Artist Molly Crabapple and writer Sasha Frere-Jones sit down with Nikola Tamindzic, author of FUCKING NEW YORK, to talk about the book.
MOLLY CRABAPPLE: It's November 2016, ten days after the election of Donald Trump. Are you feeling like Egon Schiele, or any of the other great Weimar artists now?
NIKOLA TAMINDZIC: The country I grew up in got torn into bloody pieces by a bunch of demagogues riding a wave of not-entirely-unreasonable resentments, so yeah, I do have my concerns.
On the other hand, the things that Fucking New York was interested in — shape of desire, freedom to be without judgment — are as relevant, if not more, even though they’re presented in the book in a superficially fun way.
I feel that that’s a major similarity between what you and I are both trying to do.
MOLLY: Exactly. I think we both try to depict pain and resistance and conflict, very often under a veneer of beauty and sex and glamour. Very often that is wrongly called frivolous by people who draw unnecessary boundaries. If we’re to say that nothing has meaning in times of repression except earnest propaganda posters and Molotov cocktails, what kind of world can we build?
NIKOLA: “A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having.”
MOLLY: Emma Goldman. Exactly. There’s now this strange self-flagellating reckoning among people who live in cities, who like sex and art, the Cabaret narrative, but I don’t think that the sexy depraved artists with green nail polish were the ones who are responsible. In fact, that sort of life is something worth fighting for, and it’s not a frivolous little tidbit that needs to be cast off in more serious times.
There are two elements to Fucking New York. There’s the “fucking” part, the hot girls outside having sex with the city, but there’s the New York part, and I feel like the really subversive part is the “New York” part. So, tell me what New York means to you.
NIKOLA: New York is a promise, an embodiment of desire. We all came here to do something, to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, because we had a dream, or were sold a dream. You come to New York to be part of it, to win it over, to own it, to be the king or queen of New York, to be inside it, to have it inside you, and you want to know that it belongs to you as much as you belong to it. It’s been a running joke, the Sex and the City thing, the “when you live in New York, you’re in a relationship with New York” cliché, but that idea didn’t just come out of nowhere.
Desire is all-consuming, and it can lead you to beautiful or awful places. That’s what this book is about to me – an exploration of desire. Whether your dreams are to make a ton of money, to be a successful artist, anything, that’s fine, New York is here for you, your mirror, your catalyst, your partner, your friend, your enemy.
You often see these small figures in a cityscape in Fucking New York, as if they’re trying to put their arms around something so much bigger than them, metaphorically and physically. You couldn’t possibly put your arms around New York — or your legs, for that matter — but that doesn’t stop you from trying. There’s a nobility in trying and failing and still trying. There’s a beautiful, very human melancholy to it that I really love.
SASHA FRERE-JONES: It’s called Fucking New York (duh) but many of these pictures aren’t really sexual. There are pictures of enormous buildings where the human figure is barely apparent. Over the course of this book, the women seem like secret agents working against this beautiful, oppressive thing. At least, that’s what these pictures embody, for me: an assertion of humanity against an inhuman backdrop. That doesn’t immediately hew to the title of the book, but maybe it works. Simply being alive in New York is a weird, fulfilling, intense, and antagonistic act.
NIKOLA: Yes. The title was always meant to be a curse as much as an expression of desire.
SASHA: “Fuckin’ New York,” which is one of the most New York things you can say. Did you get the title before you’d done any shooting, or had you already started?
NIKOLA: There was a kind of photo that I had been taking for a couple of years before Fucking New York. I was trying to capture the moment when something leaves the body, the point in which sexual ecstasy, agony, and religious rapture meet. This is very much what Fucking New York is about, but these photos were done in a kind of self-consciously “painterly” style.
SASHA: You were reproducing certain high-art aesthetics that you didn’t actually want to be reproducing.
NIKOLA: Yes. Fucking New York was a reaction against that. “Painterly” photography is such low-hanging fruit. It’s surprisingly easy to do, and I was pretty good at it. But the beauty of the surface can prevent you from going deeper.
I was so grateful when that phrase popped into my head and became the title. It refers to all the things we just talked about, but it also has a no-nonsense New York directness. Like a Ramones song. There’s no art-speak cloaking.
SASHA: Tell me about how you chose the locations, how you decided what New York looked like, what the light would be like, what the colors would be like.
NIKOLA: Strangely, it came together during an extended stay in Los Angeles – as if I had to be away from New York for Fucking New York to take shape. I remember walking around Miracle Mile at lunchtime, listening to Scott Walker’s Farmer in the City. Not a soul around, just the sound of sprinklers. This feeling of post-nuclear solitude. It mirrored the solar eclipse I experienced in Belgrade in 1999, right after the months of NATO bombing ended. I was the only person outdoors for miles, and as the sun began to disappear, the air seemed to freeze into glass.
