PHOTOTALK WITH NICOLE JEAN HILL
BY GARY GREEN
Nicole Jean Hill was born and raised in Toledo, Ohio. She received a BFA in photography from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and an MFA in Studio Art from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her photographs have been exhibited throughout the U.S., Europe, Canada and Australia, including Gallery 44 in Toronto, the Australia Centre for Photography in Sydney, and the Blue Sky Gallery in Portland, Oregon. Her work has been featured in the Magenta Foundation publication Flash Forward: Emerging Photography from the U.S., U.K., and Canada, the Humble Art Foundation’s The Collector’s Guide to Emerging Photography, and National Public Radio. Hill has been an artist-in-residence at the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Wendover, Utah, the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming, and the Newspace Center for Photography in Portland, Oregon. She currently lives in Humboldt County, California, where she is an Associate Professor of Art at Humboldt State University.
© Nicole Jean Hill, Lolo Pass
1. When did you first get interested in photography?
I was first exposed to photography on my high school newspaper when I was 15. The advisor of the newspaper gave me a couple of VHS instructional tapes on how to develop film and print, then set me loose in the closet-sized darkroom adjacent to the classroom.
2. Were there teachers you studied with who were important to your growth as an artist and how did they –or do they – influence your own work and/or how you teach?
My undergraduate education at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design definitely shaped my experience as a photographer and teacher. NSCAD had an obvious divide – the professors who were the black-and-white traditional documentary photographers on one side, and on the other end were the professors who were very cynical toward photography and very thick into critical theory. I was a complete sponge as a student. I took it all in and tried to absorb as much as possible from both camps. Being exposed to photography at that school from such different vantage points has made my own internal dialogue about the medium more complex and I am grateful for my experience there. Alvin Comiter’s view camera class was the turning point when I abandoned forever the 35mm camera and learned of the work of Lynne Cohen, who became my biggest inspiration for many years. I then went on to work with Jeff Whetstone in graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I studied under him not long after he completed his MFA from Yale, so I learned a lot from just seeing him make the transition from student to full-time academic and artist.
© Nicole Jean Hill, Elk Head
3. When did you begin teaching? Did you do other jobs first to make ends meet or did you go right into it from graduate school?
I jumped into teaching right after graduate school with a position at the Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Nebraska. It was a great place to cut my teeth. The classes were small and the facilities were vast and well-equipped. I taught color darkroom, studio lighting, and portfolio classes. I was given a full schedule of classes I had never taught before and I’m amazed that I didn’t crash and burn. I felt comfortable with the color and portfolio classes, but the studio lighting class was all new territory. My only real experience with lighting at the time was with my own strobe kit that I purchased to do my photographs of retired racing greyhounds in grad school. I stumbled along week by week the first semester, and eventually got a firm handle on working in a lighting studio.
© Nicole Jean Hill, St Peters Dome
4. Please describe the art department and photography program at Humboldt State University.
HSU currently offers a BA in studio art, art education, and art history, and has about 350-400 majors. We have a BFA program in the works that will hopefully launch by the Fall of 2014. I would guess we have about around 40 students “emphasizing” in photography. Our department offers six photography classes per semester. Our photography classes also attract a lot of non-art students from journalism, geography and the sciences. It is always an interesting mix of art majors and non-majors.
5. What classes do you teach?
I teach all levels: Beginning Black-and-White Darkroom, Intermediate Black-and-White Darkroom, Intermediate Color (Digital), Advanced Portfolio Development. I’m in the process of creating a Beginning Digital course that will launch in Spring 2013.
I teach all levels: Beginning B&W Darkroom, Intermediate B&W Darkroom, Intermediate Color (Digital), Advanced Portfolio Development. I’m in the process of creating a Beginning Digital course that will launch in Spring 2013. Currently, our program’s beginning level photography class is film-based black-and-white. However, we wanted to offer a class that taught photography basics while also considering the students who may only encounter one photography class in their college careers – students taking a photo course to apply toward their graphic design, art education or other studio emphasis area degrees. In order for students to take a digital-based photo class, they previously needed to take the darkroom class first. This course will provide a thorough overview of camera functions of digital SLRs and a basic Photoshop primer.
© Nicole Jean Hill, Susitna River
6. Do you still believe that black-and-white darkroom technique is important in teaching photography to undergraduates?
I believe black-and-white darkroom technique is the most effective method of teaching camera functions, exposure, how to see density and contrast, etc. Black-and-white darkroom breaks each step down to the essential components. The lack of instant gratification helps students pre-visualize their images – that distance in time from shooting to developing to printing provides a greater reason to consider what is in front of the camera (and the quality of light) before all the frames on a roll have been shot. Then, the translation from negative to print forces a certain concentration on shadows and highlights, the variations of contrast, and the essential nature of the initial exposure. Also, the black-and-white darkroom contains a kind of “magic” that digital doesn’t have – there is an infectious giddiness in the lab when the first rolls of negatives come out of the tanks or the first prints become visible in the developer.
