Questions and Answers
We are often asked questions about the inspiration for our work as well as our working process. As ‘non-traditional’ photographers (We construct my subject matter rather than go find it) people find it hard to grasp what exactly it is that we do. Building materials, lighting, issues of scale and space all become significant when you are recreating the world on a tabletop. We have listed a few of the more frequently asked questions and our responses. Hope you enjoy.
Tell us a little about yourselves?
Lori Nix and Kathleen Gerber live and work in Brooklyn. We build meticulous landscapes and architectural models and photograph them.
Where did you go to school, both Undergrad & Grad? Can you describe your experience with peers and professors?
Lori: I attended Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri for my undergrad. I earned a BFA in Photography, a BFA in Ceramics and a BA in Art History. I attended Ohio University for my MFA in Photography. I did my MFA at Ohio University. I think it is extremely important to attend graduate school. You get to think, live and breath art every day without distractions such as math, biology and speech classes that filled my undergraduate school. (I went to a liberal arts university). Your graduate thesis show is the springboard to the next level of art, which is the non-profit gallery world, and eventually the for-profit gallery world. Graduate school helped me to refine my technical skills, it definitely helped me to form my style of work (your style is what sets your work apart from everybody else and becomes your calling card to future success). It also honed my speaking skills. And the friends you make it graduate school help you ascend to the next level. For example, they get invited to participate in a show, they mention your name, and you get to participate in the same show. Graduate school helps you build networks.
I'm mostly self-taught in every aspect of photography. I learned the fundamentals while working for the college newspaper and yearbook. Skills in hand building came from woodworking classes in high school and college, and I have a degree in ceramics. I used to be able to throw a mean bowl!
Kathleen: I attended Parkland College, a community college in Champaign, IL and received Associates in Art. I then transferred to Illinois State University and studied a little bit of everything, printmaking, drawing, sculpture, but got my BFA in glass. It was a really strong program and I enjoyed the intense atmosphere. The grad students were inspirational in their work ethic and I learned a lot from them. I did my MFA at The Ohio State University.
Besides moving into a small apartment, what influenced you to start creating dioramas and photographing them instead of shooting more conventional work?
L- We are most comfortable working with our hands. With my background in ceramics and woodwork, and Kathleen’s glass history, we are comfortable building our worlds rather than going out in search of them. Neither of us has had the financial means to travel much beyond the United States. We’ve always used our money to purchase tools and art supplies rather than plane tickets and hotel rooms. We’re happy enough to be armchair travelers, exploring the world through books, magazines, television and the internet. So instead of going out in search of worlds to photograph, we choose to build our own worlds in a much smaller scale.
Are there any art periods or styles that have influenced you? And how would you describe your own style?
L- We are greatly influenced by landscape painting, particularly the Hudson River School of Painting which included the artists Thomas Cole, Asher Brown Durand, Frederich Edwin Church, Martin Johnson Heade, and the Romantic painter Casper David Friedrich. Each of these painters possessed characteristics of romanticism and the Sublime and it's ability to create a state of mind and express intense emotions either through beauty or horror. Eighteenth century philosophers such as Burke and Kant wrote of phenomena that could excite sublime feelings when considering natural settings, dangerous situations, the unknown, and anything else that can threaten us or our belief that we live in a friendly and predictable universe that is under our control. The Sublime as a school of thought came to full force in the eighteenth century and was illustrated by these painters' grandiose landscapes.
In our own work, Kathleen and I are interested in depicting danger and disaster, but temper this with a touch of humor. My childhood was spent in a rural part of the United States that is known more for it's natural disasters than anything else. I was born in a small town in western Kansas, and each passing season brought it's own drama, from winter snowstorms, spring floods and tornados to summer insect infestations and drought. Whereas most adults viewed these seasonal disruptions with angst, for a child it was considered euphoric. Downed trees, mud, even grass fires brought excitement to daily, mundane life. As a photographer, I have recreated some of these experiences in the series "Accidentally Kansas".For the series "The City" I have imagined a city of our future, where something either natural or as the result of mankind, has emptied the city of it's human inhabitants. Art museums, Broadway theaters, laundromats and bars no longer function. The walls are deteriorating, the ceilings are falling in, and the structures barely stand; yet Mother Nature is slowly taking them over. These spaces are filled with flora, fauna and insects, reclaiming what was theirs before man's encroachment. I am afraid of what the future holds if we do not change our ways regarding the climate, but at the same time I am fascinated by what a changing world can bring.
