James Nachtwey

- - Photographers

I used to think the tension in James Nachtwey’s photos came from the subject matter. Everything he shoots is so intense and scary how could there not be tension? I mean holy effing christ, you’re getting shot at or someone is telling you the horrors they experienced or you’re looking at the results of horrors they experienced and there’s got to be serious drama in any image made, right?

I sent Jim out on assignment once where I knew there was only the smallest percentage of a chance that something dramatic would happen. This is a very bad situation to send a photographer into, because the writer will draw on past events to manufacture drama when it doesn’t occur live which forces us into a situation where the editor wants to pull stock to create drama in the photography (I’m always on the lookout for these “traps” that are created when a writer oversells a story). When I heard nothing dramatic happened on the assignment I was prepared to be disappointed with the images not living up to the eventual rewrite of the story. But, hey wasn’t I surprised to see a couple images leading up to the drama that never happened, filled with tension and impending doom. Jim nailed it.

You see, the subject matter he shoots may be intense but Jim knows what he’s feeling or seeing doesn’t always translate directly to film so he uses the framing, timing and relationships between subjects and objects to create the tension.

Can you feel it?

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There Are 52 Comments On This Article.

  1. The Landlord

    Wonder what Jim Nachtwey puts in HIS advertising book…? In a way, wouldn’t it just be a crime for him to even have one? How would you mix this vision with an assignment for General Motors, or a Hotel campaign? Wonder how he makes it work on an editorial rate? Because, on his site, I don’t see anything but. Could there be a multiple-tiered payment system?

  2. Chris George

    ‘APE’ you have exquisite taste – your choice of work on Photo Rank and favorite photographers definitely shows that you are highly sensitive and have refined aesthetic tastes. For others on this forum this is not arse kissing as APE is obviously passionate about good photography.
    Does it depress you that there is now so few art editors left remaining in commercial photography that really care or for that matter understand good work?

  3. exquisite.

    I have been ruminating on the whole “talent” concept in photography and these images, most especially the one where the man is tugging the boat in, are fantastic illustrations of one of the key talents a photographer needs –

    a fully aware eye for the here and now.

    That one photo is masterful and a delight.

  4. War Photographer is such an inspiring film. He has an unusual gift of capturing, at just the right time, the true representation of time, space and person. I mean look at each of the pictures above.

    Simon, thanks for the TED link!

  5. Bernd Gruber

    that movie on james nachtwey by christian frei is probably the best docu on photography ever. show it to a bunch of people and no one with a little heart and brain will walk away unchanged.

    and jim is the most humble person you can think of on top.

    file under “masters”.

  6. Yeah, I have always felt that his work was amazing. His movie / doc is great too. He seems morbid, but after seeing what he sees you can understand why.
    If you listen to his voice while he speaks in that movie…you can almost hear Bill Murray in “Lost in Translation”.

    I posted about him on my blog today as well: http://andreasphotoinc.blogspot.com

  7. APE: Since you have the power of a god in your hands, could you do me a favor and just once have Nachtwey shoot, say, a bar mitzvah or debutante ball? A business luncheon? I still think he’d manage to make it chilling and force you to confront your ideas.

  8. Nachtwey is The Master of framing and timing.
    And in a profession filled with arrogance (9 out of 10 photographers I’ve met are full of themselves) Nachtwey is humble and compassionate and truly cares.
    And that shines through.
    He’s my hero.
    Thanks for shouting praises to him.

  9. Great Post!!! Now you’re talking about someone who has talent.

    I second what carpeicthus said (post 14)

    Thanks for sharing…

  10. I certainly have a more pedestrian view of good photography (I’m one of those well lit, well composed and completely boring shooters) but Natchtwey is the first photographer you’ve feautured that I feel has anything good to show. Good to see.

  11. Can you feel it? Frankly not. It seems to me the advertising of a drama. In spite of what you say about talent these pictures are frame of technics, a very empty excercise of plastic beauty the coud fill the room of a B serie town hall exhibition.

  12. edvigebelva: my first thought is: you are out of your mind! my second thought is… advertising is completely the wrong word. most of the pix/photogs our esteemed APE point to are, in my opinion, empty advertising bs, full of gloss and attitude and “cool.” tomorrow’s glossy fishwrap. natchwey is about everything but emptiness and attitude and is only about the human condition. are you kidding us edvigebelva????

