Interview: Nicotine Magazine

Nicotine Magazine is an online art and photography magazine from Art Director Lizzy Oppenheimer and Photographer Mark Lim. Small and unassuming — Nicotine has been a solid resource and creative outlet for many photographers in the last five years of its presence. Starting the year with a new, refreshed look, Nicotine is not going anywhere. We sit down with Lizzy and Mark to catch up on some of their favorite stories, and muse about the magazines.

Elizabeth: We wanted to know why you started Nicotine and why it kind of happened?How did you guys decide to work together on it?

Lizzy: Mark wanted to start Nicotine. It was Mark’s idea because he had been shooting for all these indie magazines and he felt like they would butcher his work. So he had sent images, usually in a sequence, usually with a suggested layout, a suggested title and whatever and they would take the images and they would like you know, do what magazines do.

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Elizabeth: Put it in the margin (laughs.)

Lizzy: Right. They crop them, cut them and whatever. [Mark] and I wanted to make a place — not just for us, but for any photographer and artists that we admire. Where they can really have their work shown as they imagine it. In Nicotine, we give all our contributors the opportunity to do their own sequence, their own layout if they want, to have their own title. So it’s really something where we would curate artists but when we get content in, we would try to run it as close to as the contributors are imagining as possible unless they are not imagining. Because some photographers also just shoot images and they would send us a huge edit, and we’d edit down. So that was the original reason why we’d started Nicotine and it’s just natural for us to work together because we are partners in everything.

Elizabeth: I also feel for you — you would have a magazine where you possess more creative control especially if you have been burnt in the past (laughs.)

Lizzy: When Mark first suggested the idea, I was very cynical. I thought to myself: “no one is going to look at it;” “there’s already so many of those;” “why would we do that?” I felt that it was going to be a waste of time and energy but then when we started then it became extremely important to the both of us as a regular outlet compared to your regular job where you are hemmed in by a brand.

Elizabeth: This is for you Mark. We are wondering because you are from Singapore, why did you move to New York and the scene is like here versus back home.

Mark: I moved here from school originally and then I went back after I graduated and started working there in Singapore. It seemed like I would be getting a lot of work but it was all very stifling, creativity wise and you couldn’t really do whatever you wanted. There was a formula to everything that they were doing and I really didn’t enjoy that. Also, I really enjoyed living in New York. I also came back for her.

Elizabeth: Yeah, how long did you guys — I mean I know she joined you. You were teaching art right? For a little bit. And you were taking a lot of odd jobs.

Lizzy: Yeah. I mean we started dating when I first moved to New York and Mark was graduating from Parsons and moving back to Singapore. I guess the plan was always for me to move to Singapore after he finished Parsons.

Elizabeth: I didn’t know that.

Lizzy: That was the plan. Then I felt like I had so many ambitions that would be impossible to realize there because the creative industry is so small and so seemingly insignificant too, which is a horrible thing to say. Because it’s so formulaic, like what Mark is saying. There isn’t work coming out of there that I felt would make an impact globally where if you are in New York, you have the opportunity to make an impact globally. I went to Singapore and worked there through Mark’s connections and the friends that we had together for a little while. But we came back to New York together and decided to live here instead. In this apartment.

Photography & GIF by Alex Thebez and Elizabeth Renstrom

Elizabeth: What do you look for in your contributors?

Lizzy: I think that we look for, obviously, people that we like and people that fit the aesthetic of the magazine. I think we would never want to run anything that is too commercial. A lot of times we get submissions of really great work but it is too commercial I guess for us. We always want to feel like an indie magazine, I think. We never want to feel like a glossy thing. I feel that we look for people that are doing something new. We love featuring new people that nobody has ever heard of, I think that is one of our strengths. Then I feel that our eyes are validated by the fact that they take off and do a bunch of amazing things. Like Ren Hang, Brea Souders, or Alice Rosati, Margaret Durow. There are so many. I feel that it’s something unique. Basically we are looking for people who do interesting work. It’s also important for us to feature international contributors. So many of our contributors are not from the US. We work with this one guy he lives in the boonies in Thailand and has no other opportunities to show work. That’s very important to us.

Elizabeth: How do you balance maintaining a personal editorial voice with the submissions or the artists that you reach out to?

Lizzy: We accept probably less than 1% of all submissions, and we get a ton.

Elizabeth: Do you put guidelines on existing work? Or is it all work created for your magazine.

Mark Lim for Nicotine

Lizzy: So sometimes it is existing work and then we have guidelines. I think that there are some contributors who look for more guidance from us and some that don’t want any. We think of the whole issue as we are reaching out to people. How the works of these people are going to work, with their existing portfolios, what they are going to create. Sometimes people just send us mood boards and we approve and we give guidance like “we like this about your work” so then they know when they are making a series for us, they realize what attracted us to them. But yeah, we usually just let the contributors take the lead.

