Art has the power to transport the viewer into a different time, place, and reality. But sometimes, art can transport a viewer into the mind of the artist. Nicolas Bruno’s surreal photography blends the influence of classical painters and modern photography to create eerily beautiful art pieces. Using his haunting experiences with sleep paralysis as the inspiration behind many of his pieces, to look at one of Bruno’s works is to be transported into his psyche. And with his Artist Shop, Nicolas Bruno is using apparel as a whole new canvas for his work.
We talked to Nicolas Bruno about the intersection of his experiences with sleep paralysis and his art, his Artist Shop, and what advice he has for artists and fellow photographers alike. Check out the interview below!
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Tell us a little bit about yourself! How did you first get into photography?
I was born and raised in Northport, New York, a small historical harbor village surrounded by patches of woodland and marshes. I graduated from Purchase College in 2015 where I achieved a BFA in Photography with a minor in Art History. I am currently self employed with my fine art photography while I take on freelance work and commissions. I’ve exhibited my work in various countries around the world and I’m hoping to have a solo show in my home state this coming year. My photographs have appeared on Vice, Juxtapoz, Yahoo!, CNN, and other major news sources.
For most of my life, I have struggled with sleep paralysis. I have experienced extreme terror during these dreams, which include faceless silhouetted figures, embraces from shadow-like hands, warping of reality around me – all while being completely paralyzed in the midst of being awake and sleeping. It has taken a huge toll on my well-being. I used to be terrified to go back to sleep, often not sleeping for two days at a time. At the end of my high school career, my art teacher encouraged me to start keeping a dream journal/sketch book to log my sleep paralysis dreams. This moment gave me the start to begin photographing my experiences that I had documented.
Your work is so eerily beautiful – how did you develop your style? Who inspires you?
I find an immense importance in referencing areas within the history of art. Painting, sculpture, tailoring, and historical fashion are all directly consulted in the creation of my work. I often look to painters and sculptors of the past for inspiration, rather than photographers. By studying the form and execution of these masterful works of art, I will be able to directly improve the way I create the composition of my photographs. Artists like Francisco De Goya, Caspar David Friedrich, and John Atkinson Grimshaw have big influences on my work.
You mentioned your struggle with sleep paralysis and I’ve read that your work is heavily inspired by your experiences. Has bringing these experiences into your artwork helped you cope?
In the beginning, I was completely unaware that my condition had a definition. The intense fear of falling asleep caused me to stay awake for days at a time, which only made things worse by acting as a catalyst for more aggravated episodes. It came to a point where every sleep experience I had would lead to a sleep paralysis episode. In this pit of depression, I felt like I had nowhere to turn for comfort. I would have succumbed to this pit of depression if I did not find creating artwork as an outlet. I’ve been able to reach many other sleep paralysis sufferers with my work, which provides both comfort for me and the viewer to know that we’re not alone with our condition.
That’s really amazing. How do you use your photography and artwork to represent sleep paralysis experiences?
The main challenge that I found was to find a way to accurately depict the visuals and feelings that envelop me within the dreams. My goal is to suffer through these experiences while trying to grasp onto as much information as possible. I am constantly experimenting with visual metaphors to express the physical and emotional aspects of the dreams. In each dream, there is so much information to tap into. I trained myself to “ride out” the dreams in search of what there is to offer. I will implement symbolism to reflect aspects of the dreams, such as the faceless figures with canvas masks and blindfolds, characters submerged in water to represent the drowning sensations, and ladders to express the transition between the world of consciousness and sleep.
Tell us a little bit about your Artist Shop. What made you decide to offer your work on apparel?
I want to give younger fans and others an economical way to obtain my portfolio work that also serves them functionally. I’m offering a selection of my portfolio pieces that have been widely celebrated, and also incorporated some of the pieces that are not included in my regular body of work that translate well on apparel.
Would you recommend Artist Shops to fellow photographers?
Artist Shops gives photographers an exciting avenue to explore the showcasing their work on interesting mediums. It also offers an opportunity for an artist’s supporters to purchase their work in a friendly environment that is cost conscious. I believe that art should be part of everybody’s lifestyle and financially accessible to those who want to help artists grow.
How do you put together a piece of work?
I keep a journal or pad of paper on the edge of my nightstand so I can begin writing about my sleep paralysis experiences. It is crucial to me that I begin documenting the dream the instance that I wake up. I will sketch a quick drawing of what I saw or felt, rather than attempting to describe the experience with words. The act of sketching the dream will inform the format of the final composition for the image that has yet to be photographed. Everything that happens in my images must happen in front of the camera. I strategically shoot a multitude of images on a tripod while I model for the composition as the camera shoots on self-timer or shutter release remote. This allows me to have multiple images and poses to work with. The theatrical aspect of my sleep paralysis experiences sets the stage for the intertwining of historical imagery and conflict. My compositions become more organic when I am free to move about while the shutter is capturing images. At the end of the shoot, I will piece the images together in post, or use one specific image with minimal processing.
Do not be afraid to share your story. Pursue the ideas that you hold dear, even if they might seem strange to you.
Your process sounds incredible – how do you plan out a piece before going out and capturing the various parts of it?
A day before my shoot, I will head out to the location with a pad of paper and take notes on possible areas to stage the photograph. I aim to have efficiency when I execute the photo shoot so I do not have a long lapse of time between taking images. A fifteen minute gap between images is enough time to screw up a set of photographs if they are going to be pieced together. Light, shadow, and color temperature can all change in an instant.
Once I’m at my shoot location, I set my camera up on my tripod and I will begin to stage the environment with my props. I set my focus manually and turn on an interval timer on my camera to continuously shoot while I model for the photograph. I remain conscious of where I am in the focal plane by leaving a stone or stick as a marker.
I saw that your work was used for one of the covers of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods! Was that exciting? What’s been the most exciting thing to see your work featured in?
I was thrilled when the American Gods opportunity came to be. This was the first publication that I had my work shown on. I’ve been excited to work on and create concepts for cover artwork ever since.
The feature that stands out to me the most was the recent video documentary I shot with Vice’s “The Daily Vice” segment. In the documentary, I give an in depth look at my process and bring the team on an ice cold photo shoot in the middle of February. I shot one of my concepts in a freezing pond with a floating bed and masked figures.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Do not be afraid to share your story. Pursue the ideas that you hold dear, even if they might seem strange to you. Do not become frustrated with yourself if an idea does not come out in the exact way that you planned – this gives you the option to create something completely different and independent that may lead your work down an entirely new path. These are all important things to take into consideration, but the most important thing to remember is that the price and abundance of your photography gear will not make you a better photographer. It is more than possible to create stunning works of art with just your camera, one or two lenses, even your smartphone. Working with the minimal will force you to hone your craft to a point where you will disregard the need to buy excessive lenses and lighting equipment. Your life and way of expression are unique – you never know who you might inspire!
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Featured image is “VIERI“