Slip behind the lens with CSN’s Graham Nash

By Allison Johnelle Boron

NEW YORK CITY — The air is thick with history; it’s almost as if the photographs are speaking, or, more accurately, singing.

Adorning the walls of the Morrison Hotel Gallery are iconic shots of David Crosby, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell ranging from the late ’60s to the ’80s. But surprisingly, the photographer behind these shots is someone other than Gallery co-owner and beloved rock photographer Henry Diltz. Nope, it’s the work of singer-songwriter-photographer Graham Nash, whose lifelong passion for the medium  segued into his documentation of one of the most fruitful periods in music history.

Judy Collins and Stephen Stills

Judy Collins and Stephen Stills, Sag Harbor, N.Y., 1969. “This was when Crosby, Stills and Nash were rehearsing the first record. Our friend John Sebastian said, ‘We want you to be out of Los Angeles, out of all that scene, just to be private, to rehearse that first record.’ So he suggested that we go to Sag Harbor, just outside of New York on Long Island. He rented us a house, and of course Stephen was madly in love with Judy Collins, as she was with him. She said something about something – she was giving him advice. That’s the moment when she’s kissing him on the cheek, and her right hand is giving him the advice,” Nash writes. Photo copyright Graham Nash/courtesy Morrison Hotel Gallery.

The illustrious subjects were fodder for any rock photographer of the era. The difference is, of course, that Nash photographed his best friends and fellow musicians; the collection might be the equivalent of a college student’s Instagram account today. He was an interloper in a wealth of intimate settings, covertly documenting precious moments: Joni Mitchell listening to “Clouds” from a vantage point under the one-time lovers’ kitchen table; a tender moment between Judy Collins and Stephen Stills; a contemplative David Crosby alone in a locker-turned-dressing room in 1988. Nash’s own fiercely intimate self-portraits make you wonder if you’ve intruded on a private moment. There is a tenderness, a reverence about these stunning images, a seriousness in the care in which they are presented. Each one is commanding, yet complementing of its neighbor. The proverbial “tie that binds” them is, of course, Graham Nash himself.

At the opening of his newest exhibit, “Visual Harmony,” Nash took a few moments to answer Goldmine’s questions about his latest collection.

(Check out more of Graham Nash’s photos at Morrison Hotel Gallery)

Goldmine: What is it like to see your photography collected like this? Do you like to have a say in how it’s presented?
Graham Nash:
This is only a very small selection of what I’ve done in my life. I never want to tell people how to hang my stuff. They know their gallery way better than I do. They know what the flow is, where people come in, what the first image is going to be, so I never tell them what to do. These choices were Peter [Blachley, MHG co-owner] and Henry [Diltz]’s choices from my book “Eye to Eye.” I love every one of them.

Stephen Stills by Graham Nash

Stephen Stills, San Francisco, Calif., 1969. “This is during the making of Déja Vu. We’re in the Caravan Lodge Motel, and we’d all rented these funky, funky rooms, because it was in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, and it was only two blocks from Wally Heider’s studio, which is where we were making the album. Neil had rented a room and had two bush babies living with him, with giant big eyes. And Stephen’s room was next door, and I was talking to him one day about the fact that we didn’t have an opener for the album, like how ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ was the opener for the first CSN record. We wanted something that will entice the listener to continue listening. And I told Steve, ‘We don’t have that.’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, you’re right, let me think about that.’ And the very next day he came he said, ‘Hey, Willy, listen to this . . . ‘ And he played me ‘Carry On.’” Copyright Graham Nash/courtesy Morrison Hotel Gallery.

GM: What first drew you to photography as a medium?
GN:
I’ve been a photographer longer than I’ve been a musician, and I’ve been a musician since I was 13. In my book, “Eye to Eye,” the first portrait I took that I thought was worth a shit was of my mother that I took when I was 11.

GM: From photography, have you experimented in other mediums?
GN:
I’ve done everything. And I’m painting like a crazy person lately. But to me, it’s all the same energy; I just point it this way, or I point it that way, or I point it towards a piece of stone or a painting. It’s just energy, right?

GM: As a songwriter, how is it different telling stories with a photo vs. words?
GN: I think you have to do it immediately with a picture. With a song, you could take years. I think it took me about three-and-a-half years to write “Cathedral” because I needed to make sure that if I was talking about Jesus and religion, that every word had to be right. But my shot of Crosby took a 60th of a second. It’s immediate.

GM: You’ve also been involved with innovating digital printing.
GN: I started this company, Nash Editions, with my best friend, Mac Holbert, at the end of 1989, beginning of 1990, and we discovered a new use for this printing machine. And my first printing machine that I ever used is now in the Smithsonian. I think it’s very cool!

Johnny Cash by Graham Nash

Johnny Cash. Copyright Graham Nash/courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery.

GM: Of the images on display at the Morrison Hotel Gallery, what is your favorite of this moment?
GN: The one of Johnny Cash. Once again, I think I captured him in a moment that he didn’t know I was there. I like to be invisible.

GM: What’s the story behind that photo?
GN: That was taken in Nashville in 1969, when Joni was doing the Johnny Cash TV show.

GM: As beautiful as your rock photos are, you’re also known for your expressive self-portraits.
GN:
When I do a self-portrait, I’m trying to nail down the fact that I exist. So much of my life is in my brain, you know. I very often feel like a brain on a stick. I don’t care about this body. And sometimes when I see myself in a broken mirror, or a distorted piece of glass, I take my image, just to make sure I’m there.

Leave a Reply