I got the chance to interview Nick Gerber, who is a Chicago based photographer. Nick works for a company shooting and editing weddings, portraits, and headshots, as well as doing freelance photography work. I wanted to find out what it was like being a photographer in Chicago and how location has shaped his career. This was an email interview that took place over a period of five days from March 11 to March 16, 2013.
Katie: How does living in a large city such as Chicago helped you develop your photographic career?
Nick: Absolutely. It informs my aesthetic not only because I love the billions of dollars of architecture we have, but because it draws in a bunch of different people. I've got a network that is supremely talented and diverse and creative. So watching other people grow and create makes you want to do the same thing. One day I might be taking pictures of an actor and the next I'll be doing a portrait session with a guy who builds motorcycles, then the next night I'll be photographing an event at an art gallery and then the day after that I'll be walking the streets making pictures of the street, and on the weekend I might shoot a wedding. So, there's architecture, there's urban culture and there's a super collider of people constantly being creative. There is always something happening that I could be photographing. I want to see it all.
Katie: I read that you grew up in upstate New York, why didn’t you move to New York City and work there?
Nick: I did grow up in Rochester, New York - which is the birthplace of Kodak, strangely enough. My dad moved out to Chicago when I was about 10 or so, so I'd been to Chicago a lot more than New York at the time and had always had a love affair with the city. I could have gone either way, but I think I just was more familiar with Chicago. Also, a lot of ad work was being done in Chicago. We have some big advertisers based here so there was a fleeting idea of doing commercial photography when I was moving - but that's a very dog eat dog world and it's definitely feast and famine which can be scary. Chicago also felt... I guess more like home to me. I felt very welcome here.
Katie: How was your very first experience with Chicago? Were you like me, where every time I go to Chicago I just get super excited and feel a rush? Do you still feel that welcoming feeling that you did when you were younger in Chicago?
Nick: At first I hated Chicago. I used to get physically ill when I'd come - but that was centered more around the emotional aspect of coming rather than trying to find something visually or intellectually stimulating about it. It wasn't until I got older (17 or so) when I realized that Chicago was a hip town. There's art, there's music, there's culture, there's food. There are people here doing stuff that they really want to be doing. Once I realized the correlation between a larger city and availability of activity and stimulation I started to be a little more like you - excited about coming. Anxious to make something happen with my life.
Katie: Do you think that you could have made a career out of photography if you lived somewhere else?
Nick: I want to believe yes, but that's pretty hard to say. I'd like to tell you that I'd be a photographer no matter what, but I was seriously considering being an auto mechanic for a while. So... Who could really know? I think I'd be making something no matter what, but I don't know for sure if it would be with a camera.
Katie: Wow! An auto mechanic! What a different direction you have taken… How did that transition occur?
Nick: Well... I realized I was going to be dirty all the time and cold at least 6 months out of the year. That put me in a different direction for sure. I realized I still wanted to do something more or less with my hands. I still wanted to feel like I was "making" or "fixing" something, and conveniently I had access to all these shiny toys. Once I picked them up it was like "ohhhh!, this is the thing I was looking for!"
Katie: From growing up in upstate New York to living in Chicago what or who are your photographic inspirations? What artists, or photographers did you and do you look up to? How has those changed from place to place?
Nick: My inspirations have kind of always been Irving Penn, Annie Leibovitz, Richard Avedon, Herb Ritts, Sebastiao Salgado, Helmut Newton, etc. It's grown as people have shared other artists, or I've found them them on the internet. 13th Witness, Chris Ozer, Scott Schuman, Joey L, Paul Octavious, James Mollison, etc.
I realized recently that my influences/ inspirations have changed from being people who I recognized as master photographers to master creatives who are just using the camera as a tool.
Katie: When you say master creative’s who are using the camera as a tool, what do you mean by that? When I think of that, I think of people outside of the photography world, using the camera to document the actions of something else.
Nick: Think about Paul Octavious or Brock Davis - They're just using the camera to show off what they're doing, but they're also using the camera to make inspired photographs. Those are the kinds of people who would be out making things with their hands regardless of whether they had a camera to document it. They'd be drawing, painting, making sculpture, etc. The people that I like nowadays are of that ilk - the kinds of people who live creatively and happen to use a camera.
Katie: Living in Chicago have you ran into any photographer that you have admired? I know that photographers such as Cindy Sherman, Mona Kuhn do frequent the city….
Nick: I met Paul Octavious once. I've met a couple of other creative people who I admire a great deal that aren't photographers, but I've not really ran into a ton of photographers - or at least not people that I had known about before I met them. I'd really like to meet Trashhand since I know he lives here and his aesthetic is fairly parallel to mine. I'd like to actually hang out with Paul Octavious (when we met it was at a bar and he was working). But... I guess the blanket answer is not yet. I have a lot of friends who I admire, that are mega talented, but they're not world renowned or anything.
