Long associated with privilege and prestige, formal portrait painting is traditionally a statement and guarantor of lineage and status, inescapably linked to a web of social and cultural codes. Jackie Nickerson’s book Terrain, published in 2013, features a series of portrait photographs of farm workers in several countries in southern and east Africa, together with studies of the environments in which they work. Throughout several projects, in Africa and Ireland – Farm and Ten Miles Round as well as Terrain – Nickerson has pursued an interest in the living and working relationships that link people and land. In Terrain each portrait subject has a statuesque, heroic presence, even though we often cannot see their face, either because they choose not to show it or because it is obscured by the material of their labour. The images were devised in collaboration with the subjects. Nickerson quickly establishes and develops the template of a monumental figure engaged in manual labour, with a disinclination to play a part. It’s clear the work is tough, that there is not much of anything to spare, including time and energy. She had it in mind to convey something of the reality of these individuals’ lives, their dignity and resourcefulness. She was especially aware that representations of Africans from a western perspective are problematic, that there are genres – notably the aid photograph, the conflict photograph and the ethnographic photograph – that cast the subjects as victims, aggressors or the exotic other, and she was keen to break those iconographic moulds. Now, with Brendan Rooney of the National Gallery of Ireland, she has come up with a visually remarkable exhibition. Uniform pairs photographs from Terrain with portrait and figure paintings from the National Gallery’s collection. An unlikely idea, you may think, but it yields unexpected riches. In fact, Rooney says, when they initially looked for potential matches, they came up with a shortlist of about 75. The more they looked, the more intriguing connections and correspondences they noticed. The resultant pictorial dialogue is enacted on many levels. Not least, the photographs ask questions of the paintings, prompting us to look at them anew, with a critical eye. So compelling are some of the relationships that it’s hard to believe Nickerson did not set out with a particular painterly dialogue in mind (she didn’t). Take, for example, the pairing of her Maria, a woman who has straightened up from her labours and regards us quizzically, with Paul Henry’s The Potato Diggers. There is a curious intimacy between these two disparate images of women working on the land. Nickerson points to practicality: Maria works in quite a different climate but many of the practical considerations are the same. Time and again the practicality of the detail in the photographs is telling. For Garret Morphy’s Portrait of William, 4th Viscount Molyneux of Maryborough, his elaborately coiffured, poodle-like wig is symbolic. It is all about status, but that historical moment has passed, and now it looks pompous, even absurd. He is paired with Mutema, who holds a tangled mass of wire loosely wrapped in torn sacking. It is, as photographed by Nickerson, formally beautiful. His fingers curl around the bundle, but we do not see his head. Here the composition’s visual flourish derives from the reality of the task: to gather the wire while protecting oneself. David, all but hidden behind a clutch of vast banana leaves, seems to mock the flamboyantly attired Charles Coote, 1st Earl of Bellamont, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The sheer excess of Coote’s finery places him beyond parody. He is a Goliath of pomp disarmed by David’s modest garland of leaves. William Leech’s idyllic, sun-drenched A Convent Garden, Brittany is paired with Gift, in which a worker holds aloft a vast bundle of plastic sheeting. Catching the sunlight, the ghostly appearance of the anonymous worker bearing the folded plastic is accentuated through juxtaposition with the graceful, white-clad woman in Leech’s painting. Here, as throughout the show, there is an intimation of western privilege haunted by the hard work of unseen others. Uniform – A collaboration with Jackie Nickerson, National Gallery of Ireland.
'Jackie Nickerson, terrain'
Lens Culture, Photobooks of the year, December 2014
Stunningly original faceless portraits of laborers in Southern and East African farms. Accompanied by a brilliant, insightful text by South African journalist Sean O'Toole. A jumble of factors make these photos remarkable—the light, color, mix of original clothing and universal fashion, sun-soaked landscape, and reportage of everyday hard manual labor.
Jackie Nickerson, ‘terrain’
The Visual Artists’ News Sheet, March- April 2014
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 ‘Terrain’, Nickerson traveled 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. She goes to great lengths to achieve this: traveling 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.
Working The Land
The Dish, 14 May 2014
Formally, Terrain presents a synthesis of two ways of seeing and describing the daily grind of commercial farming. The book juxtaposes portrait studies of farm workers, many pictured at the site of their labour, either harvesting or gathering industrial crops such as tobacco, maize or banana, alongside descriptive landscape studies, typically of open fields and enclosed sites of cultivation. The sequencing of these photographs is however more important than the genre they belong to: Terrain makes no distinction between ethnicity and geography; it erases very real linguistic, cultural, economic and political differences. It is a risky strategy. Although sometimes overstated for effect, there is a common-held perception in the global north of Africa as a vast undifferentiated space. Nickerson, who is nominally an outsider on the continent, is well aware of this bias. She accepts as given that the circumstances of a Malawian farmworker, for example, differ substantially from workers in Kenya, South Africa, Zambia or Zimbabwe, all countries pictured in Terrain. Nickerson has observed these differences first-hand – principally on month-long excursions to specific farms for this project, although it bears noting that Nickerson lived on a farm in Zimbabwe for five years in the late 1990s, an experience that sharpened her understanding of the daily nuances and political complexities of farm labour. But Terrain is not an evidentiary record of what distinguishes here from there, him from her, this from that. LINK
Exquisite Portraits of African Farmers
Wired Magazine, By Doug Bierend, 28 April 2014
