DoP and photographer, David Nissen, wants to produce images that tell a complete story. When looking at the pictures, the viewers are left to draw their own conclusions as to what those stories are; Nissen chooses to avoid naming the time and place of each photograph.
You work as a director of photography and as a photographer. How does your thinking differ when you stand behind a film camera or a photo camera?
My thinking if totally different between the two. Behind a film camera I work with a crew, with a director, filming actors and writing a story with the camera, light, sound… When I’m behind my Leica and my lenses, I spend a lot of time driving or walking, but alone. I listen to loud music – never underestimate the therapeutic power of driving and listening to very loud music. Within that state of mind, I’m looking for motifs to tell a story in just one single image, without any crew. More than a profession, photography has always been a passion, even an obsession: I’m not a professional photographer but a passionate photographer.
Is there any interaction between film and photography?
If cinema and photography have a marked tendency to intersect, it’s because there are affinities and contrasts between them that bind them by nature. The photographic image being consubstantial with the cinematographic image, there are relations of opposition at the level of the modes of existence of their images for a spectator: on the one hand the animated images, in sequence, projected, temporalized; on the other, the single fixed image, printed, not temporalized. As a result, everyone can try to approach the other, cinema proves the experience of photographic fixity with the freeze frame, while photography tries to represent the experience of cinematographic sequences with the effects of shake or spinning. A brief historical and technical reminder makes it possible to establish that the similarities are due to the fact that photography is the fundamental material element at the base of cinema: the cinematographic still is, by nature, a photographic image.
The spectator generally has a close relationship with a photo, which allows him to enter into it by sight and touch: the photograph is an image that the spectator can hold in his hands to look at it; he is somehow physically “attached” to the image. This attachment is physical, allowed by the small size. In the cinema, the spectator has a relationship of relative remoteness and comes into contact with the film by sight and hearing. This distancing, this physical detachment, this border between the viewer and the film, is facilitated by the large format; the viewer’s gaze “plunges” into the image. For me, cinematography and photography are two passions that merge and feed off each other: writing a story with light, a return to the roots of photography.
When I think of older films, there are times when I’m firmly convinced that they were shot in black and white. But they were not; so I’m then surprised when I see The Birds, for example, in colour. I feel similarly about your series: I remember them as predominantly black and white, but the opposite is true. Vivid colours do occur, but they are rare. The pale colours of twilight, night, and dawn predominate. Where does this preference come from?
I guess it comes from all the Hollywood films from the 1970s and 1980s that I saw – the colour palettes, locations, fittings, cars, etc. were used in such an elegant way. Just one example: when Francis Ford Coppola made his trilogy The Godfather, he and his famous cinematographer Gordon Willis often used top lighting and day for night techniques. Slightly under-exposed pictures make the atmosphere a bit claustrophobic but so powerful.
Similarly, people in your photographs are as rare as strong colours. In their frozen movements, they often seem like part of the architecture depicted in the picture. Is that intentional?
Yes, I don’t want to see people like ordinary people in the street, but like silhouettes, like ghosts in middle of the streets, a dystopian world where the cities are empty but full of weird characters.
Your photographs hardly allow any conclusions to be drawn as to when and where they were taken. For sure, a series such as Tokyo-Gâ suggests Japan, but otherwise little more can be said. Like: sometime, somewhere in North America. Why?
In all my books or exhibitions I try not to tell or write where and when the photos were taken. As said before, I’m looking more for a way to tell a story within one image – or many of them, like in my next book – without explaining where it was taken. My sense in that all the people in every major city feel lonely – like ghosts.
How do you find your motifs? Do you systematically explore the city or the area you are in?
Yes, I like exploring a lot. I forget who has said this: “To make very good pictures we need very good shoes”. It’s so true, because I do like to walk and get lost in the city I’m in.
Many of your photographs are reminiscent of a technique called chiaroscuro used by late Renaissance and Baroque painters, in which they worked with strong contrasts of light and dark. Caravaggio and Rembrandt were masters of this technique. What is your relationship to painting?
After studying photography, music and drawing at a school of Fine Arts, I jumped into photography because I was such a bad drawer! I do like the chiaroscuro technique; of course, masters such as Caravaggio, Rembrandt, de la Tour and many others influenced me so much. I visit a lot of exhibitions and museums to see and learn how these masters composed all those powerful and strong paintings. Modestly, I try to work with the darkness, with the light that falls through my lenses.
Which camera and lenses did you use to take these pictures?
I’m a Leica M user since the M6; all these pictures were taken with my M10-P. Most of them were made with my favourite lens, the Summilux-M 50 f/1.4 ASPH., some with the Summilux-M 35 f/1.4 ASPH. or the Summilux-M 75 f/1.4. I love the M camera for its size and “non professional” look. I take a lot of street photography and this camera is not at all intrusive – it fits so well in my hand like I’m wearing a glove. The M is a part of myself, I always have it with me and keep my eyes always open to life.
What are your plans for the near future?
iikki Books have just published my fifth photo book, Shadow’s Praise. Regarding cinema, I have a feature film to come, which I hope will find the financial support to get done. I would love to find a way to make a film with the look and atmosphere of my photography work; so I’m working on it with a director friend. Meanwhile I’m waiting for the Leica M11-P. I would love to have it.
Born in Valenciennes, France, in 1969, David Nissen studied Photography and Painting there at the École des Beaux Arts. He works as a photographer and as a director of photography for feature films and advertisements. He emphasises the close relationship between film and photography, because they both write stories with light. His fifth photo book, Shadow’s Praise has just appeared. It is a book and audio project produced in collaboration with the musician Akhira Sano. Learn more about David Nissen’s photography on his website and his Instagram channel.
A comprehensive portfolio dedicated to David Nissen appeared in LFI 3/2023.