This Photographer Intimately Explores the Boundaries of Gender Through the Lens of NYC Nightlife6 min read

Rising star photographer Nicholas Contrera seduces the viewer with his beautiful raw images

Nicholas Contrera is a name you will undoubtedly hear again. The talented photographer, 25, currently lives in New York and originally hails from Detroit, Michigan. Nicholas graduated last spring with a BFA in Fine Art Photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York.

My work certainly has a romantic quality but is really intended as a tribute to individuality and self-expression.

His captivating work explores the complicated world of gender and human identity. Nicholas develops intimate relationships with his subjects—exclusive personalities that he is drawn to.

“I’m usually motivated by the innate power a subject can project, a confidence, a uniqueness, a subject who is completely, who they want to be, in that moment,” Nicholas told OutBuzz.

nicholas contrera jan rattiaJan Rattia

Nicolas Contrera

Interview with Nicholas Contrera

How would you describe your work?

Nicholas Contrera
I describe my work as current. I say that because I’ve developed a photographic practice that explores the multi-dimensional nature of gender. Gender has always been an important and complicated subject, but more recently the topic has become more pronounced in main stream discourse.

Nicholas ContreraNicholas Contrera

The Look Goes As Follows

I turn my camera onto a diversity of subjects, but particularly those entrenched in New York City’s vibrant and often decadent club scene, to investigate the fluidity of sexuality and self. I employ the analogue technique of photographic film and embrace historical processes like tintype, in my examinations of human identity.

Lipstick, Heels, & Leather | Nicholas ContreraNicholas Contrera

Lipstick, Heels, & Leather

Unlike some work about night life culture, which treats the milieu as exotic or fetishized, I have a special relationship to my subjects. I care about getting close to them.

Lipstick, Heels, & LeatherNicholas Contrera

Lipstick, Heels, & Leather

These are my peers, my friends, club kids that I admire for their craft. I feel part of this community of young people striving to create in New York. My work certainly has a romantic quality but is really intended as a tribute to individuality and self-expression.

What are your biggest influences? How did you get started? 

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Nicholas Contrera
My biggest influences come from the people that surround me. I don’t take portraits of just anyone, I’ve got to be compelled, to be drawn to the subject. I’m usually motivated by the innate power a subject can project, a confidence, a uniqueness, a subject who is completely, who they want to be, in that moment. I admire that, I even envy that, so I naturally need to photograph it.

Amanda Lepore | EXTRAORDINARY - Trans LifeNicholas Contrera

Amanda Lepore | EXTRAORDINARY – Trans Life

Going back in time, there are a couple critical, developmental moments for me. Like, when I was eleven and I discovered that my best friend’s mother was a photographer. I got to see her collection of vintage film cameras and became intrigued, that someone could make a living by taking photographs. Soon after that experience, I got my first 35 mm camera.

And something that most people don’t know about me, is that I grew up with a learning and reading disability. I struggled through school, I wasn’t into sports, I was the weird kid, and that came with a lot of self-doubt.

Lipstick, Heels, & Leather | Early AvianceNicholas Contrera

Lipstick, Heels, & Leather | Early Aviance

Photography and art was punk rock, it was an escape for me. I graduated high school as a D+ student, which meant I graduated, but just barely! With those grades, I wasn’t accepted into a University, so I applied to a private art college.

And on the merit of my portfolio, I was accepted and even received an $80,000 scholarship. From those beginnings, photography has always been the only thing I’m a natural at – my camera is an extension of my eye, and photography is the language I use describe the world.

What have been some of your challenges / breakthroughs? 

Nicholas Contrera
Living in a city like New York is the ultimate challenge, particularly if you’re an emerging artist – it’s expensive and competitive. Here, fulfilling the dream of becoming an fine art photographer gets all mired in the logistics of surviving.

Queer; Tribal (Tin Type)Nicholas Contrera

Queer; Tribal (Tin Type)

I’m constantly confronted with the reality of having to find paying jobs, to pay the bills. So, you do a bit of this and some of that, while you’re trying to break into the industry, but as someone wise once told me, “focus on your work and the money will come.”

But I guess my biggest breakthrough is that I’m getting respected as an emerging artist. You know, everyone is a photographer these days, and everyone comes to New York with a dream. It just takes time for people to really believe in you and what you have to offer.

What are your goals with your art right now?

Nicholas Contrera
I was recently a candidate for a Guggenheim Fellowship – which, I didn’t get! But my application made it to a second round of consideration, which was a great surprise for me. It tells me that there is professional interest in my practice and the ideas that support my work.

It was my first real “no” – I’m sure there will be more in the future – but now, it’s a personal goal to one-day receive that fellowship and the community acknowledgement that an honor of this scale represents.

Describe your personal style and aesthetic.

Nicholas Contrera
I like to say that my style is borderline documentary with a fine art backbone. I take inspiration from the old-school photographers like Mary Ellen Mark and Robert Frank. What I photograph is the raw and real of the things and people that surround me.

Xander | The Look Goes As FollowsNicholas Contrera

Xander | The Look Goes As Follows

Anything else that you’d like to share about yourself or your work that’s of note! Don’t hold back!

Nicholas Contrera
I’m working toward a residency in the Canadian Arctic Circle, to explore the Queer community that exists in the far north. The territorial capital of Nunavut, Iqaluit, celebrated its inaugural Pride in 2014.

Located about 1,600 miles from New York City, Iqaluit has been a traditional fishing place used by Inuit for thousands of years, hence the name Iqaluit, which means place of many fish. In 1942, an American military base was built there, and was stop-over and refueling site for aircraft traveling across the Atlantic on their way to Europe.

Home to a mostly Inuit population, Pride has been embraced by the community and has since really grown. It’s a unique history and I like that it’s an unlikely place to engage with Queerness.

As a young urbanite, Pride has always been a part of my Queer experience and I’m really interested to know more about how gender and sexuality is being expressed in the North. I’m fascinated by the opportunity to experience what the rainbow flag means to this tiny northern town.

Portrait of " Miscellaneous Dom Top" by Nicholas ContreraNicholas Contrera

Portrait of ” Miscellaneous Dom Top”

View more of Nicholas’ work at

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