Elizabeth: How does working in fashion sculpted the way you work with Nicotine? Do you have specific experiences that translated into producing Nicotine from your experience working in fashion?

Lizzy: I think I gained a huge amount of connection, obviously, so that really helps. I never really thought —

Mark: I don’t think it really translates.

Lizzy: Yeah, I think Nicotine is its own completely separate thing.

Mark: Especially because we try to stay away from whatever is existing.

Lizzy: I think it works in the opposite direction. I think Nicotine informs my work in other places but I don’t think working at those other places inform my work at Nicotine, other than the connections aspect. Like how it’s easy for me to get models, make up or whatever.

Photography & GIFs by Alex Thebez and Elizabeth Renstrom

Elizabeth: How do these stylized fashion stories happen? I want you to talk more about how you get the clothes for your stories and what you think about when you pick stylists because you produce two to three fashion stories that you shoot for each issue. I want to know more about how you approach the styling for unique issues.

Lizzy: I think usually we’ll come up with a concept. Sometimes Mark comes with a concept, sometimes I do. Sometimes we both come up with a concept.

Elizabeth: Yeah, like that crazy desert story with a dramatic septum in the cover. Was it just kind of organic, how that happened?

Lizzy: Yeah, that would be a really good one to talk about.

Mark: That one is really specific. It was a collaboration with Chris Habana.

Lizzy: Who is a jewelry designer.

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Sergiy Barchuk for Nicotine

Everyday I hear about some new pet project of a photographer, who is making some amazing printed indie magazine so they can shoot whatever they want to shoot. I feel that there is a lack of room for experimentation in editorial work in this country.Everyone is so scared, so dictated.

Mark: We went to the studio to source out whatever he wanted to have photographed and we talked to the stylist who worked with him a lot, and he just asked us to come to Utah.

Elizabeth: You guys flew to Utah for that?

Lizzy: Yeah. Alison Isabel is a stylist who we’ve worked for a really long time who really understands Nicotine super well because she’s done a lot.

Mark: Since the third issue I think.

Lizzy: She is from Utah and her parents live there. We wanted to do this collaboration with Chris Habana, we approached him, met him, went over it. We talked it out a lot with him about what we were going to do, what we were looking for. He thought of what his angle was, some places. We thought that the only person who could style this was Alison, because she knew us so well and she has such a crazy aesthetic. We felt that she was the only person that we wanted to work with for that particular shoot. We knew Chris Habana through Mark’s shopping addiction.

Elizabeth: Septum ring collection, just kidding.

Lizzy: Alison said “Oh, I wish I could, but I am going to be home in Utah” at that time. We thought, “Oh why don’t we just come to Utah?” And then we went.

Mark: A lot of the time, the location informs the story. It all comes from where we decide to shoot.

Elizabeth: Did you guys fly out a model for that?

Lizzy: No, it was a local model. Alison has a lot of friends there since she is from there. We found a local model there, we found local hair and make up. Alison called in all the clothes from a designer in London and a few people in New York. An assistant dropped them all here [in our apartment] and we flew with the clothes to Utah. It was the next day, in the morning in Alison’s parents kitchen talking about our shoot, brainstorming the kind of location we wanted. Alison’s dad just said “Hey, there is this place that looks like the moon.” We thought it was cool and went “Oh, ok, let’s all just go there.” (Laughs.)

Elizabeth: Would you ever want to do a print version of the magazine? Why did you guys decide to start online? What do you think is the benefit of starting a print version?

Lizzy: We started online because we had no money. Literally zero dollars. Now, we have a goal of making a print issue by the end of the year. We are definitely going to do that.

Elizabeth: What kind of opportunities have you received from maintaining Nicotine as a project? Besides it informing your work.

Lizzy: We’ve gotten asked to be placed in various exhibitions. We have met a lot of really cool people but I don’t think we’ve gotten anything tangible. People write in and tell us they love us and that’s cool. But, that’s it.

Elizabeth: This is a fun one, dark or white magic?

Lizzy: Dark, for sure.

Mark: Both of us.

Lizzy: Growing up, I always wanted to be whoever the bad female power figure is. I just think in general, in the media, women who have power are always the evil ones and I always want to be those ones. So, that’s why dark magic.

Elizabeth: What about you Mark?

Mark: I had a goth phase.

Elizabeth: I can see that. Are there photos?

Mark: Yes. Secret photos.

Elizabeth: Cool. It does come through in Nicotine, because it’s very moody — moody is such a bad word to describe it.