Ask anyone where the produce in their fridge came from and they’ll probably tell you the name of a supermarket. The literal and figurative distance between farmers and the consumers who rely upon them is more than any localvore app or neighborhood co-op can hope to change. It’s easy to forget the crucial human link in the supply chain from farm to market. Jackie Nickerson’s Terrain series aims to make that link. Her portraits of farm workers in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, South Africa, and Kenya show the laborers as one with their produce and tools. “Every photo in the series is actually a part of working life,” says the Boston-born, UK-raised photographer, who visited some 100 farms for the project across 20 trips. “The images become quite theatrical and I didn’t want to trivialize one of the central themes of the work. Every photo in the series is actually a part of working life. This is not just spectacle, a performance. The guys were helping me make images that are grounded in the everyday.” The series has been a long time coming. Living in Zimbabwe from ’96 to ’01, Nickerson started photographing workers at the farm where she lived early on. It was a way of addressing the country’s post-colonial hangover that she felt created a gulf separating her from the people right next door. That feeling is understandable–farming in Zimbabwe is a divisive and, quite literally, black and white issue–and Nickerson grew interested in the profound interdependencies between farmers, land, produce and power. Though long fascinated by the issue, Nickerson didn’t start shooting Terrain until 2012. “It was important for me to get a personal perspective of the reality of the situation on the ground,” she says. “I wanted to try to collapse political borders and concentrate on the wider issue of agricultural labor and the agrarian environment, because it’s always these guys that end up paying the price for any political turmoil.” By obscuring the farmers among their produce and tools, Nickerson visually abstracts them into the very things that provide their livelihoods. The initial idea for the style of Terrain struck Nickerson while watching the farmers at work, when a man named Oscar turned in a certain way while carrying his load. While the results are visually striking and beautiful, it violates standard rules of portraiture. In many cases the subject’s face isn’t visible, and often the human form itself is difficult to make out. More traditional portraits and landscapes are also included in the series, but Nickerson’s real inspiration came from this visual interplay. “It’s about the relationship between people and their working environment and the hybrid that is created by the physical contact with what they work with,” she says. “The daily grind where movements must be repeated thousands and thousands of times over. It creates a deep familiarity with the tools and materials they are working with–earth, landscapes, plants, plastics.” In 2000, under president Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe underwent a controversial (and often violent) redistribution campaign to return white-owned farms to black Zimbabweans. For better or worse, it echoed an ongoing continent-wide refutation of colonial apartheid. Many of the now-resettled farms harvest tobacco, a crop that saw production sharply decline in the past decade. The cigarette industry has invested heavily in revitalizing it, leading to programs that help prop up fledgling farms and create networks between them. These networks would prove useful Nickerson. She contacted friends of friends, various organizations and farmers unions, travel companies. Some of the farmers she visited were commercial, some were farming for subsistence. In each case, she had to explain her purpose for being there, and spent enough time with them to understand their operation–often, she used her previous photos to illustrate what she was going for. “I was aware that this had to be a process of re-creation rather than creation,” she says, referencing the balance the portraits strike between being documentary and staged. Nickerson also sees a power dynamic at play in portraiture, one in which she wants to ensure the person being photographed is given the higher ground. That power and responsibility also extends outside of the photographic event, and into the wider world where the photo gets seen. Her previous project, called Farm, was also a portraiture series of African farmers, and another series called Ten Miles Round dealt with the connection between people and their land in rural Ireland. Her work is suffused with these themes, and in this series she is addressing directly the cause and effect, the chain of relationships that connect the farmers to their customers. LINK
In pictures: Hidden faces of Zimbabwean farm workers
BBC NEWS – In Pictures, 20 March 2014
Terrain is the latest photographic work by renowned artist Jackie Nickerson. The project, photographing people working on farmland in Zimbabwe and other southern African countries, aims to highlight the issues around food production and labour. The photographs of the farmers, mainly from Zimbabwe, for her current project were taken in 2012 and 2013. "I’m from an urban background, where I’ve lived in confined spaces and environments made up of concrete," said the photographer. "My experience spending time in rural places, on farms, made me realise the importance of our connection to, and dependence on the land and the people who grow our food." LINK
Jackie Nickerson: Terrain
Contemporary And, 16 January 2014 - 15 February 2014
Jack Shainman Gallery presents Jackie Nickerson’s third solo exhibition with the gallery. Terrain, a series of photographs taken in Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, is an investigation into the relationship between individuals and the landscape in relation to food production and farming practices. In these photographs, utilitarian and natural objects have been stacked, coiled, balanced and held, obstructing the subject and forming classical geometric compositions. Nickerson’s sculptural, hybrid beings provide as much visual information on food cultivation as they do about the people depicted. In her representation of the process where crops and raw materials become consumer products, Nickerson transcends marginalizing her subjects, which can be an effect of photographic documentation, by taking the focus pointedly away from individual identity or even a collective characterization. She comments that, “gazing steadily at the point at which one element meets another, Terrain asks us to think about these imprints left by the material processes of work as the evidence of our presence on the earth, and to think about how contemporary human beings, living in a western urban environment, can relate to the metaphysics of the labor which enables our lives.” LINK
GUP, issue 041. Cover, 10 page feature
Guide to Unique Photography, summer 2014
Jackie Nickerson, building on an earlier series that she made on African farms, created powerful staged portraits of farm workers in South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Kenya. She pushed the scale of her works to larger-than-life, so the subjects assume monumental proportions, transcending portraiture. Despite the fact that these photographs undeniably address the issues of food production and labour, Terrain is not exactly what you’d expect from a photo essay on agri-business. Obscured by the crops, sacks, and rubber tubes that they carry, the figures become armatures, sculptural and almost symbolic. They may disappear behind their burdens, but the labourers that Nickerson shows are not anonymous. Jackie Nickerson intentionally masks the individuals faces in order to arrive at a higher awareness of their plight. With the problems of our world becoming more complex and progressively difficult to visualize, ‘curve ball’ social documentary portraits are slowly marking a genre in their own right. Terrain is a striking example of these photographic attempts to balance between the thought provoking and the aesthetically pleasing.