As for locations, I wanted settings that absolutely could not be mistaken for any other city. Parts of Brooklyn could be Chicago, or Boston. Everything in the frame had to be immediately texturally recognizable as New York, while avoiding familiar landmarks and the city skyline.
MOLLY: One of the reasons I thought that the metaphor of sex with New York worked so well is that sex is so often tied with transience, it’s brief, you fuck the person and you come, and very often there is a melancholy and it’s over. Whereas, New York, as a city, is a city that is constantly dying. New York is constantly a city that’s over, it’s constantly a city that’s shit, it’s constantly a city that’s had its best years behind us, and you don’t notice that the years that you were living in were the best years because you were actually bemoaning those other years. It’s a city that’s constantly mythologizing itself, but also constantly eulogizing itself. It’s the most transient place. Your favorite café is always closing. And there’s something about trying to grasp that, there’s something about the poignance of that, not just the size of New York, it’s the speed at which it changes and leaves you behind.
NIKOLA: That’s exactly right. Within a decade, most of the places in this book won’t be there anymore. The phone booths that are all over the book are already anachronistic. And yet the bones of the city will remain the same.
SASHA: I can’t think of a clever way to ask this. How do you think about being a man taking pictures of naked women? Problematic is not a great word, but let’s start with that. Does it ever feel problematic?
NIKOLA: As a heterosexual male, I think there are two bad things I could do: one is to be only that. The other would be to overcorrect, and deny that I am that at all. So it depends on who you choose to work with, what your relationship with them is, what your intention is, and what their intention is. All of these choices necessarily manifest themselves in the final work.
The thing that we can agree on being problematic is objectification. If you have an idea of what that means, you are forced to stop and think. “Okay, I have an interest in photographing sexuality in general, but I happen to be a straight guy, so of course I’m going to seek out women. That is my sexuality, but I’m also trying to unpack something in sexuality itself, so what I am supposed to do?” There’s homework to do. You owe it to your subjects. You have to question your motivations, then make room for people to truly be subjects and not objects.
SASHA: You didn’t start this book thinking it would only use pictures of women. What happened with the men?
NIKOLA: Fucking New York was inspired by a number of things that involve men as well as women — from fertility rituals to Ecstasy of Saint Theresa to Marina Abramovic. So the desire to involve men was there in the beginning.
I feel there were two key reasons why shoots with men never quite came together. First, men feel pressure to conform to a certain idea of what men should be like.
SASHA: Can you be more specific?
NIKOLA: Straight men were concerned with looking silly, or vaguely gay. What the concept of the book seemed to call for implied a certain homoeroticism. All of the men who actually turned up for the shoots were gay – the straight men just ran away.
On the other hand, gay men seemed to be as committed to certain stereotypes as straight men. Different stereotypes, to be sure, but still somewhat rigid. Unlike the women, they were unable to turn off a certain kind of parading for the camera, and the appearance of not performing is a key aspect of Fucking New York.
SASHA: You wanted as little visible performativity in the photos as possible – is that a way to describe it?
NIKOLA: Yes. Absolutely. Which is hard, because it is performative.
SASHA: Going out into the street, waiting for a photographer to say “Go!” and then taking off your clothes pretty much defines performative.
NIKOLA: The photos in the book were the ones that implied the camera was incidental, as if it belonged to a random passer-by. I wanted to convey the sense that what was happening would be happening whether someone was there to record it or not. Turning off the transparently performative aspect turned out to be an insurmountable challenged with men. This was rarely a problem for the women.
We generally think of female sexuality as being more bound by societal norms, but if that’s true, it manifested in an unexpected way during these shoots. The women who wanted to be a part of Fucking New York were people who considered their options, considered the pressure, and broke through it. Maybe the difference here, in terms of gender, stems from the fact that men rarely have to question their own performance. The social game is rigged in favor of men, and they feel less pressure to figure out how their performance works. Pressured to be a man, yes, but not as worried about interrogating that performance. When questioning how a self is performed is not a recurring question, and you get put into a situation like Fucking New York, you end up defaulting to type. A man is not used to adjusting his performance, or knowing how to abandon the act entirely.
Maybe the shortest way to say this is that men generally don’t know they’re performing, and without that knowledge, you can’t stop performing.
SASHA: So the book, in a coded way, is about normative privilege. Women start thinking about how people look at them from day one, in a way that your average dude doesn’t, because that’s the nature of normative privilege. You’re comfortable thinking you’re only visible when you want to be. Taking your clothes off in public presents a situation that you haven’t thought about, whereas there’s no woman alive that hasn’t thought about that situation.
