Some photographers try to tell it like it is, to document things in order to show them to the world. Some photographers use their cameras to manipulate things, mining the minutiae of everyday stuff, making a spot on the wall look like something grand.
Nolan Preece lives on both sides of that fence. Since the 1970s, he’s forayed into most subgenres of photography, making realistic and abstract images using techniques ranging from 19th-century platinum printing, to his drawing-like, trade-secret “Nolangrams” (lovely, trippy, melty abstractions made by pouring chemicals right onto photo paper) to straight-up digital photography.
His present series, “Walls,” nods to both the documentary and the painterly.
Picture a swatch of plain-old wallpaper, pasted on a Virginia City wall over a century ago, with not much going for it except a couple shades of pink and salmon in a subtle wave pattern, doing almost nothing except being pink and salmon. Picture it made a little more interesting by dark brown water stains shaped like heavily-fjorded countries on a map. Picture it through Preece’s lens, after he moves his digital camera around until the lines and edges and blotches start to form the kind of image you might see in an abstract painting. But you can still tell what it is.
It’s a document of the wallpaper, an attempt to preserve an element of the pre-restoration St. Mary’s Hospital, (now the St. Mary’s Art Center.) It’s an image unto itself and a testament to Preece’s love for photographic processes and experimentation, an example of the yummy luster an imaginative eye can impose onto some the world’s overlooked stuff.
Preece, a 57-year-old artist, college teacher and curator with silver-gray hair and mustache, has a neat but casual style. He speaks at a relaxed, Western pace, even when caffeinated.
“To really … do the best job I can with a subject,” he explains, “it’s got to be something I really intimately know.” As someone who used to commute to Virginia City regularly—he owned Sun Mountain Artworks gallery there and was the director of the Comstock Arts Council—he’s become attached to the place.
The photos are tributes to small-town Nevada’s continual demonstration that nothing lasts forever. They’re also tributes to the rich, graphical potential of protruding nails and splintery boards you wouldn’t want to run your finger along. (Photo history people: Think Aaron Siskind, whose 1930s pictures paid tribute to architectural details and the human stories they represent by looking with such personal attention they almost became something else.)
Even though he likes to play with techniques, Preece tries to focus more on the end result, getting an image that works, rather than showing off his technology.
“The bells and whistles try to rule,” he says, but he keeps them in check. The “Walls” photos, digitally printed on watercolor paper, don’t have a particularly hi-tech or digital look.
Along with “Walls,” Preece is showing a series called “Clouds,” fresh from the Nevada Museum of Art. He’s also working on other projects in all his preferred sub-mediums. He says he keeps about 20 projects open-ended and cycles through them.
“If I don’t create something for a few days," Preece says, "I start getting a little crabby."