Photographs By Jackie Nickerson—Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
TIME LightBox, Myles Little, January 2014
Why doesn’t Nickerson follow the traditional path of “concerned” documentary photography, identifying individuals affected by an issue, and showing the particular details of their lives? Indeed, she rarely shows us any human faces in this project at all, and she totally erases important distinctions of nationality and culture within her diverse assortment of subjects. In effect, she hopes to reveal by concealing; she informs by holding back. LINK
Jackie Nickerson | Our Daily Bread
Another Africa, written by Kyle Tregurtha, Nov 01, 2013
While getting ready to speak with Jackie Nickerson about ‘Terrain’ my main interests were the aesthetic and sculptural qualities of the compilation, with some inquiries orbiting the place labourers hold in national psyche. In the flurry of our exchange, protracted over three countries and two continents, I found our confab returning to the process and production of food, and how it is that one of the problems facing African agriculture is the adoption of Western methods of production. Compositionally ‘Terrain’ is very striking. As the press release for the upcoming book launch reads; “Terrain is about us in the landscape, how we change the world we inhabit at every moment of our being human, and how, for the better and for worse, the world that we make, in turn, changes who we are.” There’s a manipulation in ‘Terrain’ of Nickerson’s figures, sculpting her subjects on the terrain into amalgamations of the whole process of food production. At first glance we notice their beauty, then, perhaps secondarily, their relationship to the place they’re in, hopefully landing on the idea of man-in-nature. When first introduced to ‘Terrain’ I couldn’t escape the obscured visual of these whopping heaps, bundles, and sheafs moving from earth to market with the worker, positioned underneath these piles, as a fulcrum. Mechanized men moving masses for the benefit of the majority. USSR style state-sanctioned propaganda, which created iconography out of the land labourer to support long term production goals, flitted before my mind’s eye as I tried to interpret the question Nickerson was posing. In the psyche of the developed world, man’s disconnect from nature is a phenomena that Nickerson is hovering over. In a very broad examination into the materials and process of food production, which obscure the individual, Nickerson creates photographs particularly pertinent to the developed north and the USA right now, and poses the same question to countries like Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia, in which these photographs were taken, as they further mechanize their food production. We are at a point in our existence when what we put into the microwave or have delivered, shares no connection to a thought about from where it came, or who laboured to grow and harvest it. That’s a statement on globalisation; the post-industrial experience is inching toward ubiquity. Is this absence of humanity in our daily food not disconcerting? It was in Nickerson’s case, indeed it seeded the project. She tells me ‘in fact, they [labourers] are somewhat hidden and forgotten… are an unseen part of rural life – agriculture is highly mechanized so even if you’re traveling around the countryside, it’s unusual to see people working on the land. I began to see something of this when I was living in Zimbabwe.’ It is this direct intersection with the landscape that informed our conversations, and through our tête-à-tête that her sensitivity toward food, the environment and the future of both were revealed. Nickerson’s firsthand experience in the SADC as flaneur and thoughtful documenter is, at heart, an experience of the strung-out reverberations of decolonization and sanctioned neocolonialism. Land rights and the auctioning of these, usage and the power that comes with owning land, and the role the end user plays in this cycle, have imprinted on Jackie. The precipitous entry of the continent and its players at the juncture of commerce and agriculture is something she is impassioned about on a local and global scale. Trying to make sense of these issues is not a particularly easy thing. However, these questions should be asked even if we don’t have conclusive answers. If these photographs can get under the skin, they have the ability to shake a person’s self-world relationship. LINK
Jackie Nickerson “Terrain” at Jack Shainman Gallery
Lintroller, Robert Hickerson, 24 January, 2014
Jackie Nickerson began photographing Zimbabwean farm workers in 1996 as a way to change the perception that those who work in African agriculture are impoverished, unmodern people. The resulting series, Farm, focused on the unique and beautiful clothing the workers made for themselves, and by doing so highlighted the worker’s identity, individuality, and ultimately their modernism. Now, with her third solo show, Terrain, at Jack Shainman Gallery, Nickerson turns her attention to the roles in which workers play in the production and commodification of agricultural goods. The gallery is lined with large scale full body portraits, with each person regally standing in front of the viewer. Nickerson manages to capture her subjects so that they are transformed by that which they are holding. Items which can be found in production sites, such as a plastic tarp, a multitude of crates, a bushel of flowers, seem melded into the person holding them, producing the effect that these are other worldly beings. However the surreal qualities are not overpowering, the effect produced does not seem done so by force through staging – such as is seen within many contemporary works. Rather the beings seem grounded, with the surreal qualities so minute that they could have happened by chance. With Terrain, Nickerson moves away from highlighting the individual and instead focuses on their integral role to the process of production. Yet, unlike documentary photography which pinpoints the work being done often marginalizing those doing the work, Nickerson shows her subjects in a way which makes them dignified. This can be attributed to the central framing, and the large sizes of the prints, but also to the fact that these are beautifully composed with an attention not only to what is being held, but also to how it is being held and who it is being held by. While there is a distinction made between environment and subject, the backgrounds are defined places, further subduing the abstraction of the subject. Nickerson spent time talking and understanding her subjects. With Terrain, she creates the sense that these are people who should be appreciated for the jobs they work, in a country where the state support for agriculture is becoming progressively withdrawn. She furthers this by often naming her photographs after the people who are depicted within them. But Terrain doesn’t have the tone of a public service announcement; it rises above that to bring light to a situation by showing the potential majesty of those within it. LINK
Review in the New Yorker, 27 January, 2014
Powerful color photographs of farm workers in South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Kenya build on an earlier series that Nickerson made on African farms. This time, she’s pushed her scale to larger-than-life size so the subjects assume the proportions of monuments and the works transcend portraiture. Obscured by the crops, sacks, and rubber tubes that they carry, the figures become armatures, sculptural and almost symbolic. They may disappear behind their burdens, but the laborers in Nickerson’s show are not anonymous: she pointedly titles her pictures—“David,” “Catherine,” “Cephias”—after their subjects.
Review by Martha Schwendener, New York Times, Art in Review, 23 January, 2014
Jackie Nickerson works in a traditional social documentary format, not too dissimilar from Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange, only updated for the current millennium with large-scale color prints. However, in “Terrain,” she upsets one of documentary’s central tenants, what the scholar Ariella Azoulay calls the “social contract” of photography: the bond created when we gaze into the face of someone in a photograph and feel obligated to fight for social change.
Social documentary is customarily criticized for evoking pity or voyeuristic fascination. In the catalog accompanying the show, a worker whom Ms. Nickerson asked to photograph asks her, in return, “For whose pleasure?” By obscuring faces and identities, Ms. Nickerson avoids some of these complications, although the subjects end up looking like sculptures or low-tech robots — a bit like Eduardo Paolozzi’s humanoid “Robot” sculptures from the 1950s.
The photographs still ripple with politics, particularly around the issues of food production, agribusiness and labor. It’s just that they are marked with a next-generation awareness of the pitfalls of photographing people. Where the liberal humanism of earlier social documentary used people as its “universal” currency, “Terrain” puts plants and work implements in the foreground. In this sense, you might call Ms. Nickerson’s work post-human social documentary.
Review by Vince Aletti, W Magazine, 15 January, 2014
In 2002, when Jackie Nickerson published Farm, a book of portraits and landscapes from Africa, she’d put a career as a fashion photographer behind her. But fashion wasn’t done with her: As soon as stylists and designers saw the inventiveness of the layered outfits worn by the field workers in her pictures (think grassroots Comme des Garçons), the book became a cult favorite. “Terrain,” her latest body of work, on view at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York from January 16 through February 15, 2014, finds her back on similar turf, but this time her human subjects appear utterly overwhelmed by the burden of their labor. All but invisible beneath bundles of wire, plastic sheeting, or banana leaves, the figures become sculptural supports. For Nickerson, the series is about issues—the environment, the value of labor—that aren’t confined to Africa.
