The chronic chronicler
Sacramento, CA 95814
Nigel Poor has a propensity for accumulating discarded, overlooked and even a bit gross items: dead flies, fingerprints, hair stuck in the shower drain. She then photographs them, thereby creating photographic collections of her collections. The images, usually individually shot items on stark white backgrounds, are created with a sense of curiosity and humor, as evident in the titles of some of her series, such as “What Did Not Go Down the Drain the Year I Took a Tenure Track Job” or “Hand Job.” Poor, a Sacramento State professor, will be exhibiting several of her photographic series in And Counting … at Viewpoint Photographic Art Center (2015 J Street, Suite 101) through March 6.
Do people usually expect you to be a British man?
Always. It’s really funny. Always, always. And I kind of like that; it surprises people.
You are chronic chronicler. Are you the kind of person who finds it necessary to create order and control?
I can’t really think if [things aren’t organized]. Sometimes I try to be messy to see if I can do it, but I can’t. So if you looked in my closet, all my hangers are spaced pretty precisely. … I don’t like to own a lot of stuff, just have what I need, which is very difficult, because I also, as you can see from my work, collect a lot of things. … But since a young age, I’ve been a collector. I remember, like, in third grade, in my closet, I had all these shoe boxes lined up with labels on them with my different collections, so it’s something that’s not new to me. … But I see the absurdity in it: I know some of the projects seem ridiculous, and I like that, too.
How long did you hold on to the flies and the hair? Have you discarded them yet?
I got rid of the flies, oh, let’s see, many years later—2009, I think. Last year. And I originally collected them in 2002. So, a long time. And it wasn’t until 2008, 2009 that I did a real finished project with them. Then I could finally get rid of them. The hair, I actually still have. (Laughs.)
And how are you storing that?
For that project, I collected my hair from the drain every day after my shower, and then I put them in little baggies that are meant for collecting specimens, kind of 4-by-4-inch bags, and then I dated them. Then I just pinned them onto my studio wall in chronological order.
It’s been several years since you’ve been tenured: How’s your hair looking these days?
(Laughs.) Quite good. Not so much hair falls out these days.
What do you shoot with?
I mostly photograph large format, so a 4-by-5-inch camera. … But recently, what I started doing is scanning my 4-by-5 negatives and printing everything digitally in my studio. Except for those flies: I photographed them with a [single lens reflect] digital camera, but I do prefer using a large-format camera. I never thought I would make the transition working digitally, but I really like that now. … I can’t tell you how many times publicly I went on about how much I hated digital photography. Now I love it.
The way you photograph is stark, almost scientific. What’s the influence of science on your imagery and thought processes?
When I was in graduate school, I worked at Harvard [University’s] Museum of Comparative Zoology in the entomology department, and my job was to pin insects and get them ready for exhibition. So I spent a long time just looking at single insects under a magnifying glass. Then I had to put a pin through them, articulate each leg. … And so that kind of got me interested in the idea of science and archiving.
You seem to have a lot of existential themes behind your work. Do you read a lot of existential writing?
I used to. [Jean-Paul] Sartre and [Albert] Camus, when I was in college, were my important literary people. … I think the question of our existence is the thing that people can’t get away from. … The way I described it recently to a student is, “We’re alive. We’re the protagonist in our novel and, at some point, we will become a footnote.” And that’s difficult for most people to grasp. So trying to figure out what meaning we have, if we have any meaning, is underlying. It may not seem like that from my work, but it’s always what I’m kind of thinking about: What’s worthy of preservation? … How do we accept that we are completely insignificant, yet we feel significant, you know? And that sounds heavy, but also one of the reasons I use kind of humble materials, or what would seem like simple materials to some people, is because I also see that struggle as humorous in dark way.
Are you going to take advantage for the viewers at the show and have them participate for one of your projects?
Well, I will be there with my fingerprint collecting, for sure! And I’ll try to get some people there to participate in the “Hand” project.