December 7, 2023

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Graham Nash On Photography, Storytelling And The State Of The World

Graham Nash received his first camera from his dad when he was just 11. When the camera turned out to be stolen, his father was incarcerated after refusing to turn over the name of the person who sold it to him.

The incident came shortly after the end of World War II and in the foreword to the new book A Life in Focus: The Photography of Graham Nash, available via Simon & Schuster, the singer and songwriter recalls playing in rubble, growing up in Lancashire, England.

They’re the type of formative experiences that could shape a worldview. But Nash remains an optimist and photography quickly became a lifelong obsession, with the photographer later helping advance the world of digital printing through his modification of the IRIS 3047 graphics printer.

“I had to be the man of the house at 14,” he recalled. “I had to make sure that the gas was turned off and the fire was down and that the door was locked. I had to be the father of my household,” he said. “I’ve always supported the underdog. I’ve always supported the team that’s not supposed to win – but does. I love that. And that’s the way my life is. And I am optimistic.”

In conversation, Nash unabashedly addresses topics ranging anywhere from Russian president Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine to what he sees as the current American experience.

For the man who penned socially conscious songs like “Teach Your Children” and “Chicago,” addressing the world in song, on stage and through his photos remains crucial.

“It kind of amazes me how some of my songs are as relevant now as they were 50 years ago,” mused Nash, setting up “Immigration Man” during a recent tour stop outside Chicago at the 670 seat Blizzard Theatre on the campus of Elgin Community College. “I wish every Russian mother would sing this to their kids,” he said later, closing the show with “Teach Your Children.”

On this tour, which resumes in July and runs into October, Nash is performing in intimate venues, curating a show where the stories behind the songs are just as important as the music being played.

Joined by guitarist Shane Fontayne and keyboard player Todd Caldwell, Nash works in tracks from throughout his career, hitting on The Hollies and Crosby, Stills & Nash as well as solo material.

The new project Graham Nash: Live, now available for pre-order via Proper Records ahead of release on May 6, 2022, puts a new spin on his first two solo albums (Songs For Beginners and Wild Tales), capturing a 2019 performance by the trio of both releases in full.

Nash, 80, also remains at work on a new album featuring Hollies co-founder Allan Clarke.

“We’re kind of done with it. We’re ten tracks into it. I’ve yet to mix it but Allan has been singing his ass off,” he said. “He left The Hollies many years ago because he couldn’t sing anymore but, man, you’d never know it now. He’s signing fantastic.”

I spoke with Graham Nash about discovering the magic of photography, the importance of photographs in an increasingly digital world and the role artists and songwriters play when it comes to reflecting the times in which we live. A transcript of our phone conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity follows below.

You tell the story in the intro of the book about watching a photograph being developed for the first time. What did discovering this magical medium mean to you as a child?

GRAHAM NASH: Well, it changed my life completely didn’t it? It did. It was an incredible piece of magic. My father, who taught me that piece of magic – he’d been doing it for a number of years, so it wasn’t magic to him anymore. But, holy Toledo, it was magic to me.

You wrote in the intro to A Life in Focus that photography allows you to express a different side of your personality. How does it enable that?

GN: With my music, it’s very deliberate, you know? I know what I want to say and I know how I want to say it. I figure out the chords and the tune and the melody and all of that stuff. But with photography, it’s instant – you either get it right then or you don’t get it.

And I always want to be there. I’m still waiting for Elvis to come back on the back of an elephant. I’ll be there with my camera.

The book includes a number of self-portraits. And it fascinated me that you had, prior to the advent of the camera phone, the ability to document those changes in yourself. What are you looking to capture in a self-portrait?

GN: I’ll tell you a small story… I had a show of my images in Berlin one year. And there were a lot of self-portraits in there. This little lady comes up to me – she was about 60 years old and looked very studious to me. She came up to me and said, “Can I say something?” I said, “Of course you can.” She had an accent because she was German of course. But she said, “Well, your self-portraits…” I said, “Yes…” She said, “I think you should have your head examined.” I said, “What?” She said, “There’s part of you that’s real sick. You should have your head examined. I mean, look at all these self-portraits… You can’t tell it’s you. You’re distorted. The mirror is broken and cracked. You should have your head examined.” (Laughing)

And what was your response to that?

GN: I said that I would! And then I moved onto the next person that wanted to talk to me.

The foreword of the book also mentions your collection of vintage photography. I know you auctioned off some in the 90s but have you maintained any sort of collection?

GN: I did. But I changed what I collect. Do you know what a daguerreotype is? It was invented in Paris in 1836 by a man called Daguerre. And that’s why they’re called daguerreotypes. But, basically, it was the world’s first photographic process. And it happened by accident. And I’ve been collecting daguerreotypes now for the last 30 years. My latest acquisition is a daguerreotype I have of John Quincy Adams.

