What is love and where does it come from? Nate Palmer asks these questions in his thoughtful photography practice
After picking up a camera at the age of 12, the photographer has since built a portfolio lensing topics of Black fatherhood, gentrification and displacement.
- Ayla Angelos
- 23 March 2021
Nate Palmer’s introduction to photography was at the age of 12, when he’d travel around with a digital point-and-shoot camera firmly in his grasp. Although not taking it seriously at the time, inspiration sparked for the budding creative and soon enough he went on to pursue a photography class in high school. “We were really lucky to have a darkroom at the studio too,” Nate tells It’s Nice That. “I’ve become more and more curious about people and their lives over the years and so photography has always been an entry point for me. It’s allowed me to get to know people I wouldn’t have had an excuse to talk to otherwise, so portraiture and documentary storytelling were natural paths for me to take. Photography is also important for coming to understand where I fit in as a mixed race man in America.”
Born and raised in Washington, the documentary and portrait photographer has long been driven by his the people around him, particularly other artists – who make regular appearances throughout his work. This is because he thrives off collaboration, he says, and the ease that comes with photographing like-minded creative people. So much so that he’s been photographing a dance crew in DC called Dream Coalition for the last year and a half. “There’s so much creativity and agency in the way that they move and dress,” he adds, “it can be hard to make an uninteresting photograph with them. The challenge becomes finding those quiet moments in between.” But more important, he says, is that they are a group of young Black men who are “expressing themselves and celebrating life,” making them a joy to work with.
Besides this, Nate’s subject matter tends to evolve around his curiosity for life. This includes an emphasis on the notion of love and what it is; more specifically, the reoccurring theme of Black fatherhood. “What does the tenderness and care in that relationship look like, and what makes it unique? Photographing fatherhood is also a way for me to understand and explore the relationship that I have with my own father.” It’s this very attitude – and ability to draw a personal lens on his subject matter – that’s led him to work with an abundance of clients and on varying projects of this ilk, with commissioned pieces for the likes of Huck, National Geographic, Google, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Time, NPR, Financial Times Magazine, Interview, W plus many others.
For the last two years, Nate has been building a project that lenses the topic of gentrification and displacement in his childhood neighbourhood, located in Washington. “I had seen the community transform in recent years and decided to document the neighbourhood as it is today,” he says. The series sees the artist capture both the people he’s known since childhood as well as those he’d just met on the street. And, in doing so, he’s managed to compile a collection of images that represent the neighbourhood with utmost intimacy and honesty. “The project is both a way to recognise and pay respect to the people that have spent their lives in the community,” he adds. “Any artist’s work is at some level a reflection of their upbringing and the experiences that brought them to this point. I think this project is a way for me to look back on my upbringing too, so it feels really personal in that way.”
Much of Nate’s work centres itself on representation, documenting marginalised communities and those that are in a state of transition. As such, another project of his – a commission from Kaiser Health News that initiated in 2019 – sees him photograph the story of a barber in Baltimore. His name is Antoine Dow and, alongside the usual trims and buzzes, he gives haircuts to people who have recently passed away before their funeral service. It's a ritual that helps "bring dignity to the lives of young Black men affected by gun violence," writes Chaseedaw Giles in the story that ran in New York Times. “I visited him in his daytime barber shop and photographed a young man whose hair he was cutting,” Nate says. He continues to point out a favourite image from the project: a photo shot in black and white, with intricate framing that allows the viewer to only see the barber’s hands, with his clippers placed right at the edge. Meanwhile the man sits in stillness, eyes closed in the chair. “There is a tenderness in the way that the barber is holding the young man’s head and a stillness in the young man’s expression that makes the image special to me.”
Having worked in the realms of portrait and documentary photography for quite some time now, it’s exciting to hear that Nate plans to expand into new mediums – that being collage. He’s recently started on a new project of this kind, and thinks he’ll continue to pursue it in the background to his main practice. “It’s my first time working with collage so it’ll be interesting to see what it turns into,” he concludes. “I’m also curious to see what comes out of the time spent alone working on it. The project explores similar themes of love and asks where the urge to love and to be loved comes from, even in unconsciousness.”
GalleryCopyright © Nate Palmer, 2021
Copyright © Nate Palmer, 2021
About the Author
Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent the last seven years as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.