Nevada Wier's Beautiful World
by Lynee Eodice
This article originally appeared as the cover story in the Sept 1, 2006 edition of Double Exposure magazine, www.doubleexposure.com. All images © Nevada Wier.
Wier, who originally hails from Washington D.C., says that she didn’t become interested in photography until her late 20s. “I actually got seduced by a large-format camera, a beautiful wooden Deardorff.” She attended Prescott College in Arizona during the ’70s where she majored in an outdoor program, a contrast to the political environment in which she was raised. “I wasn’t interested in being a photographer until I got this camera, and then I imagined myself at the Grand Canyon with a black cloth draped over my head.” Nonetheless, Wier found that the reality of toting a large-format camera around with a big wooden tripod wasn’t practical for backpacking, as she was also a course director/instructor for Outward Bound, an organization that leads groups of people on adventure excursions.
Eventually, however, she discovered that she was “more interested in what was at the bottom of the mountain that what was at the top.” While walking through the exotic villages that she traveled to for Outward Bound, she became intrigued by the people and cultures that she encountered. But rather than shooting from a documentary standpoint, she prefers to look for what’s beautiful in the world. Nonetheless, she’s quick to point out, “That doesn’t mean that I try to mythologize a situation. I’m not looking for a postcard type of shot.”
Learning on her Own
Wier professes to being self-taught in photography, and learned her craft by using her Deardorff camera and processing film in a black-and-white darkroom. She notes, “Nowadays there’s so many fabulous workshops, talks and seminars which weren’t available to me back then.” She also learned by looking at good photography, and “by studying what I shot and trying to understand my mistakes. It was helpful because I wasn’t trying to mimic anybody else, I just wanted to figure out why theirs were working and mine weren’t.”
“Starting out with black-and-white film was very important in my photography. It immediately forces you to see differently,” she comments. “Color is more difficult than black-and-white, and you almost have to place an overlay of color onto a black-and-white skeleton to see if it works.” Her brother sent her a Pentax camera and she shot black-and-white in a 35mm format for several years. “I didn’t shoot color until my first international trip to Bolivia,” she says, and then she brought one camera for color film, and another for black-and-white. “I shot 30 rolls of film in eight months, which I thought was phenomenal in that amount of time,” she remembers.
This experience showed Wier that she “saw better in color,” although she says she misses the “alchemy of the black-and-white darkroom.” She left black-and-white photography behind, but alludes, “Color is very seductive, and what defines a really good color photographer is that they’re not relying solely on color for a good photograph. Sometimes color is what matters in a picture, but other times it’s the action, the light, the pattern or the composition. I always tell my students that you’ve got to have two of those to make the image work.”
When asked about her photographic influences, she replies, “I think everyone is influenced by the National Geographic photographers. But actually for me it was some of the very early black-and-white photographers, like Imogen Cunningham. I think their images represented some of the most creative work around, and I learned very quickly that it wasn’t about the equipment, it’s about the eye.” She adds, “It’s a left-brain, right-brain pursuit. You have to be part nerd, and then let it go.” Wier says she also admires David Allen Harvey —“he’s so good at photographing with high contrast,” Susan Meiselas, “who was always a hero of mine. Her photographs are so graphic and compelling,” and Jay Maisel, who does masterful work in color.
Wier also has a gift for establishing rapport with the people she photographs. “I shoot with very wide-angle lenses and try to get close to people,” she explains. “I’m very interested in interpersonal relationships and what’s involved in their particular culture.” She stresses the importance of non-verbal communication, which is very important in different parts of the world. “I consciously try to synchronize with a person; with their rhythm and feeling. It’s hard to explain, but it’s a wider conduit to relating to somebody, especially non-verbally.” This comes from her love of people, and her belief that individuals within a culture really matter. “Even as a child, I’ve always believed in the Power of One,” she points out.
As for camera gear, she reports, “I’m 99.9% digital.” Although it’s tough to find power sources in some of the remote areas to which she travels, Wier says that more companies are becoming involved in developing these solutions. She shoots with a Canon EOS 1DS Mark II, and adds, “I’ve always been a big fan of the Image Stabilizing (IS) lenses.” She prefers to use lenses that she can hand-carry, ranging from a 15mm fisheye to a telephoto that’s about 540mm with a 1.4 tele-extender. “My favorite lens is a 16–35mm f/2.8,” she says. Included in her cache is a 15mm, 28–105mm IS, and a 100–400mm telephoto zoom. “I like extremes; either wide-angle or extreme compression.” Because she’s not always in optimum lighting conditions, Wier uses a Canon 580 flash creatively for fill light, to draw viewers’ attention to a particular place in the photograph, and to give the illusion of sharpness amid blur. She also utilizes wireless transmitters when working with flash.
She doesn’t use a tripod very often—“I’m going to Mongolia in a few weeks, and there’s such weight restrictions on those small planes that I’m going to jettison my tripod completely for this trip.” As opposed to the pre-digital days, notes Wier, there’s a lot of new technology to learn and post-processing nowadays. She says, “A big part of my job is in front of the computer afterwards.” She also feels strongly about the art of RAW processing, and uses Adobe Photoshop for dodging and burning, but not for excessive image manipulation or cropping.
Wier offers a few workshops and lectures during the year, primarily for Santa Fe Photo Workshops, in addition to the Rocky Mountain School of Photography and the Sundance Institute. She also leads photo tours for a select group of students. In terms of editorial work, she’s cutting back “for a number of reasons—the day rates haven’t kept up with the expenses that photographers have to put out these days.” However, she’s excited about some of her new projects, like writing a book on her travels, and a current project on Myanmar (formerly Burma), shooting pictures for other long-term projects, and working on images to show in an exhibit. She’s recently completed a set of three hanging “scrolls” of underwater shots photographed off the coast of Myanmar, which consist of several small digital images on long, vertical scrolls. “I’ve never wanted to have an exhibit of my work until digital printing came out,” explains Wier. Although there may not be a lot of money in photo exhibits, she concedes, she’s making it work by creating more images for Getty and Corbis, the two agencies through which she markets her stock photography. Wier is also revamping her website so that people can license some of her images directly.
When asked for her advice to up-and coming-pros, Wier emphasizes the importance of being creative in today’s emerging markets. “You’ve got to embrace technology and be willing to reinvent yourself. You must also look at new ways of marketing yourself,” she says, which is a process that she describes as “exhausting but exhilarating.” As for entering the world of professional travel photography, she states, “The travel field has always been tough. You must look beyond newsstand markets, like National Geographic and Travel & Leisure. There’s so much competition in those markets, so you have to be creative and look for other avenues. You also need to have what I call ‘the tenacity quotient’—you really have to want it.” She adds that entering the world of professional photography is more about business than about photography.
Nevada Wier is not one to stand still. After we spoke, she was about to hop a plane to Mongolia. This winter, she’s going to photograph several other remote tribal areas. She’s going to lead a workshop in Bangkok, and in February of 2007, she’s going to Ladakh, India to shoot the winter festival, “and then it will be getting warm enough to think about coming home to Santa Fe,” she laughs.