By Jenna Caplette and Aloha Williams
Photographic artist and visual anthropologist Sandra Nykerk believes that if you can change the way someone sees, you open a doorway for them to be different in the world. That door can open when viewing one of Nykerk’s fine art images or when participating in one of her photography workshops.
“Teaching,” she says, “is not just about the skill of photography. It’s communication, understanding, and empathizing. My students say the workshops change their perceptions, that they’ve never really bothered to look at what is at their feet before and now they see differently. The most rewarding thing I know is changing their perspectives in that way.”
That sense of reward is one of the reasons Nykerk has taught natural history and photography for more than 20 years for Smithsonian Journeys, National Geographic Expeditions, Johns Hopkins University, the Yellowstone Institute, Bozeman’s F-11 Photographic Supplies, Tamron USA, and others. It is her fascination with alternative ways of seeing and thinking that she translates to students, along with her expertise in the craft, the science, and the art of photography.
“Institutions tend to look for famous people to teach a class. But a good teacher may not be a good photographer and a good photographer may not be a good teacher. You need to understand the technical, as well as the light and how to get people to the right place at the right time. It’s a special combination.”
In part, Nykerk has learned the art of teaching by being a willing and committed student herself. In 1993, she was already leading trips for National Geographic and the Smithsonian, but she wanted more indepth knowledge of geology for that work so she enrolled at Montana State University, Bozeman. She added a cultural anthropology class to her schedule and that inspired a new direction for her coursework. She graduated in interdisciplinary studies, essentially designing her own degree in visual anthropology by combining cultural anthropology, environmental history, and photography.
Her studies prepared Nykerk for the coming revolution of digital photography. “When photography was first invented, the huge lament at the Royal Society of Art in England was that photography was going to kill painting. So, for the argument, ‘Oh my gosh, digital is going to kill photography,’ instead photography just morphed. The culture morphs, the art morphs, technology morphs. It’s change that is a constant.”
Nykerk’s first digital camera was a “point and shoot.” Using it, she learned the lexicon, the vocabulary, and the process of digital photography. She held back from a complete switch to digital because “Having the curse of perfectionism, I couldn’t go wholeheartedly until I felt I could get a result out of digital that was going to satisfy my critical eye and be as good as film.”
That change came in 2004 when she photographed the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico. “The quality of the images I got just blew me away. Why would I go back to film? And I discovered that I loved the ability to do what I needed in Photoshop.”
Adobe Photoshop became an ally in Nykerk’s quest for 26 perfection, her “endless quest for not even good enough.” Her goal is to make an image look like she remembers it, not to manipulate it but to optimize it. If a viewer can tell she used a flash to make an image or Photoshop to edit it, “I’ve screwed it up.”
The ability digital offers to shoot an image, review it, and figure out how to improve it in the field has made Nykerk a better photographer though she admits she sometimes feels more like a computer geek than a photographer. “Creativity? Ask me what that is when I’m stuck at the computer.”
Nykerk says she’s in recovery from “Sierra Club style” sharp nature photographs. Her experience at Montana State University gave her the permission to experiment. “Art,” Nykerk says, “is a process, not a product. If you want to be a great, different photographer, you’ve got to think outside your cultural box. Creativity is proscribed by the boundaries of the culture. In order to think outside the box, you’ve got to be able to see the box.”
In her process of experimentation, Nykerk started to take more abstract images, focusing on color, rhythm, form and texture. It’s a path she’s continued on. “In a way, my images are not that different than what I used to see under a microscope. You experience the macrocosm or the microcosm. It’s an alternative way of seeing.
“Some viewers say, ‘Yeah, but I don’t know what it is.’ And what I’ve learned is that some viewers seem to need the reference of what it is in order to enjoy it. I think that’s the reason that photo realistic painting sells so well. People can relate to it. The more abstract the art, the more difficult it is for people to relate to.”
She says, “Anybody with today’s equipment can document a situation and have a technically competent image. Not everyone can make an image that resonates with the viewer.”
For Nykerk, photography and life are about experience. “On the path to photographic greatness, I don’t think you can get there without allowing yourself to experience and first internalize that experience before externalizing. That’s the photographic experience. It’s not a conscious process. I don’t consciously set out to make a particular image. You get yourself there and then you hope for the best. It’s a very instinctive art.”
When she’s photographing, Nykerk immerses herself in the joy of discovery. At any given moment, with any given image, she knows she’ll never see it exactly that way again. In photographing moving water, one of her favorite subjects, the image she makes comes from the water itself. “It’s the joy of discovery, of discovering what the river is giving you.” \
Nykerk will teach workshops throughout the summer and autumn. Workshops include: Spring in Yellowstone, June 8-11 with F-11 Photographic Supplies; Nature Photography, June 15-19 with the Yellowstone Institute, and Tamron’s Bridger Photography Experience, June 26–27 with Tamron USA and F-11 Photographic Supplies. Find additional workshops and details, along with galleries of her fine art images, on her Web site: www.sandranykerk.com.