The Legendary Graham Nash Talks Photography, Music, and More

Graham Nash 2013 - credit Eleanor Stills
Photo Credit: Eleanor Stills

On Monday night, an exclusive group of photography aficionados and music lovers gathered for a very special experience downtown at the San Francisco Art Exchange. The event was in honor of the illustrious musician and photographer, Graham Nash. Currently Nash’s black and white images, which feature intimate moments of the private lives of many of the 70’s most iconic singers and songwriters — David Crosby, Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell to name a few — are on exhibit at the Fine Art Gallery at Mumm Napa Winery. Monday’s viewing and private concert was in celebration of the extension of the Napa exhibit, which now runs through May 31.

Against a chocolate brown wall with a photo of him in his glory days, Nash performed a small set of songs: several old Crosby, Stills, and Nash favorites and a few yet-to-be-released numbers from his upcoming solo album with guitarist Shane Fontayne. “This is the first time I’ve played music with my photos on the wall,” Nash said, gesturing to his framed snapshots which filled the walls, “I feel like a virgin.”

The highlight of the night was when Nash explained how he came up with the lines for Our House, before breaking out in the tune and singing it for the very first time ever without piano accompaniment. “One day I was having breakfast with Joni Mitchell in the Valley in LA. This is when we were dating. We walked out of the shop and passed by a little antique store and she saw this vase that she wanted. So we went inside and she bought it. When we got home, I said, ‘I’ll light the fire, you place the flowers in the vase that you bought today,’ and I thought, hey that would be good…” Nash described of the moment when he came up with the idea of the iconic song.

Before he got up on stage, the 73-year old white haired, swearing Englishman clad in a blue and green plaid shirt and black pants sat down with us for a quick interview. Here is what he had to say on everything from current political issues to his favorite spots in San Francisco.

Self Portrait, 1974
Photo Credit: Graham Nash. Self Portrait, 1974

How does music influence your photography? And vice versa?

I’m not so sure I know the answer to that. I know there is a link between photography and music. If I’m looking at an image by Ansel Adams, say of Moonrise over Hernandez, I can imagine when I look at it and I can hear violins playing and when I look at the dark places, I imagine cellos. To me the world is a giant column of energy and we have to ask ourselves “where do I want to to plug in today?”

Tell me about this collection of photographs. How did you choose them? 
I never choose anything. I’m not interested in my opinion. Theron [Theron Kabrich, the San Francisco Art Exchange’s creative director] knows this gallery and I trust him. You do have to be careful when you put one image next to the other. You’ve got to make sure they can have a conversation or speak to one another.

Is there any photograph in particular that is especially memorable?
That’s really the case with every image, but there are several in this particular curation. The portrait I took of Joni thinking — I love that one. The portrait of Neil in his car on a road. The one of David alone before the concert.

You started collecting photos when you were 11. When did you first pick up a guitar?
When I was 13.

Do consider yourself more of a musician or photographer? 
Um, let me think. I feel like I am both a musician and a photographer. Or can’t we just say that I am an artist?

Who were your early musical influences?
Elvis, Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers, Little Richard, and Gene Vincent.

What about for photography? Who influenced you in that aspect?
Diane Arbus. She is hands down my favorite photographer.

What’s your advice to budding photographers? 
Fu*k. Advice from me? Not so sure that’s a good idea. . . Keep your eyes open.

And to musicians? 
Keep your heart open.

What kind of songs or music are your favorite to perform live? 
Quite frankly, I always love to perform Suite: Judy blue Eyes.

Neil Young at Stephen Stills' House, in Studio City CA,1970
Photo Credit: Graham Nash. Neil Young at Stephen Stills’ House, in Studio City CA, 1970

These days what kind of music or art form do you turn to for inspiration?
I find inspiration in many ways and in many places. I like genius, humor, irony — all the things that keep you interested in an image.

What’s one thing that always gets you laughing? 
I’m not a guy that laughs a lot. This is a fault of mine. Hmmm. Maybe a lot of Monty Python?

The Grammys were last night. How do you think the world of music has changed since you started in the business? 
We never got into this business to get awards. We got into it to communicate and get laid.

You’ve had a long history of activism. What are you currently focusing on?
The most overwhelming problem we face today is climate change. It may be way too late to do anything about it. We have let politics dominate things, but the truth is climate change could wipe out human beings. We need to make people more aware of the situation.

The song Teach Your Children is one of your most iconic songs and its message is as relevant today as it was 45 years ago. Do you think there is the same generational divide/misunderstanding between youth and their elders today?
Good question. Yes. I think it all starts with love. If kids these days just realized how much they are loved by their parents. If they knew how much it costs in respect of funds and feeding them, they would realize how much their parents love them. It’s also sad, really. We don’t seem to have the same relevance to elders now as we used to. We don’t see the knowledge that older people have. Young people don’t value that.

When you come to San Francisco, where do you like to go? 
Mamas — I love mamas! I used to go there a lot. The Great American Music Hall, Grace Cathedral, the Japanese garden in Golden Gate Park. The Apple Store; I always go to the Apple store when I’m in town now.