Much has been written on the subject of art collecting. A quick look at the latest news in the art world invariably includes gossipy reports of who bought what on whose behalf at the latest auctions, museums flaunting their biggest and best gifts, and longform “thinkpieces” about the myriad ways investment collecting is ruining the art market, the art fairs, our lives. It’s easy to understand this persistent coverage; art collecting and all the attendant psychological afflictions--both those that bring it on and those it brings on--have existed for what we may as well call forever. Chief among these afflictions is desire.
Desire is not the primitive instinct for mere possession. What keeps the primitiveness at bay is discernment, the “eye,” the ability to determine what it is that one must possess. It is no wonder then, that the practice of art collecting (at least as the collectors tell it) is fraught not just with the frenzy of the bidding floor at auction or the anxiety produced by not being invited to the exhibition preview, but with a quiet unease all its own.The relationship between Richard Nickel, a photographer born and raised on Chicago’s West Side, and Miyoko Ito, an American-born Japanese painter still seems, years after their respective deaths, fraught with this unease. The life of the work that survived it, perhaps even more so.
Richard and Miyoko met in the last days of 1970, introduced by a close mutual friend, the architect John Vinci. Richard’s primary vocation was as an architectural photographer, retained by firms throughout Chicago to document works-in-progress and prospective buildings sites, while on his own time documenting the steady demise of the work of famed American architect Louis Sullivan. Miyoko, meanwhile, was a painter whose life had taken her from Berkeley to Yokohama to Chicago, with a stint in an internment camp and a hasty marriage in between. She met Vinci when she was invited to hang a small series of her abstractions in the conference rooms of the architecture firm at which he was then employed, Brenner Danforth Rockwell. The photographer, artist, and architect ran in separate but heavily intersecting social circles, consorting with a number of the same clients, colleagues, and friends.
The majority of the surviving correspondence between Richard and Miyoko dates from the Spring of 1971. A topic of frequent discussion was the literary works of French author Marguerite Duras. This dialogue begins with a letter from Miyoko which says:
“I picked up a Marguerite Duras, about a murderess who is so united as one with her garden. I cannot get over how the passages are--they turned me to my own aloneness as a child in my grandmother’s kitchen garden in Japan. How I used to lay flat and still on the ground, feeling my cheek pressing against the comforting earth as if it was my only protection.”
In response, Richard made Xerox copies of pages 26 and 27 of Duras’ The Square, which contain a thorough description of a public garden containing a zoo by the sea, and an encounter both intimate and existential that takes place therein at dusk. He sent them to Miyoko, who in turn responded:
“Thanks, Rich, for the marvelous pages. I am rereading the story of The Square. As for my affinity with the other Duras garden, I cannot alas recall the title(1). Had passed on the Penguin paperback, wish I had it back, now that 1 you have taken once again into feeling the Duras way.”
It is this affinity for Duras’ beloved seaside gardens which lead to an invitation on Richard’s part to accompany him sailing, written on the back of a photograph of his boat moored in Burnham Harbor. He was an amateur sailor, and at the time of the invitation, had recently acquired his second sailboat.
The first had been a small wooden craft known alternately as Vato (the name it bore when Richard purchased it) and--though it was never officially rechristened--as Adrienne, in honor of his ex-wife. The new boat was a larger fiberglass vessel called Garden City. Richard was notorious among friends for his stringent policies on board, which began with the issuance of a set of “boat rules” which included a dress code, by mail, in the days following an invitation to come sailing. He was equally notorious for his guileless bewilderment at the fact he was often unable to find sailing companions. Even Miyoko initially declined, writing, “To the portrait of John’s house I add the portrait of your boat in the dusk. I don’t suppose I could come sailing...all boats make me think of miserable Celine--his dreams embodied in sailing ships.”
In the end Richard prevailed upon her, and shortly thereafter Miyoko enclosed a note with a loaned copy of yet another Duras novel which reads:
“I have not ever sailed to witness a dusk and dawn in a boat such as yours. To me minimal art more often remains of minimal interest. Such is not the case with the more recent Duras. I pass it on to your possible interest. Afraid to ask my clumsiness could repeat the grace of Garden City? Yours in the season of sailing, Miyo.”
The intensity of their shared interests and increasingly frequent jaunts as sailing companions led to a rumoured romantic dalliance, despite Miyoko still being otherwise married.
