Exploring the paths of growing up: an interview with photographer Nina Mouritzen

The photographs I have submitted are part of a body of work that I recently finished.

The narrative framework for this body of images is a juxtaposition of encounters, objects, and motifs of my close surroundings, which span a timeline of a decade.

They are images of growing up and the ongoing investigation of changes through portraits of friends, people I shared brief encounters with, self portraits and images of cityscapes, landscapes and moments of interruptions of everyday life.

This was Nina Mouritzen’s first email to ISSUE, a submission for our YOUTH theme. I saw in her photographs the gritty, intimate quality of the kind of photos friends take on a particularly thrilling, a particularly meaningful night out, stuck to the walls of countless apartments and homes with tape or blu-tac, torn away again as they move on to the next adventure. I also saw in her photos splashes of the mundane, of the everyday, of the boredom and silence that fills our moments. Snapshots of youth, but more than that, snapshots of a life being lived.

It was only afterwards, looking through Nina’s well-stocked website, that I started freaking out. She was born in 1980, originally from Copenhagen but now based in New York and has been for the past 12 years. She’s been taking photographs a lot longer than that. You should see the whatsapp messages I sent our sub-editor Syaz. “She’s had her work published in proper magazines, and exhibitions! She’s photographed Kate Moss! And Feist! And The Noisettes! And ELLEN PAGE!”

I don’t wish to paint Nina only with the brush of who she’s photographed — you can take a look at her bio to see what an accomplished photographer she is, and also have a look at her photographs to see what she’s capable of. My flailing was mainly because this storied and experienced photographer was so open and willing to sharing her work, but more importantly her thoughts, with us! Us in our tiny corner of the Internet! I was floored, but wasn’t about to waste the opportunity.

Below is ISSUE’s interview with Nina, who was so kind and generous with her time and her answers. We spoke about the start and purpose of her photography, how it’s grown with her, intertwined with her work, life and explorations of the world. We also talk a bit about analog photography (Nina only shoots film), and also some features of being a professional, paid photographer.

Featured alongside our interview are also some selections of her work, some of which are part of her original submission and may seem familiar to you, as Nina has kindly allowed us to play with her work and turn them into the collages (as a mash up with Shaun Tiong‘s photographs) you see featured on our front page! You can check out the rest of her work on her website, and look out for her book Findings which she is putting together for early 2014.

— Syar S. Alia

When did you first start taking photographs? What drew you to it, and what were the kind of images you were first attracted to?

I started taking pictures when I was 12 years old with my parents’ old Minolta camera from the 70s. My world has obviously expanded since then, but the motivation remains somewhat the same: to create a visual diary and a document tracing my life. I’m an only child and the camera became an integral part of communicating with the outside world, because I quickly discovered that photographing something somehow gives you a purpose of being present in an environment you may not otherwise be included in. To a certain extent, that philosophy still pertains to my life and approach to photography today.

What’s been the most important thing to you with regards to your “growing up” in the past decade? In your original statement, you say this body of work is  “finished”, so what do you see for the next decade, in your life and in your work?

I may have put my foot in my mouth, when I declared it a “finished” project, because essentially, documenting your life does not really have an end until, well, you are no longer capable of documenting it.

The images I initially sent depict a specific time in my life, which is from my late teens until my late 20’s, and that period, I think most people experience as extremely formative with profound influences and overall experiences, and for me personally, I moved alone halfway around the globe to a city where I didn’t really know anyone. And all I wanted to do was take pictures. I learned a lot from that. I took pictures of everything along the way, and it was not always the easiest time, because I was also trying to find my footing and identity as a young adult because you are going through those strange years of no longer being a “child” but not quite equipped for adulthood yet.

I ultimately had the good fortune of working for Mary Ellen Mark a few months after arriving in New York City, and that had a profound impact on my life, my way of viewing the world and shaping me as an individual. She was a great teacher and some of her words still resonate to this day, if I feel “stuck” somewhere.

