Leica Camera and Nikki Sixx, bassist and founding member of Mötley Crüe and three-time New York Times best-selling author, have combined their enthusiasm for photography and rich visual storytelling with two new releases in October. Leica Camera will debut a special Leica Q “Nikki Sixx Edition” camera, as well as host the musician’s first-ever photo exhibition, Conversations with Angels, at the Leica Gallery Los Angeles.
Leica Camera USA caught up with Nikki to talk photography and his love for the Leica Q.
What camera and equipment do you use?
I’ve used a lot of cameras over the years and the Leica Q and the Leica SL are my two favorites. When I got my hands on the Q it opened up all these opportunities for me. I was shooting with an M Typ 240 before and with an M Monochrom. Both are amazing cameras and I’ve acquired a lot of lenses over the years but it gave me an opportunity to have a camera that could shoot autofocus. For a lot of the situations I’m in, I’ll have two or three cameras with me. Sometimes on the street there’s a lot of action happening and you’re trying to catch up with your focus. So when I got the Q, I was able to have a camera that I would leave on my wrist. I would be shooting with the M Typ 240 and the M Monochrom and then I could kind of grab some other shots. That’s how it started with me and the Leica Q. Then I started realizing how powerful it was. It has a 28mm lens. I love it wide and I like to be really close to my subject if I can get in to within a few feet. I think that tells the story. I don’t like to be a voyeur. I don’t like to be on the other side of the room. I want to be as close to you as I can. That 28mm is a beautiful lens and it’s really sharp. For the SL I was able to use all my old lenses and it has the focus peaking, which is fantastic for my eyes. I have bad eyes. It’s really sharp and the files are massive. I’m using those and I have an M7 for my film, which I take out when I go and shoot but the SL and Q, those are my babies.
Just out of curiosity, do any of these people ever recognize who you are?
Sometimes they do. I talk a lot to my subjects. I spend more time with my subjects talking than I do shooting them. The idea is to start a conversation and then capture it. Whether they are going through a bad time or they’re in a bad situation and they have hope, they have an idea or dream how to get out. If I can capture that I’m doing them justice. But sometimes I’m talking to people and they’ll say, “You look like you’re in a rock band” and I’ll say, “Yeah, I am” but I’ll try and down play it because that does detour the conversation a little bit. Sometimes the cat gets out of the bag and that can actually be fun. Especially with some people, who you wouldn’t think would know who Nikki Sixx is, then they’ll say, “I know you from 1987” and they’ll name the “Girls, Girls, Girls” video.
How would you describe your photography?
I feel like my photography is storytelling. I’m a natural-born storyteller. That’s why I do a radio show, that’s why I write books and that’s why I’m a lyricist. I just love it. So the camera is an extension of that passion and I think people are just fascinating. A lot of times people will say, “How many times can you shoot people in said situation?” but each person is completely different. The personalities are different, the eyes, the color of their hair, the color of their skin, where they come from, their accents and if I can get that in one shot I feel like this rush comes over my body. It’s like when I nail a perfect lyric, I’m like, “Wow! Where did that come from?” I remember Keith Richards said once that he didn’t write anything, he was just the medium and he channeled it from somewhere else and I feel like that when I’m out shooting. I go out. I get out of my car and I have my backpack and my cameras and I head into this thing, not knowing what’s going to happen and this magic appears.
What inspires you to photograph your subject matter?
My passion for street photography comes, I believe, from the fact that I was a teenage runaway. I will never tell you I‘ve experienced what it’s like to be homeless. I know what it’s like to sleep in a park and not have a home, to be couch-surfing and looking for a place to live when I was younger. There’s something there for me. I feel for these people. The other side of it is that I’m a recovering drug addict and there’s a lot of addiction on the street. I can relate to that. I feel like I want to help. I really feel like I want to help. I have a really beautiful life but I’m just a few slips away from being in a really horrible place and I need to remember that and at the same time I feel like a lot of people I run into are just a couple of decisions away from getting out of the place they’re in.
When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression and an art form?
I always loved photography. I remember being in school and in history and seeing these photos from all around the world. Specifically, I remember seeing a photo from Japan and there were all these cherry blossoms and I starred at that photo. I was in Idaho and I got to see what Japan was like. There was no Internet. There was no Instagram. That was as close as I would ever get. We lived in a trailer in Jerome, Idaho – population 4000 people. Photography gave me the ability to travel without leaving the place I never thought I would get out of. So I started there and once I became able to travel the first thing that I did was buy myself a camera.
What was your first camera?