In an increasingly digital world, how important is it to document history in that way – to maintain this stuff and makes sure it sticks around?

GN: You have to. Because we have to learn from history. We’re not doing too good right now – particularly, Putin’s not doing too well right now, you know?

We all know what Putin is doing. He’s trying to reconstitute the Russian empire. And it’s pointless. It’s just pointless. Many people are dying. And I think it’s going to be the end of Putin. I really do.

That reminds me of something Cameron Crowe said in the book. He mentions the idea of your photos capturing life “as it is, as it presents itself, without superimposing dogma or agenda.” In today’s world, that’s something that’s become increasingly hard to come by. How important a role is that for photography to play?

GN: I don’t know whether it’s an important role. It’s an important role in my life. I can only go on what’s happened to me in my life and photography is incredibly important to me. It’s a form of expression that I value a great deal.

In this digital age, what is a true photograph anymore? Remember when Stalin was airbrushing people out that were in the picture that he didn’t like? It started back then! And now Photoshop. And what, really, is a true photograph? It’s getting difficult.

What’s it like to look around today and see the way everyone with a phone fashions themselves an amateur photographer?

GN: 300 million phones, 300 million cameras… and 12 photographers!

Enough said. Speaking of digital, I was impressed reading the book by the work you’ve done to improve digital printing. As digital started to become more and more of a reality, what was it like for you as a photographer – did you willingly adapt to that or were you forced to adapt to that?

GN: The first time I ever saw the IRIS printing machine, I fell in love with it. It was $124,000. I bought it instantly and voided the warranty within the first ten minutes. I saw what it could do. I knew what it would mean to me in my own personal life in terms of getting my images printed the best way I could. And now my first printer is in the Smithsonian Museum.

Obviously, as an artist and as a photographer, these are mediums where you’re trying to constantly look forward – you’re not looking back. But to put together a collection like this, you are looking back – and in some depth. What did you learn in the process of looking back like that?

GN: I’ve been in situations in my life that I’ve managed to take with my camera and I’m incredibly pleased with what I saw in my life. And I want to share that – the same as music.

If I write a new song, the first thing I want to do is play it for my wife. And then I want to play it for my crew. And then I want to play it for my friends. And then, all of the sudden, I need to go out there and play it for people.

That’s what my life is. And I’m very happy with it.

How important is it to keep looking forward and try new things?

GN: You have to be alive. You have to be constantly moving forward. There’s nothing you can do much about the past, you know? So let’s get on with tomorrow and the day after.

Let’s make this a great place. This country has a great potential for being an incredible country – and in many ways it is. But in many ways it is not.

Photography is an amazing form of storytelling – as, certainly, is songwriting. How important is the idea of storytelling to everything that you do?

GN: I think it’s important to share good stuff, you know?

I mean, this world is getting completely crazy. I’ve been here over 50 years in America. I’ve been an American citizen for almost 40 years. And I’ve never seen it like this. I have never seen people so angry. Boy, I don’t feel good about the future of this country. I think I see an empire crumbling.

Storytelling is a major part of your current tour in these intimate venues. What’s it been like getting back on stage after the last two years and sharing the stories behind the songs?

GN: I’m actually continuing a tour I had to stop. I had a 25 date tour completely sold out and I had to stop after the first five shows because of COVID. So what I’m doing now is continuing that tour. It’s scary and refreshing.

Because you never know, right? Everything is a muscle – songwriting, taking pictures, getting your body in shape. Everything is a muscle. And it’s the same with performing. It’s a muscle that you have to keep exercised and in great shape.

After two years, I was very pleased with the way that we played and the way that we created the show.

Stories, images, songs – how do you go about curating a show like this?

GN: Well, for a start, I changed the beginning of the show completely. I come out now and do [CSN’s] “Find the Cost of Freedom” acoustic with Shayne and Todd and then go straight into “Military Madness.”

Ukraine is a big part of my life. It’s a democratic country and it’s being f—ing trashed now by a madman. And so I changed the beginning of my show.

I think back to the folk tradition – I think back to some of the songs you’ve written – and, obviously, there was a time when a very significant role for music was to address what was happening in the world and provoke an intelligent conversation about it. But it seems like that’s gotten harder and harder to do. How important is it?

GN: It has to play an important role. Artists and songwriters and musicians, we have to reflect the times in which we live.

Think of “Strange Fruit.” Think of Billie Holiday singing that song all that time ago. We have to reflect the times in which we live and that’s what I do. And, unfortunately, Trump and Putin are part of my life.

A song like “Strange Fruit” is arguably more relevant today than it was then…

GN: Even more so.