Q&Art with Russell Pirkle

This week: Mandi Nikole Zimmer. A more in depth discussion of her work and methods for the upcoming show at 102: Bistro this Wednesday. You can find Mandi's photography online at mandinikolephotography.com or on facebook. (Do not adjust your internet: This interview is transcript only)

If you would like to be interviewed for Q&Art please contact me at russellpirkle@gmail.com or call nclac at 255-1450.

Can you tell me how this series evolved?

The series was originally done as my senior exhibition. During the summer before my final year I was trying to decide on what photographic series I would display at the exhibition. I had thought about doing something in fashion. I love shooting fashion and had originally entered the photography field with hopes of one day becoming a fashion photographer. I did photography for several years prior to entering LA Tech and was very comfortable in the commercial industry. After much thought, I decided I wanted to photograph something more meaningful. I wanted to tell someone's story or capture the moments of a person's life. I shoot alot of lifestyle photos so environmental photography was not new to me. Finally, I narrowed it down to 3 choices; (1) I would have like to have done 3 families that had children who were patients at the St. Jude's Children's Hospital, (2) military men and women, or (3 ) 3 families during the delivery of their child. I was very interested in telling the story of the St. Jude's Kids, but it was difficult gaining access to the families, physicians, and hospitals to get approval to take the images. I would still like to photograph this series one day if possible. I have done birth photography in the past and it is such an amazing moment in the life of families, but I realized that I wouldn't always be available at just any time for the deliveries. My neighbor, Mr. Harry, used to sit and talk about World War II with my parents when I was young and I would hear him. I didn't really understand much but as I grew older I began to see the sorrow in his face at times and I realized the effects it had on his life. If you ask him today he is reluctant to speak about it anymore. So, I decided I wanted to do environmental portraits of service men and women and the  American Heroes series was born. I was amazed by the response I received. Veteran's and their families were receptive to the idea and the project evolved from there.

Can you tell me what you learned or discovered from the experience of creating the American Heroes series?

I learned about the sacrifices that service men, women, and their families have made over the years to defend our independence. They not only leave their families to fight wars, but they have suffered the loss of friends, family, and loved ones. I realized that the men and women who has fought on the front lines will always carry the memories, good and bad, of what they experienced forever. I don't believe I had ever really considered the sacrifices military families make until I did this series. Many families have given generations to military for the protection of our country. The Dyers, are an example of one of those families. Grandfather and grandson have both made sacrifices to defend the country we all love. I am forever grateful to these men and women who have fought for our nation, because without them I wouldn't have the freedom to live the life I live today. That is why I chose to do this series. I wanted to give honor and thanks to all our military and their families. I also learned that there are many wonderful people in the world. There are still trusting people who are willing to open their hearts, homes, and lives to others. I have been blessed to remain friends with a few of the soldiers and their families. Just recently Mr. Comeaux, The Grandfather, passed away and his daughter opened her home allowing me to become part of the family, celebrating his life. The images I had taken were some the last photographs taken of him and I felt blessed to have been able to document a part of his life and then share it with his family.

On a personal note, I learned something about myself and my goals in the photography field. I have always thought of myself as a commercial photographer because I photograph portraits of children, families, weddings, and fashion. I had earned my reputation through the use of lifestyle images, my ability to use an off camera flash, and my ability to use Photoshop. I had pretty much set my course, but this project changed me. I began to see myself more as an artist. My goals are changing. Yes, I would still like to work in fashion, but I also would like to photograph for Life Magazine, National Geographic, a newspaper. Oh, and yes I want to capture that perfect shot and win a Pulitzer prize.I love shooting environmental portraits. I try to incorporate it into almost every session I do now.

What wars do the veterans photographed represent?

Several of the men fought in World War II.  Mr Harry, the neighbor who inspired the series, is a World War II Veteran. Brandi North, the female soldier, fought in Afghanistan. She was also a victim of 911. I also photographed soldiers who fought in the Vietnam and Gulf War. I also photographed a gentleman who was at Pearl Harbor.

What are your personal connections to the subject matter? What family or friends do you have in the service?

The series was inspired by a neighbor and family friend who fought in World War II. Recently a friend of mine I've known since I was junior high returned from Iraq. Currently I do know people in the service but do not know anyone who is over seas doing battle.

Can you talk about a few of the artistic choices that you've made (in terms of how to shoot the subject) and why?

I chose to photograph these images as environmental portraits. The use of environmental photography allows me, the photographer, to give the observer or viewer a look inside the life of each man or woman as they live their life today. Many of these portraits were done in each Veteran's home. This allowed them to share the environment they live in, their families, and their hobbies or interest.

I am primarily a portrait photographer and the majority of my work is done as what's described as environmental or lifestyle photography. I have done some studio work but I am primarily known for my environmental style and lighting skills. I photograph the majority of my clients "on location." I love to photograph clients in their home but will occasionally chose a place that highlights them as individuals, or a place that is meaningful to them. I use questionnaires to help me learn more about my clients interest and to help me chose the locations used to photograph them.

Warren, The Fireman, was photographed at his place of work. After interviewing with him I decided to highlight his life as a Fireman. To showcase his life as a protector in the service and at home. His love for music was also something that stood out to me so we decided to share some of his life as a musician.

Some of the men are grandfathers who wanted to be photographed with their grandchildren. Mr Comeaux, The Grandfather, was shot in his home with two of his granddaughters. I wanted to portray them as they would appear in their everyday life. I felt I was able to do that because after interviewing with him and his daughter I was able to find out that it wasn't unusual for him to be home sitting in his chair while his granddaughters were playing on the floor near him. I chose to include the wheelchair and medical equipment in the image because it portrayed his love for his wife who had recently been admitted to a nursing home. Just weeks before she would have been sitting with him with the grandchildren playing between them.

I photographed the majority of the images with my 28mm lens, but I also used my 100m and 50mm on several of the images. You were correct about me using a narrow aperture on several of the images, but I was able to maintain a large DOF with the use of my 28mm lens. It was important for me to keep the entire image in focus so the viewer would be drawn into the story of the image and enter the into the life and environment of the subject. About the color - when I originally started the series I envisioned them as either black and white or sepia. I love black and white images and use them alot in my business. When I first presented them in class for critique my instructor suggested I print them in color for my second critique. I was really a little disappointed but took her suggestion. I loved them in color. I do have some prints in black and white though because I feel using black and white sets the mood of the image and highlights the subject being photographed.

NCLAC is supported in part by a grant from the Louisiana Division of the Arts, Office of Cultural Development, Department of Culture, Recreation & Tourism, in cooperation with the Louisiana State Arts Council, Funding has also been provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, a Federal agency.