Nikki Sixx: One Step up from the Abyss, Part 1

An acclaimed rock musician and recovering addict, Nikki Sixx reveals the desperation and transcendence of life on the streets with authenticity, empathy and passion.

Q: You are a pretty well known rock musician, isn’t that correct?

A: Yes, I am the bassist in Mötley Crüe and also Sixx:A.M. Mötley Crüe’s been touring the world for thirty-something years and we’ve sold over a hundred million records. It’s been one of the most amazing journeys considering I was a teenager in the ‘70s and had all these heroes and idols. I loved their music and it set a standard for what I wanted to do. I ended up in Los Angeles, which was the opposite of what everyone else was doing. I didn’t deviate from my mission. I feel the same way about my photography. I have an idea and it doesn’t matter to me how it resonates with people. A lot of people say things about my photography that they said about music. There is a little smirk that happens. But I go, “Well you were wrong once and you’ll probably be wrong again.”

Q: How did you go from being a rock bassist to being a photographer too? Did you find this a natural transition?

A: You hit a place where you go all the way back and reflect on your life. I’m 54 years old; I have more years behind me than there will be in front of me. You hit a place where you want to reflect; maybe it happens sometime in your 40s. I’m a father of four and a recovering heroin addict. I’ve been doing all this creative stuff, not for money, but for passion. Sometimes it does turn into money and I’m able to support my family and continue to be an artist. That is why I always support other people to become successful artists. I say, “That’s beautiful. If you’ve done it once you can do it again.” You can keep doing it. We all benefit from it. If you are a fan of a photographer or painter or musician, you can benefit if they can be successful.

My life and report cards reflect that I got A’s in art, A’s in music and did very well in English. I love writing. I flailed around and had a hard time with the other subjects. As a young kid I was always creating stuff and building stuff. Music gave me instant gratification. When I heard it, I felt something. When I started learning to play, I would have those moments where I was like, “Wow! I did that.” And once you do something, you can do it again. Over 20 years ago I was just getting a camera and carrying it around on the road. I had a 35 mm camera and I would just snap pictures all the time of what was happening on the road and backstage. Being a kid from Jerome, Idaho (population 4,000), shooting a sunset in Australia was amazing. Just basically shooting and documenting my life was instant gratification. I’d get the film back and start to think of the things I could do differently.  I was getting more into the idea of not just snapping a picture.

Q: You have a Leica Monochrom, right?

A: I have the Monochrom and the new M. I shot with an M9 for years.

Q: What lenses do you use on your Monochrom?

A: I use a 28 mm, a 50 mm, and the 35 mm, which is my main lens. Another one of my favorite lenses is the 75 mm, which is actually very unpopular among Leica shooters I know, but I love it. I had a 90 mm, but I traded it and got the 75, which I use all the time.

Q: The way you talk convinces me that you have this abiding passion for photography. This photo of two women standing in front of a brick wall is a very simple picture, but it’s so full of emotion. There is a great contrast in the two faces. Can you tell us about it?

A: There is an area in Vancouver called Hastings. It’s very interesting because the nickname of that intersection is “Wastings and Pain.” Right on the corner is a police department and right outside the police department stands all the drug dealers, selling heroin, crack and even guns. Down that street of Hastings is a community. They all know each other. I went down the back alley. I always introduce myself as a street photographer wanting to document what’s going on in the streets and to bring awareness. And I ask if I can take their picture and let them know that if they need any money I will help them out. It amazes me that they have nothing but really the whole idea of raising awareness is what connects with them. That tells me that they want out and also want people to see what they are going through. So maybe someone can come down there and do something.

I asked the distraught girl how she was doing and she told me she hadn’t had a fix in two days and was in a lot of pain. I asked the other girl how she was doing. She told me she was a prostitute. I asked if I could take their picture. And one girl told the other it was going to be okay and put her arm around her friend. If you zoom in on the girl with the pained expression, you can see the track marks on her arms. She has tons of scars from the needles. It’s such a simple picture, but I wanted to include it because it showed some from of nurturing.

Q: Please tell me about this picture of a woman holding on to her wheelchair.

A. That’s Maggie. I found her walking down the alleyway. She walked towards me and said, “Hi! What are you doing?” I told her I was just documenting what’s going on around her. She asked if I would take her picture and I told her I’d love to. There was a truck coming down the street so I told her to move to the side. So she moved over to the side next to the brick wall and I saw her reflection in the mud puddle. I literally took one shot and then the truck blew through the mud puddle and splattering mud all over both of us. We both laughed about it. That was that moment.

