Earlier this month, we had the chance to sit down with Nick Mayo, a photographer based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Nick has built an impressive community of like-minded photographic artists on his YouTube and Instagram. His content is photography-based but also dives into the artistic process as a whole. We want to thank him sincerely for spending some time with us! Make sure to check out his work!
Box Speed: Thanks for joining us, Nick! We’ve been fans for a while so we appreciate you taking the time. For those that haven’t heard of you, tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from/based and how would you describe your work?
Nick Mayo: Hey guys, humbled to be able to do this interview with you. I am Nick Mayo, a fine art photographer based out of Grand Rapids, Michigan. I am married to my beautiful and creative bride Emily, who in many ways is a greater artist than I, and challenges me to keep growing to new levels. If I were to describe my work in a nutshell, I would say it has a heavy focus on the intimacies of simplicity and the dynamics of graphic design as I focus heavily on shape and tone to tell a story that is at times hidden in the overall scene I am observing. I often work in series, and rarely rely on the strength of individual images, but instead, use them as chords to a song to build a hopefully greater narrative. On top of photography, I also serve a wonderful photography community through my YouTube channel Nick Exposed, where we dive into the process and theory of creative projects and fine art.
BS: When did you start taking photography seriously and when did it become more than just a hobby?
NM: I’ve been delving into various parts of photography since mid-2010, but it wasn’t until late 2015, early 2016 that I really felt it could be more than simply a hobby or pass time. In the summer of ’16, I spent two weeks in Maine, for an artist residency. It was the first time I truly felt I was “being” an artist. I was simply there to create, explore and dream, while everything else was catered to by the facilitators. I had an extended period of time to develop concepts, build narratives and truly explore the unbeaten paths of my creative curiosity. Around all of this time, I started focusing on bodies of work, rather than individual images, and there came new intentionality that was absent in anything I had created previously. I started building collections to submit for exhibitions, printing groupings of images to sell as sets, as well as explore the realm of zine building and book sequencing. All of this paired quite well with the creative minds I was then discovering, such as Ralph Gibson, Elliot Erwitt, Bruce Davidson, and many others. I went from seeking out powerful images in their works to observing how they would sequence and build a concept. Ralph Gibson’s thoughts on the “point of departure” resonated so well with my approach to curiosity. I was starting to discover language and permissions that very much set me on the path I am still on today.
BS: At the risk of starting a pointless debate, did you start on film or digital or both? What draws you to use film for your personal work? In what situations do you prefer using digital?
NM: I started out on a digital camera. First a point and shoot, and then an old Canon Rebel T1i, but quickly started dabbling in film photography, and eventually went entirely analog for my personal work. I’ve always enjoyed simple mechanics and engineering. I was largely into cars and various types of racing throughout my formative years, and have always preferred the simplicity of vintage sports cars, as well as the connection to the road one experiences through driving a manual transmission versus an automatic. It was very much this same drive and desire that I found to be so romantic within analog film photography. The connection to the material, and process while creating a piece of artwork to me is part of the artistic motivation inside of me. There’s a certain autonomy to having your hands on the process all the way through. Whether it succeeds or fails, it’s my fault and is entirely my responsibility. I can’t tell you the last time I blamed a poor exposure or image on a piece of kit. I digress.
Are there times for digital, absolutely. I just photographed a gig for a high-level client of mine last Friday evening and used my 5D mkii (No need for an upgrade), radio triggers, studio lights, the whole ordeal. I was able to turn the images around for them overnight and exceed their expectations for the project. However, gigs like these are becoming less and less interesting for me. Over the last year, I have been turning more and more gigs away unless I have full artistic control, and can use the gear and process that most inspires me. For anyone who knows my work, they know I am primarily a black and white shooter. I prefer heavy doses of grain and contrast and want this to be a result of light and chemistry rather than sliders and presets. Both have their place in the world, but for my attachment to the work, once again I prefer the process of bnw analog film.
BS: You’ve often talked about the powers and pitfalls of social media when it comes to photography. How is social media beneficial and how is it harmful for photography nowadays? Do you have any tips on how to balance the two and avoid the trap of “shooting for likes”?
