Nick Veasey shows us the fascinating world that lies beneath the surface.
WORDS Gregory George Moore IMAGES Nick Veasey
I first saw British-based photographer and artist Nick Veasey's work in the "Kidspace" portion of the MassMOCA, a contemporary art museum located in the heart of the Berkshire mountains in western Massachusetts. A life size X-ray of a vintage motorcycle and its rider predictably caught my attention. It was fascinating to see a motorcycle up close this way – to visualize the moving parts and how they interacted with rider. It drove home the notion of the motorcycle as an instrument, an extension of ourselves, and the necessity of the two integral components — man and machine — working together in a symphony (or cacophony, depending on what you ride) of moving parts, combustion, and visceral interaction. How the hell does one X-ray a motorcycle? I thought, only to then see an X-ray of an entire bus, people and all. At that point I had to know more about Mr. Veasey.
Nick Veasey exposes the mystery and beauty of what hides beneath the surface in a blunt yet subtly profound way. We were fortunate enough to catch up with Nick and have the chance to — pun intended — take a peek inside his head to learn a little more about his life and work.
IA: I was delighted to discover your work at the MassMOCA. What is your background, and what did you do professionally before your fine art career?
Twenty years ago I was trying to establish myself as a professional photographer before digital photography, when everything was shot on film. I didn't have enough income to say I was a professional photographer and I had to do other things to sustain myself. I was really into experimental photography and I got the opportunity to photograph a Pepsi Cola can for a TV show. It had a promotion on the ring pull: like a Willy Wonka Golden Ticket, if you found the ring-pull with the magic letter on it, you would win 150,000 pounds. The TV show was irreverent and lighthearted, so they wanted an image of How can we cheat? My wife was the graphic designer for the TV show and she came home from one night and said, “I’ve got to find an X-ray of a can. Where am I going to get that done?” The money was good so I said, "Well, I’ll do it." And she said, "No, no, you’ll get me fired." But I found a way, and that changed my life, really.
"When you’re X-raying an object, like a motorcycle, it doesn't matter. We can cook the fuck out of it."
I hired a place that did X-rays, and they did industry as well as medicine. The machines used in industry give you a much higher resolution image than the medical X-rays. The medical machines are designed to minimize radiation exposure because radiation is cumulative and dangerous. When you’re X-raying an object, like a motorcycle, it doesn't matter. We can cook the fuck out of it.
IA: I guess that begs the question, are there dangers associated with the creation of your images?
Absolutely, it’s a dangerous thing. I have a license from the government, my building has walls that are 28 inches thick of solid concrete, a door made of lead that weighs 2,500 lbs., and the X-rays are all done in that environment, and I’m outside in the safe room. It’s kind of like when you get an X-ray at the dentist and they leave the room while the X-ray is going on and comes back into the room when it’s over.
IA: You said that X-raying changed your life? In what way? Was it like an epiphany? Once you did it did you immediately think, wow, there’s something to this?
For all those budding photographers out there who think the answer is to pick a digital camera and push the button, the beauty of photography, the magic of photography is seeing it happen in front of you. The alchemy of photography. It’s a process where you have nothing but a sheet of black film, and then it appears out of the dark in front of you. The sense of excitement and anticipation and frustration is addictive.
Also, when I was going around with my portfolio of my more conventional photographs, instead of these advertising guys looking at their watch and yawning when I showed the photos, when you bring an X-ray out, they were like Wow, have you done this? Can you do that? What about this? Just by the reaction, I knew it was valuable.
IA: You took that idea and put it into a gallery. What was your first foray into fine art?
I’ve been doing it for 20 years, and the first 13-14 years were mostly commercial. Mostly selling shit. As one door started closing, another started opening. I got better at it. I understood the process technically, and started thinking more cerebrally about what I was doing and made it into fine art, which is much more fun, but much less lucrative.
IA: When did you X-ray your first motorcycle, and what was the impetus for X-raying them?
I saw a vintage motorcycle run a couple summers back and I thought, Wow, they’re elegant things. I don’t particularly like to X-ray up-to-date objects. If I X-ray the iPhone 6, by the time it’s published, the iPhone 7 is out. It’s better to look back and celebrate the way man has shown innovation and design skill and excellence. In the early days of the 20th century, you see the great leaps forward they were making. Because they’re more open in design, the big frame with a little engine, it’s nice. You can enjoy what’s going on. I just thought it’d be nice to celebrate the engineering through the history of motorcycles.
