The son of Italian immigrants, Nicholas Pinto grew up on the southwest side of Chicago and had a traditional upbringing. He spent a few years serving in the United States Army and subsequently studied Fine Art Photography at Columbia College. Since graduating Pinto has worked as a freelance photographer and designer. Since that time, he has “been actively challenging myself to take photographs through every stage of my life” and he does so with a masterful eye and a keen awareness of the surreal aspects of the ordinary reality present on every street corner. Nicholas Pinto lives with his wife and his “awesome little boy” in Chicago. Here is the story behind “Strange Vibrations” his amazing documentary in progress.
Q: What camera and equipment do you use?
A: I spent around two years with a Leica X1 as my only camera. I wanted to challenge myself to one camera, one lens, and stop thinking about equipment for a while. Plus this was at a good price point to acquire a digital Leica. Recently I’ve been shooting with an M8, which yields some great black-and-white conversions.
Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: I like to think that the work I create presents my honest experience. My goal is to shoot images that can ask more questions than answer. I’ve been experimenting with the camera as a way to observe and to ask fundamental questions I have about the world around me.
Q: Since many of your street pictures capture juxtapositions evoking the surreal quality of everyday life can you identify any of the questions implicit in these images, and are there ever any meaningful answers or is that really beside the point?
A: I don’t know if meaningful answers are the endpoint goal. I think the questions an image can pose are what makes a great photograph last. As far as my thought process when shooting, it’s the question “Why?” that is most dominant. Each image may have a different way of answering this question. In asking why I have learned much about my own thought process, the subjects in the frame, and the world itself. That’s when photography is the most powerful experience for me, when the why has an answer.
Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?
A: I first became interested in Leica when I picked up a Digilux 2 several years ago. That camera was a lot of fun to use. Then after some time I decided to start shooting film again and I purchased a Leica M3 — quiet, discreet, all the things you need when you are out in the street working. The feeling of working with that camera in my hands was like nothing else before it — silent, sturdy, and just functional even after 50 years. Each person has his or her own unique view of life’s experience, and the camera, especially a Leica, is a great way to document that experience.
Q: What does photography mean to you?
A: Photography is a way to observe and to physically document those observations. I believe the camera acts as a scanner of experience. It’s a very unique medium in that way. It is a form of communication and also a historical record-keeping tool. For me I really get a sense of satisfaction from photography by knowing that the experiences you have shared with others will be preserved in some way.
Q: You made two very profound and telling statements about your relationship to photography: “…the camera acts as a scanner of experience,” and “to photograph is to appreciate and observe with a sense of amazement.” The first prioritizes attention and focus, the second emotional engagement. Do you agree, and do these aspects comprise an existential unity or an operational dichotomy in your creative process?
A: I think a nice mix of both must be present to create something unique. Technical aspects of any field are very important and need to be tended to. However, as an artist you must have some sort of emotional engagement in order for the images carry weight. This emotional aspect is what makes an artist different from a scientist. I find that on the occasions when I am fully aware of my environment, engaged with my subjects, and technically ready to photograph at the same time, that’s when interesting things happen. It’s the old eye, heart and hand analogy.
Q: All the images in your portfolio are presented in black-and-white, and presumably they were all shot with the Leica X1 that captures full color image files. What are some of the things you find so compelling about the black-and-white medium, and do you ever output your street images in color?
A: I like to use black-and-white as an abstraction tool. It creates a level playing field for all the subjects in the frame. In my opinion, color attracts you to certain aspects of an image first. Occasionally I will output my street photography imagery in color, as I do shoot all my files in color, both film and digital. Most of the shots here were taken with my X1 but a few were shot on film with the M3.
Q: This image is a real stopper. It apparently shows a politico or person in authority being interviewed by a TV camera crew in the midst of a street demonstration. However the main subject’s quizzical expression and steely gaze captured in exquisite detail, and the truncated off-center composition, creates an almost unbearable tension. Do you concur, and what’s actually going on here?
A: I do agree with your assessment of this image. There was a protest march that was happening in downtown Chicago that I was covering. I noticed the reporter between his break off of camera. I made my way over and when they were about to start rolling again I just aimed the camera right at him. That action and the street protesters passing is what created this tension.
Q: The above image also evokes a strangely surreal quality that seems to pull the viewer two ways. On the one hand, it’s an ordinary big city street scene with people walking on the sidewalk and in the roadway. On the other hand it looks like a moment frozen in time with all these dark-hued pedestrians in a state of suspended animation like men on a chessboard. Were you consciously aware of this at the time, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?
A: I do not want to say that I knew this was going to happen because I didn’t. Sometimes you can put yourself in a good position for an image and your idea of an environment coming together. I was working in one of the local office buildings and commuting to work each day down this same street. I noticed on my commute each day the way the people on the trains and streets would kind of trek to work in a somber state of existence. It always affected me. I wanted to capture this somberness of the commute, so that morning I turned around and photographed what I had been sensing each day. So yes, I did have an idea before I shot this image of what I wanted to show, and the results were both a confirmation and a surprise to me, which is something only photography can do.
Q: One image of a sexy bikini billboard ad on the side of a building with spectacular cloud formations and odd street reflections in the sky almost looks like a 21st century version of a Dali painting. It’s ominous and humorous at the same time. Was this a single-frame reflection shot in a store window, a composite, or something else entirely, and what does it mean to you?
A: Thank you, that is a huge compliment. All of the images in this series are part of a group I titled “Strange Vibrations”. Life is such a surreal experience for me. The aim is to show a sense of surrealism in the everyday. This particular image is a giant billboard that is off a highway I travel occasionally. I pulled over and shot this through the glass window of my car. If I had a goal it was to show the silliness of this over-the-top style of advertising in comparison to the vastness of nature. The whole thing is strange when you stop and see it for what it is.
Q: Several of these images are kind of creepy, especially this enigmatic image above. Do you think that taking viewers outside their comfort zone is an essential element in what you are trying to achieve, and if so, what function does that serve in your opinion?
A: I understand this group can be somewhat strange which is why they are titled “Strange Vibrations”. I am also aware of the way that could make a viewer feel. This image was shot on a flight heading back to Chicago. The sunlight was lighting a woman sleeping behind me that had her shade open. Her face had such texture and the darkness of the seats just instantly created a surreal scene. These are just ordinary moments that, when you look closer, can say so much more. The biggest challenge in this project is to take ordinary situations and show how they can be and are something so different than just the face value we see each day.
Taking viewers outside of a comfort zone is not the goal, but it also is not something I shy away from. I find it interesting that such simple moments could convey a sense of being uncomfortable. For me this sense of extraordinary, which can make one uncomfortable, permeates everywhere on some level. I aim to show that through photography. It’s the only medium that I think can do that.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next few years, and do you plan to explore any other locations or photographic genres going forward. Do you have any plans to create a book or gallery exhibition based on these images and others in this series?
A: Over the next few years I see my photography evolving by taking on more photojournalism projects around the world. I am in the planning stages of an expedition to South America to document a project that discusses African culture in Latin America. As for the series “Strange Vibrations” I am aiming at putting a book together once I feel the project is at a place of resting.
Thank you for your time, Nicholas!
– Leica Internet Team