NM: I’ll say it this way, when my focus and intentionality on any of the platforms shifted from how can I get more likes, views, follows and money, to how can I serve, value and honor the community I want to connect with, everything else started to fall in place. Algorithms change, people do not. If you try to play to an algorithm you may have success for a certain amount of time, but when the algorithm changes you have to relearn the game. When you play to the benefit of the community (not necessarily neglecting the algorithm, just not allowing it to be the primary focus), you will find that growth is a natural byproduct. It goes back to the beginning of time, people love feeling accepted, appreciated, honored, valued, poured into and encouraged. They can also sniff out counterfeits of each of these actions from a mile away. When I started focusing on how can I add, versus get, value and respect to the community, I immediately noticed it was reciprocated back to me, often in greater doses. It’s been that way with my Instagram, just as well as my YouTube channel. It still blows my mind at how encouraging the community is, and how few of negative comments we get on the channel. I no doubt suspect it is linked to the act of serving the community, rather than sucking the community dry.
As creatives we truly want our creations to be admired and appreciated. There is nothing wrong with that. However, using social media metrics as a measuring stick of success, worth or value is a terrible trap that will more often than not lead to depression, anxiety, people pleasing and manipulation. Consider this, the fact that a Kardashian photo will get 100 times more likes, views, and interactions than a magnum photo should be a giant clue at how faulty the system is for revealing worth and value. It is, however, one of the greatest tools of long-distance connection that has ever been offered to the creative. The fact that we can connect and do things like this interview, or share bodies of work in progress and receive feedback and advice is nothing short of incredible.
BS: How much of an impact, if at all, does the city of Grand Rapids have on your work? Do you find that your surroundings change your photography, and do you find your photos change when you shoot in a different city?
NM: My work is an exploration of my curiosity. The city of Grand Rapids contains a certain language with which I can examine my interests, while other cities offer a fresh perspective and dialog to leverage. Sometimes the city itself is the curiosity that I am exploring, and other times it is only just elements of the city that I am using to play out a narrative in my mind that was carried over from a song, movie, experience, feeling etc. I try to not make to many absolutes when it comes to exploration and creativity. One week I’m documenting the intimacies of Grand Rapids, the next week I’m exploring the concepts of emotion and feeling while using the same scenes to build an expression to the best of my current ability. The photography is either a response to the external world or the internal one. On rare occasion, it’s a heavy combination of both. I have photographed the somewhat small city of Grand Rapids for over 7 years now, but my current philosophy is that the city only ceases to have something to say when I’ve become complacent in expanding my own personal vocabulary.
BS: You’ve been a big advocate of using projects (big or small) to spark creativity and avoid plateauing. What are your thoughts on shooting for projects vs a stream-of-consciousness style which is more reminiscent of a daily journal?
NM: Projects are a beautiful thing within the creative’s toolbox. At any given moment I have 5 to 10 projects I am working on. Some long-term, others short, while others still are seedlings waiting to sprout into consciousness. Maybe it’s simply my own creative style that works so well this way. But for me, I love being able to shelf a project when I’m not currently feeling it, only to come back later when the time is right, and the creative engine is firing on all cylinders for it. I’ve done this for years. When I was a graphic designer, I would bounce between design projects and photo editing or shooting when need be. Being able to step away from something, while still knowing the direction it should be heading, allows us to engage our subconscious mind while working creatively on another project. I’ve found that some of my most prolific ideas come while my conscious efforts are focused on a different project entirely.
Single images are great fun to chase down, and have their place within the artistic realm for sure. But for me, as an artist, sequencing bodies of work (whether pre or post shooting) offers a greater experience and narrative to not only my audience but also myself. There is a depth of conversation that is had within the sequencing of work that a single image fails to contain. To paraphrase Ralph Gibson “A photo/print will show you how a photographer sees, however, a book will show you how they think”, and I would even add how they feel. The rhythm, tension, and release that can be had in a project can bring the work to a similar place of impact as music or poetry. Very few images can claim this on their own merit.
