When Nick Zinner was an undergrad at Bard College in upstate New York, he wanted to be a photojournalist. Maybe, he thought, he would be a war photographer. Maybe he would shoot for the Associated Press.
Instead, ZInner became a professional guitarist, and the band that he helped form after moving to New York City — Yeah Yeah Yeahs — got famous. So rather than taking his camera into battlefields, he brought it into concert venues and hotel rooms. Zinner shot his life, and will now present 601 of his best photos at rocker art gallery Lethal Amounts, starting Friday, Nov. 20.
Zinner, who lives part-time in Los Angeles, has done shows like this before, exhibiting massive numbers of personal photos. Such shows are not easy to build. At a downtown coffee shop, less than two weeks before the Lethal Amounts exhibit, he says that he's still going through the archives. His apartment in New York is filled with shelves, boxes and folders containing his work. On tour, he would frequently shoot two or three rolls of film a day. Zinner says he needs an intern, but he's not really complaining. "I'm really thankful that I took all [these photos] now," he says.
His work is a bit like a proto-Instagram feed, made up of casually shot pictures taken while Zinner lived his life. He describes the photos as a collection of "small moments." But they also serve as a means of telling the story of Zinner and his musician cohorts, documenting the group from their early years through globetrotting tours playing to huge crowds.
There's a story of music fans in the photos, too — how the crowds and their way of engaging with the band changes from city to city, year to year. Not all of his photos pertain to his life as a musician, but at the time of his L.A. Weekly interview, Zinner anticipated that many of the photos he was selecting for the Lethal Amounts event would be music-centric. Still, he says, as he's making the cuts, he's looking for images that go beyond the "diary-type situation" that resulted in the creation of these works.
The camera has been a part of Zinner's life since high school. "There was something about it that felt immediately comfortable for me," he says. "You know when you're an awkward teenager, you're trying to make your way around the world and you're unsure of everything. It seemed like a way, like this sort of bridge between that awkwardness and what else was around me."
Music came first for Zinner, who currently plays in the hardcore band Head Wound City. He started taking violin lessons when he was 6. While his two passions are now closely intertwined, that might be more a result of a fortunate plot twist than a long-term goal.
Zinner played in a band throughout college, which relocated to New York soon after graduation. "It was a total failure," he says. "We broke up after a year and a half or so." Meanwhile, Zinner tried to make a go of professional photography, but that wasn't working out either. He took his portfolio to galleries, but they showed little interest in what he was doing. He adds that, because he was in an art photography program, he lacked a lot of the technical skills necessary to land jobs in the magazine or advertising worlds.
"I gave that up," he says. "I gave up any sort of hope of doing it professionally." Instead, he worked in darkrooms. "That was kind of my only skill."
Then, in early 2000, Zinner met Karen O. By September of that year, they had played their first show as Yeah Yeah Yeahs. All the while, Zinner continued to take photos.
Part of the allure of Zinner's exhibitions is undoubtedly that he's a well-known musician who came up during an important time in New York's music scene. But while music is important to his work, he has boundaries. "I never want to feel like I'm exploiting my bandmates or my friends around me or the kind of situations that I'm in," he says. He's also careful to not let the collections stray too much into the "rock photography" genre. "There's always some kind of struggle with not wanting to show too much or get too specific in that type of thing. It's always been like a pretty broad spectrum of images."
The collection will primarily consist of images taken over the past 15 years, although he is considering adding some earlier photographs. "It's kind of all over the place," he says. "There are a lot of different subjects and themes."
At least part of the collection will hark back to a time before quick shots became required proof that your life was as exciting as you said it was, before everyone had to be Instagram-ready when the camera snaps. "It's definitely from a time that does not exist anymore," he says. "There wasn't any sort of social pressure to document everything, whereas now everything is hyper-documented — which is great too, but it's just different."
Zinner says you can see these changes in the crowd shots he diligently took over the years. Back in 2002, he saw film cameras and "clunky digital cameras," adding that, just a few years later, digital cameras became the norm and camera phones crept into the shots.
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Looking back at the photos, Zinner says he's able to reassess bygone situations. "I don't want to be too sentimental, but that's something that is ingrained in this," he says. "That's something that I've been fighting, not being too sentimental or too sensational or exploitative but to find images or moments that can ultimately hit hard in some way, either emotionally or humorously or beautifully. Anything that stirs something up, but without also looking like a rock video still."
"Nick Zinner: 601 Photographs" runs at Lethal Amounts from Nov. 20 through Dec. 18, with an after-party next door at Monty Bar on Nov. 20. More info.