In November 2015, Nichols was among 180 people laid off as a result of the reorganization of the National Geographic Society’s media properties, which placed them in partnership with 21st Century Fox. He had already decided to retire with his wife, Reba, to his beloved Sugar Hollow home in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. 2017 is a banner year for Nichols, with the publication of his illustrated biography, A Wild Life (Aperture), and a major exhibition of the same name at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Nichols and I began the interview by reminiscing about the good old days at Kodak and Geographic and some of the friends we share.
Ken Lassiter: How did a guy named Michael get the nickname “Nick” instead of “Mike”?
“Nick” Nichols: That’s easy. I was on a baseball team with five other Mikes, so they called me “Nick.” And it stuck!
KL: What inspired you to become interested in photography?
NN: I was born in Florence, Alabama, where my mom, in spite of only a fourth-grade education, read to me every night and urged me to draw and to question everything. From my dad I learned the value of hard work. That’s what I took out into the world. I went to the nearby University of North Alabama and studied art. My teacher saw something in me and encouraged me to be creative, but I was not very good at it. Then I picked up a camera and that was it; I wanted to be a photographer. I was drafted into the U.S. Army from college. Even though I was opposed to the war, I signed up for an extra year so I could be an Army photographer and learn the basics. I learned how to expose film properly and develop it correctly. I wanted my pictures to be high-quality and learned to be a good technician.
KL: How did Charles Moore become your mentor?
NN: I was just out of the Army, and I think I had $100 in my pocket. I heard that this famous magazine photographer, Charles Moore, was back in his home town of Tuscumbia, Alabama, after being away for 20 years. I showed up at Charles’s place and said, “I am ready to go to work.” He asked me to be his assistant. He helped me get started, and I always owed him for that. Even after I started working for GEO, I still helped Charles whenever he needed me. He showed me the life I could have.
KL: How did Charles influence your photography?
NN: He taught me the practicality of photography. At the beginning, it was stuff like how to make a living and deal with magazines. I had been a newspaper photographer shooting foot ball. At this point, Charles had left behind his Civil Rights photography and was concentrating on annual reports. I saw in Charles the work ethic of the LIFE and LOOK photojournalists. When those magazines disappeared on photojournalists in the middle of their careers, many of them turned to annual reports. I tried annual reports because I needed to feed my family, but I found I could not do propaganda photography. I decided that I would do only photojournalism for the rest of my life.
Charles introduced me to Howard Chapnick of Black Star agency. Howard liked my cave photographs and made an appointment for me at GEO magazine. I was so excited about the interview that when I got out of the taxi with my portfolio, I forgot my camera bag in the cab. I got the assignment I proposed to GEO — to photograph Ellison’s Cave, a giant cave that had never been photographed — but I had no camera!
KL: What was the camera you lost?
NN: It was my first camera, a Konica. I needed to move up to a more professional camera, and Howard Chapnick gave me an advance to get a Canon outfit to do the GEO assignment.
KL: What was the cave photography you had done before the GEO assignment?
NN: I did cave photography in the Army. I was at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and caves gave me the chance to get away from Army regimentation. In a cave, I had a blank canvas. My pictures showed what no one had ever seen. I experimented with painting with light. I learned to understand how to use light and darkness. I experimented with giant flash bulbs I salvaged from the Fort Campbell storeroom. I even used flash powder like Matthew Brady did. In those days, we didn’t have synchronized flash.
GEO gave me three weeks to do the assignment. I took two months. I used a manual film camera that you could drive nails with — a waterproof Nikonos. For the Giant Pit photo, I had the camera on a tripod. Two people were rappelling down a rope. I opened the shutter, and they both flashed their units. I covered the lens with my hand while they both slid lower. I signaled them to turn off their headlamps, and then I took my hand off the lens and they flashed again. Very primitive. I had to learn to compose pictures in the dark.
KL: How did you come to join Magnum?
NN: I heard through the grapevine that Magnum was interested in me, and I showed my portfolio to Magnum’s Paul Fusco, of LOOK Magazine. He said, “We don’t care about pictures you made for others, we care about what you dare to do for yourself.”