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August 29th, 2008

PORTRAIT OF A PHOTOGRAPHER: THE POLITE VANITY OF NIKOLA TAMINDZIC.

by Joelle Panisch

When Nikola Tamindzic trudged into the East Village coffee shop, shaken by the sudden May showers, I was surprised that I found him to be, of all things, elegant. Tall, with a carved face, Serbian born Tamindzic wore a camera around his neck and indistinguishable attire. He shook off the rain and smiled. He is less like the “taller, rather more mobile version of Larry Flynt” that he once was quoted describing himself as and more of a gentle giant. He seemed sincere.

Tamindzic is probably used to defying expectations. His website is titled “Home of the Vain,” and his reputation doesn’t veer far off. His fame is firmly rooted in nightlife photography, having the innate talent to unearth a soft humanity in partygoers’ seemingly impervious vanity. “I was drawn to people who go out on a limb and are ridiculous,” he said. “You may go home to your shitty little apartment at five in the morning but until then you are outside yourself, something more.” Uncouth and raw as the scene may be, Tamindzic’s photographs always uncover a depth.

But his real passion is for portrait photography, as can be seen on his website. Predominantly filled with images of beautiful (and mostly nude) women, it’s no wonder why he’s often considered a controversial force. But the photographs of the women are empathetic and lay across the screen in artful bursts that my friend aptly described as ‘vulnerable chic.” That being said, they are, well, daring. In one split screen shot an image of a large breasted topless woman with semen across her face stands theatrically with bloodied fists raised. On the other side, her counterpart—a defeated looking tattooed guy, slouches as he looks ashamedly at the viewer with a swollen eye and broken nose. And somehow the picture, titled The Lovers, really works.

To call Tamindzic misunderstood would be a mistake because he is far too clever to let his reputation be guided by someone else. His infamy stems from wandering into a Halloween party in a SoHo loft four years ago. At the time he was sleeping on friends’ couches, living out of a suitcase and couldn’t be bothered with a costume. So, to save face he hung his camera around his neck and masqueraded as a ‘photographer.’ It turns out it wasn’t much of a pretense. And it also turns out that the loft was owned by Nick Denton, renowned troublemaker and Editor in Chief of the troublemaking website, gawker.com. After seeing the pictures of the party Tamindzic took and posted online, Denton contacted him and offered an ongoing gig. Almost overnight, he became the darling of Gawker and so began the photographer’s American Dream.

Tamindzic has photographed celebrities such as Annie Lenox, Gina Gershon, Amanda Lepore, Jennifer Lopez, and Eddie Izzard. The Village Voice named him 2006 Nightlife Photographer of the year and he won that same accolade in 2007 by “L” Magazine, Paper Magazine and Junk Magazine. In May of 2008 Eric Konigsberg wrote a feature on him for the New York Times, calling Tamindzic “equal parts Ron Galella, Weegee and Terry Richardson.” That’s sizeable praise.

Tamindzic’s many nightlife triumphs have only amplified his desire to excel. Lucky for him he is never short on inspiration. Throughout his many excursions he had been introduced to a collection of interesting acquaintances, seedy and shallow alike. But what makes him exceptional is his unwillingness to let people be one-dimensional. He needs to see them in a different light, so to speak. That is why Tamindzic took up portrait photography and why he is a professional. And it shows that he, at his core, is compassionate towards his subjects.

When I asked him what it was like to be stationed out of the notoriously unscrupulous Gawker, he said he found very little conflict. “I don’t have any interest in being mean…I remember the first time we were shooting the Meatpacking District, and clearly we have an agenda shooting the Meatpacking District. We had just got there, it was maybe 10pm, and there was a girl already passed out on the street vomiting. My first reflex was to take the photo. My second reflex was to walk around her and take a photo with her face not visible. I gain nothing out of being an asshole.”

Tamindzic approaches print work with the same civility that he uses in clubs, exposing a tenderness that is otherwise barricaded by daily defenses.Whether against a plain white backdrop or skillfully placed in a real setting, his subjects are captured like fireflies in a jar, evoking emotions and transcending the scenes they are in. “Bringing down the walls and the defense,” he said, “you find out what makes the person tick, what makes them afraid, then you try to amplify it to a point in which you see the actual person. And it’s beautiful but messy as hell…”

Portrait sessions last for four hours, two and a half of which are used just for talking. Those, according to him, are the most important. He finds the man behind the curtain, and then takes the picture.

For one shoot, he convinced a woman who wore a contact lens to cover her blind eye to remove it. “I asked her a very compassionate question, ‘would you be interested in taking a photo the way you really look?’ It was coming from the right place. So, she did and she revealed. And this girl who struggled to take one decent photo, not good but decent, nailed every shot.”

Tamindzic’s portraits, so disarming and soulfully powerful, showcase his ability to find the nature of people. But he also possesses an astute craftsmanship, with an eye for composition and lighting that set the tone to a perfect pitch. He utilizes props, architecture, space and color so skillfully that they never distract from the subject but rather meld with them. In No Sleep Till My Mattress is Shot, a mattress with no sheets suddenly has as much character as the couple fornicating on top of it. In Each Dream is an Example, the woman in the green evening dress becomes as alive as the cracked ceilings of the old tenement above her. He has a way of making a landscape as powerful as a nude, and vice versa. Some of his pictures are touchingly untreated. Others are pure fantasy. All are alluringly layered. You feel his photos before you really see them.

Most of the models seek Tamindzic out, lending themselves to naked vulnerability, both figuratively and literally. His work is any heterosexual man’s fantasy, with body parts galore—he clearly is a breast man. But if there ever was a question of the difference between porn and art, Tamindzic answers it decisively. His nudes exude a sexual primitiveness that most porn never comes close to, exploring the many complexities of the body and how it can be used. Nakedness, in all its forms, is showcased without pretense for what it should be.

Perhaps this liberal view of sexuality comes from his Serbian upbringing. He grew up in Belgrade, which at the time was Yugoslavia, and according to Tamindzic sex wasn’t the taboo that it is in our culture. He saw sexuality as accessible and remembers approaching it with curiosity, not shame.

Explaining why one nude (Lights Come on at 3) works, he pointed first to the face, then the breasts, the crotch, and then back to the face. “This is where your eye is drawn. It winds up at her face.” It’s more than just nakedness, more than just sex—it’s psychology.

Sitting across from Tamindzic I wondered how his pictorial eyes were viewing me. “Why is your site called ‘Home of the Vain’?” I asked.

“For many reasons really…But mostly, I’m using vanity like pride. When you actually own who you are or own a trait that you were hiding from before—something you hated—there is tremendous pride, a sense of self-importance when you own it. And it’s okay to be proud about that; it’s okay to be vain.”

To view the works of Nikola Tamindzic please visit www.homeofthevain.com.

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