I met Lonnie, the girl shooting up in photos I shot, in Victoria. There are these two squatter buildings. They’ve thrown all the furniture out of the windows and it has landed in the alleyway between them. There’s this iron fence that blocks it off. It’s formed some version of shelter under the couches and tables and stuff. I saw something as I was driving past the buildings, so I pulled over. I had both cameras around my neck. Someone was holding a cardboard box in front of her face. I told them I wasn’t going to shoot a picture and I wasn’t the police. I said I would like to take their picture if they’d let me and that my name is Nikki. I am a recovering heroin addict. She put down the box and told me she liked it there because of the couches. I gave her some money and we talked for a bit. She decided to come over to where I was and grabbed her bags and climbed over the iron fence. She sat down and we started talking.

She asked if I minded if she got high. I told her no but asked if I could photograph it. Then she asked if it would bother me because she knew I was a recovering addict. Such compassion. After we were done, I told her I was going to leave. She asked if she could give me a hug. She gave me a hug and she held on a little too long. She just needed that and felt really grateful. So I started walking back to my car and she called out after me and told me I dropped something. I looked down and there were four $20 dollar bills on the ground. I asked her why she bothered to tell me that. She told me it was because the money was mine. This made me feel like I needed to be a better person. Here was a girl who has nothing, and she was concerned that I lost my money. I just gave her the money and thanked her. But I learned something.

Q: That’s a great story. The whole point of documenting any group of afflicted people is that they are human beings just as you are. Being an addict isn’t the totality of their identity. Many photographs of addicts in their environment have a voyeuristic perspective, but yours seem empathetic. Tell us about this close up shot.

A: I was walking down the street and this girl’s back was to me. She had this box set up with makeup pallets all around her. She had red dots on her cheeks and was trying to rub it in like rouge. I think she was trying to make herself look better. But if you look at the series of pictures, you’d see she is pulling at her hair and arching her back. She is weeping and then smiling. I just sat down in front of her and we started talking. I didn’t know what was going on with her. I asked if I could take her picture and she said yes. Then she grabbed something and was looking into it. That’s that picture. I assumed it was a make up mirror but when you zoom in there is a hole in whatever it is she’s holding. It’s almost like a looking glass. A friend of mine said it seems like she is looking into a better world. You can see her pain and where she is pulling her hair. I hope she was somehow seeing a better world.

Q: You seem to favor black-and-white images. What do you find compelling about black-and-white photography? And how do you feel about the Monochrom as a black-and-white camera?

A: When I do studio photography, I do a lot of color depending on what it is. Recently I got rid of my photography studio. I was spending so much time on the road and doing my radio show that I wasn’t finding myself going to the studio that often. So after eight years, I decided to terminate the lease. I put a lot of my stuff in storage. When I am out shooting and documenting, I feel that color distracts from the story. I don’t know why I feel that way. Almost everything I shoot is output in black-and-white.

Q: When you shoot with the Leica M, do you also output it in black-and-white?

A: Yeah, I love that. I had my M9 set to shoot both the DNG and low-res JPEG files and was viewing it all in black-and-white anyway. I think the Monochrom is a fantastic camera. It’s fast and the files are big. You can blow the photos up and see every detail. The contrast range and the depth you can achieve with the M lenses and that camera have exceeded themselves.

Q: By the way, can you tell us about your experience shooting with the Leica M?

A: I love the new M. I love using the electronic viewfinder. It really works well if something is a bit off in the distance. I enjoy that I can put the camera at a point of view that is correct and I don’t have to get down on my hands and knees. I’m down on knees and sitting on the street so much, but you can’t always do that. Sometimes by the time you get down on the level that you need to be, the shot is gone. That’s what I love that about that camera. There’s also a look to the images that is different when I run images shot with the M through Silver Efex Pro to add a bit of grain. It gives it more of a film-like look.

Q: You’re a reflective guy that takes things from here to there. You did it in music and now you are doing it in photography. Would you agree?

A: Yeah. I had this little 35 mm camera and this Richard Avedon book called “In the American West.” It was this book of portraits. You could read the people even though there was no story with it. I would spend hours looking at it and used it as kind of a template. I decided I wanted to capture more than just something that was happening. I wanted to pull something out of the subject. That’s when I started pushing myself and learning about black-and-white film and all the different ISO settings and lenses. I had nothing to shoot but documenting what I saw. But it started a process for me. I wanted to shoot people’s faces. I would make the road crew line up against a wall and I would shoot their faces in all available light. Then I would get the film back and see where I messed up or excelled. It became an obsession to me. There was always a camera in my hand. Even to this day. Even when I’m walking from the tour bus to the dressing room, I have my Leica in my hand, even though I know there is rarely a good shot there. But the other day I was in Dawson Creek, Canada and there is nothing out there. There was this one shot of one of our trucks full of gear backing up into the arena and there was nothing but vast vacant nothingness behind it. So I got this shot. I was so glad I had my camera.

Thank you for your time, Nikki!

- Leica Internet Team

Stay tuned for part 2 of our interview with Nikki next week. To connect with Nikki and see more of his work, visit his Facebook page, Twitter and Tumblr.