Jackie Nickerson | Terrain, An Atypical View on Farming
Review by Missla Libsekal, Another Africa, 22 November 2013
Soft muted colours, abstraction, sculptural configurations, farm equipment as quasi readymades. Not exactly what you’d expect from a photo essay on agribusiness and that is exactly the point. Terrain is meant to be atypical. A meeting of two worlds, of art and photo documentation, this latest series by Jackie Nickerson intentionally masks the individual but will that stratagem unmask the issues? While social documentary historically brings faces to the fore, Nickerson’s faceless sculptures intend to disrupt. In an age where shock value still commands, this delicate gambit undertakes to make a case that not all serious issues need to shock us to attention. Take a deeper look at Terrain, with insights from the photographer in our recent article Jackie Nickerson | Our Daily Bread.
Jackie Nickerson’s TERRAIN
Conversations with leading cultural figures, Daisy Woodward, AnOther magazine, 19 November 2013
Photographer Jackie Nickerson strikes a perfect balance between the thought provoking and the aesthetically pleasing, her works skillfully composed, harmoniously hued explorations of identity and environment. In her first book, the much acclaimed Farm, Nickerson examined agricultural life in Africa through a series of landscape shots and engaging, “straight up” portraits of farm labourers. As in Farm, Nickerson presents landscapes alongside portraiture but unlike those of her first project, Terrain's labourers remain anonymous, each worker's face disguised by the tools or materials of their trade – from plastic crates and sheeting to jagged banana leaves. "This more sculptural structure, where the identity of the person becomes intertwined with what they are growing, is a kind of metaphor for the process of labour, and how we can’t escape the physical and psychological effects of what we engage with," Nickerson explains. The images are hugely powerful, shying away from usual methods of photojournalism and instead employing a reduced but mesmerising artistic language to raise key questions surrounding the issues of crop specialisation, subsistence farming and food security. Here, we chat to Nickerson to discover more about the project as well as her inspirations and motivations.
What interests you in particular about the relationship between people and their working environments?
I’ve always been interested in cause and effect and this theory informs all my work. I’m specifically interested in how we are all affected by our environment – whether it has a big impact or just a miniscule impact, short term or long term. And I want to observe those markers, those signals. I’ve usually concentrated on sub groups of people working within a specific environment.
What do you hope viewers will take away from Terrain?
I think it’s my job to ask questions, sometimes difficult questions and ask people to think about how they might address these questions. I hope I’ve done this with these pictures.
Despite the fact that the images in Terrain depict a very industrious and laborious way of life, they are beautifully shot and very aesthetically pleasing. Is beauty something that you consciously try to achieve in your work?
When I began to take the pictures I realised that I needed to create a visual language that put across the farmers and farm workers as individuals and as modern people. I wanted the viewer to be challenged to look at Africa in a different way and also for the images to have an aesthetic, a beauty. Actually, the images are very much a recreation of moments in everyday life – it’s naturally beautiful.
Would you describe your work as politically motivated?
Yes, very much so. Human rights are a big motivation for me. There are all kinds of issues that motivate me in my work – global warming, water resources, sustainable development, labor issues and other important problems. It might seem strange to address these issues with these images but for me, it’s really not.
‘Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse : Ten Miles Round’
Photoculteur, 6 June 2010
I had already seen Jackie Nickerson’s work and this time the printing is radically different. She shows large format portraits, fields, meadows, a tangle of grass and thickets, a leaden sky and a cozy interior yet everything fits into that atmosphere. There is something both epic and modest, a sensitivity that evokes both fragility and strength. These are truly a magnificent set of photographs.
‘On a Lighter Note’
Review of ‘Collecting the New’ at the Irish Museum of Modern Art
Gerry McCarthy, Sunday Times Culture Magazine, 30th May, 2010
Critics deride the term postmodernism as a kind of catchall description of a movement without focus or purpose. They argue that it is only a vague name for the diverse trends that followed the high point of the modern movement in the 1020’s an 1030’s. After the giants and the revolutionaries, from Picasso to Jackson Pollack, came a great splintering: the art world split into diverse styles, linked only by their relation of what went before. Eventually somebody will come up with a better word than ”post-modern” to capture the defining features of this trend. In the meantime, this exhibition shows that the trend is real, that it marks a decisive break with the past, and that Imma’s collection of contemporary work has a strong sense of thematic unity. There is a formal diversity among the featured artists, who work in a wide range of styles and media. Yet they share the postmodern sensibility: eclecticism, humour, a refusal to take themselves too seriously and an openness to influences from high and low culture.
The mixture of the comic and the philosophical is typical. These artists come from a generation that turned stand-up comedy into the new rock’n’roll. Just as comics stopped telling jokes and turned to a blend of surreal wit and performance art, these artists see no contradiction in drawing on popular sources to make philosophical points.
We can see this clearly in Green Room, a photographic print by Jackie Nickerson. It is taken from her Faith series, for which she took her camera behind the walls of enclosed convents and monasteries. Simply by showing nuns are real human beings, seemingly happy with a life of devotion and prayer, Nickerson made a profound observation about the nature of faith in Ireland.
Her work is a type of visual sociology, an attempt to understand the dynamics of a community. The nuns in Green Room sit around a table, visibly relaxed and at ease in their particular world. The bookshelf behind them, however, tells another story: it contains mysteries and thrillers by such popular authors as Agatha Christie and Dick Francis. The Books, and Nickerson’s pin-sharp eye for detail, tell us that these nuns are fond of escapism. Without demeaning or mocking her subjects, Nickerson casts the innocence of their faith in a new light.
This is a serious topic, observed with such a deft ironic touch. Such lightness is typical. The original 1920s modernists took formal experiment almost as far as it could go: they deformed images into abstractions, they dripped paint and made mixed media collages. Despite their innovations, however, they clung to the old Romantic notion of the artist as genius, as a uniquely gifted visionary. To rework a line by the French critic, Roland Barthes, postmodernism has seen the death of this kind of artist.
‘The Everyday Gaze’
by Stephanie McBride, Irish Arts Review, Winter 2009
Jackie Nickerson’s fine portraiture first emerged in Farm, her series on agricultural labourers and landscapes in Africa, and was followed by her study of religious communities in Faith.
In her latest body of work, Ten Miles Round, she re-enacts the delicate observation of that portrait work, casting her eye on her own locality in Co Louth and pointing her camera on the people and landscape to rework the overlooked and common-place. The personal and local are, in Nickerson’s gallery, linked – even if this link is undercut by the dogged familiarity of the everyday, which Maurice Blanchot notes ‘one has always looked past…the everyday is what we never see for the first time, but only see again.’ Nickerson’s process of creative documenting renews our vision of the well worn and habitual.
