NYC photographer Nikola Tamindzic knows a good party. Not only that, but he seems to attend every hot and sexy event in New York City, which is clearly no small feat. Whether he's bumping elbows with the stars or hanging out with all the "naked-on-a-school-night hipsters" in town, he somehow captures the beautiful underworld's intimate nightlife with vibrant color and sensually wicked candor. We spoke with Nikola about being in the heart of the city's parties and shooting an immense and awesome portfolio along the way.
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Sez G: You came to NYC in 2000 from Serbia. What were you doing before that?
Nikola Tamindzic: I grew up in Yugoslavia, before it was ravaged by years of civil war -- that place was so much fun before the shit hit the fan -- and I got to spend months at a time on German and Italian highways with my dad, having a wonderful time. I had a happy childhood; I got to see so much. Sex was everywhere -- back in Belgrade, there were no limits on who can buy drinks or watch porn, and Germany had huge sex shops and big billboards with naked girls on them that were very powerful and badass. That was certainly an influence… sex being present and powerful, but at the same time, an everyday thing that wasn't a big deal.
Sez G: So how do you think that background of constant sex-exposure influences your art?
Nikola Tamindzic: I ended up with no taboos because of the way I was raised; that also means I don't get kicks out of breaking taboos, and why I don't have much interest in fetish/S&M/etc photography. Instead, I zero in on who the person IS, rather than what they're doing in the photo. To me, it's powerful, sexy, and what I've been drawn to throughout my life.
Sez G: Is what's sexy to you also sexy to your viewers?
Nikola Tamindzic: When it comes to porn, this approach makes what I do quite -- to borrow a term from Gawker's Nick Denton - "unwankable." I imagine it's difficult to beat off to someone you can sense as an actual person in the photo; male masturbation is more akin to a one night stand, in the sense that it's all about the flesh, rather than personality.
Sez G: Back to your history, though... where's the nightlife enter in?
Nikola Tamindzic: In Belgrade, I did radio shows and DJ'd a lot. It was such a kick; I just read an interview with DFA's James Murphy, and it reminded me of those days: getting so high on the music you're spinning, I'd put a song on, jump in the crowd and dance without any separation. It's like having sex with the crowd: you try to get them off, and seeing them lose it gets you off in return. The energy just keeps building back and forth. I never finished a set before 6am over there; Belgrade is, to this day, a party town, and a city that never sleeps. No wonder New York feels like home.
Many years later, this love of nightlife, of that mix of joy and desperation at 3am, led me to nightlife photography. It was just so natural.
Sez G: How do you manage to find sexy people kissing, sucking, bumping, grinding and stripping everywhere you go?
Nikola Tamindzic: New York is particularly exhibitionistic, of course, and people in other cities are often much more skittish about it. It ultimately comes down to trust between photographer and subjects: if you act creepy, people will tell you to go fuck yourself. If you look like you know what you're doing, and are actually trying to get good photos, people are immediately more welcoming.
Sez G: You have a great photoset from the AVN expo in Vegas this year. How did you manage to get so many professional shots of the biggest porn stars in what I imagine was a somewhat chaotic environment?
Nikola Tamindzic: The Expo is a very intense event, and lots of contrary emotions are at play. This was my first time, so I looked at it with a total newbie perspective: enchanted and infuriated in equal measures. After the first day, I figured out what I needed to do to get the best shots, and that was to distance myself from the Expo itself, and to try and shoot people in their hotel rooms.
Fortunately, everyone (myself included), was staying at the impossibly photogenic Venetian hotel -- it just involved a lot of running up and down in elevators, trying to get as much work done in the window between the Expo closing at 6pm and everyone heading out to parties around 10.
Eon McKai (Vivid Alt) was very helpful and set me up with Kimberly Kane and Charlotte Stokely - who were both absolutely amazing. I still can't get over that I didn't get to shoot Justine Joli in a hotel room -- everyone's schedules at the Expo are insane -- but at least I got to shoot her in one of the booths. Often that's all anyone had time to do, so I'd try to transform cheesy, rickety booth into interesting environments. All shots of Digital Playground girls (Katsumi, Shay Jordan, Jesse Jane, Jana Cova) were taken behind the DP booth -- everyone thought we shot in an elevator.
I took my production cues from Helmut Newton, though: travel light, and one or two lights are all you need. You just have to know what you're going for, what you want to accomplish, and how to do it.
Sez G: You also do shoot several days of NY Fashion week each year. What's the environment there like?
Nikola Tamindzic: Oh, Fashion Week is insane, looking from the outside, but it's all very professional, and there's no room for mistakes -- there's too much money & power at play there. As a photographer, you have to really bring your top game or the machine will crush you.
