Nick Zinner Discusses His Misconceptions About Fashion Photography and Why Giving is Better Than Taking

Yesterday we previewed a Lee campaign shot by Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner. Today we called Zinner from his New York City home to discuss the value of a good assistant, why shooting models is like producing a band and his misconceptions about fashion photography in general (hint: you can’t just get drunk with models and call it a day).

So how did the campaign come about? I’m not really sure. From my point of view they just asked me if it was something I’d be interested in doing. I mean, I don’t have an agent or anything. I’m not that pro. And it just seemed like something I’d never done before and it seemed like something that would be fun to try.

This is your first time working with a brand in this capacity, have you been asked to do this before? No I’ve never been asked to do something like this.

And what was it about Lee that made you want to take this project on? I looked at some of their other campaigns and I knew a few of the other photographers who had shot for them before. So once I realized that they just wanted me to do what I do and not something that I had no idea how to do, then it seemed like it would be cool to try.

Was the brief tight or were you working within an open framework? There’s obviously things they need from their point of view and it was a whole world I knew nothing about so it was a question of learning about this world and what they needed and collaborating with the team there, trying to figure out how we could get the best shots and something that would be fun to do and interesting.

And what did you learn while shooting this campaign because your work isn’t typically set up or constructed in any way… I definitely learned that it’s good to have an awesome assistant (laughs). And because I don’t like setting things up, it was more trying to create a situation where people could move about in a way that didn’t seem contrived that I would then respond to and take photos from. Just looking for a stronger more interesting image – something that’s suggestive or evocative and that can really come from anything. It doesn’t matter how things come about as long as the end result is interesting.

And for you what was it like directing people whereas before you would have relied on your subject’s own spontaneity? It was cool. I guess I learned that it was actually something that I could do. It reminded me of the first time I produced a band. I had no idea what I was going to be doing before then and you just find yourself in these situations where you realize you have a very clear objective of what you want and you just have to tell people what to do (laughs). It’s kind of fun in that way.

And can you now empathize with photographers who have shot you and your band in the past? Oh yeah, yeah. Totally. My band hates doing photo shoots and so do I. I definitely empathize with band photographers now. I feel bad for what we did to people.

For you is it harder being in front or behind the camera? Hmm that’s a good question. I think probably…they’re both pretty different…I guess for me it would be behind the camera because I don’t like being photographed. And I think it’s easier to give direction than take direction at first. Especially for a lot of creative types it’s something that you learn how to do.

And can you describe the shoot day itself? Basically I wanted to do something that felt natural – something that I had encountered before and could relate to. So basically we had an adventure with a couple in New York City for a short period of time just going to different bars and streets. For the most part it was places that I knew and either lived near or had friends work in. Places that I was familiar with. Really, when they first asked me I thought I could just take the models out on the town and out on the streets and it would just be us. That’s how I envisaged it in my head. But then I realized that’s not how those things work (laughs). There are people who worry about clothes and makeup and all that kind of thing so I just wanted to have those things in place for my own comfort and for the models’ comfort and that kind of non-precious feeling for the image.

What’s next for you project-wise? I’m just doing music for the rest of the year. I mean I guess I’m doing some photography stuff. I’ll be doing a photography show in New York next month and I want to do another photo book this year if I can pull it together. But unless someone else asks me to do something like this I’ll probably just focus on the music.

What did you have in mind for the third book? I want to do another book of crowd photos because I’ve been taking pictures of crowds that we’ve played to for ten years now so I’ve got a pretty crazy collection. That’s what I’m thinking about. I don’t know if I’ll do it but that’s what I’m thinking about.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve documented on the road or on stage? Umm…I don’t know (laughs). I mean, it’s all pretty weird, isn’t it?

Being in a band is pretty unnatural to begin with hey. It’s a weird thing. I mean it’s awesome but it’s weird. So I don’t know. I don’t think I can make that declaration yet, I’ll have to wait til I’m a lot older.

Thanks for your time Nick. It was a pleasure.