Although it may not be quite the case that, in John Montague’s terms, ‘the landscape is a manuscript we have lost the skill to read,’ nonetheless, economic and other forces have utterly transformed and rewritten the natural contours of the land in many area, making way for golf courses, housing estates, car-parks and interpretive centres, uprooting and redefining our links with our rural surroundings. This is why Nickerson’s views of her local agricultural environment, those remaining terrains not yet swept away in the contemporary clearances, have a quiet ‘shock of the old’. Her landscapes, though empty of people, carry the small traces of individuals who walked and worked the land.
Trees in wintry profile, withered vegetation and waterlogged furrows of Hunterstown (Fig 5), the title itself tugs at older histories and traditions that welded legend, narrative and place.
Two Gates (Fig 3) are reached through a mucky patchwork of mechanically made tracks, upturning the earth, wind-blown clouds covering a landscape that denies the picturesque. Unpromising subjects, perhaps, but her camera steadies our gaze onto the dankness of flooded fields, clabber, ruts and sheughs in these rural images. Mother and Child (Fig 2), invoking a long iconic legacy of art history, is here refracted through her signature engagement with her subjects – a neutral background presenting a young mother, looking off lens, eyes bright, unflinching, a smile just beneath the surface, an ease in her casual but sure grasp of her child. In her open-necked shirt, denim jeans and hair caught back, there is a sense of assurance in the woman’s routine as role of protector and nurturer. Her child is wide-eyes and unaware of the formality of the situation, a bootee lace undone, the denim and colourful clothing echoing the mother’s dress, faint shadows echoing in the background, a ‘mother and child’ portrait for the local here and now.
A neighbouring portrait, Publican (Fig 1), shows its subject seated, hands clasped in a self-conscious gesture and eyes downward cast – shy, reticent and thoughtful, not the conventional subject of formal photography. A pen wedged behind his right ear recalls memories of older, traditional ritualistic stances from other times and places – the butcher, baker or ironmonger – and her, again, a pale background casts the publican in a less familiar mode, denuded of stereotypical trappings, revealed in his own quiet moment.
Nickerson’s interiors also carry a narrative charge (Fig 4). In the glut of television makeovers and property porn, her photographs, by contrast, rely on subdued natural lighting, with a stillness that displays a calm disorder in the settings. These are real rooms, where the chairs and table are not staged by stylists for the camera, nor cushions vigorously plumped for the shoot. Instead she presents a glimpse into a habitat, a domestic space, to invite us into a world seemingly known, yet with its own silent hauntings – who sat here to table and why? Who left a magazine on it? What of the whys and wherefores of the other clutter discarded on the floor? A sense of a life’s movement is curiously caught in this image of the recently vacated furniture.
Her visual register has a sharp focus and direct address which respects and casts into relief her chosen subjects – her fieldwork yields new ways of seeing and interpreting. The portraits demonstrate the power of her restrained simplicity while her landscapes wallow in the mire and unruly hedgerows, and all resonate with the fundamental concerns of where we live and how we appear to others and, ultimately, to ourselves.
‘Accidents of Community’
by Aidan Dunne, The Irish Times, 27 November 2009
The idea and the fact of community have been constants in Jackie Nickerson’s work for some time. Given that, in one sense, her main subject has been and continues to be the individual portrait subject that may seem slightly contradictory. But, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher in her 1987 interview with Douglas Keay, an interview which has often been misquoted: “Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women.” Who is society? The question is not a bad way of summing up the impetus behind Nickerson’s photographs. In them we usually see individuals, but they are invariably enmeshed in communities on myriad levels. Mrs. Thatcher was being critical of individuals who appealed to an abstraction, society, to cope with their needs and solve their problems. Nickerson doesn’t seem to be that interested in abstractions, but she is acutely interested in the reality of how people make, relate to, are variously nurtured and disadvantaged and, inevitably, shaped by their communities. Those communities might be in some respects elective, as with the Catholic religious orders that feature in the series of photographs that make up her book Faith, or they might be economically induced, as they are for the workers who struggle to survive in her series of photographs based on the experiences of farm labourers in several Southern African countries, published as Farm. Or they might, as with her new body of work, Ten Miles Round, have to do primarily with accidents of birth and upbringing. In Ten Miles Round, she explores her own community in coastal Co Louth, a predominantly rural community where farming and fishing and ancillary related activities, are the main occupations. More often than not, community in the sense that interests Nickerson is all but invisible. That is, what is most familiar to us attains a kind of invisibility. Vision is short-circuited by familiarity, recognition requires just a few habitual clues rather than attentive looking, and our everyday world, with its relationships, rituals and routines, its well-worn environments, becomes second nature to us. The everyday is the space, both the physical space and the psychic space, in which we live, in which we love and hate, work and think, in which we are, to varying degrees, ourselves, and that is what fascinates her more than anything. People and places: in conventional pictorial terms, we might divide Nickerson’s photographs into those two subjects, except that it’s clear there is no division. She doesn’t make studies of landscapes, on the one hand, and people, on the other. Each is inextricably bound up with the other. Landscape cannot be separated off into a settled tradition of the picturesque, for example. It intrudes, it’s lived in, it’s often muddy and grubby, and of course it’s beautiful, but not conventionally, comfortably beautiful. It’s noticeable that, while painting is often identifiable as an influence in her work, it’s usually painting from the early Renaissance, when artists were fundamentally figuring out how to depict the world, and people in the world, rather than painting in the more recent sense of the term, as an exercise in visual style. In an interview with Vince Aletti included in Faith, Nickerson is at pains to make clear that she is not a “day in the life of” photographer, although she is interested in documentary photography, “in who we are and how we live.” What’s important, perhaps, is that she doesn’t start with the presumption of a known entity in any sense. The individuals she photographs are unknowns, as are their relationships with the community in which they live. As is, just as importantly, the community itself: there are no reassuring national or cultural stereotypes to appeal to, no readymade identities. We can’t presume anything. It’s all thrown open to question, and nothing is neatly formulaic. Her photographs are a way of making visible what is otherwise unseen. We think we know who we are, we think we know the world we inhabit, but she is fairly sure that we don’t, and she sets out to try and show us what we might look like if we could, for a moment, see ourselves, and the world we actually live in.
‘The Global Relevance of the Local’
Tanya Kiang, Source Magazine, Winter 2009
With her considerable record of international exhibition, one wouldn’t readily think of Jackie Nickerson as a ‘local’ photographer, but in Ten Miles Round, her newest body of work, it is precisely the issue of local connection and community that is bought into critical focus. As the name suggests, the work is about a particular area around the photographer’s adopted home in rural County Louth. As Aidan Dunne notes, Nickerson ‘doesn’t start with the presumption of a known entity in any sense. The individuals she photographs are unknowns, as are their relationship with the community in which they live. As is, just as importantly, the community itself: there are no reassuring national stereotypes to appeal to, no readymade identities’. Instead, landscapes crossed by rutted lanes and straggling hedges speak of barriers and enclosures. We are denied a dominant position from which to master the landscape in visual terms: something impenetrable remains – literally and at a psychological level.
