Today’s interview is with Cheryl Jacobs Nicolai!

If you could only take three pieces of gear on a shoot, what would they be?

This is an easy one; I really only own three pieces of gear. All I take to a typical shoot is my Bronica SQ-Ai, 80mm 2.8 lens, and my light meter. That’s it. I’m extremely ADD, and I find that if I take more than that, I’ll either be distracted by it, or I’ll forget to use it. Simplicity is the name of the game for me.

What was your first experience in photography?

It was about ten years ago when I first discovered photography. I had always been involved in visual and performing arts, so I was into drawing and painting. A lot of my interest in photography was inspired by my competitive nature; my sister was a hobby photographer, and I wanted to be better at it than her, I guess. That was during the heyday of handcoloring (remember that craze?) so I used to handcolor other photographers’ work before I got interested in photography myself.

If you could shoot alongside any photographer, who would it be?

I wouldn’t, actually. I’m more of a solitary photographer, and group shots and outings have never been my thing. I’d have loved to watch Eugene Smith work, though. He really is an interesting character for me, with his love of photography and music. It’s a perspective I share, and his mental illness makes him even more fascinating to me. I also think Imogen Cunningham was fascinating, and on a more modern note, Rocky Schenk would be fun to watch at work. I discovered his strange, filtrated work after doing a similar project, and I’m curious how he accomplishes his effects.

Other than photography, do you have any other creative outlets?

Oh, yes. I’m also a professional musician and performer. I have an Americana band (think blues / rockabilly / old country) called Reckless Red, and another band in Arkansas called the Red Barn Ramblers. I also have a jazz project and sit in with a lot of bands around Denver and Nashville. Music and photography are major influences on each other for me. Grit in my music is the equivalent of grain in my photography. Authenticity, simplicity, and emotion are my driving forces in both.

Tell us one thing you wish you’d known when you started your business?

I’ve always really done things my own way. I started out before a lot of the current trends were the commonly accepted norm. So I can’t say that I would have done much differently. The one thing I’ve always struggled with is a silly expectation of absolute perfection from myself. It simply isn’t possible, and honestly, most of my favorite images are emotive but imperfect. But I expect ART from every session.

What’s on the horizon for your business?

Right now I’m focusing on finishing up a book from my Life Backstage project. It was a documentary of my friends and fellow performers at a burlesque cabaret over the past few years, all shot backstage by the light of the overhead florescent tube. My new emphasis as far as client work is Hollywood vintage silver screen-type portraits of woman. I suppose it could be classified as boudoir, but it’s very retro-inspired and not what is typically done these days. It’s basically taking the Backstage project and applying it to non-performers. I’m having a great time, and I think it’s going to catch on really well. I’ve developed some great friendship with local makeup artists, hair stylists, vintage clothiers, and costuming experts around town in conjunction with the Snow White Drifted project (so named after the Mae West quote, “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.” Recently a local magazine found my work, so it’ll roll into some retro-inspired fashion and editorial work. Basically, I’ll take on any project that allows me to work in my distinct style.

Describe the perfect session.

My work is so far flung that I really don’t know how to answer this question. I always have fun, always. If I get a client who is too uptight at the start of the session, I make it my mission to find the fun, and that’s where I start. I love clients who are open minded and trust my instincts; because I’m very specific with how I work and what I want to accomplish, it’s really rare for me to get a client who doesn’t “get it.” I have to say, I’m enjoying the Snow White Drifted sessions more than anything else I’ve done recently. It’s great to watch women get comfortable and pull out their inner sex kitten. I’ve always believed that the session should be its own reward, whether I’m photographing a child, a family, or a woman. Even if I never developed the film, the session should create great memories and instill a sense of beauty and value my subjects.

What is your current favorite photograph, and why?

This changes on a daily basis for me. Right now, the Backstage and SWD projects are my favorites. The very first SWD session I did was with a fellow cabaret performer, but not one that I knew well. I do all my sessions on location, so I met her at her place. When I got there, I discovered that she had her 16-month-old daughter at home, and a very small and cluttered apartment. We did the entire session in half an hour, with her daughter underfoot, and in the middle of the session, I discovered that I’d been standing in cat….poop. The photographs are lovely, though, and I love the beauty of the session contrasting with the crazy actuality of the session. Photographed in the right light, she is a dead-on Liz Taylor look-alike.

If you weren’t a photographer, what would you be?

That’s another easy one. I’d be a full-time musician, with a little writing on the side. It’s basically what I’ve been doing for the last few years. I get bored really easily and I like to take on a little of this and a little of that. Sometimes photography pays the bills, and sometimes music does. That’s how I like it.

What aspects of photography do you find most challenging?

Honestly, the toughest thing for me is to remain challenged. That’s part of why I started the SWD project. It’s easy to make children look great; it’s a lot harder to take photographs of women that blow them away. Especially since I am all film and do basically no digital retouching. I do nearly everything via lighting, careful posing, and filtration. If I can’t get it right in camera, I’m out of luck.

Where do you find inspiration?

From music, from the characters I know and love from my every day life. From dreams and memories, from amazing light of any kind falling on anyone and anything. Sometimes inspiration comes when I’m depressed or feeling introspective. Anything old or retro. Anything with a story to tell, whether literal or implied. Texture. Mystery. Anything I can sink my teeth into.

If you had a superpower, what would it be?

Time travel. I feel convinced that I was born in the wrong era. I drive a 1968 Cadillac (answers to the name of Lilly), I sing retro torch songs, I have a collection of vintage gowns and jewelry, shoot 100% B&W film, and sing in a true old-school speak easy. I would have loved to live in the 40’s, when people still dressed up on a daily basis. Then again, I suppose I wouldn’t have stood out then, would I? I like being different.

So, either time travel, or the ability to eat enchiladas all day every day and not have a gigantic butt. That would be cool, too.

If they made a movie about your life, who would play you?

Katharine Hepburn. Ha! That would be weird, but that would be the coolest thing ever. She was such a strong, beautiful, iconic character. But, since that’s clearly chronologically impossible, I’ll say Scarlett Johansson. She gets the “retro” thing, and that’s the only way I’ll ever have curves.

Quickie Questions – One Word Answers!

Canon or Nikon?


Prime or zoom?


Studio or on location?


Natural light or flash?

Available. (Reference the overhead tube florescent stuff above.)

Neck strap or wrist strap?


Color or black and white?

B & W

Mac or PC?


Photoshop or Lightroom?


Sunrise or sunset?


Heels or flip flops?

Sky high stilettos

Beer or wine?


Thank you so much for sharing with us, CJ!  You can view Portraits by Cheryl Jacobs Nicolai here ,her commercial and fine art work (including the amazing Life Backstage project) here and her new Snow White Drifted project here.  You can also catch her on the CMforum, especially in our film section.