Diana Cheren Nygren

Diana Cheren Nygren

Interview with Diana Cheren Nygren
TIFA 2020 Winner, Non-Professional Discovery of the Year – “When The Trees Are Gone”

Diana has been taking photographs seriously ever since she can remember, but for a long time she was most comfortable on the other side of the art making process. She studied art history, and according to her, still feels like an “art historian.”  

Q: Tell us a bit about your background?

I dropped the academic track when my husband and I started our family.  After my second child was born, I launched a line of children’s clothing which I designed on and off for a number of years.  It was only when my oldest was out of the house and my third child was firmly entrenched in school that I felt the freedom to focus on pursuing fine art photography.

Q: What part of life do you associate with ‘When the Trees are Gone’ series?

I think it is not by chance that I produced “When the Trees Are Gone” right as my children were becoming adults.  Watching them come into their own, I am profoundly conscious of the world and problems that they have been saddled with.  I feel like they live in constant terror for the survival of humanity and the planet.  It is a hell of a burden when you are just trying to figure out who you are and how to be a person.

Q: In a word, what is photography for you?

I’m tempted to say escape, but that’s not really right.  It’s more a way of being present.  

Q: Any rituals you practice before you start working?

Not really.

Q: Tell us about the pivotal moment that really launched your photography career.

When I decided I wanted to try to establish a career as a fine art photographer, the first challenge I put to myself was to put out a book.  I figured I would feel out the response to the book and take it from there.  So, I looked over ten plus years of photographs and tried to distill the essence of my work.  The result was a book of photographs of beaches entitled “Capturing the Light”.  I put together a kick-starter to fund publication and in the fall of 2017 was able to self-publish a run of ten copies. By the time the book was ready to ship, I was all in.

Q: Where do you get motivation and inspiration from in your work and in photography?

I think one of the primary characteristics of being a photographer is seeing pictures everywhere.  There is constant inspiration in everything I see around me.  I can’t glance down at my neighbor’s driveway or out of my kitchen window without thinking, “Hey, that would make a great photograph”.  Finding inspiration for a project is trickier.  But by constantly shooting, looking at other people’s work, and taking workshops that stretch my subject matter and technique, the ideas keep coming.

Q: What was your first camera?

My first camera was a Pentax K1000 I got for my 16th birthday.  My second significant camera purchase was a Seagull Twin-Lens Reflex medium format film camera that costed $50. That camera really was a little more than an empty box with a lens on; it took incredible negatives.

Q: What role does the photographer have in society? How powerful do you think visual images are as a force for change?

I believe wholeheartedly in the power of photography – and visual culture in general – to shape society.  The relationship is a complicated and a constant push and pull.  Theoretically, photography reflects the world more directly than most art forms.  There is always editing, slant, and other forms of fiction injected into the images by the artist.  

Still, it is true that the art work itself shows something about the artist’s (and implicitly societies) concerns and preoccupations.  But I do also believe that visual images can change society.  Sometimes that is by calling attention to issues or by the way the artist presents them.  But more subtly, I think people understand their place in the world and their relationship to the society around them from visual culture.  Landscape images may not seem overtly political at first glance, but the ability of photography and art more generally to insist on prioritizing and valuing nature inevitably ripples out.

Q: Any photographs that have changed your life?

The first photographers I was really obsessed with were Diane Arbus and Cindy Sherman.  I think what interests me today hasn’t changed a whole lot.  

Diane Arbus photographed people who were considered out of the ordinary in a variety of ways.  Her images often exaggerated the peculiarities of her subjects.  And yet she clearly loved and identified with the people she photographed.  I’m much more interested in photographing people who don’t conform to some ideal of beauty, but finding the beautiful image in embracing their flaws.  

My favorite of Sherman’s photographs are her Untitled Film Stills.  But I think all of her work is consistent in insisting of finding the universal in the personal, and in subsuming her own identity within larger social ideas.  I love that her work is all self-portraits, but I am hard pressed to think of one that is actually a photograph of Cindy Sherman.

A second upheaval moment came when I was on vacation in Barcelona and saw two gallery shows, one of Massimo Vitali’s beach photographs and one of Edward Burtynsky’s quarries.  Both showed monumental landscapes that were at once beautiful and commented on man’s place within nature.  Both still represent to me some of the best of what can be achieved with great photography.