Preconceptions are usually as difficult to avoid as they are erroneous. Preconceptions often pave the way to misconceptions but on the strength of Paul Nathan’s fascinating photography I admit I had plenty. Expecting to meet an insouciant eccentric, I was instead confronted by an unassuming, dapperly dressed gentleman – more self-deprecating than subversive – with a softly spoken cut-glass accent and manners to match. The irony, that his work riffs on the notions of abandoning preconceptions, embracing the eclectic and having the courage to stand out from the crowd, on me was certainly not lost.
Paul Nathan is a restless soul, a searcher and a seeker of self-truth. Just a decade ago Paul was pondering what it all meant from his Parnell jewellery store when he decided to quite literally sell up shop and move to New York, enrol in film school and become a maker of documentaries. “I didn’t even own a camera when I moved to America,” Paul tells me over a coffee on Ponsonby Road. The meeting had been arranged via an email in which I was informed that Paul would be wearing a straw hat. I wasn’t sure whether or not it was a joke. When you stop and look, it’s actually quite staggering just how many people proudly prance Ponsonby Road adorned in said headgear on any given day, but anyway, Paul arrived hatless. It hadn’t been a joke, he’d just forgotten to wear his. But I digress. “Once I started film school,” he continues, “I soon realised I hated it. I hated being in a group and not being able to do my own thing. I came to the realisation that I just wasn’t a team player. Halfway through, I dropped put.”
He then received a letter form the US government informing him that he had 10 days to leave the country.
“So I decided to try photography. I found the International Centre for Photography, which is a really good school, and, though applications had closed, they invited me to send in a portfolio. I didn’t even know what a portfolio was! I rushed back home, grabbed some happy snaps from my computer, took them to a copy centre and handed them in to the college.”
This is the part of the Hollywood script where the uplifting score gently fades in as the camera cuts to a collection of college professors overawed with Paul’s body of work. They welcome him with open arms and Paul goes on to live happily-ever-after as his latent artistic talent is finally recognised and his brave move across the globe rewarded.
What actually happened, however, was that the school said “no”, but in an act of serendipity to outwit even the corniest of Hollywood scribes, Paul later attends a party where he meets fellow New Zealand photographer Jono Rotman (famed for those controversial and compelling Mongrel Mob shots) who invites Paul to lunch the following day and advises him upon which images are most likely to capture the imagination of the college admissions board. Ironically, Rotman selects a selection of snaps which Paul took during his ill-fated film school days. The photography college loved them, awarded him a scholarship the following term, and, fast forward eight years, Paul’s art has been globally recognised, he has a wife and two young children and is living happily-ever-after back in New Zealand where he is in the process of completing a Masters of Fine Art at Elam (“I wanted to do something more introspective plus, I love study, I’d do it forever if I could”) while also continuing with a range of professional projects. But you kind of get the feeling that Paul’s still searching for something, and longing, a little, for another bite of the Big Apple.
“One of the reasons I left New York was because I was struggling to find meaning in life,” says the 45-year-old. “It’s just so hectic. In a matter of a few steps outside your front door you can be overstimulated. Everyone is driven and you just get caught up in the whole thing. Of course in order to produce anything you have to have a certain amount of drive. But being back here has been a mental challenge. I find it harder to get started. Since I’ve been back, life feels so much slower and I feel as though I have lost my fire a little. Of course, I now have two young children, and a life, so, it’s a common story, I guess.”
Following graduation from the International Centre for Photography, Paul secured a gig taking portraits and food shots for The New York Post before finding a lengthy list of fashion clients such as L’Oréal and the Body Shop. “There is a certain novelty factor to being a fashion photographer in New York but I’m not interested in fashion per se,” he tells me. “I have absolutely no idea what’s ‘in’ each season, and I don’t really care, either. My passion is creative, interesting people.”
With that in mind, Paul put an ad on Craigslist.com looking for subjects who looked like their dogs and a lady sent him some snaps of her dressed identically to her hound: “Not just any outfits, mind you. This was doggie couture. That’s when I realised that this was a far more interesting concept and I tapped into this whole New York network. It’s this entire community that throw these incredible parties and fundraising events and turn up dressed like their dogs. They’re eccentric people and proud of it. I wanted to celebrate that.”
This lead to the publication of Couture Dogs of New York which in turn lead to Groomed, a collection celebrating finely coiffured canines. Similarly, Paul has also, along with his writer wife Nadine Rubin Nathan, published a children’s book entitled The Adventures of Coco Le Chat: The World’s Most Fashionable Feline, and Generation Ink, a cool collection of images immortalising heavily tattooed Brooklyners. “Subconsciously my search was for the core reason why or maybe how some people feel free enough to just go and get a giant tattoo upon their back. It’s not something I would have felt I was entitled to do when I was in my early twenties but I admire them for it. I feel envious of that sense of freedom.”
Is there any reason why you wouldn’t do it yourself?
“I just wouldn’t know where to begin, what I would have tattooed. I would actually love to get one, but I don’t know what, or if I really feel that strongly about anything.”
The books have been well-received by a wealth of leading international media outlets and adorn the shelves of some of the most prestigious city stores. I ask Paul how he handled the sudden global attention.
“It was novel. I didn’t know what to make of it because I didn’t feel like I was anyone. I was just doing my little thing and I couldn’t process it all, this major media exposure just felt surreal.”
Were you uncomfortable with it?
“No. I love the chance to talk about my work and I think it’s important to defend those who open themselves up for society. But it’s a strange situation because I’m not actually in my book so I’m subjecting my subjects, in a way, to the potential for criticism.”
Do you take criticism personally?
“No, I don’t take it personally but I think less of the person who does the criticising. I just hope that no one thinks my work is exploitative. I don’t think the tone Couture Dogs is exploitative, but it would upset me if people thought so.”
You could ultimately say just about every photo is exploitative.
“Yes, you could say that about anything. But for me they are concrete blocks, there to help me understand more about myself. It’s said that a portrait is 20% the subject and 80% the photographer and I totally agree with that.”
And so back to the photographer. Critical acclaim was, of course, welcome but it wasn’t helping him to understand the through-line in his work so he sought the solace of a therapist. “Of course, everyone in New York is in therapy. I was going twice a week when the publicity was really starting to kick in. I didn’t really know how to tie the books together. As an artist I knew that it was important to have a central narrative or theme running through my work that was identifiable but I did not want to know mine was, and I was unhappy about that. It was through therapy that I realised the common thread was about identity and transformation. About people stepping out from the norm. Of being different. Society pushes us all into a valley of the ‘normal’ and anyone that veers out of that norm is deemed to be dangerous and we’re taught to instinctively ridicule those people.”
So that’s why you went to therapy?
I went for a variety of reasons. I was feeling lost.
Are you less lost now?
“Yes I am. I feel thrilled. That was a eureka moment once I found the common thread. If I hadn’t found something to link those dots that it would have just felt like a blurry mess of life. I’m very thankful to my books are part of me and a very important to me and I take very seriously. Others might think that subjects are frivolous but I take them very seriously indeed.”
I finish by asking Paul if, for all his protestations of impartiality, there was at least part of him that acknowledged the absurdity of what most what consider to be obscene sums (US$600 on designer outfits, for example) spent by the owners on the pampering of some of his pet subjects. “Not at all,” comes the ever-gracious reply. “Many of them don’t have children, but they have fulfilling and satisfied lives with their pets which are often their surrogate children. They lavish them with love and attention and accessories and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. People are free to spend the money however they please. Their courage should never be criticised, it should be applauded for making the world a more colourful place.”