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His music as images

'Eye to Eye' is Graham Nash's first major museum photo exhibit.

February 02, 2006|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

IN a bid to step beyond the shadow of Graham Nash, the singer-songwriter, Graham Nash, the photography collector, and Graham Nash, the photo-technology innovator, an emerging photographer has unveiled his first major museum show at San Diego's Museum of Photographic Arts. His name is Graham Nash.

Or as the artist/musician/collector/entrepreneur puts it, "It's just me, trying to shoot off my mouth." The show, titled "Eye to Eye," includes 80 images and runs through April 30.

Nash, 63, raised in England and a resident of Hawaii, won his first fame and fortune in the 1960s as a singer and songwriter for the Hollies. From there he moved on to his long-standing role as highest voice in the enduring harmonies of Crosby, Stills and Nash. He has written such songs as "Teach Your Children," "Our House," "Marrakesh Express," "Cathedral" and "Just a Song Before I Go."

But even before his musical ventures took wing, Nash was fascinated by photography. He was already at it by 1953, when he was 11, and he kept at it through his hardest-working rock star days, as the show's many musicians-at-ease images attest.

Around 1970, he started collecting -- thousands of prints by such names as Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Weegee. Then in 1990, Nash sold much of his collection at auction, fetching more than $2 million, which he used to bankroll an idea for a digital printing business.

This was in the earliest days of that idea, and his business, Nash Editions, grew into one of the foremost fine-art digital printing operations in the country, with clients that included David Hockney and Robert Heinecken. In August, Nash and partner R. Mac Holbert donated their first digital printer to the Smithsonian Institution's collection documenting the history of American photography.

Still, Nash on photography tends to sound more like a lyricist than a guy with an honorary doctorate from the New York Institute of Technology. In fact, he says, there isn't much separating his musical self from his photographic self.

Take, for instance, the famed old Adams photo "Moonrise of Hernandez, New Mexico." Nash used to own a print made by Adams in 1941 -- a lighter, more lyrical print, Nash notes, than those the photographer made in later years. In that image, says Nash, "I felt the cellos in the dark areas, when I looked at the clouds I was hearing the violas."

And in the San Diego show, Nash adds, there's a picture of Neil Young driving home on a country road. "It's very misty, very moody, very gray," Nash says, "and I can almost hear Samuel Barber's 'Adagio for Strings' when I look at that image."

Images and music -- "to me it's all the same energy."

As for the visual style of his own work, "it's whatever incredibly absurd, bizarre thing goes on before my eyes, which seems to happen by the moment."

But when it comes to books and public exhibitions, he acknowledges, "I know the dance." This means that, just as he needs to mix new songs with old favorites in a performance, he needs to balance his personal visions with "chestnuts" that carry instant celebrity appeal, such as his portraits of David Crosby, Joni Mitchell, Young and others.

His favorite image in the San Diego show, he says, is not of a celebrity but of a girl, about 5 years old, sitting on the counter of a hamburger stand in North Hollywood, "all sweet and innocent, and right next to her is an Uzi. Don't ask me what a machine gun was doing next to this girl."

His images are all black-and-white in this show, as they are in the book of the same name released last year, and show no signs of technical fussiness.

No stage lighting or cumbersome, larger-format cameras, nor even multiple lenses. Especially now that he can have his way with a digital Canon SLR that makes nearly 14-megapixel images and has a 24- to 85-millimeter telephoto lens, he's all for speed and stealth. In fact, at least philosophically, Nash thinks along the same lines as your average paparazzo.

When Nash is taking pictures, "I don't want to be seen. I want to be completely invisible. Because I've had 10 billion photographs taken of me, and I know when a camera is pointed. I change, subtly. You try not to, but you do. I want to take pictures of people who have no idea they're being taken."

Along the same lines, he adds, "I never asked one of my friends whether I could put their pictures in a book. Diane Arbus said it correctly: If you go out in public, there's a pretty good chance you're going to be photographed.... I don't like the [paparazzi's] attitude and I don't like their aggressiveness, but I do understand that if you're one of those people who go out in the world and have a little infamy or fame, they're going to take your picture and you'd better just get ... over it."

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