Around this time, Miyoko had a solo exhibition open at the Hyde Park Art Center on Chicago’s South Side. A surviving checklist from the exhibition shows it was a survey of thirty works in total, a retrospective selection of paintings spanning her career up to that point. Richard took an interest in purchasing one of the newer pieces on view, Tabled Landscape, though some degree of confusion concerning pricing and availability of the work ensued. To this initial error Miyoko responded, “Fortunate for me that you have/had kept the souvenir sheet from the show. This time I made a copy on cardboard as that it will not again slip under in the stormy seas of my desktop.” The note implies their relationship was still on at least friendly terms, ending with a rather gossipy reference to their friend John Vinci and notorious Art Institute curator James Speyer, saying, “It seems to me that John left for Europe with a small note of discord--excessive Speyer-ism, perhaps? Yours, Miyo.”
Richard finalized his purchase in the last days of the exhibition. He thereafter wrote to Dan Wells, then the art critic for the Chicago Tribune, with a request for a copy of the photograph which had run alongside a review of the exhibition in the newspaper. Richard noted, “I always have admired Miyo’s work, and at this time succumbed and bought one. I would like the photo as a memento of the exhibit and my first purchase of her art.”
When Richard made arrangements to pick up the work, a conflict arose regarding the amount due and to whom it needed to be paid. A carbon copy of a check made out to the Hyde Park Art Center shows Richard remitted a deposit of $150 on what was quoted as being a $750 purchase on March 13, 1970. A purchaser’s receipt from a cashier’s check written on the same day, however, shows he directly paid Miyoko an additional $270.00. A postscript to a note she wrote him on March 15th ends, “Thank you for the peculiar amount of $270.00” followed by a note on March 18th that reads, “As I explained on the telephone, please still give the Art Center it’s due payment...I shall then be obliged to make it less $100.00 on the remainder.” This cold tone softens once again at the end of the note, which reads, “Thinking of you again and once more thanking you for your encouragement.” This is the last letter on record between the two.
Richard received Tabled Landscape at close of show. It hung in a partially renovated bakery at 1810 Cortland Street, a building which Richard had purchased the previous year, and was at work converting to an apartment and photography studio. It remained there until his sudden death the following year, in April of 1972 at the age of 43, when a partially demolished building collapsed while he was at work inside. A month passed, filled with search parties, false reports, and legal actions before his body was recovered, and his affairs put in order.
Though Richard and Miyoko had, by all accounts, lost touch, and whatever romance there may have been between them had ended long before his life, something of their relationship was inevitably preserved by the painting Richard had purchased. Its power lies not in its content (though it radiates the energy one associates with Miyoko’s best work), or its context in the artist’s oeuvre, but by the circumstances of its acquisition. Its sale marked the relational transition from artist and artist to artist and collector. A shift in dynamic significant enough, by all outward appearances, to signal an end to all other facets of the relationship that preceded it.
Miyoko remained in Chicago until 1983, when at the age of 65 she suffered a cardiac event, the complications of which claimed her life. Though her life ended abruptly, her notoriety only rose. A long and contentious legal battle ensued between her widower, Harry Ichiyasu, and the art dealer Ken Walker (née Kenneth Hodorowski), another rumoured lover of Miyoko’s. The lawsuit was over the alleged gifts the artist had made to Walker prior to her death, of several significant works of art from her personal collection; these included etchings by Pablo Picasso and Giorgio Morandi, and an African fetish sculpture of a dog. The incident captivated the attention of the art world and the general press alike in the Summer of 1986. Though the courts ruled in favor of Walker, later that year he committed an act of self-immolation on the shore of Lake Michigan.
That this drastic and gruesome gesture was precipitated by the acquisition of art works--legal or otherwise--is cause enough to examine what gravity there is in the act of collecting. The desire to own these works seemed to eclipse the mere monetary value of them as objects, eclipsed the sentimental value of the gift of the artist or lover. Yet the works themselves retained the power to cause ruination by mere virtue of possession.
What became of these works is unknown. There is no record to indicate their sale, no heir apparent who might have inherited them. For all the trouble, both personal and legal, that these works of art brought into the lives of those who owned them, those who stole or made gifts of them, they cannot now, as a matter of record, be so much as located.
The same cannot be said of Tabled Landscape. In the years after Richard’s death, the painting changed hands several times. Though many of Richard’s possessions, both personal and professional, were dispersed to family, museums, and institutional archives, the painting by Miyoko was inherited by Carol Sutter, to whom Richard had been engaged to marry at the time of his death. When Sutter herself was killed just a few years later in a car accident, the painting was again inherited, this time by Sutter’s cousin, who had been a colleague of Richard’s, and, incidentally, a tenant in an apartment building owned by John Vinci. There the work was hung in the interstitial space of a stairwell. The painting remains, to this day, property of a private collection. It has never again been exhibited.
