I often start these intros with a thought about how or where I know each interviewee or their work. My problem this time is that I cannot remember for the life of me where I first saw the photographs of Niki Boon. I’m going to have to say that it was most likely on social media, but not exactly sure of the specific instance. I thought that maybe it was because she was from a rural part of New Zealand, and that I was just not getting the news about her as efficiently and thoroughly as I felt I should. Because of this lack of information, she seems to be a bit of an enigma to me. I like that intrigue and lack of accessibility. Now, mind you, this may only be my own perspective on this initial introduction to her work, but it really doesn’t matter because of how much I love what she’s doing. She has this shroud of mystery about her while imbuing the photographs of her children with the same feeling. While describing Niki’s imagery this way, I would also say they are dramatic, energetic, and quite certainly fun - just as childhood should be. She hasn’t forgotten what life was like when something as simple as a swimming hole could dictate the days thrilling and emotional events. Her images are vivid and full of life. Basically, Niki just gets down to business and continues to make the work and ignore the noise. As an aesthetic and vision of what she chooses to accomplish, her work is perfectly composed and refined. For being around a relatively short time, there is no mistaking one of her photographs for someone else’s.
The idea to conduct this interview came with my realization that she had recently received gallery representation with Obscura Gallery, in Santa Fe, and was about to have her first solo exhibition ever in the U.S. To see her receive representation in the U.S. gallery market seems like a victory for all concerned - a win-win, if you will. Personally, I don’t know why someone wouldn’t want to include her in their roster. It just seems like a no-brainer, and I’m expecting to see and hear so much more from her in the coming years. Finally, right? So anyway, here we are about to embark on the journey that Niki will be taking us on with her images, and again, finally, I will be able to find out who she is and what keeps her so focused on her work at hand. I’m personally honored to have the chance to help spread the word and get some questions answered. An enigma no more, Niki.
Bio - Niki Boon lives on a rural farm with her family in Marlborough, New Zealand. Boon’s photographic work was born from her intense desire to document her family’s days as they pursue an alternative education and lifestyle in a rural environment on top of the East coast of the South island of New Zealand. The images reveal an intimate portrait into the family’s lifestyle and homeschooling that this rural environment has nurtured.
Michael Kirchoff: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me during such a busy time of traveling and exhibitions, Niki, I truly appreciate you sharing your story. My start here is your start - what led you to take on photography as an occupation and a passion? Did your curiosity begin at an early age?
Niki Boon: Photography happened as a happy accident for me. I was working in Scotland as a physiotherapist, and enrolled in a darkroom course to help pass the time on the weekends of a miserably dreary winter, and fell in love with the process. Spending the best part of all four winters I was there in the darkroom. I put the camera away again when I returned to New Zealand, and for many years only picked it up again with the birth of our first child.
My curiosity for people though, started much younger, and I guess I never really thought about it until you asked this question. My interest in books has always been around autobiographies, or human relationships. Films I have been drawn to have also always been around human relationships, with each other and/or their worlds. So, I guess an exploration of human relationships was always where I was going to naturally gravitate to.
MK: I know that the first place I became familiar with your work was through social media, yet I don’t see much of this work on your own website. Why is this, and is social media the only promotional tool that has been important in terms of getting your images in front of people?
NB: This is in part due to my own incompetence and discipline around my use of websites. I actually have two websites, one for my client work (families), and one for my personal work. Neither one gets the love or time they deserve from me, and thus represent very little of what I have been doing lately - but thank you for the swift reminder to do something about this.
Social media has been a powerful tool for me, but I admit to being completely unaware of how powerful it could be initially. Living in rural New Zealand, it is difficult to make face to face contact with other artists and social media opened up a community for me that gave so much support for my work, and for my personal growth as an artist.
MK: Your work is significant for its examination and documentation of your own children and their upbringing. The photographs are seen as honest portrayals of a childhood with incredible freedom and unlimited expression, but for me at least, there is also a mysterious aspect found within them. Do you feel that this is true, and is this an aspect of the images that you might feel important as well?
NB: Yes. I think for me, that is part of what I discovered about my own work that kept me exploring photographically. I think this, in part, was elements of myself coming through the pictures and my own reflection of childhood. I have always wanted to show my kids the freedom they had in their childhood, but also wanted to explore other aspects of childhood that exist - at least for me, the loneliness, the confusion, and the complexity of growing up.
MK: What was the spark that inspired you to begin photographing your children in the way that you do? Was there a particular person or event involved?
NB: The pictures evolved originally from a decision to remove the children (well, two children at the time) from the mainstream education system, and educate them at home, and also the move from a more formal home-schooling approach to more of a self-led style of education. Initially, this was met with a lot of questions from friends and family, and the pictures were initially a way of showing everyone they were ok and learning was happening. But, if I was being really honest, I guess they were also a way to reassure myself that they were ok.
MK: The wonder and curiosity of childhood is shown as strictly black and white in all of your work. Why is that, and is color something that perhaps gives too much away? How did this aesthetic develop over time?
NB: Black and White has long held a fascination for me. I am not sure exactly the specifics of the appeal, but I do think the absence of colour adds another layer of mystery and question to the pictures.
MK: What is it that you get out of creating photographs? Is there an overriding theme in your process that you feel best represents you as an artist?
