West Virginia native Nic Persinger makes photos of people, landscapes and objects, but he considers them all portraits. Taking photos almost exclusively in his home state, Persinger says he used to approach photography with a point to make. Lately, though, he’s content to wander through West Virginia with a sense of curiosity.
Daily Yonder: Where did you grow up? Tell us a little bit about your background.
Nic Persinger: I grew up in a secluded West Virginia town called Richwood. It is surrounded on all sides by mountains and is right on the edge of the Monongahela National Forest. In many ways, it's a stereotypical Appalachian small town—one stoplight, too many churches for the dwindling population, impoverished—but it's also home to me and it's where most of my family still resides. It's eccentric and full of eccentrics—and there's no place more important to me.
DY: Where do you live now?
NP: Once I finished high school, I left West Virginia for college at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, DC. About 4 years ago I moved to Morgantown, West Virginia with my wife, and I have been here ever since. It's sometimes a little sleepy for our liking but we've grown pretty fond of the area. It's not much like the West Virginia I knew growing up, but it's a happy medium between my upbringing and bigger cities. I can easily drive to DC, and Pittsburgh is just a stone's throw North. But in turn, I can also escape to the woods and hollers in no time at all traveling South.
DY: On your website, you write that you document the back roads of the rural south. Why are you drawn to photographing these places?
NP: My longing for home has always been a part of me ever since I left. I go back and photograph people and places that echo memories, whether mine or others'. Lately I've become kind of strict about only making photographs in West Virginia. I'm not entirely sure why I'm compelled by that, but I like it. I've also noticed that recently, I'm drawn to places worn with use by people but where no one exists any longer. To be honest, I'm not sure I've lived enough to know exactly what pulls me back again and again. It's something I think about daily, but sometimes it's good not knowing the answer.
DY: What’s your process like when you’re taking pictures? How do you find your subjects, whether they’re places or people, and how long do you spend with them?
NP: I like to wander. I'll go on a car or motorcycle ride down some road, park, and explore. I talk to people I run into and swap stories. I find places that remind me of certain things and make photographs of them. I'm pretty democratic with subjects. People and places hold the same value to me. It's all for the sake of a bigger narrative. I think that shows in my work. In my mind I only take portraits, even if the subject is not a person.
DY: Tell us about your series few things are certain.
NP: few things are certain is a body of work I made that revolved around the death of my grandfather. Few things in my life, people or events, have shaped me as a person like my Papaw. He was a hell of a man. The photographs were all taken between home in Richwood and home in Morgantown during my numerous trips to see him, and in the end to lay him to rest. That series was hard to make. I feel fortunate to have an outlet to let myself seek closure during times like that, but closure definitely doesn't come easily. During the time that show was traveling, I was really touched to hear (via email and notes left in gallery guestbooks) how many visitors had experienced the same grief as me and were moved in some way by the series. That work tore my heart out, but now I look at it with fond memories.
DY: You have another series called Strange Native. Both few things are certain and Strange Native seem to be about wandering in places close to your home and heart. Why do you think this theme is important for you?
NP: I like “close to your home and heart.” I think it fits with my work. The wandering has been a more recent way of working. I used to try to really map out ideas and have a strict thesis going into things, and that seemed to always make me miserable and burn out before finishing anything. At the advice of a close friend, I decided to take things more as they came and make photographs more organically. I still work around the idea of a narrative but I take a more scientific approach to working, in that I head into art-making with curiosity rather than a point to make. This method has also proved to make it easier to have my ideas come to fruition. For the last 3 years I've been photographing two major themes. One is my obsession with Bernard Coffindaffer, his vision from God, and the crosses he scattered everywhere. He actually grew up one town away from me, too. The other idea is a little less confined. I've been photographing Richwood and my family thoroughly and I'm getting to the point where I can see changes in my subjects as my archive grows. Some changes are good, some are bad, but all beautiful in a way.