1 Author’s note: the book in question is L'Amante Anglaise.
B: Thanks for making the time to talk with me today, George. You're known for your high-end advertising and fashion spreads, and your portraits of Hollywood stars, but you've also established a fine arts practice. Where do those intersect?
G: I always see them as going in tandem. Everything to me in my photography and my career
one often segues off the other. After graduating from college in the early 1980's out at the Art Center in Pasadena I started doing fashion, working in Europe, in Paris and then coming to New York. That continued until the 1990's, and then I was doing album covers, but I wasn't doing a lot of actresses and actors at that point. I guess it was the way the industry was going. People started using celebrities as supermodels then, for magazine covers, for fashion editorials. So I moved into that, with some early assignments with Brad Pitt, with Madonna, and then eventually one day I woke up, and most of what I was shooting was celebrities. Editorials based more on portraits than fashion, which was fine by me because I ultimately found that to be more interesting.
B: You also worked under Helmut Newton early on, didn't you?
G: Yes, and he obviously greatly inspired me. He realized he was shooting a tool catalog, and those were photos that could someday end up in a museum--and they have. He didn't draw a line down his practice, he approached everything as though it was his own work, as though some day it might have that fine art quality. That's something that always stuck with me. I always try to do my own photos. Even in recent shows, work I did for magazine and commercial clients does end up on gallery walls. It goes together. It gives you access. These assignments, whether they're editorial or advertising, they give you a unique access to subjects you wouldn't normally address.
B: When you were starting out, did you see it that way? Were you just looking for a career, or did you always know you wanted a studio practice aspect in your work?
G: Originally when I went to school I wanted to be a photojournalist. I consider myself to be kind of one really. I love that aspect of photography. But when I went to school, I started learning more about lighting, and working in the studio, and then working with Helmut, I kind of unlearned everything I learned in school. I knew I liked fashion, I knew I liked working with celebrities, and I assisted him on those kinds of jobs. So I pursued that in Milan, and then Paris, and then New York. By the '90s, it all ran together. It was in the late 1980's I started doing my fine art nudes.
B: What made you start work on that series?
G: In the early 1980s there was a group of us in New York who lived downtown, all photographers, and we called ourselves the Cauldron. Most of us were friends from the Art Center and we got together because even though we were all commercial photographers--advertising, editorial, portraits, whatever--we realized we still wanted to pursue our art work. We started meeting every week, each doing personal work. It couldn't be something done on the job, or something old, it had to be new, specifically for this group. And we all started producing really interesting bodies of work from this. There was the great still life photographer James Wojcik, Charles Purvis, Mark Arbeit who assisted Helmut along with me. That's when I started shooting the nudes in earnest. In reality I had been shooting them since the late '70s, but I started to really produce a body of that work which started to move towards exhibitions. Now I've been doing them for forty years. I guess one of the beautiful things about this kind of thing, flying around the world to shoot in exotic locations, having these models with stylists and hair and makeup teams, was to take advantage of those circumstances, and if you had free time, to do some of your own work. Which is something Helmut did as well, he always would try to get the assignment, please the client, but then do something for himself on the side. Which is something I still do, since you know you're never going to be in these places again. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It's harder with the celebrities--you have people around, entourages, everyone watching the clock. And with social media, people are more cautious, everything is instantaneous. There's no shoot, develop, look, put it away. Things are transmitted instantly now.
B: Tell me more about the relationship between your work in fashion and your nudes. With fashion photography, it seems like you're almost using the body as armature, versus the nudes being about the body itself in space.
G: Well, in school, everything was about still lives at first. Very classic bootcamp style training. Everything was about the ball, the cube, and the cylinder; and how to light that. And really, the body is a combination of all of those. When you're shooting fashion, it's like a still life, you have to respond to how the light makes the body and the face look, but also the garment, how it shows, how it hangs. The model is obviously helping a lot, they move well, they know how to find the light, and they kind of take care of you in that way. Then comes your direction, getting them to emote, working in all lighting conditions--you can't always have studio light, or the magic light at the end of the day, sometimes you're shooting in the middle of the afternoon--to handle all the technicles. But I also like to direct a lot, I'm very aware of body language. I like to shoot everything as though I'm shooting a portrait. Nude or clothed, there's so much said by the way a model stands or sits. Just the body itself when shooting a nude, it becomes timeless. Hairstyle or makeup is the only thing that can potentially date it. If you're in the middle of the woods or the desert, with a body, that's pretty timeless. You can look back and say there were more rubenesque models at one period, and heroin chic was more popular in that period, but the first thing, the thing that informs my work, is that it's a portrait. The first thing I see is the face, then the body, then the clothes. That's my training, you want it to look good, but you want it to look interesting. And it goes first from the face. So in that regard, working with the nude informs working with fashion, it's like learning figure drawing, or like a doctor working on a cadaver, it's foundational knowledge. In turn that allows you to do well photographing not just someone who's a trained model, it teaches how to photograph someone who is maybe a little uncomfortable, or stiff, and how to use that. That's what makes photography so interesting, it's something different every time you shoot.