How do you come up with your ideas? Do you keep a journal? What inspires you?
L- I’ve always taken inspiration from my surroundings. I grew up in the 1970's in rural western Kansas. Every season brought with it a new disaster or weather phenomenon. As a child I personally experienced tornados, floods, blizzards and drought. I was never scared or upset by them because I had my parents to worry about the implications. Rather, these events brought excitement to a life that by most people's standards was quite dull. I also grew up in the 1970s, when dystopian cinema had it's heyday. I remember being quite young and in the movie theater, completely scared yet excited to watch such movies as Planet of the Apes, Towering Inferno, Airport 76, Earthquake, and Logan's Run. These movies have had a not-too-subtle influence on my photography. When I decided to use this time as inspiration, rather than travel back to Kansas, I decided to create it for myself on my kitchen table, which turned into the series “Accidentally Kansas”.
We have lived in New York since 1999. Now the city has become our inspiration. I used get my ideas during the morning commute on the subway ride between Brooklyn and Manhattan. It has to be a combination of still being slightly asleep, the light that hits me when we come out of the tunnel and go over the Manhattan Bridge, and trying to maintain my sense of space while riding in a packed subway car. I kind of just drift off and let my mind wonder. I'm like a tourist in my own city, always looking up at buildings around me. The detail in the architecture is so incredible that I want to recreate it for my work. I have a stack of architecture books next to my desk that I turn to for reference when I'm not walking around the city. I don't keep a journal, but rather a list of potential subjects on my phone. Some ideas I sit on for years, others I like to start immediately. I'm completely fascinated with the apocalypse, the Anthropocene, and our reach into outer space.
K- I’m also a fan of science fiction, though I came to it later than Lori. The best of it raises questions about how the world and societies function (or don’t function). Or gives you a look at a world you’ve never imagined and it just gets the creative juices stirred up. I’ve also kept a sketchbook for years. I’m not sure it always relates directly, but it’s a valuable way for me to sort my thoughts.
How do you go about thinking of a particular scene for a project as they all show different aspects of abandonment or certain disaster?
L- We like to work narratively and serially. When we’re thinking of a new series we need to have 10 ideas for images. If we can't envision an idea this far out, then we’re not going to pursue it. We consider how each image is different from the preceding images in relation to its color palette, the scene being depicted, the layout of the space, even the placement of the line of view. For instance, the overall themes to The City and Empire are that something catastrophic has happened to mankind. I don't know if it's viral, nuclear, or a meteor hit earth and decimated the population. This is for the viewer to decide. All that's left of mankind is the cultural and economic spaces we once inhabited. Now these are falling into disrepair, and the native flora and fauna are overtaking them. Life still goes on, just not yours or mine.
Do you ever get photographers block and if so what do you do to get inspired again?
L- Inspiration and excitement definitely ebb and flow. When we’re not feeling excited about a current diorama, we will put it aside and wait for excitement to return. Sometimes it doesn’t and we’ll dismantle the scene and lay it to rest. During these down times try to do some different things. We read more books, go to see more exhibitions and movies, try a play or dance performance, or even just go through a different part of the city. Basically, we try to leave ourselves open for inspiration.
Do your pieces have messages for on-lookers? Is there any modern day issues or causes that you try to raise awareness to in your work (In reference to your current work in The City) or is it just to excite the imagination?
K- We do not strictly define what has taken place in the photographs. Clearly, we have a general theme - something catastrophic has happened, mankind is gone, all that is left are empty buildings and abandoned landscapes - but the details as to what actually occurred are purposely left fuzzy. That allows the viewer to bring in their own ideas (or fears) as to what happened. The fact that it is an image of a model and not a real place, can make it easier for viewers to place themselves into the scene and imagine what may have led up to this point.
Your work is labor intensive. Talk me through the creative process and techniques that go into making one of your projects.
