Photographer and filmmaker Nik Nerburn has a show at Hemlocks Leatherworks and a show opening next Thursday at Duluth Art Institute. His photos are spontaneous glances that grab and pull you in, wondering about the rest of the story.
NN: I’m a documentary storyteller. I make movies and take pictures. Most of my work is about life in the upper Midwest, mostly rural areas, small towns, and places that are changing. I’m currently working on a photo essay about the shifting politics and culture of Duluth and the Iron Range, a documentary film called The Great American Think Off about a philosophy contest in New York Mills, Minnesota (population 1,119), and a photo book called The Grand Terrace Photo League, which is a documentary collaboration between myself and the residents of an apartment building in Worthington, Minn., which houses mostly recent immigrants who work at a nearby pork processing plant. I care about expanding the common life and finding ways to relate across great differences.
Ever since my dad let me play with the family camcorder on a trip to New Mexico, I’ve been at it. I spent lots of time in the darkroom in high school, had a pretty productive zine phase, and cranked out lots of films during college and afterwards. I’ve really been focusing on making pictures these past couple of years. My dad is an artist and my mom is a journalist, so I was lucky enough to be steeped in this kind of stuff from day one!
Working in rural places and small towns has its own set of challenges, mostly having to do with funding (surprise!). Of course, all us artists can say that, no matter where we work, but the places I want to tell stories are pretty isolated. Minnesota, as a state, has one of the best infrastructures for funding this type of work, so it’s getting better.
I think a lot about the politics of representation, race, class, and place. Storytellers have power, and my tuning fork is usually vibrating with those concerns. But, I believe that theory follows practice, so I usually don’t think too hard about why I’m interested in certain subjects before I pursue them. These politics are in the forefront of my mind, but not didactically so in the work. I try not to center myself and the question of my white-boy American male gaze too much, because ain’t nobody trying to hear about that!
Filmmaking has become slightly less practical for me, given the stories I’m interested in telling, just because of what an enormous financial and emotional undertaking it always is. It’s like a monumental sculpture, every time. You’re raising a barn. Photography has its own challenges, but they’re more manageable for my personality type. I really struggle with staring at a computer for so many hours of the day, which is why my recent turn back towards the darkroom has felt so good.
I heard somebody say that there are two types of filmmakers (I think it applies to photography, also): ones that make work based on a piece of writing, and ones that make work based on the act of looking at the world through a camera. I’m probably the second kind. There’s absolutely nothing I love more than strolling with a camera, and I love the sense of a mandate it gives me. It becomes a job, in a good sense. Whether it’s close encounters with strangers or long hours spent sharing stories together, I just soak it up. I keep going after everybody else wants to go to bed, you know? It just feeds something deep. It’s a little bit manic, or crazy. There’s a sinister pedestrianism that possesses my feet, where I can’t stop walking and shooting and walking and shooting.
I spend a lot of time on Instagram, like many photographers. I have an exhibit opening at the Duluth Art Institute on Thursday, Sept. 13, with an artist talk on Nov. 29. I’ll be showing photos from Donald Trump’s rally in Duluth, as well as some of the black and white darkroom work from Duluth and the Range. Come see!
I’ve got some photos up at Hemlocks Leatherworks (1923 W. Superior St.) for maybe one more month, and then I’ve got this show at the DAI opening next week. My photo book from Worthington will be done before Thanksgiving, and there will be 50 copies of those available for the general public to purchase online (the money is going to a youth organization in Worthington that does anti-racist youth leadership development). The Great American Think Off will be done in early 2019, with lots of screenings to come.
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