Composing the Exceptional
By Joette O’Connor
Nicholas Trofimuk is a respected and widely collected contemporary photographer. His work hangs in homes that only own one piece of “real art” as well as in some of the world’s most prestigious private collections. Important collectors don’t put his work in a drawer to await appreciation along with some of their other acquisitions. They hang it in places of honor to be viewed daily. He usually shuns publicity, and I was happy to convince him to agree to this interview. Although he travels extensively, his home base is in Galisteo, New Mexico.
How did you get started in photography?
It’s very complicated. I always wanted to be an artist. It’s probably genetic. My aunt was an accomplished painter and illustrator, and my father’s family had a history of artistic accomplishments. I’ve always loved the finality and meaning that comes with completing a piece and seeing it actually hanging on a wall.
So, photography has always been your profession?
Lord, no! I experimented with a variety of other art forms. Originally I loved working in great detail with colored pencils. These pieces were so realistic that people would want to touch them to see if they weren’t actually photographs. I also tried oils, but I didn’t find these precise enough to appeal to my personality.
I wanted desperately to go to art school, but I’m a first generation American. It was considered essential that you make a good living, and art didn’t fall into that category. Artists were known to starve to death! Fortunately I was equally drawn to science and the health professions, and I can’t say that I’ve regretted the years I spent there. Now I have the best of both worlds. Photography is definitely an art form, but it’s dependent on chemistry and physics. It also fits my personal inclination for detail and perfection.
I know you do all of your own darkroom work. How did you learn your techniques? Classes? Workshops?
I’m completely self-taught. Classes weren’t available where I was living when I started, and I’ve always felt comfortable learning from books. Surprisingly in medical and dental school, you learn most things on your own. I applied the same principles to photography. There’s a lot of trial and error, but the journey is the most enjoyable part. Sometimes making mistakes can teach you more than doing it right the first time. I’ve gone to a few “student” photographic shows and been appalled by the strong influence of the teacher on the student’s work. It was almost like cloning, and in the process all originality had been stifled. A good teacher should never do that.
You have a variety of subject matter in your portfolios. Do you have a favorite?
Well, I started out as a landscape photographer. I love the outdoors. I’m really a country boy—born and raised in the country and still living there. Cities are great to visit, but they close you in physically. Nothing makes me happier than to throw a backpack over my shoulder and spend time tramping the fields. I get a chuckle out of what I call “the parking lot photographers.” Carrying a large format camera can be exhausting, but I’ll never stand in a parking lot and take a photograph! I also love to travel, and landscapes are everywhere.
I made a conscious decision when I first started photographing to capture only things that were beautiful. The world has become my cathedral, and I do what I can to honor it. For inspiration, I need look no further than the world God created. Of course I have the inestimable advantage of living in Galisteo, New Mexico, which surely received more than its fair share of that beauty.
But going back to your question, my favorite portfolio is always the one I’m involved with currently. Right now I’m fascinated with doing studies looking from the inside of buildings to the outside. Most of these might be classified as urban landscapes, if we have to classify. Now don’t go looking for some deep-seated psychological reason for this! There isn’t any. I just happened to be inside a Starbucks one day after I had just photographed the outside of the same building and was struck by the different perspective we get from the inside. I began to look more closely at the outside from the inside, as it were, and began a portfolio capturing this feeling. I’m also working on a portfolio of signs. No one will ever outshine Walker Evans in that department, and I wouldn’t even want to try, but signs have changed a great deal in the past 50 to 60 years, and many of them deserve to be preserved for all time and in a way quite different from Evans.
Every good artist has to mature and change. It would be a pretty boring and barren world if I were limited to one subject. Even Picasso had his different periods. Why shouldn’t fine art photographers expand their horizons?
Who are your favorite photographers?
That’s easy! My all-time favorite is Brett Weston. It’s obvious from his work that he had an exceptionally perceptive nature. I like the way he looked at things. I tend to become more impressed with artists working in other media, for example, Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper. They both paint the world as I feel I see it, so I really relate to their work on a personal level. One of my earliest photographs, Still Waters, has often been compared to Hopper’s work. I’m always very flattered at the comparison. Who wouldn’t be?
Do you collect photography?
Absolutely. And my collection is probably as eclectic as my own work. I love my Babe Ruth’s Farewell to Yankee Stadium by Nathan Fine every bit as much as my Wright Morris’ GANO and Koudelka’s Gypsy with Horse. The paintings I own have been relegated to obscure corners, and the photographs are in places of honor. I don’t own any digitals yet, but I wouldn’t rule that out. Color, on the other hand, doesn’t have a chance!
Do you have any advice for beginning photographers?