I went to my local vintage motorcycle club, which met in a pub once a month, and they gave me the floor for ten minutes and I showed them a car that I x-rayed and said I’d like to collaborate with them if they'd bring their bikes along, and luckily, several of them did!
IA: Are you a motorcyclist yourself?
I haven’t ridden a bike for 15 years. I used to ride an XL 185 trail-bike. It was great, but I lived right in the city of London, and on a Thursday night, all the city boys would get drunk and although I had the bike chained up, they used to drag down the street and stuff, and the second time I had it fished out of the river by the police, they sent me a bill twice the value of the bike. That was the day I gave up on riding. But I must admit — these sexy custom things, I’m quite tempted, because I once rode on the back of a Kawasaki 1000cc and it shit the pants off me, but these custom bikes don’t look too stupid.
IA: Some of them are a little more practical in some ways. In other ways, not so much. They do tend to be smaller displacement and therefore a tad more manageable.
They’re beautiful things.
IA: They’re approaching art in some ways.
The way I read it, a lot of the people that do are professional people who have an alter ego. In their evening and weekends, they like to let their hair down, metaphorically speaking.
IA: What are you most interested in portraying in your art? Are you more interested in inanimate objects, engineering and design, or lifeforms, or on some level, are you trying to draw a parallel between the two?
The obvious metaphor in the work is that there’s beauty in everything if you look hard enough. These bikes are beautiful things anyway. They’re very aesthetically pleasing to my eye, and the X-ray reveals the skill and engineering and it makes you appreciate them more. We’re bombarded with stimulation – YouTube, Twitter, TV, you name it. To compete in that environment is difficult, so I think X-ray is a different way of looking at the everyday. It reveals how fantastic some things are.
IA: Is the there some sort of overarching narrative or story that you’re trying to tell with your body of work?
It’s a statement against superficiality. X-ray has integrity. It shows things from the inside out, and it shows what they really consist of. You can't hide from the X-ray. It will find the truth. If it’s something that has beauty, integrity, and skill, it will reveal that. It doesn’t matter where you live, what you drive, what you wear, what matters is what you’re like on the inside. What’s you become super wealthy, with five houses, and 20 cars, what turns you on? You have to look inside of yourself rather than looking to accumulate stuff.
IA: How do you X-ray a motorcycle? Could you take me through the process?
With an X-ray machine, electrons are bounced around in a vacuum and then come out through a hole in a column and are sprayed at a 40-degree angle. I use film because it allows me to scan them at any resolution I want, and I show these in galleries life-size, 1:1, so they’re about eight feet wide. Because the image is life-size on film, the tail that wags my dog is the fact that the film’s largest size is 14x17 inches, so to X-ray a motorcycle that is broken down into 14x17-inch sections means there’s about 35 sections. They’re all processed individually, then scanned individually, and then they’re all put together in Photoshop.
IA: I take it that the Boeing was the largest undertaking to date? Was that your Everest?
Yeah, it took a year. I’m looking back on it now, and it was done just before 9/11, for United Airlines. I had an introduction from the man who did the purchase orders for the airline and, at the time, they were building 30 777s, which cost $800 million each, so it was a fair chunk of business for Boeing. So when this guy made the introduction, he said, “Help this crazy guy X-ray this 777.” So we kind of forced the people into helping me. If I said today, “Hey, I need a plane to X-ray,” I’m sure they could find a lot of other things to do with it other than send it to me.
IA: What is your current project?
Fashion. It’s normally glamorous models in unusual locations, but I just like to X-ray the clothes in isolation to show how well they’re made, or not. Then you start to think about how the clothes transform the personality. What you wear when you ride your bike is different than what you wear to a job interview. I’d also like to do some more bikes and cars.
IA: Who do you look to for inspiration?
The biggest inspiration for me is a woman named Bridget Riley. She’s got to be getting on to 90 years old. She’s a British painter that broke through in the Op-Art Movement (a style of art that employs optical illusions), so when you look at it you get all these visual effects from the painting. She’s been doing it all her life, and she’s stuck to her guns. She’s been hot, then not, then hot again, and I believe it’s a metaphor for what I do, because I just X-ray stuff. Lots of artists jump from one technique to another technique or one idea to another idea. I just keep plowing ahead with the same thing. It may be a mistake, but it’s what I want to do. That’s why she inspires me, because she stuck to her guns, and that’s what I’m going to do: stick to my guns.
IA: There’s an integrity in that. You’re saying you’re willing to fail, rather than trying to compete with the trends.
I’m 52. I’ve been around the block, man. I don’t really care about being cool anymore.
This article was originally featured in Issue #020 of Iron & Air Magazine