You take a lot of portraits – of others and of yourself. What draws you to a subject, what elements most attracts you as a photographer?

Well, the self-portraits and the “other” portraits are two completely different things for me. The self-portraits are usually conducted alone, and start with the conception of a specific idea, inspiration, or emotion. Despite the perhaps “spontaneous” appearance or feeling, a lot of thought goes into it before the execution.

The “other” portraits, I tend to approach with a collaborative frame of mind. I’m not much of a director and I am very interested in the expressions and emotions that happen fluidly when the exchange is made between photographer and subject. I’m attracted to subjects that portray a certain ”otherness” which is really hard to put into words. Obviously it’s a certain type of beauty or “attractiveness”, but not necessarily a literal one. I like to create a feeling of intimacy which is based on trust, which is a trait that’s not really visual at a first glance, but comes out when you start a session. It’s honestly very difficult to explain, because essentially it also boils down to that exchange that happens right as you are taking a picture.

Your portraits are often posed, or seem that way. You’ve worked a lot with people who are used to being photographed to an extent — what is it like working with people who are often called on to “perform” in whatever way in front of the camera?

Ha, that is funny. You are the first person to ever call my portraits posed. I am always told the opposite. Yeah, I have worked with a lot of people that have been used to the camera, and some even do it for a living. The truth is, you are probably basing this off the content on my website, which does reflect a majority of my published work and less of my more “artistic” or personal projects. I kind of had to decide which foot to put forward when I created my website, and decided to use it predominantly as a vehicle for my work that related to either more “published projects” or artistic projects that has already found an outlet.

As far as people performing…well, essentially we all perform to a certain extent when being photographed, don’t we? At the very least we try to put our best foot forward (or our most flattering expression). I find that it is a very different array of people that tend to relax in front of the camera, some are super used to it, some are very inexperienced — it’s a personality thing that makes a good subject.

What’s your favourite place to photograph? There are places in the world that’s been so photographed and recorded that for me they seem only to exist in pictorial form (for example New York or Paris) and when you go there it feels like everything’s a clash between the 2D and the 3D. As a photographer, how do you photograph something that’s been captured a million times before?

My favorite place is Coney Island in New York City. It embodies everything I find interesting; it’s diverse and unpredictable. And if you look in one direction it is decay and wear-and-tear and history, and the other way is a stretch of beach as far as you can look. It has a very rich history and attracts all walks of life and is a full-blown tapestry of contradictions.

And you can take the subway there. And it never gets repetitive to photograph.

As far as Paris, etc…there will always be places that have been photographed a million times, but if it seems overdone, it’s probably because it has been photographed the same way a million times. My version of New York City, of Paris and of Copenhagen, is likely not your version of it. I think when photographing a place, your photographs should and must convey a personal relationship and interaction with the place.

You say you only shoot in film and that you print a lot of your work in a dark room still. Tell us about your connection to this method of photography. And are you worried that in the next decade, with the practice of analog film photography not necessarily dwindling but not as supported (in the sense of dwindling film stock and processing places going digital), that your ways of working might be threatened? Have you ever worked with digital photography and what are your thoughts on it?

I have always been and will always be interested in the craftsmanship, strengths and limitations of analog photography. The story told between 36 frames and the sound and feel of a solid manual SLR camera has no comparison. The darkroom has a magic and meditation to it and I will forever associate it with a skill. I could carry on about the smell of developer and the texture of the paper, but I’ll stop myself here.

As far as analog photography becoming extinct? Never. I firmly and one hundred percent believe that. It is a process and craftsmanship that has remained the same for many decades. I think it has definitely become less popular and I think it has grown non-compatible with time sensitive and commercial photography, but ultimately it will never die out.

The assignments I get hired for, is obviously because of my aesthetics but also the analog aspect is imperative. My “clients” often ask for that “handmade” feel (which is analog) and that is a something that cannot be recreated digitally no matter how proficient you are at digital photography. It’s just two different things. Two different artistic expressions. And although I have no interest in digital photography for myself, I would never disregard it as “easy” or “soulless” or any other negative connotations, because there are a lot of people that use it very successfully and beautifully. It’s just not my work tool.

