Saint Louis-based visual artist Drew Nikonowicz employs analogue photographic techniques and computer simulation technology to create works which examine the ways in which images and technology mediate our perceptions of the world we inhabit. His practice involves a great deal of research across different media and disciplines to cultivate what he refers to as “image ideas”. As he states: “I always try to be an omnivorous image-maker.” Drew’s publication This World and Others Like It is, in his words, “an investigation of what it means to be an explorer in the 21st Century”.
Having “jumped ship” on his photojournalism studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia, Drew began practicing image-making in the university’s fine art department. “It was clear to me that I wasn’t going to find the worlds I wanted to explore and create through photography in journalism school,” he says. This approach to photography as image-construction and world-creation feeds into the pictures that make up This World and Others Like It, co-published by Yoffy Press in Atlanta Georgia and fw:Books in Amsterdam. As Drew describes it: “The project is a combination of analogue photographic processes and computer-generated photographs. I use these two image-making solutions interchangeably, and they are both equally legitimate options. I was born in 1993, so the world raised me alongside the internet. I never had any ‘othering effect’ from its introduction.”
Drew explains the concept behind the project as an attempt to map how image-making has shaped our navigation of the world – it is an exploration of exploration. He says: “In a world where every surface of the planet has been photographed and thousands of explorable realities exist within technology, we have a very different relationship to these worlds than we used to. Photography mediates nearly all of our experiences. As a result, it has become a core component of navigating and understanding the world. In many cases, photography has allowed us to explore deeper and further than we are physically capable of. Despite all this, we rarely consider the constructed nature of photography. A photograph teaches us how and what to see, but those decisions are made for us. Our relationship to technology is dangerous, but it’s also an exciting realm of possibility.”
Drew’s principle visual preoccupation in The World and Others Like It is with the topography and textures of landscapes and surfaces – both naturally occurring and simulated. These range from shots of human skin and crumpled fabrics to studies of rocks and vistas of seas and craggy mountains, some documented photographically, some virtually. Drew tells us: “While I am using these two kinds of image-making, they are never combined or composited. I enjoy exploring the possibility of images within one photographic frame. So any collaging or compositing is occurring before I make the photograph – this is important. Although I see both analogue photography and computer generated photographs as legitimate apparatuses, they are two distinct solutions. For many of the computer generated photographs, I am using mapping software to create worlds. I then explore them and make my photographs, similar to the way you would explore a video game or virtual reality.”
The publication sets the digital and the analogue non-hierarchically alongside one another, with corresponding visual identities. “In the aggregate of images,” Drew notes, “I combine the two solutions. The same black and white, antiseptic strategy is imposed onto both kinds of images. I want them to feel similar rather than be immediately recognisable as one or the other. In the photobook, or in exhibition, the two kinds of images are shuffled together.” This kind of ambiguity around created and recorded pictures draws on other works which examine the authenticity of images. Drew tells us: “I’m heavily influenced by Joan Fontcuberta’s work and writing. His book of essays Pandora’s Camera has stayed with me since I read it. Timothy O’Sullivan’s photographs during the Geological Survey of the Fortieth Parallel are also an important touchstone for the work. Mark Klett’s Rephotographic Survey is another key project.”
Speaking of the place of digital and computer technologies today in fine art and in our lives more generally, Drew states: “It’s right at home in our studios and our ideas. New technologies have always shaped our experience of the world. The invention of the railroad changed how we see the world – it introduced a new understanding of time (in a lot of ways), and we live different lives as a result. It’s clear the same could be said about smartphones or the internet. In many ways, artists are cultural scientists disassembling the world around us and making sense of it. I suppose cutting edge technology produces three main things: new ways to navigate the world, research papers, and contemporary art.”