Nathanael Turner on Heading West to Find his Photographic Voice
Like so many before him, when Nathanael Turner graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, he packed his bags and headed downstate to the big city. Diving head first into the biggest of big ponds, he worked odd jobs and cold emailed photographers he admired, offering his services. He often worked for little or no pay, heading back to his parents’ house upstate to work for his dad and make extra cash. He fostered a few clients, but Turner found assisting work—and confidence—hard to come by in New York.
“The first couple of jobs, I don’t think I did that great,” Turner admits. “Those were great learning experiences…how to interact with people, [to] have a vision and execute it.”
The work he makes now, for clients such as The New York Times Magazine, The FADER and Microsoft, is often subtle and subdued, using understated lighting for an aesthetic more contemplative than high-energy. Turner’s portraits seem to capture in-between moments of muted introspection. His subjects often appear to wear their thoughts on their faces: in a portrait for Loud and Quiet, David Lynch judges silently, and in a shoot for Self-Titled, Ariel Pink gets lost in a smoking daydream. He uses mostly natural light, and when he uses flash, it’s often unforgiving, but brutally honest—wrinkles, pores and blemishes rendered in crisp detail.
But in that first year in the city, after a childhood filled with open spaces in Ballston Spa, New York, the hyper-competitive market of New York had him feeling claustrophobic and over-stimulated.
So he dipped. Turner packed his bags and followed the perpetual exodus of weathered New Yorkers seeking warmer climes and chiller vibes in Los Angeles. He went on walks, exploring his new space and how he fit into it. LA’s commercial lifestyle market didn’t necessarily suit his aesthetic, but he found his own personal projects—those walks, frequently along the LA River, evolved into a project called “The River.” “I need time to be bored,” Turner says. “To kind of open up mentally, I kind of need that space.”
Turner picked up assisting jobs as he pursued his own clients, doing his best to balance the need to build his own name with the need to stay humble, and learn. RIT may have given him a solid foundation, but he still had plenty to learn. “I really value the assisting that I’ve done over the years,” Turner says. “It’s really valuable to see how other photographers work, especially more experienced people. I’ve learned the most from working on these larger commercial jobs that a younger photographer would have no idea how to approach.”
The assisting work helped him build a reputation within the community as well, leading to connections with editors at The Fader and SPIN magazines, as well as Bloomberg Businessweek. Even though he had found his open space out in LA, the big-time editors were still in New York, so he found himself flying back and forth to take meetings.
“The one thing that really makes the biggest difference is meeting people face to face,” Turner says. “Especially when you’re first starting [out with] portfolio meetings with editors, it’s really important in the process.”
While LA certainly isn’t for everyone, the left coast’s high chill quotient has allowed him to open up creatively, and it’s paid off dividends in his life and career. He’s made photographer friends like Molly Matalon, Damien Maloney and Eric Ruby, but the friendly competition they inspire is miles away from the often cutthroat game in New York. So when we asked him what advice he has for young graduates looking to follow in his footsteps and build a career making images, his answer was appropriately antithetical to the ethos of the city that never sleeps: “Make sure you have other things going on in your life outside of photography,” he says. “In terms of longevity, your mental health, it’s important.” —Matthew Ismael Ruiz
This article has been excerpted from “One to Watch: Room to Breathe” (PDNEdu, Fall 2017). Learn more about Nathanael’s journey by reading the full article in the digital edition.