Peter Nash. The name sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Probably because Peter Nash’s reputation as one of the foremost photographers of celebrities, especially country music icons, is legendary. With a career that spans over 30 years, he’s photographed them all–Dolly, Hank, Waylon, Loretta and scores of other notable stars.
What’s so compelling about Peter Nash is that he’s a humble guy. You’re not going to hear lots of name dropping, nor do you get sense that hanging out with the stars affected him much. What does come across is Peter Nash’s passion as a portrait artist. But, my real fascination is his transformation from photographer of celebs to photographer of pooches. Imagine trading the likes of Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn for a new found love–shaggy, furry and sometimes frisky dogs. Peter Nash considers his portraits of dogs with their soulful faces as important a piece of art as the Warhol hanging at the Met. Not only are his portraits of pets presented on canvas much like a fine painting, they offer dramatic contracts of colors and shapes. It’s not unusual for his customers to hang their pet portraits prominently in a dining room or over the mantel.
Animals, especially dogs, as the focus of art isn’t a new thing. Paintings can be found dating back to prehistoric times depicting crude images of dogs. Also, early carvings and paintings portray dogs in Egyptian, Greek and Roman art. If you stop by any major museum, you’ll see hundreds of works of art illustrating this point, and it’s is easy to see why, given how these loyal companions evoke heartfelt joy in the lives of their owners. Peter is continuing a tradition, but as to be expected, has added his unique touch. We caught up with him recently to ask him more about his art:
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you become a photographer?
Growing up, my Kodak camera shot just 10 pictures. It took me months to shoot each frame and paid for prints with a paper route. In college, not knowing what to do, a teacher recommended I major in something I liked. An amazing concept. I was fortunate to get accepted into the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. At the time they only took 15 students.
Your resume is impressive. With 35 years under your belt of shooting country music stars, can you share some funny stories with us about your sessions?
My second session with Kenny Chesney was in the Caribbean. I did his first RCA cover and it was a bit stilted. In the islands we sat down and the first thing I said to him was, “Kenny, I don’t like you much.” And he said, “I don’t like you either.” We slammed down a few beers and couldn’t stop laughing. Five covers later we were still cracking up. He’s a complete riot and gets it.
The first time shooting Dolly Parton she hugged me and asked, “You ever feel anything like that before?”
Hank Williams Jr.
I obsessed for a week over how to shoot him. I rented a small room to photograph him in and brought a couch from home. I figured it was perfect. He pulls up outside in a massive tour bus, walks in, looks around and says, “This is the kind of place Hank doesn’t like.” He walked out and I chased after him and begging him to give me a chance. When he came back in I plugged in an electric guitar and had Lightning Hopkins playing blues in the background. He just sat down and played the blues and we got the Pure Hank cover. Went on to shoot half dozen more with him.
These stories are hilarious. Any other favorites?
One of the funniest (to me) sessions was shooting Sheryl Crow in Austin, Texas, for Gibson Guitar. She was recording in the next room. I set up my lights. Sheryl walked straight up to me and with a handshake said, “Hi, I’m Sheryl Crow.” And I said, “Hi, I’m Peter Nash.” And that was the only thing we said to each other for the entire shoot, other than “Please drop your chin a bit.”
What was the catalyst to move from photographing celebrities to people’s pets?
Moving to portraits in fur was an accident. My wife bought me an 18th anniversary dog painting. That painting changed the course of my life. As a dog daddy it was a natural progression. I could photograph contemporary versions of European paintings with 20th Century makeup. No more stressful sessions. And best of all, I can whisper and bark in a language that’s familiar.
Photography has changed dramatically since you began. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of digital photography?
Digital photography was a blessing. It allows me to photograph without using the darkroom, which saves the client having to incur those costs. Now I can process on the computer in daylight. The learning curve was steep. I wanted to be able to replicate film styles that I worked my whole career to perfect. My finished product is hand-printed by me and doesn’t have “that digital look” that is so prevalent these days. Framed pieces in clients homes appear as timeless images. What most people say is how beautiful the “paintings” are. What gives my work that painterly quality is color, light and line … and that is art.
What is your secret to getting dogs to sit still while you shoot them?
I don’t do lifestyle images. That is my secret. I anchor a dog and begin the “conversation” no differently than if I was photographing Dolly Parton. I’ve done many outdoor sessions when the weather is right. Some dogs are better indoors where they aren’t stressed. My success has been photographing wherever your pooch is most comfortable.
What is a common misconception people may have about what you do?
That they can’t afford me. My fees are not a secret. I guarantee my work. I have no surprise fees. I work on the premise that one perfect piece of art has more value than a handful of small printed out-takes. The inherent value of my work is simple. You can spend thousands on an oil painting. Painters work from photographs. I render a true likeness of your pooch. It’s about the dog, not about the owner spending thousands on a commissioned painting. I love painted portraits. But in all honesty, not all of us can afford one.
Why do you consider your pet portraits a piece of valuable art?
Portraiture is an art. Pure portraiture, that is. It’s about connecting with your subject. It’s about rendering the light. It’s about making the subject look terrific in an atmosphere that nobody else can capture. The nature of portraiture is creating a timeless image. Pictures I’ve taken 20 years ago still hold up. They’re never dated. That is art. Animals we’ve loved and lost are with us whenever we dream or feel the touch of fur or look into familiar canine eyes. That love lives forever. And that love is the love I strive to capture with my work.
I am curious. What are some of the challenges shooting people, and for that matter, animals?
Dogs have the attention span of a two year old. I work quickly. Pooches get bored just like kids and lose interest. Kids check out by crying or acting up. Dogs just go to sleep. People believe a “great artist” needs half a day. Not true. You have a window to work in. The art is knowing when that window is open and going for it.
In closing, can you share with our readers a final thought that you have on Nashville?
When I moved here in ’83, my friends thought me crazy to leave Hotel California. I followed my dream. Nashville was the best kept secret place. People actually asked how I was doing and meant it. Of all the cities I’ve lived, Nashville is the only one I call home. It will never loose the inherent feel of home even though 30 years later it’s lit up like a Christmas tree. The best food, sports, fun, shopping, and friends in America. Now friends are envious that. I’m living in the coolest little big town around.
Thanks for such a great interview, Peter.
If you are interested in Peter Nash’s work, visit his website: www.peternashdogs.com. (SB Note: Peter contacted us to let us know there were some temporary technical difficulties with his website. If you encounter problems with the link, you can also connect with him via Facebook: www.facebook.com/portraitsinfur.)