Graham Nash, photographed by Amy Grantham.

From Lancashire to California, Graham Nash's journey has been a long and winding one, both as a musician and a photographer. 

As he prepares for his keynote talk at this week's Photo Plus Expo in New York, we spoke to Graham Nash about his career as a photographer, and his role in developing modern digital photographic printing.

Graham – most people probably know you primarily as a musician, but when did you start taking photographs?

I’ve been a photographer for longer than I’ve been a musician. The first portrait I took was a picture I took of my mother when I was 11. And it was at that moment that I knew that I saw differently to most people.

You and I both grew up in Northern England. I was born in Yorkshire and you were raised in Lancashire, in Salford.

It’s alright, I’ll still talk to you!

So you’re from L.S. Lowry country - dark, satanic mills, and all that. How did growing up in Salford influence your visual style?

I think it did wonders for me as a person, not necessarily in terms of any talent I may have. When you grow up in that kind of area after World War II, your feet are on the ground. You’re thankful that you’re still alive, that your friends are still alive, and that your house is still standing. Because when I was younger, that wasn’t always the case.

Once you have this sense of having survived, it’s a sense of accomplishment. And also, you know, don’t complain to me about the room not being the right temperature. Talk to me about something more important.

 Johnny Cash, Nashville, TN. 1960. Photograph by Graham Nash, used with permission. 

So being raised in the industrial north of England, coming to America in the 1960s must have been a mind-blowing experience?

Mind-blowing and joyful. I had sunshine, I had music, David (Crosby) and Stephen (Stills) and I were just forming our relationship and falling in love with each other, and each other’s music. Having all that music to make, and records to make, and sunshine and beautiful weather… it was an extraordinary time.

'I'm interested in those little surreal moments that happen in front of me'

And just visually - even now, America isn’t like anywhere else…

It’s an incredible country. The first time the Hollies came to America, we came to New York. But where I went to live, and where I really thrived was Los Angeles.

The people are very interesting to look at, the countryside is beautiful, but I’m not really one of those photographers. I’m more interested in those little surreal moments that happen in front of me, and they seem to happen in front of me daily. I’m not interested in pictures of kittens with balls of wool, or making an image to match the color of my couch. I don’t take landscapes, and I don’t use my camera as my memory.

Nash's bandmate David Crosby. Photograph by Graham Nash, used with permission.

So you’ve been taking pictures now for more than 50 years. What would you say the biggest difference – technically or culturally, between when you started taking pictures, and now?

I think it’s more mindless now. People are taking pictures of everything. And nothing is that important. I don’t want a picture of me at Disneyland, pulling the sword out of the stone, or any of that stuff. I’m not interested. I’m not interested in selfies. I’ve been taking self-portraits since 1968. It’s so mindless now and I experience it daily. There’s not a show when I don’t get approached afterwards by someone with 20 albums to sign and a selfie that they want taken, immediately. And often they don’t even ask for permission.

'I draw inspiration from moments'

As a photographer, do you draw more creative inspiration from people, or from places?

Neither, actually. I draw inspiration from moments. I’ve had so many pictures taken of me, I know when a lens is being turned on me. I know that look. And I can’t stand it. If I take portraits, I want to take pictures when they have no idea when I’m there.

Girl with Uzi, North Hollywood, CA. 1998. Photograph by Graham Nash, used with permission.

What were your earliest photographic influences?

My father was an amateur photographer. He used me and my sister’s bedroom as a darkroom, and it was his enthusiasm and his passion that remains with me even today. I’m still thrilled by the magic of photography, and it really is magic.

For the last 15-20 years I’ve been collecting daguerreotypes. The world’s first photographic format. Daguerre invented himself into a corner, because there was no negative to reproduce the image. That’s what Henry Fox Talbot did - he invented the negative, and therefore invented himself into the future.

'Fox Talbot invented himself into the future'

You’ve been very influential in the development of what we now call digital photographic printing. Can you give me some context around that?

It was pure selfishness. I used to live with Joni Mitchell, and Joni always loved my images, but I never shared them because I thought of myself as a musician. She had had a really good experience with a gallery in Tokyo. The Parko Gallery. She said why don’t you send them some of your photographs?

I was very hesitant to do that, but she told me to send some pictures to this gallery and see if they’d be interested in doing a show. So reluctantly I made 5 or 6 prints and sent them off, and forgot about it. And then they called me and said they’d love to do a show. They wanted 50 images, which was fine, but they wanted them printed about 3 or 4 feet square, which was a problem.

Dennis Hopper, Kentucky Derby, Louisville KT, 2002. Photograph by Graham Nash, used with permission.

At the same time as I was pondering how to do that, I was introduced to the Iris Printer. And when I saw what that printer was capable of doing, I asked the owner two questions. Could it print in black and white? And would the inks last more than ten minutes?

I bought the machine, it cost about $125,000, and my partner Mac Holbert and I voided the warranty immediately because we were modifying it and forcing it to do what we wanted it to do. We opened Nash Editions in the early 90s after a couple of years of research, and we’re still in business.

At that time, in the late 1980s and 90s, as I understand it, the abilities of computers to generate digital images had exceeded the ability of printers to output the files. Is that right?

Exactly. You couldn’t get them off the screen. The honor of having our first printer put into the Smithsonian Museum of American History was a real thrill.

Graham Nash will appear at the Photo Plus Expo 2016 this week, in a conversation with photographer and musician Mark Seliger on October 20th.