B: It seems that fluidity is key to photography in more than just practice. It's hard to think of a medium that's changed more in terms of process and format than photography has in the last generation.
G: Absolutely. When I started out it was completely analogue. People started to talk about digital, but no one really took it seriously at first. Then clients wanted to embrace the early digital technology, and it was difficult in the beginning, because everyone wanted to cover everything both ways. The workflow became very confusing. Then it switched fully to digital, and analogue shoots became a specialty. When I hear about young photographers discovering film, it's funny. When they label things as "shot on film" as a special designation, it's like, that's all there was. But I was an early adopter, I wasn't one of those photographers tha said, "I only shoot film, period." I saw the writing on the wall. People who did hand retouching, people who didn't embrace photoshop, airbrushers, they became dinosaurs, and I didn't want to be like that. I still shoot a lot of film, especially in my personal work, because I like the pace and the quality of it, but I'm equally proficient with digital.
B: What has the impact been on your commercial work?
G: When you're on a shoot, and there are all these people standing around, and you hear comments, or you hear complete silence as you shoot, it's like being in the kitchen and everyone is tasting the food as you cook it. It's not done yet, what they're experiencing isn't a finished product. In the old days, you took a polaroid, looked at it, stuck it in your pocket, and then you'd shoot. Then it would be processed, and it'd be like a birthday present every time, getting that yellow and red box back from Kodak full of contact sheets. Before social media, before everyone shot and posted selfies and everything else, you really had to work and form and sustain relationships to find the right models. You'd have trust, you'd share contact prints by mail or fedex. It wasn't like it is now, people shooting with their iphones over your shoulder while you shoot, things appearing online before you even see your own shots, before the work is finished. There was more intimacy, and more trust before. I miss that part of it.
B: There have been changes beyond just the workflow in recent years.
G: Of course, we've had things like the MeToo movement--necessary things--that make it such a different time now. And global events, 9/11, the pandemic, things like that change everything, in every industry. And social media was a revolution in photography. People are bombarded by visual culture, by movement. There's so much talent there too, and now everyone's a photographer in a way. But for me it's still about craft. I'm open to what's happening now, but it's slippery.
B: I know you also teach and have always worked with young photographers. What is it like to work with students who come in having these preconceived notions and personal relationships to photography by virtue of carrying around a camera in their pocket everyday?
Have standards in practice changed as well? Whereas in the past, you might have been taught that a classic fashion model has a certain look and a certain build, and you would focus on learning how to work with that, when now it's more common to see a diverse range of models? Is it different than when you were in school learning purely about the craft of photography?
G: That's a great question. I've been teaching a long time, and in the last five years, I've been teaching my own workshops. In the beginning, it was analog, it was all about technical craft, for the most part. Some workshops are on the portrait, some on fashion and beauty, some on the business of photography. Often it's on the nude figure. The demographic changes from course to course. Early on, students were more concerned with learning technique and lighting, and we would just touch on things on the business end. As far as models go, I've always loved to photograph all different body shapes, I was never interested in just one kind of model. Of course, fashion models back in the 80s and 90s used to be taller and skinnier and then people like Kate Moss came in who was shorter, and things slowly began to change. Now it's very, very diverse in terms of body type and in terms of ethnicity, which is great! And in my workshops now, I often have a younger demographic. And students would ask me, "can I just bring my iphone to class?" and I always say, if that's all you haven that's fine. I'll teach everything from how to shoot with an 8x10 view camera to an iphone. They're all tools. It's really about your eye, how you understand light. But I wrestled with that at first, thinking, maybe they should at least shoot on a DSLR, but then I thought, why limit it like that? You can take really great photos with an iphone, it's an important tool now. You can go out and play tennis with the best tennis player in the world, and make them play with the cheapest racket, and they're still going to beat you. When you're talented, you're talented, and good tools can make you even better, but you'll make good work with whatever you have to work with.
