Photographer Jim Nilsen is known for his brilliantly colorful images that rival a giant box of crayons. He originally worked for 20 years in Alaska’s commercial fishing industry and did photography alongside that work. But Jim followed his gut and switched gears permanently after trips to Europe indulging in his love of photographing colorful places, and he has never looked back. This modest and unassuming artist makes his affordable work available through his website and various retailers, and through his art takes us on a journey around the world with him.
During your 20 years spent doing commercial fishing in Alaska, were you also doing photography? What led you to seek a degree in photography, and was this with the idea that it would lead you to a new career?
Yes, I was doing some serious photo journalism on the boats and was widely published in the fishing trades magazines, covers, ads, book covers, posters, and even a billboard in Canada for the Canadian Coast Guard. I decided to study photography during the late ’70s and got a 2-year degree in commercial and portrait photography from Spokane Falls Community College. I continued to fish for many years and never pursued the commercial side of photography but did finally break free of fishing after two wonderful trips to Europe with my camera. I started selling my work at local arts and crafts shows, and it took off from there.
How long were you working both fields, and how did you decide to make the leap to doing photography full-time?
I was fishing for 20 years, starting at the age of 14 with my father. I decided to make the leap off the boat into photography full time in 1993, mainly because that Spring, every time a friend would ask me when I was departing for Alaska, I would get a pain in my stomach. The body doesn’t lie and was telling me not to go. That was the best decision that I ever made… except for marrying my wife Magrit!
How much are you traveling each year, and does your wife Magrit accompany you on these journeys?
Magrit and I travel together, one trip, for 4-5 weeks each year.
Your aesthetic is very clear and uncomplicated: simple but striking compositions and vibrant color. Did you develop this aesthetic over time or did it feel natural from the start?
Very natural. Not intentional but more on a subconscious level. I think that I used to use crayons in a similar style when I was in grade school.
Because you love colorful scenes in colorful places, most of your work has you traveling outside of the United States. Where are some of your dream locations to shoot, and what draws you to these cultures that have such an unabashed love of vibrant color?
My favorite places to shoot are Latin America and Mediterranean Europe, so far. I love Italy and the Greek Islands. Overall, Italy is really not a vibrantly colorful place, but there are pockets of intense colors, mainly on the island of Burano in the Venetian Lagoon. I would love to travel to Yemen to photograph the colorful sand and mud buildings, but it is way too dangerous at this time.
Are you shooting film or digital, and are you doing anything special to maintain this rich and saturated color in the printed photographs?
I shoot only digital, with a Canon 5D Mark 2. I almost always boost the contrast and saturation in Camera Raw and/or Photoshop.
You quote a passage by Isabel Allende from her book Portrait in Sepia, in which she talks about how in observing something very closely, that object is transformed into something sacred. And that the camera can observe things and reveal secrets the naked eye cannot. As you travel all over the world — observing the sights, the people, the cultures — does this quest feel spiritual to you?
Spiritual? I am not sure about that. I simply love to travel and capture images because of the sense of flow that I feel when I happen upon a scene that really brings me into the moment. It is a very intense experience, and I am sure it is what all creatives experience when they are in the zone. It is kind of like solving a problem once I come upon a scene that interests me — I am confronted with getting the composition right (I try not to overanalyze), and then you have the technical stuff about the camera like correct exposure, etc.
With your photographs of people in particular, are there any particular challenges to gaining their trust or putting them at ease? Do you ever feel like a bit of an unofficial ambassador with your work?
Photographing people is very new to me. I feel quite like a rookie when it comes to people. I started approaching people as subjects to photograph about 2 years ago on a 5 week trip to Rajasthan, India. I thought that it might be easy to photograph the people as I had seen many images in books and magazines. For the most part, the Indians in Rajasthan were very open to the camera. I would always ask and was only denied a few times. Sometimes I would give them money but mostly the people had no concept that they could ask for money. I have never thought of myself as an unofficial ambassador.
Tell me about how you’ve built your business, through retailers, online channels, and through various art festivals.
The art shows started first. At that time I started approaching local gift galleries with my miniature, matted and framed photos. The concept took off immediately, and as I traveled around the country doing shows, I would approach the gift galleries in those new locations and just walk in and show them my wares. I then started attending a large wholesale gift show in Philadelphia where I picked up many east coast accounts.
The web sales are mainly a result of the art show traffic that walks into my booth.
As you reflect on this career you’ve built, what do you marvel at the most? Do you have any words of encouragement or advice for anyone who is either just starting a creative career or considering changing their path?
Yes, I do marvel and feel very fortunate. I love what I do and am grateful that I took the leap. Words of encouragement, definitely. It is most important to honor your creative side. I think that it is important to make time and space for those creative endeavors. It may not be a full-time thing, it might not pay the bills, but it is very important to do it. I think that a stumbling block that a lot a people have (including myself) is wanting to have it all figured out before they begin. It is important to just begin, eat that elephant one bite at a time, have fun, play, experiment, see what happens.
What are some of your favorite things, whether they directly impact your work or just make you happy?
Traveling, turning a ski in powder snow, backpacking in the high Cascades and Olympics.