Drew Nikonowicz: This World and Others Like It

“I was raised alongside the internet, so there was never an othering effect from the introduction to newer technologies, especially the internet.”

Photography’s technological and sociological evolution has always gone hand-in-hand. One informing the other in a ‘what came first?’ kinda way. As I see it, Drew Nikonowicz’s work sits right in amongst this conversation. His photographs are produced across technologies and raise some interesting thoughts about our relationship to images, image making and image interpretation. This World and Others Like It was released earlier this year on Yoffy Press / FW: Books and came to my attention just as I was deliberating over the relationship between old photographic prints and the online image economy.

 

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SS: I first came across your work through localhost.gallery, which kind of sparked my interest in the way it was creating a space outside of the “art system”, if you like. It was a pleasant surprise to discover your work as a photographer, but also as someone who is working with large format cameras, can you help me join the dots of all your creative endeavours?

DN: Everything I’m working on, including my company Standard Cameras and localhost.gallery, stems from my work as a photographer. When I was pursuing my BFA degree at the University of Missouri-Columbia, my photography professors emphasized a focus on using the right tools for any given project. So, my projects and ideas have always decided what tools I should use. This has led me to be omnivorous as an image-maker and in my projects.

 

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DN: The other concept my education fostered was a commitment to sharing my knowledge with those around me, starting with my job as the photography lab manager. This engagement was something that I sorely missed after I graduated. Standard Cameras began as a small project to try and 3D print a functional large format 4×5, but after I graduated I saw it as a serious opportunity to continue sharing my knowledge through a new meaningful and formal platform. I am always happy to share my excitement for photography with those around me.

Localhost.gallery was a several-year-old idea that I pushed into reality late one night near the end of my residency at Fabrica Research Centre. I think most artists are excited to collaborate with other artists, and this was my excuse to do this. So, all the programming typically starts with me reaching out to artists I admire asking if they want to work with me on a new exhibition. Hosting it within Minecraft was part of the idea from the start – I used to play the game regularly, and admittedly still watch Minecraft videos most weeks. The gallery is currently on hiatus, as I’m working on a 2.0 version which will be even more accessible than it was before.

I’ve always approached photography as an excuse to look at things that interest me. This is why This World and Others Like It is so heavily engaged with our relationship to technology and how it influences the way we explore the worlds surrounding us. Digitally or physically, I have an insatiable desire to explore. I try to make sure all of my work allows me to explore new places and ideas.

 

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SS: On that note, can you tell me more about this book? Is part of making this work anything to do with where Photography as a medium finds itself in these times? Your work straddles the medium’s history, both technologically and ontologically. Is that a dilemma that studying exposes? Is it a search to find where one’s practice is situated in relation to the changes that have resulted in the medium’s evolution and use?

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DN:  The project is definitely engaged with photography as a growing and changing technology. In the project there is a mixture of analog photographs and computer-generated photographs. These two kinds of images are used interchangeably. I see them both as legitimate and equal image-making apparatuses. I was raised alongside the internet, so there was never an othering effect from the introduction to newer technologies, especially the internet. It has always felt incredibly familiar, comfortable and exciting.

At its core, This World and Others Like It is an exploration of what it means to be an explorer in the 21st century. In a world where every surface of the planet has been imaged and thousands of explorable realities exist within technology, we engage with these worlds in a very different way than we used to. Robots and cameras have become surrogates for us, and through them we explore deeper and further than we are physically capable of. So, photography has become a core component of navigating and understanding the world. However, we rarely consider the constructed nature of photography. The edges of the frame teach us how to see the world, and in the same way, the edges of the trail teach us how to explore the forest.

 

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SS: I find the title, This World and Others Like It, quite profound in its futurist projection, it has a sci-fi feel to it and extending this much further, I imagine it as a metaphor for searching alternate realities beyond the present state of things. Do you situate yourself, within its production purely as a photographic exploration of real vs virtual or do you, like me, project some kind of futurity into the work? I don’t want to force this interpretation, but I find work that straddles real and digital, if I may invoke this simplistic binary, offers projected imaginaries that also relate to the way we engage with information today, through the screen as well as in the real.

DN: I don’t think we need to look into the future to find alternate realities. We already have access to an uncountable amount through entertainment, virtual reality simulations, rover & probe-based imagery and more. Part of navigating the real vs virtual is to suggest that they are one in the same. One cannot exist without the other, and they’re interchangeable in our daily lives. Our actions and experiences within virtual spaces now have clear and measurable impact on our physical ‘real’ lives – and vice versa. We are constantly moving beyond the present state of things into these alternate realities. I think you are right to read these ideas into the work, but I would say it’s not a conversation for the future. If we did manage to find or discover some alternate physical reality, would it really alter the way we encounter things that differently? I can imagine it would be different, but I would guess (for most people) it wouldn’t be too different from putting on a VR headset for a while or handing themselves over to a movie in a theater for a couple hours. There is so much speculation in this that it’s impossible to say. Perhaps these virtual experiences we are creating to be more and more ‘real’ will be considered training in the future when there are alternate physical realities to explore. Though I would say we’re already in that future. As long as the alternate reality feels real and we believe that it is truly real, any distinction beyond that feels semantic.

