Inside Nathan Bajar's Studio

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When I met Nate Bajar at his studio, My Own Color Lab on West 27th street, he was working on printing a picture of his sister. The photo shows her lying on a branch of a cherry tree in bloom. Nate was not entirely satisfied with the picture: he wishes she were sitting up. His family is his favorite thing to photograph, he tells me. They live in New Jersey and there are many of them (his mom is one of thirteen; his dad one of eight) and they frequently gather at Nate’s parents house, where he poignantly captures their day to day.

At the studio, Nate belongs to a different kind of family. The other photographers who print there are his friends and mentors; one of them, Gerard, is a former employer. Nate credits him as his sensei. By way of an introduction, Nate said about Gerard: “this guy taught me everything I know.” Later, looking at the photograph of Nate’s sister through various corrective lenses which he flicked in front of the image, Gerard advised Nate to add more yellow.

Back in the dark room, Nate stood before the bulky enlarger and changed the settings to get a yellower exposure. We turned out the lights and the room went completely black, save for a few glow in the dark stars. “I feel like a superhero in here,” Nate said, as though to himself, “like I can see in the dark.” As he operated the enlarger, he counted to five, softly, using the tapping of his foot as a metronome.

The musicality of his printing process is not incidental: Nate also makes music. Once he was pleased with the print (adding yellow helped, after all), we headed to Nate’s apartment in Bed-Stuy to listen to some of his songs. They are rhythmic and lovely to listen to ─ D’Angelo came to mind. One of them, made after a friend of his gave him the liberating advice that a song can be about anything, is called Spilled Milk.

With his music playing in the background, Nate showed me some more of his photographs. Many were of his family: his brother squarely facing the camera and holding a small dog; a larger dog with a cast, the aftermath of a fight with a German Shepherd; his parents in bed, sleeping. For Nate, making pictures means looking at things, and in his photographs he tries to capture an instant. His sensibility for the ephemeral comes through in his pictures ─ they all appear to contain a bygone moment.

We asked him a few new questions, expanding the interview which appeared on his poster. We are also excited to announce that Nate will be performing at Batch 3's Aug. 3 launch party at Rubber Factory, 29c Ludlow St.

words by Fernanda Penfold

RFP Through your work at your lab you’ve encountered some fascinating artists, like Alix Dejean. Can you tell us some stories and how they’ve impacted your own work?

Nathan Bajar So, everyone that I’ve worked with at My Own Color Lab has been vital to my growth as a photographer. I mean, school was also really helpful, but I think working at the lab has definitely helped me become the artist that I am today. Gerard, who’s the owner of the lab, taught me everything there is to know about working in the darkroom and the importance of the photographing print and making it, you know, perfect. And there’s also this other printer and one of my favorite photographers Matt Wilson, who’s also stressed the importance of the print but on a different level. He taught me a lot about feeling and sensibility with photographic printing. And one of the most important figures in my life as an artist is one of my former professors Stacy Morrison, who helped me get the job at the lab. It was really important for me to be in her class because she taught me how to look at things differently. I took a color class with her and it kind of just changed everything. I was like, “Whoa, this is exactly what I wanna do. I wanna be a photographer.”

What do you like to listen to when you’re in the dark room?

NB The crew in the lab usually has music playing over the speakers so I'm usually listening to what they’re listening to. But in my darkroom I can barely hear anything and I usually like it quiet so it’s easier to concentrate and do what I need to do, because printing requires a lot of care.

You’ve photographed a lot of musicians too, who were you most excited to meet?

NB I’ve been pretty excited to meet a lot of musicians I photograph. Most of the time, I reach out to musicians to take their picture because I like their music and it’s just cool that they’ve responded. I’m listening to their music one day and the next day I’m taking their picture. But if I really had to choose, I’ve probably been most excited to photograph Jay-Z just because, you know, it’s Jay-Z.

Your poster features Charlotte Dos Santos, a young musician. What drew you to her music?

NB I really like Charlotte’s music because her voice is different and she’s kind of in her own lane right now. Like, I haven’t heard anyone making the music that she’s making and I want to visualize that. I came across her music while browsing SoundCloud and I loved her sound. I saw that she was based in Brooklyn, so I reached out to see if I could make some press kit photographs for her. The shoot wasn’t for anyone in particular but I wanted to pitch the photographs and a small interview to music publications to get her music more out there. I also like to work with musicians that I like.

Your photograph takes love as its subject in both a direct and symbolic sense. Is this a theme you explore in other parts of your work?

NB Yes, like super yes, because with my other work ─ my personal work ─ I photograph my family a lot. I mean, I photograph my family because I love them and I photograph these musicians because I love their music. And I photograph my family because there are a lot of things I’d like to say to them but I don’t know how to tell them words with words so I take their picture.

You make music too, right?

NB  I make music yes!

What kind of music do you make?

NB  Lately, I have been making a lot of R&B inspired music but I’m definitely still trying to refine and carve out my own sound. Pharrell and MNDSGN have been heroes for me from a production standpoint and Frank Ocean has been a hero for me from a songwriting standpoint.

Is there a relationship between your photography and your approach to song making?

NB Yes, and no. Yes because with photography and song making I’m trying to put as much of myself into these things as I can. And no because with photography I have to go to a place more than once. Once to check it out, and then another time just to see or feel anything again and take some pictures. But with music, with song making, I can just make music out of nothing. I can kind of go into it without any preconceived ideas and go, “O.K., let’s just play,” and hopefully something happens.

Are any of your photographs inspired by songs?

NB No, I wouldn’t say so. If anything, my songs are more inspired by moving images, by movies or by experiencing things first person. I guess the one thing about music that I really really love is that music can be felt. Like, photographs can be analyzed and people can react to photographs, but I feel like music is more accessible, it’s universally accessible.

How can we make sure there’s more love around us?

NB We can make sure there’s more love around us by being more loving ourselves.

interview by Romke Hoogwaerts & Fernanda Penfold
photos by Maggie Shannon

Fernanda Penfold