  13. Chris George

    To quote Kerouac in the introduction to the ‘Americans’
    “Anybody doesn’t like these pitchers dont like potry, see? Anybody dont like potry go home see Television shots of big hatted cowboys being tolerated by kind horses”

  14. 20. may be advertising is not the right word because my english is not so good…but you understand the same what I mean. These pictures are very good in technic, very good balance of contrast to make a postcard of drama. Ah the poetry and power of these hands!

  15. cara edvige,

    scommetto che sei italiana. se non riconosci il potere e la qualita’ delle immagini di nachtwey sei davvero una belva. capita spesso che non condivido le opinioni di APE, comunque in questo caso non e’ cosi’. prenditi un po’ di tempo per riflettere bene prima di aggiudicare. i nostri opinioni parlano non solo delle cose che critichiamo, ma parlano anche di noi….

  16. I’m so glad you mentioned nachtwey, APE>

    another vote for war photographer. fantastic film. I try to lend my copy out to everyone i know.

  17. haha…nachtwey doing a business luncheon. he would probably take dramatic portraits of the fish before it is killed and put on the plates, highlighting the humanity…

    …errr…FISH-anity…??

    of it all.

    or he would document the lives of the hardworking, underpaid servers and cleaning staff at the average hotel.

    whatever he did, it would be several layers deeper than what you would expect and would probably make you want to cry.

    I hope that nachtwey gets to read this thread.

  18. hey, APE, I will throw in a hundred bucks to the “hire nachtwey just for the thrill of it” fund. maybe we can start a collection…!

  19. at your service

    @ 26: Please continue your point. For the rest of us speaking Inglesi, here is your friendly free translation:

    “I bet that you are not Italian. If you are, you do not recognize the power and the quality of the images of Nachtwey; they are really a wild beast. I often do not share the opinions of BEE, however in this case I do not. Take a little time to reflect well before awarding. Our opinions speak only of the things that we criticize, but speak also of those….”

  20. caro john
    yes I’m italian but I don’t see the connection with my opinion. I don’t discuss the good quality of the pictures. What I discuss is the empty esthetism of the image that doesn’t have the power of tell a story. And especially when APE talks about talent (before) or suggest us to see images like ‘Portrait of love’

  21. Sorry Edvige-

    Your being italian probably has not much at all to do with your opinion of Nachtwey’s pictures and if that’s what you thought I meant then we have not understood each other. I simply have great difficulty-and it seems I’m not alone in that here- understanding your reasons for not liking the Nachtwey images. I also happen to think that your comment about “empty esthetism of the image that doesn’t have the power to tell a story…” actually does apply to some of the work that APE seems to responds to favorably.

  22. At the risk of contributing nothing useful to the conversation, I agree that it would be very interesting to see the results of sending Nachtwey to cover a business conference or a wedding.

    It would also be interesting to see the results of sending a wedding or corporate shooter to cover the aftermath of a conflict.

  23. It’s not always about the big story. IMHO – equally important is the emotion that the image draws out of the viewer.

    What inspires me as a photographer is the fact that there were millions of bland uninteresting images available to be taken by lesser photographers who found themselves in exactly the same spot as Nachtwey.

    I could go on, but I usually avoid preaching to a choir + 1.

  24. @30, for you, and anyone else whom I might have confused, what I wrote to edvige in italian was:

    “I bet you are italian(something I deduced from her name and her english). If you don’t recognize the power and the quality of Nachtwey’s pictures you really are a “belva”(roughly, a banshee, a howling wild animal, and part of edvige’s screen name). It often happens that I disagree with the opinions of APE, but not in this case. Take a little time to think it over before judging. Our opinions don’t just speak of the things we criticize, they also speak about us.”

  25. I don’t really see the point of this whole “Nachtwey shooting weddings and business conferences” other than for people who actually do shoot these things for a living to prove something, I’m just not sure what.

    Jim used to shoot pictures for the Albuquerque newspaper but he kept developing his talent until one day he became one of the top photographers in the world.

  26. I think the idea was to put a renowned photographer into a conventionally bland scenario so we can learn – in a manner most can truly relate – from his viewpoint.

    I agree – it’s of very limited value and ultimately a silly discussion.