My first camera wasn’t a Leica! But I actually can’t remember. I got myself a video camera. A big video camera and I carried that thing with me and the band was always like, “Stop pointing that thing at me!” and I just wanted to document everything. Taking pictures, I couldn’t wait to get my photos back, getting them developed, but I didn’t know what I was doing. And that’s important. To not know what you’re doing is OK. I think it’s so OK. People get so scared of just taking pictures and showing them to somebody. Just shoot! I don’t care if it’s on a phone, I don’t care what it is. Capture stuff. See if you can get something that no one else has. And if you’re lucky, you can get a good camera and you can study and you can watch yourself get better, and if you’re really lucky you end up with a Leica someday. To me that’s it. That’s the Super Bowl!
Was there a photographer that influenced you growing up?
I’m influenced in a lot of interesting ways, by a lot of street photographers and a lot of beat generation writers. I’m influenced by writers, whose stories I want to re-enact, to follow the story and try to get that type of picture. I also loved Joel-Peter Witkin early on. I think I loved Joel’s work because it was dangerous. He really rattled me because he was willing to shoot things that were outside the box. I think how that influenced me was to not be scared. A friend of mine said, “Hey Nikki, when you go out to shoot it’s like hand-to-hand combat.” I get in it. I mean I sit in it. I sit in the alleys. I hang out with people, who are shooting up. I sit in the tents with them and watch the women breast-feed their babies and tell me their stories and I don’t pick up my camera out of respect. I want to get close to it. I want to feel it. I want to feel my heart racing and when the moment’s right, if they let me, I want to get that picture. Those photographers like Joel, they went for it. That’s what I do with my music, with my lyrics. I love to go for it. I love that feeling. That rush.
How were you first introduced to Leica?
I knew about Leica cameras and I would go into the camera store. I would see them and I was a little bit intimidated. I went in about three or four times. I picked up an M6, the guy let me take it out and shoot a few roles. I came back and I bought it. I used to get up at 5:30 in the morning, set my alarm and drive down the coast. I would walk down this long trail so that I could be near the ocean and I would just sit there, taking pictures of the water crashing. I would get my photos back and I could see everything in the water. It was so crisp. It was so beautiful. I fell in love with that camera and I started using it in everyday life, as well as starting to explore more street photography.
Can you tell us a little bit about the story behind your upcoming show with the Leica Gallery LA, “Conversations with Angels”?
We were talking about what to call the show and I was thinking about all the different things that I’ve been able to do over the years. I think it boiled down to the fact that when I shoot, I’m having conversations with angels. I go out and I don’t have a plan. I have a couple of cameras. I have an idea of where I’m going to go. I don’t actually even know the exact place I’m going to go. I say I’m going to go downtown, name the city. I’m going to park and I’m going to walk. If I’m really lucky I’m going to meet somebody and were going to have a conversation. I’m going to try and capture something. I feel like we have these conversations, back and forth. There are these angels, who I meet all around the world. I have a camera and there are these angels out there, and I know it sounds kind of crazy but I really feel like it fits.
Do you ever get any kind of creative block and what advice would you give to emerging photographers?
I struggle with focus. If I’m going to shoot three hundred shots. I’ll shoot a hundred of them out of focus on purpose. There are these photographers from years ago, I look at their work and it’s so beautiful but it’s so out of focus. But when I do that I feel like I’m not a good photographer. It has to be spot on. So I struggle with that. I know how to pull out of people that special thing, that expression. But that’s the one thing I struggle with.
My advice for people, who want to pick up photography and even those who’ve been doing it for a long time is, “Never stop shooting and always have your camera with you”. If you leave your camera at home it’s going to be the worst day of your life because you are going to miss the shot. You will miss it. I can guarantee you will miss it! I can only tell you this because it’s happened to me. I was going to this gig in Prague and it was two minutes from the hotel. We were late, I ran down to the lobby, got in the van to do the show and then on the way to the arena, there was the shot and I missed it. So never leave your camera behind. The other thing is to shoot at different angles. I learned this from my daughter when she was about 6 years old. I gave her a little disposable camera and she was taking pictures of everything. She got them developed and I was like, “This stuff is unbelievable!” Well, she was small. I spend a lot of time on my knees. A lot of time with my butt on the ground, lying on my side. I’ve had my friends tell me “You know you’re lying in urine, dude?!” and I’m like, “I have to to get the shot!” and that’s the thing. Always shoot. Over shoot. Shoot at different angles and have your camera with you all the time.
The special Leica Q “Nikki Sixx Edition” camera will be unveiled on October 4, exclusively at the Leica Store LA, while Conversations with Angels will be showing from October 4 through November 5, 2017 at Leica Gallery LA.
Proceeds from all sales of Nikki Sixx’s gallery exhibits depicting homelessness will benefit Covenant House California, Los Angeles to raise funds for a photography room and program for Covenant House residents.