16 January 2014 – 15 February 2014
Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
JackIe Nickerson reveals a compassionate tenderness and gravitas for her subjects while taking photographs of the land and the people in sub- Saharan Africa. In Nickerson’s photographs, seemingly conventional art-historical tropes like portrait and landscape photography are merged to illustrate the cause and effect of working the land on both people and the environment. For her recent Jack Shainman Gallery exhibition, entitled ‘Terrrain’, Nickerson travelled to Zimbabwe, Kenya, Zambia and South Africa to document agricultural workers, who constitute 70% of the workforce in Africa.1 Nickerson’s photographs blend figure and ground, transforming her subjects into sculptures in the landscape through a process of obstruction.
By blocking the facial features in her portraits, Nickerson highlights the physical presence of figures on the land, depicting how the bodies of the labourers become ‘sculpted’ through the repetitive actions of their work. Nickerson’s formal approach offers an account of the land and those who work and survive off it, rather than neutralising the content of her images.
Beneath magnificent skies, Nickerson scrutinises shapes, distils details and produces vivid, large-scale photographs that reveal the great dignity of her subjects. The labourers (photographed individually) hide their face by holding up objects, utilitarian tools like plastic crates and metal cabling, or the ‘fruits’ of their labour such as banana and tobacco leaves that are stacked, coiled, balanced or held. By honing her eye on both the produce and the producers, Nickerson highlights the relationship between the two: people and place inextricably tied together.
Nickerson arrived at this approach of concealing the subject by chance. One afternoon, Nickerson saw a worker called Oscar harvesting tobacco leaves – clipping the large leaves from the bush and then transferring them to an elongated metal rod and slotting them into a series of slats. This process dries the leaves without moisture building up between them, but also ‘obscures’ the worker as he accumulates his harvest. It was this chance occurrence that alerted Nickerson to the potential of composing other images this way.
Oscar arrested Nickerson’s attention. She simply asked him to stop and photographed him beneath the leaves that hung down and obstructed his face. Titled Oscar (2012), the work acknowledges the figure hidden in the photograph. Subsequent works similarly take the first name of the figure as a title, while some image titles borrow from locations used by the subjects, such as the photograph titled, Propagation Shed (2013).
Nickerson’s works are grounded in a profound inquiry into the act of looking and being looked at. To this end, she notes that the problem with objectivity in photography is that the photographer always gets in the way. Significantly, Nickerson has indicated that she would like to make herself invisible while she is working.2 She goes to great lengths to achieve this: travelling on her own and carrying her medium-format camera in a woven basket to minimise its presence. Acknowledging that her photographs come from and are directed at a “Western global North perspective”, Nickerson is motivated to investigate her viewpoint and question how she interprets visual appearances. Nickerson tries to eliminate herself in the work; when her subject picks up a plastic crate to obscure his face, he no longer sees the photographer or the camera. There is of course a performative aspect to this work: the photographer is both participant and observer. Nickerson is standing in the same landscape as the subject while she does her work – her labour is also inextricably connected to the terrain.
Nickerson wants to do more than simply photograph the labourers; she wants to merge with them as an invisible presence, knit into the scene like the woven basket where she conceals her camera, to capture what is in plain sight. Through a collaborative working relationship, Nickerson participates in a form of immersive journalism, reportage similar to Walker Evans’s tactics in his great, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In contemporary photography it is important how, not just what is photographed. This shifts the reception of the work. Nickerson speaks about the humanity in her subjects. Through her own working methodology she emphasises the humanity she finds.
Nickerson now carries a copy of the Oscar image with her on other projects, showing his image to others for emulation – a form of collaboration that recognises the potential of the labourer within the landscape. The individual photographs within ‘Terrain’ are not so much static records but evidence of Nickerson’s process of seeing.
Kathleen Madden is an art historian living in New York City, who teaches at Sotheby’s Institute and Barnard College, Columbia University and is currently editing the ‘Performa 13’ book, due for publication in 2014.