The Interview: Don Nieva
See Also: The Interview: A Racer's Perspective on GMSR Don Nieva is like a treasure hidden in plain sight. With a mild manner that belies a youth spent in the ardent glow of the Strip's marquees, he's anything but "Vegas, baby!". And in a city like New York, teeming with unabashed self-promoters, he carries himself with a more quiet confidence, gracefully concealing his ambition with a deft sleight of hand. Since moving here seven years ago on a combination of instinct and whim, Don Nieva has steadily built a reputation as a keen-eyed photographer, a celebrant of New York City and the riding in and around it. What seems so singular about Don Nieva is that he's not trying to BE a photographer -- doggedly, self-consciously -- but to simply identify and analyze what distinguishes his surroundings from behind a lens.
We met up with him recently over coffee in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to talk fixed gears and Pharmabro, eyewear and the Internet-age, photography and the Philippines. The breadth of our chat, like that of his work, suited him just fine.
Fashionable. Iconic. Distinctive. These are just some of the adjectives that get applied to Don Nieva. Or more specifically, Don Nieva’s eyewear. What's the story behind your practically trademark glasses?
[Laughs] They are actually sunglasses in the style of Locs, famously worn by a lot of west coast rappers back in the early 1990s. I had a pair when I was in middle school, and when Supreme came out with them back in 2009 I knew I had to get them. I had no intention of making them into my prescription glasses, but when it came time after moving to New York to get a new prescription I thought to myself, ‘Why not?’. It was time for a new look. LensCrafters hooked me up with regular lenses in the frames, and the rest is history. All of this was back at a time when not a lot of people were wearing chunky frames. I used to get stopped in the street and everything sometimes. Unfortunately, I retired them a few months ago. Sad, I know.
Can you give us a bit of the chronology of your life, and explain the ‘where’, the ‘when’, and the ‘how’ that ultimately led to your settling in NYC?
I was born in the Philippines, but when I was 10 or 11 we moved to Las Vegas. My dad had family there. So yeah, I spent most of my life in Las Vegas – went to high school and college there. I’ll always consider it my home. I visited New York for the first time right after college and I immediately knew that I had to somehow end up here. I’d visited quite a few other cities, but there was just something about New York that drew me to it. It was an opportunity for me to make my own future. So long story short, I quit my job, sold my car and moved out here without a job with only a box full of clothes and a bicycle [ed., a fixed gear]. Hands down, it was the best decision I’ve ever made.
How do you spend your days at work? Does that contribute to/detract from your photography in any significant way? Do you have any specific ambitions for your photography or for yourself as a photographer?
I have a 9-5. I studied biology in college, and worked at some different labs in Las Vegas after graduating. Here in New York I work at a Colombia University research lab that coordinates clinical trials for drug companies that want to get their products to market. The work involves a lot of sitting in front of a computer. I've been fortunate enough to have a lot of flexibility with my work schedule, and that allows me more time to devote to my photography, whether it’d be for commercial work or personal projects. Like most part-time, or freelance photographers, the end goal is to make a successful career out of it. However, I do think that it should come somewhat naturally. For the moment, I’m just trying to have fun and create images that I hope people enjoy and appreciate.
Given your clinical trials background helping facilitate the work of pharmaceutical companies, any thoughts on Martin Shkreli?
Who’s that? That Pharma Bro guy? Yeah, I’m definitely not a ‘Pharma Bro’! [Laughs]
What draws you to photography? What particular inner 'itch' is the practice of photography allowing you to 'scratch'?
I've always been creative growing up. I drew a lot as a kid and during my teenage years I transitioned into graffiti art. From there I went from spraying walls to painting on canvas. When I first picked up a camera it was mostly to document my everyday life, but as I got more into photography I found a parallel between painting and photography. Photography has ultimately filled that creative outlet that I have always needed to express myself.
Your choice of subjects is wide-ranging, and ranges from from cityscapes to landscapes to cyclists. You've also seem to have nearly cornered the market on ‘puddlegrams’. What's the aesthetic appeal to you about your various subject choices?
I never really go out of my way to create the images that I do. With that said, I always like to take photos of what’s around me. I live in this awesome city, so it’s only natural that you’d see some cityscapes or some street photography. When I’m out on the bike I like to capture the beautiful scenery beyond the city. New York is great for that juxtaposition.
Is there any specific mood or emotion or temperature that you try to evoke through the way you compose a photo? In looking at a lot of your photos, I've noticed a penchant for situating a single subject within a broad landscape, and that juxtaposition of scale helps to bring that vastness into sharper relief. Is there anything to that, or am I completely off base?
Any feelings or emotions that are evoked in people when they see my photographs are generally unintentional. The images I capture are in the moment. But, I think the great thing about photography is that it's always open to interpretation.
Lots of photographers find themselves struggling to balance commercial work with personal projects - is that something you have to deal with as well? If so, how do you strike the balance?
I've been fortunate enough that a lot of the commercial work I've done has been cycling related. So in some ways there’s always some sort of intersection between the two. The times that I have done commercial work outside of cycling, I’ve always found that to be a refreshing change of pace, and it gives me new experiences and challenges that I can learn from.
In our Internet-era culture, photography has developed into this incredibly prolific medium, and we seem to have developed an incessant cultural need to document virtually every occurrence in our lives. This has led to a lot of interest creative output on the one hand but it’s also resulted in the mundane being elevated to such a level that it’s sometimes hard to figure out what’s meaningful and what’s not. What’s your take on the idea that photography in many ways is not any sort of artistic end unto itself, but a vehicle for drawing out and securing some form of official recognition (i.e., "likes")?
With Instagram and other social media platforms, documenting and sharing everything in our day-to-day life has become part of our current culture. This is especially true within cycling where people share where the places they’ve ridden, or a photo of their pre-ride espresso. The instant gratification of a “like” always feels good because I can instantly learn what is "successful" to the masses and what is not. However, the more important thing for me is not to accumulate a lot of ‘likes’. It's more about the people that inspire me the most who like and comment on my photos that I measure my success of photography on.
What are your origins as a cyclist?
I got introduced to cycling through track bikes. I was visiting Hawaii back in 2007 and one of my friends rode up to the hotel where I was staying on a track bike. It was a beautiful pearl white Iribe. It was my first time seeing one in person and I was immediately intrigued by it. Shortly after, I bought my first track bike. When I moved to New York I was commuting around with my track bike and even did a few Nyack rides on it. That’s when I figured out that maybe getting some gears and brakes would be a good idea. From there, the rides outside of the city got longer and I got to really explore more.
What did you make of the explosion of the documentary style photography as applied to cycling and embodied by the likes of Emily Maye, Jered Gruber, and others?
I think it’s great! There are a lot of great photographers and cyclists out there that inspire me to ride more and to take more photos.
What do you find compelling about cycling to want to photograph it?
As it turns out, cycling is a big part of my life so it’s only natural as a photographer to try to capture my experiences in the saddle. I feel like people have an established perception of New York as this bustling metropolis not realizing that just a few miles north are these areas of amazing scenery.
Do you shoot from the bike, or only off the bike?
I like to shoot both. When I'm riding I would prefer to shoot off the bike as I can frame the shot better and I can get some good angles or different perspectives. Also, it depends a lot on who I’m riding with. Most of the time, people in general expect me to take a lot of photos during a ride, which makes it a little easier to stop and snap a few.
Follow Don on Instagram at: @donalrey