NIKOLA: That’s exactly right. If you’re a woman, I imagine you can find something of value in being part of non-performative performative thing like Fucking New York. Or you can be super-performative – women know that’s another way of defeating the performative bind. Where you find yourself is up to you, because you’ve thought about it over time.
That was the first reason men didn’t work out. The second reason is simpler: if you’re a guy with a hard-on in public, you’re gonna end up in the back of a police car in ten seconds or less. No one cared about women being naked. We were usually just given a wink and a thumbs-up from cops, if that.
So after about two years into the project, I had to give up on involving men, and move on. But that gave women the space to turn the book into a different kind of story.
MOLLY: I have friends in this book who would never normally pose for something like this. It’s not the nudity that they wouldn’t have done, it was the emotional vulnerability. Being naked is one thing, but actually being turned on and being erotically engaged is something entirely different, and I had friends that never had or would have done that before, and they did it with you. You make people look really beautiful in unconventional and unsaccharine ways that are as beautiful as they are, as opposed to being put into the mold of beauty, like a lot of other photographers do. Does that make sense?
NIKOLA: Absolutely! That’s the intention, that’s the hope. Anyone can be photographed as the most beautiful person alive if you make space for them, if you invite them to be themselves, if you make them feel that that’s something that would be cherished and appreciated.
During the preparation process, we would walk through the story, and the reasons behind the project, so certain parameters were already set. But past that, it was up to the participants to do what they want to do around this parallel reality New York City. You get to choose how to be in that world. I want to go there with you, not push my idea of who or what you should be on you. And that was very gratifying to a lot of people.
Looking back, I wouldn’t have expected reaching that point of real vulnerability more than once, given that we were doing all this in public. But it happened consistently, all the time. It helped that the vast majority of people who participated wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing, so they were invested in a very raw, personal way.
Sometimes the sheer power coming from them would be such that I would have to move the camera away from my face for a second, just to witness what’s unfolding, as a person, to be pulled with them you into a parallel reality in which this is okay, this is good, this is real. It’s such a visceral experience. I don’t know if you can tell in my voice how alive that experience is for me, and I’m just the witness, you know? A privileged witness.
MOLLY: It’s so fucking scary to get to that place. When I posed, I did it for money, and I was never a good or particularly enthusiastic model. My fear was always, “okay, you take these photos, maybe you look like shit, maybe in a way that you don’t want, but the photos will still be powerful because you’re vulnerable.” I was always very wary of getting to that place because, in a way, that ultimately fucks you over, it just benefits the person taking it. This is always my mental conflict with photography when I posed. And yet, the reason I love your photos so much, is that in your photos that’s not the case at all, your photos reward and celebrate and ensconce in gold that vulnerability, they honor it.
NIKOLA: Disrobing emotionally is a much bigger deal than taking your clothes off. You can take your clothes off and remain completely sealed.
MOLLY: Yes. That means nothing. It’s completely different than baring any sort of emotional vulnerability.
NIKOLA: There’s an enormous debt that you have to the person who allowed that emotional baring to happen. To do right by them. To honor them.
MOLLY: Exactly! That’s what struck me most, that you did right by them.
NIKOLA: You have to honor that vulnerability. Sometimes unexpected things happen because it’s an emotionally loaded situation, and you have to be prepared, to embrace whatever happens. I’m a big fan of using a contrived situation to get to something genuine and deeply personal and raw.
Conceptually, Fucking New York is such a purposefully contrived situation. You describe it, and it sounds like a bad Vice shoot. But in setting up something that is not just about turning up for a shoot, but something that has a bit of danger to it, that has a little potential for embarrassment, you actually help people tap into that do-or-die mentality. You can’t show up to a Fucking New York shoot and just go through the motions. It has to become real to you on some level, and a lot of it is about your trust and willingness to be vulnerable. We set up a challenging situation, and then get through it together.
SASHA: How diverse were your subjects?
NIKOLA: If you're gonna call a project Fucking New York, you have a certain responsibility, you know? So many different ages, shapes, social, ethnic backgrounds. As the project went on, I was shooting fewer and fewer people who had ever done anything like this, and in the final edit only two of the people in the book are professional models; others are artists, magazine editors, enterpreneurs, writers, actors, political activists. I was particularly thrilled with the age span of people featured in the book — ages went from 20 to 65, the majority of participants being in their late 30s and early 40s. Age is usually such a touchy subject, and this was the exact opposite: in the end, we all jointly decided to include everyone's ages and occupations in the back of the book.