Similarly, in delicately posed portraits there is a shyness or reticence at play. An averted gaze conveys a sense of reserve and we must acknowledge a singular, intractably invisible, interior world to which we do not have access. Throughout, the worked, worn contours of the everyday are granted the space and time to reveal their particular beauty. Nickerson’s meditation on her locality in effect becomes a work about belonging, both to a space and to a time. For these images were made during a time when, as Stephanie McBride puts it, ‘economic and other forces have utterly transformed the rewritten the natural contours of the land in many areas, making way for golf courses, housing estates, car parks and interpretive centres, uprooting and redefining our links with our rural surroundings’. This is why Nickerson’s views of her local agricultural environment, those remaining terrains not yet swept away in the contemporary clearances, have a quiet “shock of the old”.
However, Nickerson’s work might be regarded as future socialscapes. Nickerson presents her rural community in an expanded present. The rural way of life is arguably passing or in decline, but throughout the work, she portraits its resilience. And it is this, which grants it a hold onto a future, however uncertain.
The AIB Prize
by Mary Kate O’Flanagan, Sunday Tribune, 7 December 2008
“These are beautifully composed images with a wonderful sense of texture and light and with great presence. They are riveting. In terms of her mastery of the medium of photography, she never lets the technical challenges let her down. But it is her feel for colours, the composition, the nuances of light that mark her out as a real natural. Even when she departs from her marvellously revealing portraits of the nuns and does interiors of the laundry, the corridors, a simple table set up for the sisters to eat, she communicates a vast amount. There is a tremendous sense of peace and inner contentment reflected in that collection of photographs”.
by Holly Kyte, The First Post, 1 October 2008
The world of a religious order is usually a hidden one: interior, separate and devout. But Jackie Nickerson ventured inside the Catholic enclaves of Irish convents and monasteries for a rare and privileged glimpse, spending two-and-a-half years photographing what she found. Despite being packed with grand religious symbolism and iconography, her pictures dispel any aura of mystery with a healthy dose of mundanity. They show God's devotees simply pottering around in their earthly environment and going about their daily business (as in Washing Eucharist Vessels, 2006, above). This is faith not as exalted, ethereal revelation but as tangible, everyday vocation.
Jackie Nickerson’s ‘Faith’
La Repubblica, 18 September 2008
The photographer Jackie Nickerson photographed inside Irish convents documenting the daily life of Nuns and Brothers: morning rituals, community prayers and austere lives rooted in a strong, optimistic and courageous self-discipline that is reflected in the portraits. With its pastel colours, Jackie tries to investigate the often incomprehensible faith. Without judgement, but only the honest and compelling documentation she has discovered a world oasis of serenity.
Jackie Nickerson’s ‘Faith’
Review by Breandán Mac Suibhne, Field Day Review 2007
In a convent or monastery, prayer and contemplation are magnified by ritual, so much so that the sense of a spiritual presence within the buildings becomes pervasive, and this most potently takes the form of light. Photography, itself founded on light, is an art form that saturates the world of objects and people in that medium.
The source of light in a painting is usually traceable to a source or an area, and from there the structure and geometry of the painting is illuminated in ways that we are accustomed to read as being a blend of inner and outer light, always establishing for us a ratio between the physical and the spiritual worlds. In these photographs, that painterly inheritance is palpable, but in them the intimacy between the technology of the camera and the use of light is especially strong. The blaze of light through a window, the gloss of polish on a floor, the echo of light down a corridor, the pressure of light within a face, all bespeak the spirituality and discipline which together create the beauty of silence and community we witness here.
A statue, a saucepan, a table or a chair are not merely dead objects; they are mute, but alive. The photographs create silence as a dimension, although they also allow for conversation and cheerfulness. These are communities steeped in an interiority which they have discovered is not their own but something wider and deeper than themselves of which they are a part. The purity of line in these shots — verticals, horizontals, deepening perspectives — indicates a certain completeness, a spiritual integrity that belongs to and is part of the goal as well as the effect of the monastic spirit. Yet too there is the implication of the historical time of these institutions. The iconography has that unmistakable combination of catholic revivalism and kitsch of the nineteenth century, of the Virgin and the Sacred Heart, the anti-secular devotions of that era that stand out here like insignia of time in a world otherwise concerned to register its timeless dailiness. We are looking here at an eternal present and at a historical past. Jackie Nickerson’s achievement is to embed one within the other with such gentle skill that their contrast with one another produces little more than an eddy of conflict that perhaps deepens their meditative calm.
‘Faith’ is the result of three years photographing the interior and exterior spaces of religious communities throughout Ireland. Nickerson had uncommon access to the private worlds of the religious in their places of work and prayer.
Richard B. Woodward, Wall Street Journal, 14 December 2007
“Faith” by Jackie Nickerson (Steidl, 224 pages) and “Snowbound” by Lisa Robinson (Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg, 112 pages) takes the prize for handsomest books most fitting for the season. Ms. Nickerson’s portraits of nuns, monks and priests from Irish convents seldom reveal more of the person than the face and shoulders. But the figures are lit as if from within and seem to ask nothing from us, as though their beliefs and vows already gave them everything they need.
Jackie Nickerson: ‘Faith’
by Paddy Johnson, ArtKrush, 14 November 2007
Documenting the Catholic orders of Ireland, she produced a suite of carefully composed portraits depicting warm and welcoming nuns, such as the jovial Sister Anne. The artist pairs these individual shots with photographs of quiet interiors. In ‘Green Room’, bright light from a window shines on her subjects to create a picture full of life, grace, and serenity.
Jackie Nickerson’s ‘Faith’
by Sean Mellyn, ARTINFO, 9 November 2007
“Beautiful photographs of nuns and priests in Ireland would be the short description, but these are more like Vermeer or Renaissance portraits, given Nickerson’s skill with light, color, and staging”.
Jackie Nickerson: ‘Faith’
Review by Holland Cotter, New York Times, 2 November 2007
This British artist’s last show was of photographs of farmers in Africa; for this one she spent two years visiting Irish monasteries and convents, making portraits of their inhabitants and of institutional interiors as quiet as still lifes. The whole show is about stillness and interiority, but also about living an intensely active life in a way the world has lost track of. Jackie Shainman Gallery, 513 West 20th Street
FAITH at Jack Shainman
Review by Amalia Piccinini, Flash Art, October 2007
Think about what the word “vocation” means and just how much determination and faith it takes to sustain it throughout this life in a world full of temptations and endless distractions. Think again about the concept of concentration and silence - this word that scares many because we always need noise around us, and then ask how many questions have been unleashed by these pictures? I think this is the purpose of art, to fundamentally understand that art has the force to open internal discussions.
