is important for people to be open about struggle. It’s part of us and helps us to become who we are. I have gained so much inspiration from others who are open about their sobriety from seeing them overcome and hope I can show others it is possible.
COT: yeh, that’s beautiful. I admire that, I think it’s one of my scariest endeavors, one I’ve only just realized needs to be addressed.
It’s important for an artist like yourself to be aware of your message, isn’t it?
DN: I had to find some reason why it all happened to me ha.. I could be a victim or make it positive. Sometimes, yes, but sometimes there is no message or I don’t know what it is you know? And I think that in itself can be a message. It’s ok not to have all the answers to be lost…The world’s a confusing place.
COT: Boy it sure is.
Photography and the self exploration gives you some answers though?
DN: It does. I am not sure about how much it answers about the world though I continue to explore but it is helping me find my place in it.
COT: I don’t think there’s anything more that you could ask for as a photographer, is there?
Do you feel that you’ve recently been treading on new ground as a photographer? And if so, can you explain what this ground is?
DN: I have concepts I would like to explore more that I think would help fulfill my curiosity about set perceptions in society and why they exist. I have started to shoot men recently which I have found very interesting. Not only just in the actual shooting but the unwillingness to be presented in ways or show body parts that are commonly seen for women, but I need to shoot more to find out if this is a consistent reaction or just the men I have shot up until now. I would like to focus more on male sexuality as I don’t see it much and I am honestly curious what makes men feel sexy or insecure.
There is alot of dialogue about women’s body insecurities and such but we don’t talk about men’s and I am sure they have them.
COT: I would like to see that exploration of yours. It is a very interesting subject.
DN: I need more male models ha
COT: Do you want to talk about technique at all? Or do you maybe want to talk more about what excites you about an image when it’s ‘working’ for you in a shoot?
DN: I am not technically a”good” photographer. I work pretty intuitively though at this point I do want to work at getting better in that regard so when I want to produce something specific I am not limited by my lack of skill.
COT: I think it’s clear with that photo you just showed me today that you’re pretty capable with a few strobes. That image was dynamic and very well lit.
DN: I try? Lol
COT: That’s art.
DN: I am also insanely hard on myself. I am always shocked when people say my work is good, though super flattered and blushy. Ha.
COT: It’s beautiful. seriously. I fell in love with a few looking through your profile. I think that’s how we first met. I think I told you that when we first talked.
DN: As far as what excites me while shooting it’s hard to say… I will see something in camera that I feel and that’s exciting… It’s pretty organic. You did and thank you. The support means so much.
COT: Yeh, I guess it’s hard to talk about specific things because it’s just the natural way of things to just happen, rather then plan them.
DN: Yes sometimes it’s just awesome, sometimes shit ha
COT: I have an artist friend, Jaybo Monk, who told me that sometimes he just looks at his canvas and does something completely random to it. And that’s like a challenge, the unexpected, the uniqueness that allows you to build off of.
DN: Yes! The things I love the most come that way. It is like tapping into the earth’s energy or something. No thought just flow.
COT: Final question. What keeps you up at night? or. if you’re a morning person, what gets you out of bed in the morning?
DN: ummm insomnia haha. I feel creative at night.
COT: I read this piece a while ago explaining how there is no trend, there are many famous and valiant people of history who worked at night, and others who worked at morning. It’s only a modern myth that early bird gets the word. Reading that made me comfortable being a night hawk. But I’ve actually become less of one recently, with a regular schedule and coffee. ha.
DN: It’s nice to be up early and enjoy the day, but I definitely like night better… though I do have a love affair with the sun.
COT: Thank you so much for opening up and being so willing to share your thoughts with me Danielle. I really appreciate it.
DN: Thank you for the interest!