What’s a work day like for you? Where are you based currently and what are your essentials when you work (coffee, cigarettes, music, etc)?

There’s no routine. I made a decision a long time ago, when I was a young teenager and began doing art and photography, that my artistic work would never be dictated by income and as a result, I always held “other jobs.” I’ve never had to make any artistic decisions based on financial gain. It gives me a balance, I feel, where I don’t keep myself occupied with “me and my art” full time because I have been “forced” and used to working other jobs. And at the same time, I’ve enabled a freedom, where my artwork is separated from other things. The past few years, I have been fortunate to be working on a lot of significant projects, that has elevated my artistic career, and I have received art grants from the government. So, my week is a mix and match of projects, work, research, meetings and inspiration.

I’m based in New York and I prefer to spend as much time here as I possibly can. I have been based here for 12 years and although I enjoy seeing other places for shorter periods (and have travelled pretty extensively), New York City can still floor me on a daily basis and inspires me all the time.

Ha, oh, I would love to create the illusion that I subsist on coffee, cigarettes and two hours of sleep a day and everything is very “rock n roll” — the truth isn’t quite so glamorous. I get up most days at 7am and I spend a lot of time researching and getting the “information” part of my brain going, which tends to open up the floodgates for inspiration. I am very social in spurts, which tends to provide a lot of inspiration through investigation and curiosity, but then it is often followed by periods of needing alone time in order to process it and transform it into ideas. Yeah, music is an integral part of my life, as is movies, art, bicycling — all of the mentioned provides moments of meditation and helps me clear my head.

What do you think about the concept of age — are you a person who dreads birthdays or loves them? Do you still feel young, or does that question make you think “What does that even mean?” (a valid response.) And finally, what are you most looking forward to about getting older?

Age is just a number. I was very “old” as a kid, and I think I’m a “young” adult. I have also physically looked the same for well over a decade and seem to forget my age all of the time, so I’m really not very occupied with young vs old. I’m interested in the development and progress of myself, and people around me, but that has very little to do with age and much more with maturity, experience and self-insight. I’m not thinking about getting older. I think about my life day to day and I am not into planning or trying to predict a future that is inevitably unpredictable. It doesn’t mean I don’t have dreams or ambitions. I just simply try to apply it to present day. I may live to be 50 or I may live to be 100, none of it really matters, all that matters, is that you are content with what you have achieved in “your” time span. And I must say, so far so good. I feel very successful in the structure of my life and feel very fortunate to have the experiences life has tossed at me.

As a kid, did you like being photographed or filmed? What was your relationship to the camera before you got behind one yourself? Describe a typical Nina facial/body expression a) from when you were younger and b) from when someone else takes a photo of you.

I think I was kind of indifferent to it. My mom made scrapbooks and photo albums, and I’m an only child, so I was definitely not never getting photographed, but I never really had a specific feeling about it. I was interested in the mechanisms and “magic” of my parents’ camera since I was really young and loved looking in their scrapbooks and albums. That visual diary and the slivers of time captured forever seem to resonate and I loved the way my imagination could transport me into those scrapbook pages when I looked at them. When I began to use their camera, it felt very natural. In my adult life I’m not particularly fond of having my picture taken. The self-portraits I do, are not of “myself” but more of a body that encompasses a specific idea or emotion and because I seem to be the most available body I know (!) — the self-portraits sort of stem from there.

How would you describe your photography to someone who’s never seen it? How would you like people to remember you?

I don’t know how to describe my photography…I know what I try to achieve but it’s not necessarily easily put into to words, plus, I kind of believe that it is up for grabs what other people may get out of it. I guess I cannot really describe my photography in words.

I want my loved ones to remember me as a compassionate and honest person. My photography….it would satisfy me if it was remembered as a document of a time and place that translates and evokes thoughts across a broader audience.

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