L- I usually come up with the initial idea and try to get Kathleen excited about it. We’ll start off by creating a private Pinterest board and gather images from the internet for inspiration. Sometimes we have to leave the apartment and go to another space to hash out our ideas. Kathleen brings along a sketchbook and starts drawing the basic outline of the diorama. When we’re working on interiors, she sketches the room or rooms from the point of view of the camera. We determine the color palette and some of the materials we’ll need to build the diorama. When we get home, Kathleen will grab her scale ruler and draw the scene to scale with matching measurements. I head to my computer and start purchasing the raw materials we’ll need for the scenes, such as basswood, paint, epoxy, styrene, acrylic sheet etc. We then determine the scale of a human figure within the sketch and print up a corresponding paper man to have on the worktable, so as we’re building items such as furniture, it will remain consistent throughout the many months we’ll be working on the diorama.
We work in a variety of scales, sometimes 1:12, other times 1:8, 1:6 and all the way down to 1:160 and so on. The scenes we build today are mostly scratch built, but every once in a while, we’ll find an item that sets the scale for the scene. Take “Anatomy Classroom” (The City)” for example. We purchased the skeleton that sits in the far corner. That set the scale for the rest of the scene. We then divide up the work.
K- Because we have been working together for 18+ year now, we each have different roles in the creation of the work. Lori is the architect and I am the sculptor. Lori is responsible for hard surfaces such as walls, floors, furniture, buildings etc. I take care of the detail items such as paint finishes, small props, and generally distress everything. If it takes patience, I’m going to do it. If it involves a ruler and a table saw, then it falls to Lori. In “Anatomy Classroom” I sculpted the anatomy models and skulls out of polymer clay. I created all the specimen jars, the posters and the overhead projector. Lori built the cabinets, chairs, laid in the floors and put up the walls. I then distressed and partially destroyed the scene, readying it for the camera. When my part is done, Lori sets up the camera, lights, the background scenery and begins the process of capturing the final image.
A diorama can take anywhere from three to seven months, but a few have taken as long as fifteen months. We work on two and three at a time. Most of the fabrication takes place in our apartment because that where all the power tools, spray booth, paints and supplies are located. When the work is close to being finished, we pack up the parts and pieces of the diorama and transfer it to our outside studio where there’s more space and where we keep the lighting equipment. When we install the scene out here, it’s usually the first time we see it as a whole. And when we see it all together, there’s usually something amiss and we need to add more detail or more background to a scene.
How long have you and Kathleen work together? How has it evolved over the years?
L- Kathleen and I have been working together since 1999. She came home from work one day and saw me working on a scene. She was bored and asked if she could help. We’ve been working together ever since. We both have different training and different skill sets. I come from a ceramics/woodworking background and she come from glass. For years she worked for an art production company that created fixtures and faux finishes for stores like Victoria’s Secret. She has mad painting skills. I worked for years for a commercial photo lab, so I have the color eye. For the longest time she declined to help me with the photography aspect of the work. Slowly I’ve been getting her to think like a camera lens, and encouraging her to get behind the camera. I think she has the better eye for composition, so most of the detailing and staging falls on her. Then I make micro adjustments as needed. Her involvement in the work has grown over time and with this new body of work (Empire) both our names will be credited.
What materials do you use in your models?
L- Our materials are pretty basic. We use basswood, Taskboard, extruded foam sheets, styrene, Komatex, Mighty-core foam board, acrylic sheet, polymer clay, epoxy, etc. All of our paint in water based. We’re always investigating new material to play with, but we always return to the basics.
All of The City images were shot on 8x10 film, Empire was captured digitally.
Why did you switch from film to digital?
L- I love film. I love how it captures color. For me, it looks closer to reality than digital. I was slow to embrace digital because I print my work rather large, from 30x40 inches up to 48x80 inches and most digital cameras were not going to give me the resolution that large format film gave me for such large prints. I started shooting digitally when we started creating the new landscapes for Empire. These dioramas were quite a bit larger than the interiors, and I wanted to be able to capture them while panning the camera. Once I wrapped my head around shooting the scenes in increments and merging them together for a greater file size, then I made the jump.
What do you consider to be the most challenging aspect/s of your projects?
K- The most challenging aspect of our work is getting materials to look like something else. For example, I'll need to make foam and wood look like a leather and steel office chair, or sculpting small objects like power tools out of wood and clay. It can make us crazy sometimes, but when it works it is deeply satisfying.
What advice would you give a young artist that is just starting out?
L- I took the long path to get to where I am today. I started applying to juried shows, then to non-profit shows. I also applied for programs such as the Artist in the Marketplace through the Bronx Museum of Arts, another artist network. As I built up my resume and got a little press recognition, I started to approach commercial galleries. As I had more shows, my work began to spread. It's very important to have a good website. I can't stress this enough.