Jackie Nickerson: Faith
by Ami Kealoha in Culture, Cool Hunting, 9 October 2007
Like her work documenting African farm workers, Nickerson’s highly-attuned eye picks up the nuances of the subculture—a nun’s Birkenstock-clad feet, the simplicity of a place setting, a priest’s deeply-lined face, a human-shaped silhouette of a window—with an unerringly even-handed gaze. The effect is not unlike a painting, lending an almost artificial stillness where the nuns look like statues and rooms look perfectly composed in Nickerson’s “Fra Angelico” palette.
A Picture of Piety
by Thérese McKenna, Metro Life, 21 September 2007
Faith is a selection of Jackie Nickerson’s photographs taken during a two-and-a-half-year project documenting the religious of Ireland and their surroundings. Not a Catholic herself, Nickerson’s mission is neither to convert, nor is it to condemn. However, she does not seem entirely indifferent – hers is an interested and sympathetic gaze. Her curious eye looks over the subject with a sense of admiration and loss – faith, as Nickerson depicts it, must be in decline or at least in flux, otherwise the urge to archive and the pay visual tribute to it could not have been so pressing. And these are strong, memorable images. Dripping with the evocative colours of the Church – rich creams, hazy blues, dusty pinks and merry reds – and sobered up with the still sense of space and extreme orderliness, they tread softly through the ordinary lives of their subjects and illuminate a certain extraordinariness there. The individual portraits, mainly of elderly nuns and priests, are wonderful – every line in every face and every regret, hardship and earnest conviction is described in shiny, saturated print. There are some remarkable faces – the few young clergy wear expressions of such intense thoughtfulness that they are unnerving to look at, while the ruddy, veined faces of some of the older religious suggest an austere lifestyle. The pictures of living quarters and day-to-day goings on are by turns sweet and sad. In one, a contented, joyful community of nuns enjoy quiet pastimes around a long table, and a feeling of togetherness and fun pervades. In another, a row of nuns is pictured at a school-like dinner bench and each one looks more solitary than the next. Images of whispering corridors and hushed, empty rooms have a contemplative feel, while pictures showing mundane and peculiar jobs (punching out hosts from paper sheets) provide a valuable insight. These expert and entrancing photographs may go rather easy on a flawed establishment, but they do represent an intriguing social document.
‘Medieval Purity in the 21st Century’
by Aidan Dunne, The Irish Times, 16 September 2006
Over a period of several years, Nickerson photographed individuals in Irish religious communities and documented the settings within which they work, live and pray. The resultant body of photographs is a remarkable insight into a normally closed world, and an intimate picture of the reality of religious life in contemporary Ireland. Next year, more than SteidlMACK will publish 100 of her pictures in book form, one of the world's leading art and photographic publishers, and the work will also be exhibited in New York. Faith may sound like a photojournalistic project, but it isn't, and Nickerson is not a photojournalist. Her subject is faith itself, as enacted in day-to-day life by members of religious orders, rather than the institution of the Catholic Church, and she comes at it from the perspective of contemporary art photography (that is, she does not share the priority of reportage photography, which is to tell stories in the form of single images or photo essays). In fact, the history of western painting, from Byzantine icons to Renaissance portraiture, provides a more relevant reference point for her approach. Before she pressed a single shutter release, she embarked on systematic research, visiting many museums and churches throughout Europe, including the Byzantine Museum in Athens, which boasts one of the most remarkable collections of early Christian iconography in existence. "I looked at a great deal of religious painting," she says. The icon painters, and the artists of the Gothic and early Renaissance periods, were inventing a visual language as they went along. "I was aware that, traditionally, what we see corresponds to how the church wanted to be seen." But at the same time, the representations of individual figures in architectonic spaces "are so simple, so pure, that they are extremely powerful." When she came to visit convents and monasteries throughout Ireland, it occurred to her that the background colours of the rooms and corridors were recognisable versions of those she saw in paintings by Fra Angelico, "and really the monks and nuns wore the same clothes as those in Fra Angelico's paintings". In many respects, Nickerson was witnessing a medieval culture and way of life perpetuated into the 21st century. Northern European painting of the early Renaissance also informs her portraits, which have an extraordinary directness and clarity. The figures are mostly posed against plain backgrounds. Views of spartan interiors have the same spare clarity. Nickerson was struck by the lack of ostentation. "The most difficult thing is to see what is in front of you," she says of her approach. "It really is about simply looking and seeing what is there. But arriving at that is very difficult. Emotions, prejudice, any number of factors can get in the way." AS SHE IS at pains to point out, her aims were neither to disparage nor enhance the church. She is not a Catholic herself. "I wouldn't put myself in the position of defending the church," she says. "That was never something I had in mind." Rather what interested her was "the physical manifestation of a way of life predicated on an absolute and unquestioning faith. These people live their faith every day of their lives. As Kieran Moore points out in his piece for the catalogue, our relationship with God has changed over the centuries." Moore argues that while early religious art was intended to induce awe and provide instruction for massed congregations, these days believers have something more like a personal relationship with the divinity. The idea of this personal relationship, pursued with complete commitment, fascinated Nickerson.
Review by Edward K. Owusu-Ansah, Library Journal, 15 December 2002
After two and a half years in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Malawi and Mozambique, Nickerson, an experienced, Boston born photographer, compiled this photographic collection of African agricultural workers in their daily routines. Mainly portraits, the photographs present their subjects with befitting simplicity and dignity. Their hardened frames, tested bodies, and vibrant spirit tell a continent’s tale of economic want and unfading hope. Nickerson registers everything about her subjects in minute detail, sincerely and without commentary, allowing then to live through her lens. The result is a display of dignity amidst want, pride in labor, and perseverance in spite of limited resources. Nickerson brings these people to our attention not so that we may pity them but admire and bond with them. The quality of the 98 colour and black-and-white reproductions complements that effort. Recommended for all public libraries.
Photographie Magazine (Germany), November 2002
For nearly three years, photographer Jackie Nickerson took portraits of agricultural workers all over southern Africa. Using a bleached colour effect that the hard, harsh light of the sun further strengthens, the pictures capture, with impressive detail, the strength of the people: the loam-encrusted feet of a female worker, clothes improvised from plastic and sacking. In the tradition of great US photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, Nickerson’s work shows the spirit and belief of the people, their beauty and courage.
