September 5, 2020

My Images in Sotheby's Auction Celebrating The History & Cultural Impact of Hip Hop

Boston Globe article about the auction and my photographs: Boston, ’80s hip-hop, and the previously unseen photos that documented the scene

 Press Release: Sotheby’s is honored to announce an auction celebrating the history and cultural impact of Hip Hop on 15 September in New York. The first-ever dedicated Hip Hop auction to be presented at a major international auction house, the sale reflects on the impact Hip Hop has had on art and culture from the late 1970s through the “Golden Age” of the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, and up to the present. 

Full auction details. I have two lots in the auction. You are invited to view here and here.

Media inquiries:

This body of work is a labor of love. These photographs represent the hundreds I shot from 1985 to 1989, documenting hip-hop culture in Boston. I believe that the power of the images lies in their focused look at a single community: an exuberant microcosm of a growing worldwide cultural revolution. Many of my subjects never gained much prominence, but they remain prominent and important as early, localized representatives of a seismic shift. Just look at the way rappers today in South Korea gesticulate, move on stage and enunciate rhymes.

A few shoots were on assignment for Boston Rock Magazine (15 dollars for photos and an article), but it was my interest in the energy and beats of the scene that kept me snapping. As only a handful of the images have been published or exhibited, the work is a fresh and unique trove of recently discovered treasure.

In 1986, I documented one of the Hollywood Talent Nights produced by Maurice Starr, creator of New Edition and New Kids on the Block. Youngsters got dressed up and sang, rapped and danced. Employing a medium format camera along with portable studio lighting allowed me to catch the outfits and attitudes in crisp detail. Along with many unknowns at the talent show, I snapped portraits of pre-fame NKOTB. 

I also captured a performance by Rusty the Toe Jammer in 1985, who scratches with his foot, in the community room at a housing project in Boston.

During this period, as hip-hop began to transcend national boundaries, my photographic career went global as well. Nonetheless, returning from South Korea in 1987 after documenting riots wearing a gas mask and helmet on assignment for Time Magazine and US New and World Report, I continued the project.

I obtained photo passes, sometime from Boston Rock, sometimes from the Boston Phoenix, to document performances by major touring acts such as Whodini, The Beastie Boys, Grandmaster Flash, LL Cool Jay, Run-D.M.C., The Fat Boys and so on.

However, the young mostly unknowns in these images, brimming with pride and fight, are my champions.

John Nordell teaches courses in the Visual and Digital Arts Program at American International College in Springfield, Mass. He blogs about the creative process at   Instagram: @john.nordell

May 12, 2020

Stop and Think: What Does Your Front Door Look Like? - A Mindfulness Exercise

Without looking, write a list of all the details you can think of that describe your front door, or the entryway to your abode.  Here's mine:

1.  Light on left.
2.  Gold handle - outer door.
3.  Metal railing.
4.  Three concrete steps.
5.  Wood sticks out.
6.  Front door color is bluish grey.

Then go and take pictures of items on your list.

3. Metal railing.  4. Three concrete steps.  5. Wood sticks out.
My imagined list was spot on, except for the color. Bluish grey was the door color of a house I moved out of 14 years ago!

1. Light on left.
In my defense, I always use the side door.

2. Gold handle - outer door.

Taking pictures for me is a form of mindfulness.  I try to use all my senses to become attuned the present moment conditions.  This approach helps me see clearly and creatively.

The initial concept of this exercise was to test my recall of everyday encounters.  However, photographing details of a common sight led me to see it in an uncommon way:

Culled Vision
John Nordell teaches courses in the Visual and Digital Arts Program at American International College in Springfield, Mass. He blogs about the creative process at  Instagram: @john.nordell

April 19, 2020

X-Ray Mirrors: Visible Unseen Identities in Photographs

As a college professor, I have been scrambling to generate projects that my photography students can complete at home. The photomontage below is my test run of a Windows and Mirrors assignment, inspired by an excerpt from Sytze Steenstra’s book Song and Circumstance, about the work of artist and musician David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame.

According to an already classical distinction, proposed by John Szarkowsky, leader of the Department of Photography of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, photography can be approached “as a means of self-expression (as a mirror),” and “as a method of exploration (as a window).” Bryne freely combines both approaches, and casually erases the distinction:

Inside Looking Out and Outside Looking In
"Windows are mirrors through which we see ourselves reflected. Our view is colored by our prejudices, history and class.  We see reflected our perceptions of the landscape, the skyline, the people on the street, the weather, and what they mean to us.  Photographs are also mirrors.  In them we see reflected our own internal biases, our own assumptions, our own presuppositions. [...]  What we don’t see is a reflection of our face, we see instead a reflection of our interior.  An X-ray mirror."

I want to grow as an artist and take things less literally.  Obviously, this was not the case here.  However, Bryne's ideas conjured up an assignment that students could photograph at home and a device for me to teach Photoshop techniques.

Perhaps this incomplete draft allows for more viewing ambiguity:

Open Windows - Incomplete or Completely Better
The other day, I looked through a prized possession:  the exhibition catalog from a retrospective of painter Lyonel Feininger.  His works make me swoon.  One painting, Mill Windows, changed my life by sparking my Reality-Based Abstraction series.

Dotted among the paintings were photographs by, and of, Feininger.  The black and white images brought me back to a different aesthetic and time.  Looking up from the couch, I saw this cloud and wanted to capture it in black and white.

Portal to the Past and Present
Feininger sketched scenes before painting them.  He also sometimes took pictures.  I have previously described how I usually take a single frame as a sketch prior to layering a series of images into an in-camera multiple exposure.

