A Disquieting Beauty: The Photography of Nathanael England
To those who know him, photographer Nathanael England is the sort of rising star that you’re not surprised to see shooting into the sky. His is a dark constellation, though, seemingly made of all the things we darklings love. Beyond his photography, he also works as a sideshow performer, is involved with an antique and oddities shop full of bones and specimens, and drives a damned hearse. But it’s his photographs that made us fall in love. They are in turn serene, haunting, gory, sexy, disturbing, and beautiful. We sat down with Nathanael to hear what drives him and his work (beyond the hearse, of course).
Dear Darkling: You’ve had a pretty interesting, varied life. What sort of path brought you to photography?
Nathanael: Both of my parents are artists, and were always supportive of any artistic efforts that I pursued.
I grew up with decades worth of National Geographic issues that came from my grandparents on both sides, and fell in love with the photos within. They made me aware of a much broader view of the world than what I had previously been exposed to. It made me want to become a photojournalist, and my parents gave me my first 35mm when I was around 10 or so.
A couple of years after I moved to Minneapolis, I decided to finally use my [Navy] GI Bill to go back to college, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to major in at the time. There was a welding class that interested me, and I needed to be a welding major to take it, so that’s what I declared, but I also took accordion lessons, a child development class, and some photography classes. Before the semester was over, some of my classmates and instructors in the photography program convinced me to change majors, so I did, and that’s pretty much when I stepped firmly onto that path.
A lot of the photography that I was doing at the time was promotional images for the sideshow that I perform in, which was something completely new for the people in the program. They’d never seen things like what I was showing them, and were intrigued by what I was doing, even if it was nothing more than morbid curiosity.
Much of your work seems to rotate around a balance between the beautiful and horrific: for instance, a beautiful woman, shot in a reclining pose, with a live tarantula on her face. Can you speak to that?
I think that there’s a fine line between beauty and the grotesque. On one hand, I’ve seen a few rare people that, mathematically, have perfectly symmetrical features and are paragons of the accepted “normal” beauty standards, and yet they look almost alien, inhuman. On the other hand, I’ve seen serenity and stunning beauty in the face of a corpse. Between my military/search and rescue/sideshow background, I’ve seen some things that a lot of people haven’t, and witnessed beauty in things where I never expected to find it. Beauty that stopped me in my tracks, and pause to take in the scene. Maybe it’s macabre of me, but that’s where I recognize true beauty: in something that makes me stop and take in everything that I see. I like images that haunt me, that I just can’t stop thinking about, even if they’re alarming. I want art to make me FEEL, even if I’m not sure at first what it is that I’m feeling. If I can give that same sense to my own art, I feel like that’s a success.
“I don’t want to make something that someone glances at and says, ‘That’s pretty,’ before quickly moving on to the next thing. I’d rather give someone a visceral reaction, and have them say, ‘What the hell?!?'”
To me, art is about pushing boundaries. LIFE is about pushing boundaries. Personal growth comes from uncomfortable and alien circumstances, and the only way that we can truly discover who we are is by testing our own limitations. That’s what interested me in sideshow in the first place. I was amazed at the things that the human body is capable of enduring and achieving, and I wanted to push my own limits as well. I strive to do the same in other areas of my life, and the art that I create.
One of my favorite models to work with, Katrina Temby (née Haugen), feels very much the same as me in this regard. She and I have been close friends for seven or so years now, and she still manages to impress me when we work together. She’s willing to do whatever is necessary to make art that she’s passionate about, from being covered in hot wax, to being submerged in frigid water until she’s numb, to wearing this god-awful eyelid spreader that’s several ounces of pure steel that weighed enough that it kept falling out of her eye. She’s a kindred spirit that’s in it to push boundaries and blur the lines between the beautiful and the grotesque.
Of your recent work, which was the most challenging to shoot? Which was your favorite?
The Walpurgisnacht shoot was definitely the most challenging shoot that I’ve done thus far. I had put out word that I was looking for multiple female models of all ages (at least 18), and all body types, to do a nude shoot out in the woods, and I honestly didn’t expect very many volunteers for it. I ended up with over fifty women contacting me, from all over the country, most of whom I’d never even met before. I was stunned that so many people were interested in it.
Being a location shoot out in the woods, with mixed lighting sources, thirteen models, and the general nature of the shoot and what I was going for, that was undoubtedly the trickiest shoot I’ve ever done. I’m thrilled with the outcome, but I really had to work for it.
One of my favourites was probably “A Prayer to Witkin.” It was a shoot that started off as a very different concept. Katrina, one of the models, showed me these fantastic heels that she had recently picked up, and I knew that I wanted to utilize them in a shoot. After a bit of thought, I decided to contact a mutual friend of ours, Ron Stamp, who does performances by letting women in heels dance on his body. It seemed natural to use Ron for the heel shoot, but then I decided to contact another performer that I had recently worked with, Jenna, who is a contortionist. As I figured out the scene in my head, it seemed appropriate to use this cast to make an homage to Joel-Peter Witkin, who has long been a favourite of mine. Katrina is also a huge fan, so she was extremely excited about the idea. I introduced the rest of the crew to his work, and everyone was really into the idea. I had so much fun playing around with the concept, and I had such a phenomenal crew working with me. It was an absolute pleasure, and a shoot that I’m very happy with how it turned out.
Any big plans? Anything interesting coming up?
Well, I’m currently working on several series projects. One is a tarot project, which I know is going to take quite some time to complete, but I’m really excited about it. Another is inspired by the spirit photography of the Spiritualist movement. There are some other projects that I’m working on as well, but I don’t want to say too much about those just yet. I very rarely have only one or two projects going on at a time. I like to stay busy.
As far as upcoming things go, I have a solo art show on October 16th at Norseman Distillery in Northeast Minneapolis. They’ve asked me to hang 50-60 pieces, so I’ll have a rather broad range of things on display there. [As of this writing, the show is still on display, and will be hanging until November 5.]
“I just want to make art that makes you feel, and I’m thankful for the people that allow me to do just that.”