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“I recently saw a screenshot of an early tweet from Barack Obama near the beginning of his first presidential term and it had a couple hundred likes and retweets. Only 10 years later those numbers could be expected from a teenager running for class president, if not more. In many ways we are already living in the society we think is somewhere in the future.”

 

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SS: Yes, you are on point there. I think as J.G Ballard once said, projecting an imaginary future through sci-fi was more about the present than it was the future, so perhaps in that way your work too, says something about how and where we are now. This brings me to asking you about the time, date and GPS stamp at the beginning of the book. What was it about the temporal and geographic data that was significant for you?

DN: Definitely – We sometimes lose sight of the explosive growth of technology because we are so embedded in it. I recently saw a screenshot of an early tweet from Barack Obama near the beginning of his first presidential term and it had a couple hundred likes and retweets. Only 10 years later those numbers could be expected from a teenager running for class president, if not more. In many ways we are already living in the society we think is somewhere in the future.

 

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DN: I developed the titling structure as a way to level the playing field between the computer-generated photographs and the analog photographs. If they all share the same kind of title, they resist the urge to be read as two different kinds of images. On the surface, the suggestion is that those images were made at that time and place. However, this is not really always true – sometimes they point to the place my photograph was inspired by, or the place my laptop was located when I edited the computer-generated photograph. Some of them do actually point to the time and place an actual exposure was made, but all of them have some relationship to the image they reference. The computer-generated photographs, for example, give a great history of many of the places I lived while making the work. I like the suggestion that these images were, in some way, at those specific places during their production, but that specificity isn’t necessarily important. Just like photographs, the titles appear to provide us with factual and useful information when that is rarely true.

SS: I like this. In fact, you know personally speaking, I am way more interested in how these images are processed by you than their provenance. I think that aspect of a photograph of course dominates the conversations we have around images, because there is always a desire to marry the photographic result with the truth and the conditions around ‘moment’ of capture and not necessarily the process or possibilities of where interpretation can take us. I like the fact that you have provided data about the image, but that data is more personal and less to do with any originary information. I think it allows a project like this to be a site of ambiguity and hence, exploration and not a rigid story to be told (although there are of course legitimate reasons for such strategies). This World and Others Like It gives the viewer space in which to insert themselves, kind of in the space of the image itself, if I may extend this metaphor. Certainly, landscape and architecture allow this. Can you tell me about what you were searching for when you were making this project, what visions influenced your decisions about what to seek and what to shoot as images?

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DN: I think that’s the most ‘accurate’ relationship we can have to photography. It’s not about truth, but about perception. So, the data is really only misleading if, in the work, you’re searching for some inherent or elemental truth.

I didn’t have these words when I began making this project, but now it’s clear that I’ve always tried to be a very omnivorous image maker. My professor once told me about an assignment he used to give to beginning photography students – with one roll of 35mm film, find 36 completely different ways to photograph something. I kind of wondered how many images could be made of a chair, for example, without actually showing the chair. I think about that conversation pretty often.

Throughout the project, the prevailing mindset was to bring my 4×5 everywhere. Then, when I went home or went to work in the photo lab, I brought out my computer to make the computer-generated photographs. In both cases, I wasn’t necessarily doing anything I would have already been doing. I was already going on hikes in the woods and, when possible, the mountains. I was already playing video games and watching films. It was out of this genuine excitement for exploration that I began the work. I also realize that I use photography as an escape to some degree.

 

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There is a web of artists I deeply admire that also influenced my image making over time. Early on, Andreas Gursky and Taryn Simon helped me realize that photography isn’t about truth – at least not in the way I imagined it. I abandoned photojournalism to become a fine art major. Timothy O’Sullivan continues to intrigue me, but not without the help of the Rephotographic Survey from Mark Klett and Rick Dingus. Most importantly, Joan Fontcuberta’s writing and photographs are a mainstay in my thinking. By the time I was in Italy for my residency at Fabrica, I was reading his book of essays Pandora’s Camera. I still find myself quoting that book.

I suppose it isn’t the answer you’re looking for, but I was searching for anything I could find. Any kind of transformation or attempt to make one thing look or feel like something else. I also knew early on that the project was about an aggregate of images, rather than a series of individual photographs. I think that mindset helped relieve the pressure of any one photograph needing to tell the whole story

 

 

Drew Nikonowicz

This World and Others Like It

Yoffy Press / FW: Books

(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Sunil Shah and Drew Nikonowicz. Images @ Drew Nikonowicz.)

 

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