Katie: How was your reaction to meeting Paul Octavious? Is there any creative being that if you met, would turn you into a child meeting their favorite Disney character? Aka, make you shy, blush, and freak out like a little girl? Ha…
Nick: Sure! Annie Liebovitz! Ummm... There are others, too! If I met Paul again I'd probably freak out like a little girl. Probably Joseph Gordon Levitt because he's the kind of guy that really wants to experience everything creative and his mind doesn't seem like it ever shuts off.
Katie: How do you think your career would differ from what it is now, if say you lived in a smaller city like Milwaukee?
Nick: It's impossible to say. I don't necessarily believe in a strict form of "fate" but I think you go where you're pulled. I don't think going to Milwaukee was ever in the cards for me since I wasn't ever pulled to it. So, I can't really answer your question except to say - no other city ever really made sense to me when I was looking at moving. Now that I'm in Chicago I'm definitely here for the foreseeable future.
Katie: Do you find that living in a larger city work comes easier for you? Do you think there is more opportunities?
Nick: As far as keeping photography a career that keeps food on the table: Yes. Chicago is a practical decision for me as a freshly married 29 year old. But now I think I could go almost anywhere and find inspiration to keep myself creative. Now that I have a tool and a set of skills I could make pictures anywhere. It wouldn't be as profitable, but it might be more spiritually fulfilling. Depends on what your and the reader's definition of opportunities is.
Katie: What point in your career made you realize that you were a professional photographer?
Nick: Well... I started as an intern in a larger company and I was doing ok. I was making a little bit of money doing it with a stipend from my mom. After a while I got hired on full time and once I started to be able to support myself with a camera I think I fully considered myself a professional. In hindsight, though, I don't think I was doing good enough work to be considered a professional. So, my previous definition was making enough money to support yourself, but my new definition is doing work that has artistic merit, requires skill and concentration, and you get paid for the work you do.
Katie: I like your definition of being a professional. I think the addition of concentration is an interesting part. Why do you say concentration is a role in being a professional photographer?
Nick: Concentration is a combination of true interest and focus. So, really I used concentration as one adjective instead of those two. It requires focus and true interest in your work.
Katie: What do consider your successes? How do you determine success? Money? Acceptance? Media approval?
Nick: This is a good question. Success for me is a moving target. Having money or acceptance or approval would be phenomenal and would probably feel really good in the temporary, but I think long term success has to come from within. Success for me is getting to wake up and create. Make images, learn new skills, be creative and solve problems. If I have a long career of doing that stuff, I would consider myself successful even if money and fame never comes from it.
Katie: Do you think success has a tipping point?
Nick: Death, maybe. I think success is rarely something that you fall into and then from then on you're "successful". Success for me is continuing to work and continuing to make photographs. When I die people will be able to judge whether I was a success, but until then I'm just going to keep puttering around making pictures.
Katie: In your experience, how does a photographer break into the world of image making?
Nick: Shoot your ass off. Study images and find out what you love. Once you've got an idea of what it is that you love about making images, find someone to mentor you in that direction. Mentorship is important in that you'll learn new skills and hopefully, if they're really good, something about the business of making pictures. Once you've got that experience, or even while you're getting it, continue to shoot your ass off and build a portfolio. From there... well... it get's complicated. Depending on what area of photography you're planning to go into you can either just make yourself a website and try and hustle clients (weddings, events, portraits, some commercial work, fine art) or you can look for representation to get you into galleries (fine art) and/ or editorial/ commercial gigs. The thing about making it as a photographer is that it's 1/10th shooting and 10/10ths hustling.
Katie: How has your style of photography changed over the years? Did any changes have to do with the location you were living in?
Nick: I found my photographic voice, I would say. That's the big change. Earlier in my career/ life I was photographing everything, and doing so poorly. I think that it's more than geography - it's that combined with experience and knowledge.
Katie: Finding your photographic voice is a great feeling. How do you feel about your photographic voice? Is there any style, or genre of photography that you would like work in, that you haven’t yet?
Nick: It's still getting more powerful. I like the portraits that I shoot in my spare time more and more. When I wander the streets I'm a little more zoned in on my surroundings, which is also good. The state of my voice is that I found it, but I'm honing it. I think I'd like to delve further into the realms that I already know. I'd like to master the tools I have before I go into other fields.
Katie: With your skill set and your experience where has your photography taken you? I noticed from your images that you have traveled quite extensively, was that for work or play?
Nick: Play. Almost all the travel I've done has been for play. I've worked hard so I could afford to go on trips and make pictures. Even when it has been for work, it's been for play.
Katie: How do you find your inspiration to photograph the city?
Nick: Simply put; I go looking for it. I love that I can turn a corner and find an interesting character or light bouncing off the buildings just so. I can take a walk and in 20 minutes see a thousand different people, see angles of the city I'd never noticed before, etc. It's a very inspirational city to live it.
This article was also published in my school news paper The Academy of Art University.