THE IMAGE IS STARK. A super-skinny Ben Gunn character with wild beard and wilder eye watches himself, watching you, watching him. Literally and metaphorically stripped, gripping a pencil in his teeth, he looks a little bit defiant, a little bit scared out of his wits…
“I don’t see the difference between photography and music. To me it’s all just energy."
“Oh yeah! All those things!” admits Graham Nash, the subject and author of the image, down the line from Hawaii. “It was an incredibly scary thing. We’re just a rock’n’roll band, but we were playing to 70,000, 80,000 people every night. It was f**king scary. Life was excitingly terrifying.”
The self-portrait – taken in London’s Plaza Hotel on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s notoriously excessive reunion tour of 1974 – is one of the standout photographs in an exhibition of Nash’s work showing at Proud Camden from October 9 to 20, dovetailing conveniently with the core CSN trio’s latest run of UK dates and the very recent publication of Nash’s racy music memoir, Wild Tales. Self-portraiture seems to be a current theme with Nash.
“I just had an exhibition in Bonn,” says Nash, his Mancunian twang rising through the West Coast layers in that tell-tale, rounded ‘up’. “And this woman came up to me. She said, ‘Your self-portraits are very disturbing. You should see a psychiatrist.’ That stunned me. I didn’t realise that they were all twisted in some way. Maybe I should see someone…”
- ▼ The Blueprint
- Crosby Stills & Nash (1969) Nash Highlight: Pre-Road Downs
- ▼ The Supergroup
- Déjà Vu (1970) Nash Highlight: Our House
- ▼ The Solo Debut
- Songs For Beginners (1971) Nash Highlights: Military Madness, I Used To Be A King, There's Only One
The exhibition’s array of intimate moments with rock and folk’s most ornery talents reflects Nash’s all-areas access as stellar singer and songwriter with The Hollies and CSN(&Y). But his history as a photographer actually predates his career as a musician.
“My father was an engineer,” Nash explains, “and after World War II life was pretty tough. His main joy in life apart from his family was this small camera. He’d take pictures of us at the zoo, then when we got home he’d take the blanket off my bed, put it against the window and put this white paper in this tray of colourless liquid. Then I would see the magic. This picture appeared from nowhere. I’ve never forgotten that moment.”
Nash’s father served a harsh custodial sentence for handling a camera he may or may not have suspected was stolen, but the subsequent hardship inflicted on the family did not jaundice young Graham. He was 10 when he took his first picture of note – a portrait of his mother.
“I caught her at a moment when she wasn’t my mother,” recalls Nash. “She was thoughtfully smoking, wearing sunglasses, on a bench at Middleton Tower Holiday Camp. It was the moment I realised that I could see differently from most people.”
Later, as Nash’s music career elevated – whisking him to California, in and out of Joni Mitchell’s boudoir and onwards to Woodstock with rock’s first international supergroup – the camera came too, and the same qualities of observation that enabled him to pick a golden harmony also inform his pictures.
“I don’t see the difference between photography and music,” Nash declares. “To me it’s all just energy. It’s just about where on the spectrum you want to plug in today. I wake up in the morning and I kind of say, ‘OK, what’s the world going to show me?’ The one thing I know is that it’s going to be nuts.”
For the inside track on seven of Nash’s best photographs, read on.
Joni Mitchell, Lost In Music
LOS ANGELES, 1969
Nash: “I know exactly what Joni was listening to. She’d just finished the Clouds album and she was listening to the acetate. I’m shooting through the hole in the back of a kitchen chair. You see, I like to be invisible. I don’t want people to know that I’m there taking their picture, because knowing you’re being photographed changes you. That’s a false image, so I like to take portraits where people don’t know I’m there, and that portrait of Joni is a perfect example of that.” Photo © Graham Nash
David Crosby & Christine Hinton
WALLY HEIDER’S STUDIO, HOLLYWOOD, 1969
“They’re listening to the first playback of Suite: Judy Blue Eyes. David’s out of focus because I’m focusing on Christine’s profile. What a beautiful, wonderful woman she was – Oh my God [Hinton died in a car crash later in 1969]. There’s a picture of her in my book that will knock you on your ass, by the way, and I didn’t even take it. My friend Bobby Hammer took it. But holy shit! She’s naked, of course.”Photo © Graham Nash
Stephen Stills & Judy Collins
SAG HARBOUR, NY, 1969
“When CSN started out, we wanted to put the first album together somewhere where no-one could bother us. John Sebastian suggested Sag Harbour. So he rented us a house on the lake and we went there in the winter and rehearsed the whole of the first album there. There was a rule: no women on the bus. But because Judy lived in New York, she would visit and that was OK. One moment I saw them across the living room, Judy offering what looks like almost motherly advice – though of course they were boyfriend-girlfriend. She came to see us when we played the Beacon Theatre [New York] in May this year. It was her birthday and we dedicated the Suite to her.”Photo © Graham Nash
Stephen Stills, Waving
SAN FRANCISCO, 1969
“There’s a bit in my book. We got to the end of recording Suite… It took us about a dozen hours of straight-through work. Afterwards, we went into the control room to listen back to it and Stephen said, ‘I think… I think we can do it better.’ I said, ‘Are you f**king kidding me!? It’s fantastic!’ But in respect to Stephen and his judgment and his talent as a musician we did the whole thing again. Took another 10 hours. We went into the control room to listen back and Stephen said, ‘Nah… the first one’s better.’”Photo © Graham Nash
Neil Young, Smouldering
STUDIO CITY, LOS ANGELES, 1970
“Every shot I show of my friends is exactly who they are at that moment. And that’s very much who Neil is – kind of terrifying! You’d have to be drunk to go up to him and talk to him in an airport because he puts off this ‘leave me alone’ vibe. Before he joined the band, I knew who he was and I knew he was a great writer, but I’d never met him and I did wonder how we’d get on. So me and Neil went to breakfast on Bleecker St, New York, and after that breakfast I woulda made him Prime Minister of Canada. He was a funny motherf**ker – still is. A very dry, strange sense of humour.”Photo © Graham Nash
David Crosby, Reading
SAN FRANCISCO, 1971
“David’s reading James Michener’s book on Kent State – a fine book, a brilliant research job on a terrible event [which inspired the Neil Young/CSN&Y song Ohio]. Again, I’m not there – completely invisible. If you need a gauge on the complete insanity of the CSN&Y story you only have to look at the fact that we haven’t lost Crosby. I mean, are you kidding me? We’re the only band where every member is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice. But more amazing than that, we’re all still alive.”Photo © Graham Nash
Neil Young, Driving Home
NORTHERN CALIFORNIA, 1988
“I love that picture. That’s Neil driving home down his home street, except his street is 2,000 acres. He’s driving in the wrong seat, for America, because it’s a Jensen [a 541]. I think it’s a fine photograph regardless of it being Neil Young, but whenever I tell people who it is, for some reason they always go ‘Of course it is.’ But you don’t see his face, you don’t see his profile, there’s just this sense of his ‘being’. There he is, disappearing into the fog – that’s Neil.” Photo © Graham Nash
Graham Nash’s photographs are on display at Proud Camden, Stables Market, London NW1 8AH, from October 9 to 20. Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life, is out now on Penguin. A special Wild Tales signing with Graham takes place at Proud at 2-3pm on the 9th. Tickets are strictly limited and cost £25, including a copy of the book. Call 0207 349 0822 to reserve.
All Images © Graham Nash