Graham Nash couldn't find a camera anywhere. Not earlier, when the sunlight looked so nice falling through a shuttered window and across the bemused expression of his wife, Susan. And not now, when he needed one for a prop as he posed for a portrait marking the first public showing in Los Angeles of his own photography.
"He goes through a lot of Angst when he sees an image and doesn't have his camera," Susan had already explained. And now her husband was searching the rooms and shelves of their Encino home, cluttered comfortably with the snapshots, books, art and other possessions gathered during Nash's nearly 30-year career as a celebrated rock musician and a lifetime of interest in photography.
If the need grew desperate enough, there was always that old, dust-covered Brownie camera back in Nash's workroom. It shared shelf space with a collection of photography books labeled with names such as Weegee and Irving Penn, Bill Brandt and Walker Evans, Man Ray and a hundred others important to the development of photography as an art. Nash knows this history well.
Alongside a very public career as a singer-songwriter, first as a member of the Hollies and later with Crosby, Stills and Nash, the British-born musician also spent much of the last two decades amassing a giant, private photography collection. He sold most of it in an all-day auction early last year at Sotheby's in New York, setting an auction record for a single collection of photographs with sales totaling $2.4 million.
And on Saturday, the first local exhibit of Nash's own photographic works opens at the G. Ray Hawkins Gallery in Santa Monica. It's a collection of black-and-white images documenting sometimes personal and often "strange moments" Nash captured largely during, but also since, the late 1960s. But before he was persuaded two years ago by longtime friend Joni Mitchell and others, Nash had never seriously considered showing his work.
"Mainly, I'm a musician," Nash explained, pausing during a discussion earlier this month of his photography projects of the moment. "This is a sideline. But it's taking more and more of my time because there's a wealth of material that I've been shooting for the last 20 years that I've never dealt with.
"I got excited about the old images," he added, referring to selections for the exhibition. "So I decided rather than put in a shot from '69 with a shot from '88, I will just do this time period. When you look at it all, you begin to get a sense of a sliver of what the '60s was about, what was happening to me then."
Now 49, Nash has included a few newer pictures in the show, which continues through April 27. Among those is a 1981 portrait of his oldest son, Jackson, looking something like the Star Child of "2001: A Space Odyssey," his face wide-eyed and floating above an unfocused foreground. Still, the majority of photographs are from 1969 and the years just after, when Nash and such friends as Mitchell, David Crosby and Neil Young were high-profile anti-heroes at the center of musical and social change.
Some of the pictures offer straight portraiture or photojournalism, capturing relaxed moments among his circle. Others display a more surreal quality, as in a 1969 photograph of Mitchell, with the singer's starkly lit profile repeated eerily in a magnifying glass as she examines one of her own paintings. A self-portrait from 1974 has a thin, bearded Nash holding a sketch pad and glaring into a mirror as he's reflected again in another.
"I'm sure that people that are known as musicians get looked at askance when they delve into other forms of expression," Nash said. "Personally, I don't see the difference between photography and music. To me it's a very similar process. With photography, you go through it much faster; it's that very cleverly worded 'decisive moment.' "
By a combination of chance and design, the Sotheby's auction was scheduled last year the same week in April as the debut of Nash's own photography at the Simon Lowinsky Gallery in Manhattan. And by the end of the first day in New York, Susan Nash recalled, her husband seemed happier about the sale of some of his own images than the record-breaking auction of the collection, telling her excitedly, "I really am a photographer."
The accelerating photography projects have led Nash to a new high-resolution printing technique that he is now promoting to other artists under the Nash Editions banner. Its $125,000 Iris 3047 printer was originally designed for color reproduction by publishing houses. But Nash has aimed the machine at black-and-white photography, its four ink jets firing vegetable dye onto paper spinning at 285 inches a second. The result has been a resolution high enough to create gallery-quality prints from the proof sheets whose negatives Nash lost on a Greyhound bus decades ago.