The above window can thus become:

Digital Prism
Until now, I considered the image combing to be complete in the camera, rather than additional after the fact manipulation.  However, likely informed by a recent spate of teaching Photoshop techniques, I combined multiple versions of the above image by flipping and flopping it:

Reflections on the Inner Light
Bryne asserts that what photographers include and omit in their frames inform us equally about the creator's identity.  Along these lines, I love this quote from portrait photographer Richard Avedon, "My portraits are more about me than they are about the people I photograph."

John Nordell teaches courses in the Visual and Digital Arts Program at American International College in Springfield, Mass. He blogs about the creative process at  Instagram: @john.nordell

April 1, 2020

Priming My Neurobiology - Robin Sharma's 20/20/20 Formula - An Antidote to Tough Times

I set out to document how I follow Robin Sharma's 20/20/20 formula.  Spending an hour engaging in a variety of specific activities first thing in the morning sets up my neurobiology for a positive, productive and exciting day.  20 minutes of sweating/exercise.  20 minutes of spiritual reading, journaling and meditation.  20 minutes of learning.

Sytze Steenstra's Song and Circumstance book about David Bryne of Talking Heads Fame

Engaging in this practice during these tough times helps me cope.

As an ode to David Bryne, these images are intentionally not chronological nor linear.


Journal, Read Sally Kempton's Awakening Shakti


Learn Spanish with Duolingo

Run at Dawn

John Nordell teaches courses in the Visual and Digital Arts Program at American International College in Springfield, Mass. He blogs about the creative process at   

March 28, 2020

The Power and Importance of Traditional Strengths in Non-Traditional Times

At the start of the semester in my Cultivating Creativity class, I ask students to note three of their top character strengths from the VIA Institute on Character's listing of strengths.  The idea is to start the semester with confidence in one's abilities.  I invite you identify some of your key strengths.  Click here for the list.  

I kept walking past my camera bag thinking, "I really should take some pictures."  Distracted by the impact of Covid-19 on my life, and learning how to shift my face-to-face courses to online delivery, my camera remained untouched.

This Sketch Became... 
Finally, I grabbed it and started shooting.

X-Ray Vision

It felt so good to take pictures.  This process has been a love of mine for nearly 5 decades.

This Sketch Became... 

Preparing to take a multiple exposure, I take a single frame to test for exposure, like an artist's sketch.

Raw File

The layered images that emerge from my digital camera are flat looking, so I treat the files to pull out vibrancy and details.  In the case below, I reversed the above image to look like it was a color negative.


A mere ten minutes of shooting opened my heart and mind to a present moment of peace.  I printed the images out and put them in my kitchen.  Each time I walk by and see them, I smile.  In the face of current uncertainty, feeling competent and creative helps me feel a sense of needed normality.

John Nordell teaches courses in the Visual and Digital Arts Program at American International College in Springfield, Mass. He blogs about the creative process at   

January 24, 2020

Teaching Art to Art Teachers

Personal practice: What you create when no one is looking. That is, art you make by choice.

I love attending conferences for art educators.  The air is filled with excitement, creativity, deep reflection, nurturing and possibility.

It was a double bonus for me at the 2019 Massachusetts Art Education Association conference as I had a chance to present my workshop: Art Lessons: Personal Practice, Healing and Joy 

Photo by Amanda Correia of Mr and Mrs Drew Photography

My jitters quickly calmed as my peers responded positively to the material.  The necessity of covering more ground led me to sometimes cut off robust pair shares.  And, in the end, I probably covered just a quarter of my prepared material.

Photo by Amanda Correia of Mr and Mrs Drew Photography

However, taking a risk to vulnerably share my personal art practices that lead to healing and joy resulted in a meaningful experience that was, well, filled with healing and joy!

After the workshop, one participant wrote, "It was helpful to take time to reflect on one's personal practice within a community of art educators who understand the challenges of fitting it into daily life. Presenter's examples and suggestions were useful." Another wrote, "So interesting."

Creative Process - Planning a Protest Sign
I related some of my creative endeavors relating to social justice issues, whether climate change or race and stereotype.

The Oxygen Cycle at a Student Climate Strike
I explained the importance of just taking time to make art, even if it is not perfect. (see above)

I talked about the importance of filling one's creative well by visiting museums for inspiration:

After presenting these explorations, I prompted the attendees, who were paired up: Please discuss with your partner any social issues or political causes that interest you, along the possibilities for related creative expression.  Practical solutions were shared out to the whole group.

Blind Contour Drawing at the Movies
As a way to squeeze creative expression into a busy life, I noted that I sometimes bring my sketchbook to the movie theater.  See: Drawing in the Dark - Capturing Captain America with Pen and Pencil

I packed my visual presentation with images and videos.  However, the resulting large file size precluded uploading.  Here is an abbreviated version that includes definitions and prompts.

How do you jump start the creative process in your life?  I invite you to comment below.  Thank you.

John Nordell teaches courses in the Visual and Digital Arts Program at American International College in Springfield, Mass. He blogs about the creative process at   

January 10, 2020

Permeation and Permutations - Printing Poke Weed Berries in My Sketchbook

Freshly Harvested Ripe Poke Weed Berries

Press Firmly on Sketchbook Cover

Overnight Under a Box

A Week Later

Juice Transfer Complete

The Heart of the Matter

Impressions Seeped Throughout the Sketchbook

Dots of Leopard Spots

Fish Contours

The Pastel Electromagnetic Field of a Heart

Watercolor Hybrid Animal with Snake Companion

Professor John Nordell teaches courses in the Visual and Digital Arts Program at American International College in Springfield, Mass. He blogs about the creative process at