dewey nicks’ polaroids capture carefree celebrities in the 90s
Natalie Portman, Cindy Crawford, and Patricia Arquette are just some of the stars in his new book 'Polaroids of Women.'
Photo by Dewey Nicks.
Dewey Nicks has taken so many photographs over the past 30 years that sometimes he forgets some of the amazing moments he has captured. As a freelance fashion and commercial photographer, he’s worked with countless brands including Nike, Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, and Levi’s. He also directed an under-appreciated early 00s college comedy called Slackers, starring Jason Schwartzman, Devon Sawa, and Jason Segal. But photography is what he’s really known for. Dewey has shot everyone from Cindy Crawford and Natalie Portman to Sofia Coppola and Cher — and often while they were on the cusp of becoming the legends that they are today.
Recently, he discovered a treasure trove that catapulted him back to that time. “I found a giant box of Polaroids from the mid-90s in my archive,” Dewey explains on the phone from Maryland, where he’s about to go whitewater rafting with his family. Ever the adventurer, Dewey decided to release the Polaroids in the form of a book called Polaroids of Women, which was published in October last year. Now he’s made a selection of prints from that series available for purchase on Sonic Editions.
What was it like discovering those photos after all that time?
Oh, it was like a goldmine! Because we didn’t have digital, the Polaroids were just a way to keep track of the light and the clothes. It really condensed the years of photographing into one little box, and it’s a box I hadn’t even laid my eyes on for maybe 12 years. I’d forgot — I didn’t know it was there! I just opened it up and sat down and enjoyed looking at it. And then I thought, I’ve gotta show this to the people that are in the pictures, and the people that I worked with. It was like finding a yearbook from a high school you never knew you had.
That’s amazing! Were they all taken on commercial or editorial shoots? Or were some of them just taken while you were hanging out?
I would say 85 percent were from some assignment, editorial or commercial.
It’s cool that not all of the subjects in the photos are super famous, recognizable faces. Some of them are makeup artists, directors, or designers.
My daughter said, 'I can tell that these are all people that you really liked, the way that you smile when you show your photos of them,’ and I was like, ‘That’s true!’ I really did like them, I was having a lot of fun.
Everyone looks so natural and relaxed in these photos. How much of that do you think is down to them being taken with a Polaroid? Do you notice people become more relaxed when you use that camera?
I think so! The other cameras that I was shooting with at the time were big Pentaxes and Nikons, so that always felt like, ‘OK, this is official. This could be the cover. This could be the campaign.’ And then you pull out a Polaroid camera that looks like something from the 20s and everyone’s like, ‘What are you doing? Taking a Polaroid?’ (laughs). Like, you’re just gonna throw it away. It’s probably the equivalent of pulling out your iPhone now, but many people take their iPhones much more seriously than they do the regular cameras.
That’s true! The photo of Cindy Crawford lying on the couch has a particularly amazing relaxed quality. Did you get her to pose like that, or did she just do that naturally?
She did! We used something like that for the campaign — that particular shoot was for Isaac Mizrahi. I’ve gotta say, that Polaroid was probably my favorite picture from that whole set-up.
All of these photos seem to capture this cool, carefree spirit that the 90s are known for.
I think so! I feel like it was just a little bit more naive, generally. I mean, these were very famous people that were there to get their pictures taken, and it was all part of publicity, but the machine doesn’t roll like it rolls now. I didn’t think these pictures were going to be used by anybody, ever! You know? They were just a little sketchbook.
The photos of Jaime Rishar are gorgeous. What can you tell us about her and that shoot?
She had such a great career [as a model] and then she kinda jumped out. But she was one of my favorite people to shoot. I took lots of pictures of her, when she was around 17 years old. She had a really funny, swaggery way about her. She had a lot of confidence, and she was also very open-faced, and she made me laugh, a lot. So, I put her in lots of editorials.
The photo on the cover of the book was from a beauty story that I did with Allure that was styled by Lori Goldstein, who was a genius editor/stylist. This is another great thing about what it was like to shoot back in those days — that wasn’t even a [planned] location. We were just driving around Palm Springs and we saw a cool shaped pool in an apartment complex, so we went in and said 'Hey, can we shoot in the pool?’ and they were like, ‘Go for it!’ We just did it. Something about the color of her skin [in that photo] always stuck with me as being so pure.
Natalie Portman was also so young when you photographed her, but she looked wise beyond her years.
Oh my gosh! Yeah. She was one of my very favorites. I feel incredibly lucky to have met a bunch of people who are obviously so talented and have had huge careers at that moment in time where they just start to appear as being really special.
Kitty Carlisle Hart — she was an actress and a grand dame of New York, with the private elevator up to her apartment, right across from the Met. And so we went up there and had tea, and Natalie was just the perfect guest to share tea with this really exquisite older lady. She was so charming. Her manners were perfect! I think she was only 15 years old in that picture. But she was absolutely as lovely as could be. Kind of Audrey Hepburn-y, I would say.
She definitely has that quality. Patricia Arquette also looks so poised, the way you captured her.
Yes! That was taken in my backyard. I owned a house officially called the Morgan House, by Irving Gill, who was an incredible Californian architect. It was built in 1917 and was very modernist, with 'tilt-slab,' concrete construction. And it had the most beautiful little arched porches and big windows, so I basically used it as my studio for years. We just walked around the backyard, and the light was bouncing off the side of the house. We would just look for the place where it was happening naturally.
It looks like there’s some sort of photo attached to her top?
Yeah! She pinned a picture of her son on her tank top.
That’s so sweet! You mentioned Jaime dipping out of the spotlight, and I was thinking not only do these photos capture these people at that time, and the vibe of that time, but they also reflect the fleeting nature of fame.
Yeah! That’s why Jaime’s attitude was so fresh. I never got the sense that she was striving to be more famous. It all came super naturally to her, and I think in a weird way she was a little cynical to the whole thing. Like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m a real beauty!’ That kind of attitude. Her whole take on the shoot that day was that it was just a kick in the pants. That’s what I liked about her.
That encapsulates a lot of the humor and attitude of the 90s. It seems like people were a lot more easygoing about fame and influence.
Yeah! I feel that way. But I know that people control their own careers now in such a huge way, when they talk about their Instagram audience and everything, they’re dead serious. And at some point you’re like, I don’t know if people are quite connecting in that way to the outside world. There was a smaller group [back then]. It felt like a little tribe.
Purchase prints of Dewey Nicks’ Polaroids at Sonic Editions.