  27. I think he recently did a workshop in Bangkok with David Allan Harvey(?) so, I’d skip the “wedding seminar” and head to Asia.

    I’ve always wondered how Natchwey made a living. Editorial shooters are crying poverty and aside from a recent piece in Time, I don’t see his byline much so, he must be shooting more advertising and commercial than I realized. Anyone know where the bulk of his work appears?

  28. Dan – i hazard that he gets paid more than your average Joe for his pieces in Time…….

    At the risk of raising up a storm, of the six pictures posted here only the second and fifth really make an impression on me.

  29. @ 33. I’m not sure of what is talent in any subject. But just any visual art work I think pictures should have an inside power that comes straight to who sees it. And this could be even in wedding portrait. In my aesthetic taste it’s often a blend of technic and fantasy, sense of composition and a good point of view. And honesty and lack of foxiness. Using strong light contrast and this strict cut of frame (nothing more, nor for a coincidence) to mean and emphasize the drama is a very quick and easy language to come to the heart just like publicity one. For example the two photos of hands suggests in an easy way the sense of drama. Light and contrast and poor hands with no contest it’s something bombastic. Better picturing rich rings and long coloured nails hands? Sorry dear John but that is my opinion and I thought about it before writing. May be I don’t know well how to exspress it

  30. First off while I don’t necessarily agree with edvigebelva, I do think he is entitled to his opinion and I think Mr. Nachtwey would also agree with that.

    If anyone wants to see what a ‘normal’ assignment by Nachtwey looks like, browse through the VII site and look for his Bill and Melinda Gates shoot or a few others.

  31. Dan/Robert-

    He’s also won a TED award (100k) and a Heinz Achievement Prize (250K)

    I don’t think he needs to do commercial work. He’s kind of like the Greg Crewdson of photo-j. Crewdson famously did one “commercial” assignement for “6 Feet Under” before swearing off any commercial work.

    Except that I believe Nachtwey actually still touches his camera.

  32. @41 – love your human portraits and we share an affinity for trees! (who cant love the wonderful things anyways)

    I especially like the farmer guy with the hat and white beard.

  33. Jim Nachtwey is one of the few photographers who consistently inspires me. His book “INFERNO” sits upon my coffee table along with “MIGRATION” by Sebastian Salgado.

    Whenever I think an assignment was tough or I’ve had a rough day, I sit down, go through these books and get my head on straight.

    Nachtwey lives the walk. His work motivates me to try to ratchet my work up a higher level.

  34. actually I see edvigebelva’s point.

    James Nachtwey does extremely admirable work but to create drama where there is little can be a cop out.
    We as photogrpahers can create drama and stir emotions through the use of certain cliches and understood gestures (thus the usual type of music that plays when a sad scene occurs in a movie).

    Like a love song that can exaggerate the romance of the mundane but in effect exoticizes the mundane.

    On a philosophical level maybe it is dishonest and loses the true sense of the space and time of the event, instead creating a fantasy for the viewer to indulge in and making them cultural tourists.

    But on an assignment basis for a magazine it is perfect

  35. There was a comment above that mentioned that a wedding shooter should shoot conflict..yeah I’ll do that! I actually wanted to hire a news shooter a while back because his work was so moving, and his response was
    “I wouldn’t know what to look for or where to look, everyone is so happy..what do you do with that”. See, he excelled at shooting drama and conflict because that is what he was all about, he looks for those situations in those scenarios and focuses on that…and I agree, at a wedding he probably wouldn’t know what to look for.
    I’m all about the emotion, the expressions and getting in close so I can feel it when it happens. I’ve often wondered what I would get if I was sent into a situation of telling a story about something that was the polar opposite of a wedding…

  36. “You see, the subject matter he shoots may be intense but Jim knows what he’s feeling or seeing doesn’t always translate directly to film so he uses the framing, timing and relationships between subjects and objects to create the tension.

    Can you feel it?”

    Of freakin’ course…

    You don’t need to go to a war zone to create tension in a photo… you can create tension anywhere, with any subject, if you know what you are doing.

    It is innate… for a few of the “chosen” one’s. Jim is one of those.

  37. I can feel the captured drama by Mr.James Nachtwey and if by chance he’ll be back here in the Philippines to cover events.I will let him sign my autograph:) He’s my foreign photographer idol:)