“Not going to lie; they scared the shit out of me. I knew we were onto something,” says portrait photographer Nick Kiefer. He’s referring to the images from his project Exs & Ohs, which contains a series of freaky portraits of his close friend and creative muse, Pete Carter. The photographs are not for the fainthearted. However, those who have a pinchant for the dark side of photography should certainly keep reading.
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I came across Nick Kiefer via Twitter. Having a late-night scroll, feeling uninspired by the constant stream of cliche photography, suddenly I was brought to a halt. “What the hell is this?” I asked. In front of my tired eyes was a series of portraits that tapped into the eccentric part of my psyche. Suddenly wide awake, I became lost in a collection of images I’m certain I hadn’t seen anything like before. That collection was Exs & Ohs, by Kiefer.
Nearly equally as intriguing was how Kiefer was presenting Exs & Ohs. Yes, I found it on Twitter, but the link took me to a world I was unfamiliar with; it took me to a VR gallery.
I don’t have the hardware to view Exs & Ohs in the manner Kiefer intended. I do, however, have an abundance of curiosity that propels me to ask questions. I’m happy to say Kiefer agreed to answer them.
Gear Used by Nick Kiefer
Phobographer: Please tell us how you fell into portrait photography.
Nick Kiefer: My portrait shooting started in the late 90s with punk bands. Through music, both photographing and playing, I’ve always been able to keep a circle of friends that are just amazing artists. Musicians, performers, dancers, drag queens, I’m just fascinated by them all. The city I live in, Asbury Park, is a hub for these types of creatives. There was a studio downtown being virtually unused – the owner loved my work, we hit it off, and he just sort of lets me use the studio after hours for the sake of art and creating. To this day, I invite artists in to make portraits, and more so, to just let go and have a good time.
Phobographer: How do you find inspiration for a specific theme or idea?
Nick Kiefer: You can ask me this question 50 times, and get 50 different answers. I find inspiration all over the place, daily. Talking to friends, random movie scenes, a song lyric, just walking around the city, certain fonts inspire me. I can go on and on.
Phobographer: Talk to us about Exs & Ohs. How did that idea materialize?
Nick Kiefer: For you to understand how this idea materials, you have to understand who my subject Pete Carter, is. Pete and I have an amazing relationship. Every time we arrange a shoot there’s no need to talk about ideas. We just set a time and place. I don’t want to know what is in his head. I don’t even know if he knows. Pete shows up with a treasure chest of clothes. I’ll set up my lights and run a few tests with the assistant. Every once in a while, I’ll glance over at Pete rummaging through his wardrobe trunk, while frantically doing his makeup. He works in absolute chaos, but this boy is alive and firing. I’ll usually yell over to him, “Pete, should we shoot this on the black or white backdrop?”… It’s always black, I don’t even know why I ask.
This was the first time various kinds of adhesive tape were introduced. When he’s ready, we cue the music. And we are off. It’s explosive. This shoot was a two-song performance. One song we shot close up. The other was a full-body shot.
Sometimes I forget how disturbing some of these images are. The disfigurement of his face. The textures. The strain in his neck. That’s all real. Pete always gives his all. I’m firing away. I’m seeing these freeze frames happen.
There are no re-dos, or, wait, try that again. There’s no turn to the left. This is Pete just serving me everything he’s got. Ripping shit off his face, gasping for air, and freaking out — but he’s on beat. Pete Carter is a world class dancer and performance artist. This idea is just the result of two people with a lot of trust and respect for each other
Phobographer: Let’s say you’re not the photographer, but instead you’re the viewer. How do you think you would interpret this series?
Nick Kiefer: Honestly, they would freak me out. They do freak me out. Where’s his nose?
Phobographer: From the photographer’s perspective, what message were you aiming to send with the series?
Nick Kiefer: Whoever you are. Own it. The images are disturbing, but the images have an undeniable beauty. They have an energy that keeps me going back.
Phobographer: How long did it take to shoot the series and how do you feel about the outcome?
Nick Kiefer: You could say this series took about 15 minutes to shoot. Im going to say it took about 15 years of working with Pete. As much as this shoot still does make me uncomfortable, I do love it. The images are truly unique.
Phobographer: You turned Exs & Ohs into a VR gallery. Can you tell us more about that?
Nick Kiefer: I’ve been really intrigued by VR galleries since I’ve entered the NFT space. I think it’s a great way to showcase your work for collectors.
Phobographer: How has the public received the VR gallery?
Nick Kiefer: If by the public, you mean my Twitter followers, people have viewed it, shared it, clicked the links, checked out the NFTs in their marketplace. It’s been a conversation starter for sure. So far, so good.
Phobographer: You also had a physical exhibition. How do virtual and real-world exhibitions compare? Which gave you the most satisfaction?
Nick Kiefer: You can’t really compare a real-world exhibition to a VR gallery. The opening night of my physical solo show was a great night in my life. I hung out with family, friends, and the locals came out. We talked about the shots on the wall all night. It was a serious high.
VR, NFTs, Twitter (spaces) – this isn’t about one big night. It’s a million small moments and conversations spread out over months, with people from around the world talking about art, life, and everything in between. It’s pretty amazing.
Phobographer: Finally, what’s next for you regarding projects and photography focus?
Nick Kiefer: I’m always working on projects, collections, and booking shoots. But I have started a new collection that has a heavy focus on the city of Asbury Park, NJ where I have lived for the last decade. That’s all I can say about it right now. But I haven’t been this excited in a long time.
You can learn more about Nick by visiting his website, Instagram and Twitter.
All images by Nick Kiefer. Used with permission.