NB: I have never really explored this too much before. I have always treasured the ability to reflect on my days through my pictures I make. Also, to reflect on each child, how they present in pictures and our journey together as a unit, their relationships with each other, and with their world.
To be honest, I’m not sure there is an overriding theme that best represents me as an artist, or at least, I am not brave enough to have even suggested it.
MK: The documenting of your children seems as much a collaboration in the sense that they are allowing you to be a part of their world without any pushback. Do you think this will continue as they get older, and do you ever wonder how they will perceive the images once they are grown?
NB: Well, my eldest are now 14 and 15 and there is no sign of pushback yet, and I guess they don’t have any reason to.
I am forever grateful for their openness to be diving into their world in an intimate way with my camera. To date, they don’t spend any time with their pictures. I guess, like all kids, they live in the moment and have no time to reflect on the past. I haven’t any aspirations for how I want the pictures to be perceived by them in the future. I have no control over this, as they are theirs to do with as they wish.
MK: Any thoughts on whether or not one of your children picks up your camera one day and turns their gaze upon you? Do any of them have an interest in photography?
NB: None of them have shown any interest in photography, but should I be photographed by any of them in the future I should imagine that will be a very interesting experience indeed.
MK: Does it feel odd to you that other people are interested in owning photographs of your children? Do you ever look to what other photographers are doing in the way they make photographs of their family?
NB: Yes, oh definitely yes! And this is probably why it has taken me so long to come around to actually going ahead with a gallery exhibit. It was a shift in perspective that changed my thinking when a friend of mine pointed out that I owned, Immediate Family by Sally Mann, and also several other books by photographers that photographed people I did not know. I treasured them all for the art, and for how the art had influenced or moved me in some way.
MK: Is there anything about your creative process that you feel people miss or are misinformed about?
NB: I guess I do get asked often about how or whether I pose the children for the pictures, and for the most part I don’t. I have been known to ask them to repeat what they are doing if I find it interesting, but even if I do, and they do, it’s never as interesting, raw, or organic as the first time they did it . So, very really does a picture ever come of it.
MK: Anyone working in an artistic field has matured and grown over time. Is there anything you’ve discovered lately that you’d like people to know about you or your creative process?
NB: As life evolves, self-growth in inevitable and I believe it is this that informs the art, but I am not particularly good at examining the specifics of the growth in the art. I’m happy to just let it happen as it will, and occasionally to observe it in retrospect if I am ever looking back on my pictures.
MK: You’ve mentioned that you have a passion for travel that rivals that of your kids or photography. Do you feel that travel and exploration are an important aspect of your creative spirit?
NB: My passion for travel has existed for some time. I recently found some writing of mine for a school study when I was 10, with my ‘life goal ‘ being ‘to travel the world’, so, I guess the desire started early. I am not sure exactly how it impacts the creative process, only that travel undoubtedly results in self-growth, and that this must somehow flow over into any art made.
MK: Your surroundings play an important role in the creation of your images. It appears that the home environment is given the same freedom as the children to interact with. Is your life in New Zealand a typical one, or one that you have carved out with the specific idea of raising your children there and what is best for them? I wonder if your travels enable you to take equal advantage of the methods you’ve developed in the making of your photographs?
NB: My children have an enormous amount of freedom and I hope that my pictures reflect my celebration of this, as well as being an exploration of their relationship with their environment. It is one that many New Zealand children share. We have a low-density population here in New Zealand, which means there is a lot of land and natural resources for everyone to enjoy and relate to, Although we definitely wanted to encourage this with our purchase of 10 acres of land, we wanted for them to understand what it was to be a part of animal raising, and what it is to grow food.
The travel has only happened in recent years, and has had perhaps less of a long-term impact in their life, but hopefully a bigger one going forward.
MK: This interview comes at a time in the midst of your first solo exhibition at Obscura Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. How was this connection made between you and the gallery, and how have you handled the process of forging this important relationship?
NB: Jennifer Schlesinger reached out to me over a year ago, and I loved her and her approach to the art world as soon as she made contact. I hope I and my art has lived up to her expectations.
MK: With the recent successes and recognition your work has received, do you feel that this puts any further pressure on you to continue on the trajectory you’ve mapped out for yourself? Is success just as much a distraction as it is a help to the working artist?
NB: Yes, for sure. I don’t know if I have the capacity as an artist to continue on this trajectory. I have resigned not to fight this, or feel threatened by it, and just to live alongside it and keep my mind open to all that might present to me, and to stay curious.
I am lucky living down here close to the bottom of the world, on our 10-acre property where kids’ needs, and animal and plant needs are real. Any hint of ‘success’ in the art world doesn’t exist, so cannot be a distraction.
MK: You’ve had some time off to travel lately, as well as a solo exhibition of your fine art photographs - what’s next for your photography once you land at home?
NB: Nothing definite at this stage for future plans…following a few curiosities.
MK: I want to thank you for sharing your words and images with me, Niki. Your photographs remind me of my own early days when things were simpler, without prejudices or worry or the daily stress of just “being”. I love that about them, and I appreciate the efforts you have put forth in sharing them with a world just as grateful. Congratulations on your exhibition, I look forward to seeing the prints on my next journey to Santa Fe.
NB: Michael, thank you for the thought provoking questions. They encouraged me to think beyond the pictures, and much deeper into my process and my why. It wasn’t easy, but worth every bit of time I put into it.