Most of these people were first-timers when it comes to being photographed nude, or in a sexual situation. This added an edge to the experience that is not necessarily available if you’ve been photographed lots of times.
MOLLY: By the way, did you ever have any problems with the cops when you did it?
NIKOLA: We got close a couple of times, but no, not really. New Yorkers take a lot of pride in being unflappable. Another reason to avoid areas like Times Square, where tourists found it hard to contain themselves.
MOLLY: So, here’s a question that I always ask: why should anyone pose for you? I ask myself the same question as a journalist: Why the hell is anyone talking to me? Why should they?
NIKOLA: A project like this for me is about creating a world I would like to exist in, and then inviting people to spend time in that world. That someone would want to enter that space and be in it, make themselves at home, that’s the sufficient motivation for me.
All these other things that you and I talked about, like vulnerability and trust, they’re part of that world. Fucking New York is a world in which vulnerability is rewarded – that’s not the only element of it, but that would be one example. It’s a place in which the psychological interior is being manifested as physical exterior. Does that make sense?
MOLLY: That does make sense, yes.
NIKOLA: Then all image-making decisions come from the rules of that world. I’m not necessarily conscious of those rules. For example, there were certain things forbidden to me in Fucking New York that I only became consciously aware of as we went along.
MOLLY: Like what?
NIKOLA: No sky. The book begins and ends with skyline, and that’s it. No open spaces. Flattened perspective, people pinned against the floor and the walls. In Manhattan you’re always pinned against the wall. That’s why we shot very little in Brooklyn – Brooklyn is wider, its architecture friendlier. Manhattan has you pinned down, it’s full of shadows and blinding light, but no sky. So I’m trying to see through a veil to this other place, and I’m not seeing quite clearly, but I can feel what belongs and what doesn’t.
We talked about ethics earlier, and the aesthetic of Fucking New York goes hand in hand with its ethic. That parallel world has a life of its own, and is happening with or without you. Most of all, it feels like people in it are experiencing something incredibly private, in public, that they’re doing it for themselves, not performing for anyone else.
That also turns the voyeuristic aspect of photography upside down. Normally, the voyeur has the upper hand: they’re seeing something they shouldn’t, something very intimate, and they’re getting off on that. Fucking New York takes these very private moments and puts them right in the middle of the street. So the voyeur, observing this from their window — the camera is often high above the scene — has that power taken away from them. No one cares if they’re being observed or not, that’s not why they’re there.
MOLLY: I think the project works because your conceptual vision and your skill is an equal interchange with what the model is bringing to it.
NIKOLA: I hope so. It’s not my fantasy to have a model enact some sort of cliché that I am married to. My fascination is with the exchange. The process always involves the participant in a way that brings us to a place that is interesting to both of us. And to get there, we communicate endlessly before we ever set foot on the street together. If the person you’re working with gets what you’re trying to do, they can bring all of themselves into it and make magic happen. Your dry idea on a piece of paper isn’t magic. It only comes alive if the person trying to enact it is as invested in it as you are yourself.
MOLLY: One of the things you talk about the photos showing the type of world you’d like to live in, is that typically women aren’t allowed to be sexual and vulnerable and also equal, and you’re enabling a space where they absolutely are. And you’re showing them what that looks like in practice and I think that’s another thing that’s very special and very powerful about your Fucking New York.
With me, part of the reason that I didn’t ask to pose for your book is because in the field that I work in, I can’t be equal and also be naked. And, it’s something that regret, and I hate it, and I chafe against it. You have no idea how much I fucking wish that I could pose for work like yours and then also go into ex-fighter and refugee camps and have them Facebook me and see it and have them be cool. I wish that was the world we live in. But, unfortunately, it’s far from it. But, it’s so powerful to make that space where it does exist for some people. And, frankly, I wish I could have posed for it, you know?
NIKOLA: I really wish you could have. Sex and sexuality can be so wonderful and so good, and we make it so fucking complicated out of fear, and the need to manage that fear.
I don’t consider myself a particularly brave person, but it makes you wonder – why is female sexuality so frightening to so many people? Why put women down, or put them up on a pedestal? It’s so much more fun to play with your equals.
Molly Crabapple is an artist and writer living in New York. Molly is a contributing editor for VICE and has written for The New York Times, The Paris Review, Vanity Fair, The Guardian, CNN and Newsweek. Published books include Drawing Blood, Discordia, Devil in the Details and Week in Hell.
Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer and musician living in New York. Sasha was a staff writer at The New Yorker from 2004 to 2015, and has written for The Wire, The Village Voice, Slate, Spin and The New York Times.