© Nicole Jean Hill, Titlow Hill
7. Do you have a particular philosophy in how you teach photography. What are some of the critical assignments you give to beginning and advanced students?
One of the assignments I likely stole from Jeff Whetstone is based on John Szarkowski’s introductory essay in his book The Photographer’s Eye, in which he outlines the five characteristics of the photograph: The Thing Itself, Detail, Time, Frame, and Vantage Point. I always incorporate some shooting assignment in response to this essay in my beginning classes, but it’s the kind of essay and prompt that can be incorporated into a class at any level. I vary what I do with that essay and those characteristics each semester, but it usually involves a prompt such as “Choose a single theme or subject matter and create a series of five images that highlight each of the five characteristics in the essay.” I like how the assignment is not only useful for the photographer, but it helps the class as a whole build a language we can start off using in critique to talk about images. Whenever I am designing an assignment I always try to first think about the kind of conversation I want the students to have during the critiques. I think the critiques are the most valuable aspect of the classroom experience and I want to give the students a vocabulary they can build from with each class discussion.
© Alexandra Ziegler, student work
For advanced students, I think spending some time getting to intimately know a large format camera is an important component. The way Humboldt is currently structured, students only have a fleeting experience with the view cameras. However, once our BFA program is up and running, the large format camera will be integrated in a more profound way. Even if students do not make a life-long commitment to large format, flipping the world upside-down, shooting single sheets of film, and the ins and outs of the Scheimpflug principle contain many valuable learning opportunities within the basic nature of the camera.
8. One of the big issues for many photographers who have been teaching for a while is the catching up it takes to stay on top of digital technique. When did you begin to work with digital media – printing or photographing – and how do you stay up on it? What materials do you use in your own work?
I jumped onto the digital bandwagon when I took the position at Humboldt State in 2006. I had intended to continue working with chromogenic prints, but the facilities at HSU were in a desperate state and Humboldt County has no other color photography resources within a 250 mile radius. I took a couple of workshops in digital workflow at Maine Photographic Workshops and Colorfolio in Sebastapol, CA that helped me hit the ground running with Photoshop and color management. To keep on top of things, I occasionally attend technical sessions at the Society for Photographic Education national and regional conferences and recently took a workshop at RAYKO photo center in San Francisco. I also share notes with my photo friends teaching at different schools around the country. For my own work, I shoot film (medium & large format color) and print to an Epson 7800. I use a digital SLR to do light tests when using my strobes, but currently do not shoot anything “for real” with my digital camera.
© Anna Schneider, student work
9. Your web site shows a handful of very rich and diverse projects, from the manmade landscape to domestic interiors to portraits of greyhounds. What do you this is the thread that ties your work together?
All of my work attempts to examine some aspect of cultivation. I am interested in how humans organize themselves alongside the non-human. Whether I am making an image of a pet bunny or a bullet-ridden tree trunk, I connect it all in my own thought-process as a manifestation of the human desire to define our relationship to the natural world around us.
10. Does your own work influence how or what you teach?
I’m sure my approach to art is inseparable from my personality and way of talking about images. My process of making images is very slow and methodical, and I tend to gravitate toward assignments or processes that encourage pause, observation and pre-visualization.
© Elisabeth Perez, student work
11. When do you generally get to make your own work?
I shoot mostly over winter and summer break, but try to carve out a little time on weekends throughout the school year for shooting. While school is in session (and the rainy season is in full force), I scan, edit, print and apply for shows, grants, residencies, etc. Over the last year and a half, I have had the opportunity to spend time at residency programs and shooting road trips throughout the West. The experience of being completely removed from my ordinary life to concentrate on developing new work has been invaluable.
© Helen Sanderson, student work
12. What do you tell students who tell you they’re stuck or they don’t know what to photograph?
I rarely encounter that conversation. I think it is because of what I mentioned in an earlier answer. I start off most of my classes with narrowly defined parameters before the students move into their own self-defined projects. By the time we get to the portfolios, students are itching to let loose. Students also submit a questionnaire to me before they begin their projects - more for their benefit than mine. It asks them about their favorite assignment they have done during the semester thus far, the names of the artists they were most inspired by from the slide lectures, and to create a list of things they think they might want to photograph for their final project. Since I have started incorporating the questionnaire into the classes, the dilemma I usually encounter is a student who is having difficulty choosing from a multitude of ideas. With that conversation, we hash out the logistics of each concept and go from there. Many times, their final projects are a continuation of something they explored in an earlier assignment that they want more time to experiment with.
© Jennifer Goolsby, student work
However, when I am faced with someone completely stuck, I ply the student with questions. It usually turns out that they do have ideas (or a small nugget of an idea), but have talked themselves out of it before making any images. I tell them to go shoot some images before dismissing the idea, and come back and talk to me in a week if they are still stuck. Once they start shooting the problem solves itself.
© Urbanatuica | Nicole Jean Hill