‘Jackie Nickerson: Farm’
Pride magazine, September 2002
This book reviews page is not where you would normally find pure photographic works featuring heavily. For the most part, these works make good coffee-table dressing and little else. The forces behind Farm obviously know this and have gone out of their way to tell a simple story with pictures, but one that leaves you captivated and asking questions long after you have closed the book. Photographer Jackie Nickerson clearly knows both her craft and her subjects. Everyday sightings of farm workers and their surroundings speak to us through her lens. This book is a real treat. It conjures up deep, lasting emotions, and no collector of great photographic work should be without it. (A/T)
‘Faces of African Farming’
Review by Helen Warrell, ‘Geographical magazine', September 2002, pgs. 58-59
Considering that people have been farming in Africa for over 200,000 years, one would imagine that even an accomplished American photographer would be hard pushed to find an original perspective on this ancient ritual. Jackie Nickerson however, has risen to meet the challenge with a collection of photographs that capture the spirit of Africa’s present-day farming with an incisive sharpness that challenges our previous conceptions, elevating the human face of agriculture above the landscape of the farm itself. The farm-workers that stare into the camera lens are strikingly individual, each face preserved in implicit detail; but Nickerson’s skill is in turning a set of separate portraits into a comprehensive picture of a whole continent. Just as Eleanor Roosevelt insisted that the American photographer Walker Evans’ work on Alabama farm-workers “showed us contemporary America”, so Nickerson’s images from Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa convey a powerful sense of how farming in Africa works today.
‘Africa: Elegance of the Natural’
Review in Münchner Merkur, 10 September, 2002
No, this is not a model from a fashion agency, who wears the latest expensive understatement. This young man who seems proudly rooted to the soil, is David Baulen, tea grower from Malawi. His hat and his trousers that he has imaginatively made are composed of fabric, plastic and paper. He wears these working clothes in style and with a certain elegance. In the background the landscape bears witness to it’s natural grace. That, in any case, is the story told by the incredible photos of the British photographer Jackie Nickerson. In 1997-2000 she toured the African continent lived, and photographed, on the farms in Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Her rich harvest, from the rice and wheat fields, from smallholdings and the plantations created by Europe, has resulted in a format book of photographs: Living with the Earth - Africa. In this straight talking book, one is shown people full of self-confidence, the strength that they display coming from the earth. In the process, Nickerson has used her camera to capture the details- the naked foot, the unbowed heads, a piece of plastic that looks like organza. An impressive demonstration of brilliant creative genius.
‘Colors in the Field: Portraits of Workers from Africa’
Reviewed in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 26 September 2002
The Western view of Africa is often colonial, sometimes it seems as if there were no other historical perspective between black and white. On the other hand, it doesn’t help to jump to hasty political correctness. But at least this can lead to insightful thinking, as you look from one perspective to another. There is reason to view Jackie Nickerson's collection of portraits of agricultural workers from the southern Africa with skepticism. However, this American fashion photographer shows us pictures of proud, tireless working people with compassion and concern. The photos are surprising. They show people that have little more than what they’re wearing. But the portraits are neither fashionable folklore misery nor are they styled mythology of Africans. Nickerson shows us much more. She sees what’s actually in front of her eyes. The gaze of the subjects captures the observer, and never creating the impression of being posed. The impression is of the dignity of the people and of nature and this is reinforced by the dramatic lighting: the glistening afternoon sky transforms the colours in the fields in light-dark hues creating a complete world.
Best Book Award 2002
Nickerson’s work is refreshing and substantial for a variety of reasons. For one, her color prints vacillate between rich hues and a bleached tonality. All of the work is printed in color but some images have been printed almost monochromatically, allowing this or that single color to barely present itself. The intentional austere effect is akin to the washed-out appearance things acquire under the burning midday sun of the African farmlands where she photographs. Machinery is virtually non- existent in these agricultural communities and Nickerson’s work focuses on the people, clothing and inventiveness that is cultivated through poverty. Her work gracefully straddles the line between document and testament – think sharecroppers by Walker Evans – and for that reason alone her work is worthy of attention.
Review by Giles Foden, Conde Nast Traveller, August 2002, p.34
Giles Foden finds dignity and beauty in the harshest places One can rarely say a book of photographs is a classic, but I find myself wanting to say this about Jackie Nickerson’s Farm (Jonathan Cape). The book is the result of a project undertaken by a successful magazine photographer who threw it all in to spend two and a half years traveling through Southern Africa taking portraits of farm labourers in the midst of their daily toil. It is a powerful piece of photojournalism – there is something majestic about the characters featured and the way Nickerson has depicted them. The publishers have made a comparison with photographer Walker Evans, who, with writer James Agee, published a classic account of US rural workers in the mid-1930s, Let Us Now Parise Famous Men. Nickerson’s images, like Evans’s, project the dignity of her subjects; and in so doing question their relationship with both her and other observers – the background to this relationship is a global economic system in which farmers such as these harvest the shrink-wrapped mangetout we purchase in Sainsbury’s and Tesco.
Review by Eviana Hartman, Vogue (USA) August 2002
Jackie Nickerson’s photos marry style and substance.
Farm (Jonathan Cape), a book of images whose arresting elegance belies their quotidian subject matter.
Tinted with muted colors to mimic the blinding effect of the African sun, the photographs render the rough textures of laborers’ lives – mud-caked feet, wrinkles finely etched by decades of dry heat – with almost hypnotic precision. Most surprisingly, though, is the stylish inventiveness of her subjects, without wealth or the influence of Western media, dress themselves for work. A metallic skirt looks as if it could have been lifted from Helmut Lang’s fall runway; an apron fashioned from scraps of oilcloth is draped as extravagantly as any Belgian confection; and the boys layer hand-me-downs with hip-hop insouciance. “My friends in the fashion industry ask “did your stylist do this?”” Nickerson says. “These are just working clothes, though you might think they had been copied from something. But these people certainly didn’t get their ideas from TV or magazines”.
Nickerson’s images might, at times, resemble the pages of a fashion magazine, but they owe just as much to Walker Evans’s Depression- era South or the emotionally charged portraits of August Sander. By combining a fashion photographer’s aesthetic with a photojournalist’s unflinching realism, Nickerson, like her subjects, transforms the raw material of ordinary everyday life into something extra-ordinary. And in the process, she portrays Africa – a continent that, in her mind, “is too often associated in the media with famine or corrupt dictators or safari holiday” – as a place who essence lies in the everyday strength and grace of its people.