It was interesting this year for me -- I always did backstage and front row shots before, which is more in line with what Gawker covers, and what I'm usually interested in. This spring, though, we did runway shots, and it was quite a challenge: so many photographers (mostly male, overweight, and sweaty) were on a tiny little media riser, with the most enormous lenses I've ever seen trying to get the best shots while elbowing each other. The goal I set for myself was to get good runway shots that still had my signature look. Quite a challenge, considering the environment!
Sez G: You have six photo shoots from six different clubs from last Halloween in NYC. Tell me about that night!
Nikola Tamindzic: Halloween was on Tuesday, I think, so half of those were pre-Halloween parties on Saturday, and then the rest of them are from Halloween itself. Ha -- it would be interesting covering six parties the same night; I've done three a few times, and that's more than enough -- I usually look like something the tide washed up on the shore by the time it's all over.
Sez G: You also have many beautiful studio shots. How often are you in the studio? Do you prefer it to club shooting?
Nikola Tamindzic: The studio is in my apartment on the Lower East Side -- so I never really leave my studio. It's very different, not something I prefer over the clubs. It's certainly much more challenging: studio photography is quite unforgiving. Sometimes I'll do more studio work, sometimes more nightlife stuff, and sometimes I'll just want to get in the car and shoot landscapes for a week. (But even when I do, I'm usually back the next day, hah.)
The idea behind all this is ambition. Not ambition to make the most money, and not even ambition to be the best. Just ambition in the sense of demanding and pushing yourself and others to new heights. So, changing up your game all the time keeps you alert and on edge, and that constant forward motion is what makes photography so exciting for me, all the time.
Sez G: Your photos are so vibrant, colorful, sharp and striking. What kind of camera do you use and how much computer retouching goes into the shots?
Nikola Tamindzic: No more than went into serious film work, I think. I wouldn't let the camera decide for me what my photo should look like any more than I would allow a 1-hour-photo clerk to decide it for me. So, I tweak the contrast and toning a bit to achieve something less harsh and digital, something more analog in feel, In my studio work, I dodge the shadows, and burn in the edges -- again, those are all techniques as old as photography -- it's just that the tools have changed over time.
Currently I'm using Canon 5D as my main camera. It's a bit of an overkill for nightlife shooting -- there's no advantage to 5D over, say, Canon Digital Rebel or Nikon D70 or a similar camera, and there are even some disadvantages. But shooting with 5D in a studio is another thing -- you can't go back to smaller sensor digital cameras after that.
Again, the point I'm trying to make is this: it comes down to what you see and what you want to accomplish, not what you're shooting with or how big your budget is. You can get the exact same photos I'm taking with a $500 setup.
Sez G: Do you always have a camera with you? How involved are you in a party or event? Do you feel like part of the scene or an observer and documenter?
Nikola Tamindzic: If I actually went to these parties for fun as much as I'm doing it for photos, I'd be dead. In a way, I feel separate, because I'm there to work, while most people just came down to have fun, drink, dance, and screw. So how does someone party when partying is what one does for work? Well, I have this beautiful fire escape overlooking Clinton street, and it's just perfect to drink wine on and people-watch.
Sez G: You've bumped elbows with a lot of stars, including John Waters, Jennifer Lopez, David Byrne, Kim Gordon, Winona Ryder, Bono and Isabella Rossellini. What I wanna know is... what's Stephen Colbert like?
Nikola Tamindzic: Haha, I've no idea -- I shot him once, then saw La Rossellini and ran off to shoot her. I mean, Stephen Colbert is great, but... Isabella Rossellini? No contest.
Sez G: Who's the redhead who appears in so many of your studio and club shots?
Nikola Tamindzic: The very, very talented and beautiful New York fashion designer Amy Wright. A personal muse, if you will.
Sez G: How into fashion are you?
Nikola Tamindzic: Not so much into fashion itself; but I'm very much into fashion photography -- Helmut Newton, for all the King of Smut slurs thrown at him, was first and foremost a fashion photographer. And I'm very much drawn to the surrealism present in best fashion photography -- fashion provides you focus, and an audience to keep in mind; but at the same time, you're free to get as crazy and wild and surrealist as you want, because the medium of fashion photography somehow allows that.
Sez G: What's next for you?
Nikola Tamindzic: Next step? More sex & surrealism in fashion photography. I'm already quite excited.
To learn more about Nikola Tamindzic, visit Ambrel.net and TheHomeOfTheVain.com.
Nikola Tamindzic - by Sez G.