Do some self-analysis. What interests and excites you? Take that and apply it to your photography. Photograph your vision. By far the best advice, however, is to have patience. There is no immediate recognition. In today’s world it’s common to expect instant gratification. That’s not going to happen unless you have a parent who is the curator of a museum! There are so many different fields of photography, commercial, cinematic, documentary; but if you want to enter the field of fine art photography, and your goal is to have your work viewed as a piece of art, it’s not about the kind of film, filters, chemistry, f-stops and every new item that comes up. Find a technique that works and stick with it. If you’re going to take a class in something, take it in composition.
Do you give workshops?
I’ve never taken a workshop and have absolutely no desire to ever give one. I do all of my own printing, and I’m too busy working on my own photography and keeping up with sales to afford the time for workshops. Sometimes I feel like a one-man band because I do all of my own prints from start to finish, even the matting. I guess I’m too particular to let someone else touch them. It works for me.
Do you have a theory on why so many people are drawn to your work?
I have no idea! It’s really very flattering, but I’ve never analyzed in depth why people want a particular image. Sometimes the one that I think is absolutely wonderful is never appreciated by buyers, while another that isn’t a particular favorite of mine becomes a sold-out edition. I think my composition is always exceptional as a result of my early efforts at painting, and that’s a huge part of why people like a photograph. Even if they aren’t consciously thinking composition, their inner eye rejects the discordant. To quote G. K. Chesterton, “There is a road from the eye to the heart that does not go through the intellect.” I believe that’s true.
Your photographs have some fascinating titles. What is your reason for doing that?
My titles usually have something to do with what is occurring within the photograph or while I’m taking it, or a feeling that comes from within me. A title gives an image a life of its own and as a very nice by-product, makes it more saleable, for example, The Spirit of New York. By good fortune all of the airports in New York City were closed, and I was forced to stay an extra day. Where else would a photographer go but to Central Park? I took a number of photographs that day, but my favorite is the touch football players. Here they are in the middle of a blizzard, and nothing is going to stop their game. I couldn’t help thinking that there weren’t many places in the world where this would happen. Hence The Spirit of New York because that’s exactly what it shows. Would it have been better to have called it Central Park, NYC 2003? I don’t think so.
You limit your work, sometimes to very small numbers. Why?
Occasionally I feel this may have been an initial mistake on my part. There are so many images that have sold out, and a lot of people won’t get to enjoy them. I constantly get calls for images that are no longer available, and I hate telling people that they can’t have the one they really want. My editioning is arbitrary, and some of the most popular ones were given a small end number. For example, I made Silverado Church an edition of 50, and this was gone in no time. I even made a couple of artist’s proofs, which I don’t usually do, to satisfy some clients. I’m very strict about not exceeding the limit on any particular image.
Would you decide to stop editioning future prints?
No. I started that way, and I’ll keep doing it that way. In a way it forces you to keep creating new work. I personally know some really fine photographers who have one or two images that sell successfully, and they don’t do any new work, but instead rely on selling those one or two images. It’s sad when you think of it. What a waste of talent.
One thing I’ll never be accused of is being a “one image” photographer. It would be hard for someone to decide which image should be my “signature piece” and I’m happy with that.
How many prints are in your limited editions?
I never know what end number to give a photograph. Blake’s Lotaburger is a very small edition of 20, for example. I never really expected anyone to want it. I just liked it. Now I only have a few left. In other instances, I’ve given a large end number to a photograph because I expected everyone to want it and well . . . I don’t have to finish the sentence. It can be very frustrating. I always include all sizes in the end number because I don’t think it’s fair to edition by size. It’s misleading as well. When someone purchases a limited edition piece they usually think that the end number is just that, not that there can be multiples of that end number in different sizes.
A great many fine art photographers would like to support themselves as you do, solely on the sale of their work. To what do you attribute your success?
This will sound strange to some, but truthfully I would have to say “the power of positive thinking.” Years ago I attended Marble Collegiate Church in New York City when Norman Vincent Peale was the minister. It was a round trip of 120 miles, but I considered it essential. At the time I thought it was giving me the strength to get through another difficult week. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was learning to apply his principles in everything I did. Trust me, they still work. They allow you to look at the world positively, and how you see the world is essential to photography. This philosophy may make some of your readers uncomfortable, but that’s what’s great about America. You don’t have to agree with someone, you just have to allow them their opinion.
If you were to sum up your entire photographic philosophy what would it be?
Don’t take yourself too seriously. Photography should be fun. If you have to describe and interpret your work in a great many words, you’re in trouble. A photograph is about seeing and feeling. If you have to tell someone how it feels, the photograph is a failure. There is an old adage that goes “a picture is worth a thousand words.” There is an Ansel Adams quote on my wall that says it all: “You don’t make a photograph just with your camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.” I think he summed it up very nicely.
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