B: How have the conversations in workshops changed with these developments?
G: There's a lot more discussion now, about what's fine art? What's pornography? Questions of society, and perception, and new moral standards. I think it's really good that it comes out in critique, that we talk about respect now, and you didn't see that ten or twenty years ago so much.
B: It seems like those are broad social changes felt across every industry, not just photographer.
G: Absolutely. I've worked a great deal in Europe and things are different there than in the states. And the criticism of work can be very different, based on social norms, based on the culture where the work is being shown.
B: Speaking of cultural reception, especially in the context of popular culture, I wanted to ask you about your book, Holz Hollywood: Thirty Years of Portraits. What led you to make this book? Why this subset of photographs?
G: Originally it was going to be Twenty-five Years of Portraits but then it took five years to make. I was shooting all the time still, so it became Thirty. There was a lot of discussion as to if I should make my first monograph a book of nudes, or celebrity portraits. I thought of doing a combination, but I decided this needed to be on its own. Enough time has passed, that looking back, you can take a look at things and say, "yes, that's an iconic portrait." People change, their careers shange, you need time to determine what has staying power. It's hard going through 500 different analog sessions, and making selections, and deciding what goes into a book. But the nudes will have their own book, coming out in probably 2022.
B: Will that cover a similar period in your career?
G: Yes, around forty years.
B: Companion volumes.
G: Yes, and potentially a second, updated edition of Holz Hollywood, might come out too. You know from curating shows or working on books what that involves, and it's always evolving.
B: A book with that kind of scope taking five years is no surprise, really.
G: Some people think that's a long time. My designer did, but it does take time. I don't think of them as retrospectives, though, I'm still doing so much work. I could go ahead with another book that covers that same period, really. I'm always having to go back into my archives. Your eye changes with time. You look at an image and say, "Why didn't I put this in the book? How could I pass over this?" but you didn't see it the same way five years ago. Sometimes the best things end up on the cutting room floor.
B: What else is on deck for you?
G: The book of nudes is slated for 2022, but the pandemic has delayed it some. I have a few exhibitions in their early stages in Europe, but again, with the galleries closed, it's not a certain thing. We're in quarantine-light now, so right now things are opening back up, but I still can't travel outside the states. So it's all a big question mark for now. Shows that have been booked years in advance, shows were extended or delayed, there's a lot of uncertainty. Even with production. People working on skeleton crews, thinking, how do we reopen and reopen safely. People went bankrupt, people closed, people were laid off. We're picking up the pieces, seeing where we're at. Hopefully the editorial and commercial assignments can safely resume.
B: I imagine there's no way for a team to be hands-off while doing a fashion shoot.
G: I'm fortunate I live on a farm in upstate New York with my family. We have a lot of area, and my office and studio are on site. I was able to still do a workshop in August, though we had to cancel June. It was difficult, we often have a lot of people from out of state. People had to quarantine when they arrived in the state. We lost our international students. We were able to do it all outside, all socially distant, following all covid protocols. Designers sent us their clothes, and we were able to do the rest all in-house. Local models, on site production. My son, a filmmaker, was able to help us work things out. We may not know when this thing will be over. People won't be packing into galleries in Tribeca on hot summer nights for along time.
B: It seems like everyone is at a point where they're past the point of just trying to get by, and they're committed to developing sustainable long term alternative models, since we really don't have any idea how long this will last.
G: I've developed some interesting ways to do remote shoots. A friend of mine in Antwerp was expecting a baby, and wanted me to shoot her out in the forest while she was still pregnant, and I was able to do that with the help of an on-site assistant. He was the cameraman. It was a cool experience. Not the same as being there, but pretty close. Like working with a DP as a director. People are shooting with drones, finding new ways. Photography, especially what I do, with portraits, whether actors or personal work, there's a safe way to do it. You can shoot 8-to-10 feet away from someone. And being able to be working outside in spring and summer is great. But people who live places like you and I live--we've been working outside, we've been at outside cafes, I'm sure you've been enjoying the lake there in Chicago, but once we're all inside again in the winter, it'll be a big change.
B: There's still a lot to navigate ahead of us. But it seems to be pushing us towards asking questions like, how do you do a remote shoot? It's providing an opportunity to advance new methods of working that otherwise may not have been explored.
G: A year ago I wouldn't have fathomed doing a remote shoot. But photography has always been about adaptability. It's the nature of the business. You always have to be ready to adapt.