Photographer Nikolai Hagen looks to capture private conversations in his latest series of a Aztalan racetrack

The New York-based photographer looks back on his emotional relationship with photography and how skateboarding first introduced him to the medium.

9 September 2021

When asking photographer Nikolai Hagen about a particular style of photography, he replies: “I feel like I’m still trying to find this, and there are a lot of days where it kills me.” In the past, a signature visual language has plagued the New York-based photographer’s mind, but now he is trying to be more patient. He’s realised it’s not something that can be forced and that hopefully, it will arrive naturally with time. “My favourite photographers have a very particular style that only they can articulate,” he says, mentioning Robert Frank and Sam Rock at the same time. He looks to these artists to find a unique mode of communication that is unmistakably them and, along the way, has captured some remarkable subjects including an Aztalan racetrack and its community he first came across in 2019.

Nikolai first discovered the racetrack when driving on the highway from his dad’s place in Spring Green Wisconsin to a friend’s place in Milwaukee. At the time, he’d been researching documentary photographers such as Alec Soth, and was looking to develop his use of colour to add another level of richness. After passing the racetrack five or six times, he started to pick up on the flecks of colour he could see from his car. He also thought “it would be a nice way to get to know a group of people whom I’d otherwise likely never interact with, even if it were just for an evening.”

Eventually, he mustered up the courage to approach the racetrack with a big camera (a Mamiya RB67 in tow). He got talking to some people there and had “great conversations”. One in particular stands out, where he talked to one guy “about how my uncle used to be a hunting and fishing guide in Alaska,” laughs Nikolai. “He had some connection to that.” Documenting the community of racers, Nikolai found the rich sense of colour he’d been looking for. At the focal point of many of his portraits are the bright colour of the racer’s kits, boldly branded with numbers and striking graphics which set each rider apart from the other.

Prior to working on the series, Nikolai did a two year technical photography degree in Madison College followed by a bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he received a full scholarship. But his original interest in the medium began with skateboarding “because I was so in love with the visual language of it.” He remembers how he had would watch skateboarding videos all the time, his favourites being Marc Johnson’s Hot Chocolate and Fully Flared parts. “Those parts are so emotional for me, his music choices and the way he expresses himself, his humour mixed with his intense emotion that I could feel very tangibly through a computer screen.”


Nikolai Hagen: Motocross (Copyright © Nikolai Hagen, 2021)

As a naturally quiet and shy person, or as the photographer puts it “under confident”, these videos helped Nikolai find his way. Marc Johnson’s work means so much to him that Nikolai remarks: “I think I’d probably cry if I watched them today because they are so emotional themselves.” By watching the videos, he learned not to care what other people thought of him, especially growing up in a town he felt he didn’t fit in with. In this vein, he started shooting videos of himself and friends as he got older. And all these experiences have led to Nikolai currently working as a freelance photo assistant, mostly working with fashion photographers, something he’s been doing for just over a year now following nine months at a commercial photo studio.

Going back to Nikolai’s latest series Motocross, the photographer tells us about his favourite images. The first depicts a kid silhouetted against a tree as the blue night’s sky stretches out behind him. The image gives Nikolai the feeling “that represents the type of imagery I try to make,” he says. “It feels like a private moment which I suppose reflects me in a way as I am, in some regards, a private person who is much more drawn to a one-on-one conversation versus a group conversation.”

As he talks us through these internalised feelings, Nikolai undergoes a discovery: “I am having a realisation,” he says, “I might be looking for a private conversation in many of my images.” He talks us through another example where this is the case. The photograph shows a couple watching the race, intertwined with the events before them. For Nikolai, the two people were perceived as a couple as he was going through “a weird and difficult romantic situation that particular day”. Despite all his questions, the image presented some much-needed answers and in this way, Motocross carried glimmers of surprising and meaningful personal moments. He hopes to continue growing, work hard and dispel negative energy and self-doubt when it comes his way in the future. Currently working on a zine and publication which will hopefully be released next year, Nikolai is also pitching a few editorial ideas to print publications which he hopes can come into fruition very soon.

GalleryNikolai Hagen: Motocross (Copyright © Nikolai Hagen, 2021)

Become an Extra Nice Supporter

Unlock an inspiring new way to explore It’s Nice That, get your hands on exclusive perks, and help bring meaningful creative projects to life.

Sign up!

Hero Header

Nikolai Hagen: Motocross (Copyright © Nikolai Hagen, 2021)

Share Article

About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.

It's Nice That Newsletters

Fancy a bit of It's Nice That in your inbox? Sign up to our newsletters and we'll keep you in the loop with everything good going on in the creative world.