BS: Who are some photographers who are inspiring you right now?
NM: A big question, as I am inspired by such wide variety of photographers. I will say that I am a part of a wonderful collective of artists called the “All Format Collective” (@allformatcollective) and am so incredibly inspired by my collective family. To be in constant conversation with the members, and seeing the works they are working on keeps me inspired and challenged to move forward in so many ways. I had been following the works of Kit Young (@kityoung135), James Moreton (@go_jmo), and Mikael Siirila (@mikaelsiirila) for quite some time, before my membership in the collective. So you can imagine how incredibly humbling it is to be in the trenches with these incredible artists, serving the community of film shooters and pushing each other along in our own journeys.
To mention some legends within photography that I draw inspiration and insight off of regularly, Peter Turnley, Jay Maisel, HCB, Jim Marshall, Arnold Newman, Eugene Atget, Robert Doisneau, Sergio Larrain, as well as the aforementioned Ralph Gibson, Bruce Davidson etc. The list could go on and on, and sometimes it feels like my bookshelf does just that, but studying the greats can inform us on where we have already been as well as open the possibilities and give the permissions of where we can go moving forward.
A couple of contemporary photographers worth mentioning are without a doubt, Renato D’Agostin (@renatodagostin), Fred Mortagne (@frenchfred), Olga Karlovac (@olga.karlovac), as well as some good friends of mine, Jacob Murphy (@jacobmurphyphoto), Jahan Saber (@doyoudevelop also a member of @allformatcollective), Aleksander Mijatovic (@filmshooter7), David Zheng (@iamdavidz), Josh Bordelon (@joshbphotog), and Miles Smith (@captain.solo). Once again the list could go on and on, but when I think off the top of my head, these guys come to mind.
BS: Who are some non-photographic artists who are inspiring you right now?
NM: Outside of photography, I am inspired by so many different creative streams. I will try to spare you from long lists.
Jazz musicians like Miles, Coltrane, Bill Evans, as well as Japanese musicians like Ryo Fukui and Takuya Kuroda are frequently on in the background while shooting, editing or darkroom printing. Mark Rothko’s paintings continue to speak to me on both an emotional and somewhat spiritual level. Matisse, Rembrandt, Goya, Mondrian and the Bauhaus school of thought. I love looking up close at line drawings, etchings and micro prints of any kind. Recently I have acquired a deep appreciation for mechanical timepieces, and the artistic craft and style that goes into designing such a simple tool for everyday life. Poster and book cover designs, vintage marquee signs and finely crafted automobiles and sailboats. I am easily intrigued, so it doesn’t take much for me to find inspiration in just about everything I come across.
BS: What are some projects you’re currently working on that you can talk about?
NM: Come new year there are two immediate projects that will be released. The first is the “All Format Collective Zine Issue #3”, where my work will be display alongside the other photographers in the collective’s works. James Moreton has been hard at work sculpting this project into a wonderful book that we cannot wait to bring to the community.
As for personal projects, I am currently working through the sequencing and design of a dual zine project entitled “The Last Best Place” and “48 Hours Home”. These are two related projects that were created during a trip to Montana earlier this summer. I am quite excited about the work created while in Montana, as well as on the trip back home. This is the first tandem zine I have released, and although I am still working out what the details of what it will look like for the two to be merged while remaining separate, it has already been a wonderful stretch to my creative thinking as I have begun problem-solving and challenging the box. I am truly excited to see how the community responds to this project.
BS: Thanks again for taking the time to do this Nick! Where can people find out more about you and your work?
NM: Guys, I am super happy to have had this conversation! You brought such great questions to the table, I only hope I did them a bit of justice in my responses. I would love to connect with people on both Instagram (@nickexposed) and on YouTube (youtube.com/nickexposed). I do what I can to respond to each message that comes in on Instagram, so I encourage everyone to reach out and say hi, as well as ask any further questions that you may be left with after this interview. I love love love getting to know the people in this community, and hope to continue meeting “new faces” for years to come.