Good projects take time to develop. Do not be in a great hurry to start and finish a body of work.
Be sure to have a day job. Surviving on art work alone is a rare feat.
Your friends are your greatest source of information sharing. They are the ones who will help out your career the most with gallery connections, inclusions into exhibitions, and spreading your name around to their friends. I am indebted to a lot of my friends for getting my career to where it is today.
How is your work a reflection on who you are?
L- Our images reflect environments that are messy and chaotic, and we are pretty messy and chaotic too. We’re not sure you could tell the difference between one of these scenes, and our studio where we create the scenes. The studio is a disaster area!
Also, all of the work has an element of humor, despite the disaster theme. Personally, I try to find the humor or beauty in difficult situations.
Since Accidentally Kansas, how have you evolved as an artist?
L- My building skills have definitely improved. My lighting has become more complex. My ideas are more nuanced and multi-layered.
What is the attraction for you to make these intensely elaborate model sets?
L- To begin with, they are quite fun to build. Each scene usually comes with a new problem to solve. It’s this challenge that keeps us interested in the process and pushing our work more. I feel myself growing each year, adding new skills and expanding my creativity. I'm also a bit of a control freak, so I need to control just about every aspect of the process. I'm not the kind of photographer who goes in search of interesting images, I'm too wrapped up in my head to see the forest through the trees. I'm not a street shooter, I'm not much of a traveler, so roaming with my camera is just not the way I work.
K-I agree with Lori about the problem solving. Turning everyday materials into something new is really fun. Also being able to make situations that don’t normally exist.
Have you always worked in miniature? Were you creating dioramas before you even decided to photograph them, or did the two go together for you?
L- Working in miniature is something that developed out of necessity many years ago. I've never done straight photography. I've always done constructed imagery of some kind or another, sometimes combining repetitive images to create a design; other times I've overlapped images. I’ve only built dioramas specifically to photograph them. In graduate school I was making room sized installations and photographing them. It was after grad school, having to make work in my small apartment that I started working small.
K- I only started working in miniature when I began working with Lori. Lucky break that I had an aptitude for it.
What's your favorite photo that you've taken and does it have any significance?
L- One of my favorite images is from 2001 and it's called "Floater". Back in college I worked a couple of summers on a riverboat in Missouri. Every morning while boarding the boat, I would look at the shoreline and check to see what might have come down the river in the night. I always expected to see a body in the water, but am glad I never saw one. When I created the scene, I feel I got the quality of light perfect. It's a grey, overcast day, a very somber color palette that gives the image it's emotional weight.
K- For the longest time my favorite was “Church”, something about the light. My more recent favorite is turning out to be “Laundromat (Day)”. Again, I think it is the light.
Do they always turn out as planned, or do they assume a life of their own once you begin to construct them?
L- They never look how I envision them. They always take on a life of their own. Usually after I'm done with the scene, I can't remember what they were supposed to look like from the get go.
If you could be born in another period of history, when would that be and why?
L- I like science fiction, so I would choose to go into the future, maybe five hundred years or so and see how humanity has survived, changed, evolved.
K- I’d probably go into the past, mid to late 1800’s. It would be exciting to see what the Midwest and West looked like before it was overrun with people.
What is the most enjoyable part of your creative process? Is it the ideas and the thought process, the model making or the photography?
L- All of it is enjoyable, otherwise I wouldn't work this way. I think I enjoy coming up with the ideas the most. But it's by far the most painful part of the process because there are so many options and ideas floating around. I could do a model this way, or another way, or something completely different altogether. It get's filtered through my brain and out my hands and somehow ends up looking like it does.
K- I really enjoy painting/putting finishes on things.
What is the most difficult or frustrating part of your creative process?
L- How long everything takes. I think a project should only take a month, and seven months later I'm putting the finished touches on something. When I start a new diorama I have to take a deep breath because I know there's a long road ahead of me.
K- We work for months building parts and pieces separately, not really knowing how it will all fit together. When we get to the point of actually assembling the diorama it’s really tense. There is a lot of mumbled “Hope this works” or “Hope I measured this correctly”.
Who is your favorite photographer?
L- I don't have a favorite photographer.
K- What she said.
What would you do if you weren't a photographer?
L- My dream would be to run my own micro brewery and make artisanal sausage.
K- Chef maybe.