Mark: But it is moody, it is. I personally prefer moody. Too dark too moody.

Chad Wys for Nicotine

Elizabeth: You are really flexible though, what you normally shoot, or what you would shoot for Nicotine is different from what an assignment that you are given. You do both well.

Mark: Thanks!

Elizabeth: I just think it’s funny that you do all these edgy fashion stories — and then you make these road trip stuff and they’re awesome too.

Mark: I guess that’s one of the primary reasons why we started to do this. So I can just shoot whatever I want to.

Elizabeth: This is mostly for Lizzy, but with your experience in publishing, what do you think of the current state of the print industry,and why you would even want to join it?

Photography & GIFs by Alex Thebez and Elizabeth Renstrom

Lizzy: I feel that the super commercial print magazine are eventually going to disappear because you will want all of that online. I feel that the Marie Claires and the Glamours and the Allures, those magazines that are really service-y, I think are going to disappear in print. Because I think you get everything you’ll ever need from that service online. Even anything where you have things like beauty editors, people who have cultivated their eye for a particular brand of make up over a number of years — the servicing that happens to advertisers negates any kind of influence that they have, in my mind. I mean you have places for that online like Refinery 29, or Who What Wear and all these other smaller online outlets and influencers. What will continue in print is things like Nicotine, if we ever make it print. Everyday I hear about some new pet project of a photographer, who is making some amazing printed indie magazine so they can shoot whatever they want to shoot. I feel that there is a lack of room for experimentation in editorial work in this country. Everyone is so scared, so dictated. Especially even for stylists, the credits are so mandated. You really cannot do what you want. Editorial used to be a place where you can experiment. But now with budgets everywhere being tighter and tighter, and people getting increasingly scared, I feel that you don’t have that anymore. I think it’s even more important for the indie magazines with no advertising to be printed but then you have to pay for that shit yourself.

Elizabeth: A big difference that you have to your advantage, however, is that you guys have been around — what year are you guys on now?

Lizzy: Five?

Elizabeth: I think it’s smart that you kept it online and you have a pretty big fanbase at this point. I think if you ever do a print version, people would want to buy it because you have big audience. It’s not like you are going into it promoting your first issue.

What is a story that you are very proud of?

Lizzy: I think our most recent cover shoot is the best one we’ve ever done. That’s my most proud. What about you (to Mark), what is your most proud?

Mark: I hadn’t really thought about it. But I think the polygamy story.

Elizabeth: The one with the three girls in a cottage? Where was that?

Lizzy: It was in Ward Pound Ridge.

Elizabeth: How did you find it?

Lizzy: So we were looking for a place to shoot, which issue was that? with Anastasia?

Mark: It was our anniversary.

Lizzy: Issue six! Which is our first year anniversary, so it was four years ago. We were looking for a forest or a huge field of green. I thought to myself “What was the biggest area of green around New York City?” I looked in Google Maps and found this huge green space on the map and said “You guys should go there.”

Elizabeth: Nobody would ever think to do that.

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Kent Andreasen for Nicotine

For us, we really do enjoy working with people who no one has ever heard of. I think even when we get to the point where we can comfortably create print and anyone in the world would want to shoot for us — we want to be a mix, a healthy mix. You know, not like three people at the front of the book, but an actual, real, mix — where you get a well story by Charlie Engman, then you have a well story by someone like Ren Hang, before anyone ever heard of him. An environment, where you know, you can trust people doing their thing. 

Elizabeth: I think that’s a good way of working though. What I hate about fashion stories as they exist now in magazines, is how people moodboard everything to death. When the shoot happens and it doesn’t look like the reference, people freak out. It’s like they don’t want to do something original for the magazine that they are producing.

Lizzy: Right!

Elizabeth: Alright — tell us a bit more about your cover story from issue 14, the one with the dinosaur.

Lizzy: Mark had this idea. What was your idea? I had to pull references to give to other people — I was begging him to give me at least five words to pull images. We also almost break up every issue. We get into a fight every single issue where we almost break up. Sometimes we do.

Elizabeth: I feel like it’s a creative battle. Those are fun to have.

Lizzy: Yeah. That cover, we almost broke up. Also Mark fires me from Nicotine.

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Ren Hang for Nicotine

Lizzy: Every issue Mark almost fire me. Usually it happens in bed. I am already in bed, it’s two in the morning and I am super tired.

Elizabeth: So why was that story so controversial for you?

Lizzy: What was the original idea?

Mark: It was more of an abstract thing, I just had images in my mind that are more cinematic.

Elizabeth: It just reminds me of Blue Velvet.

Lizzy: Yeah, his references are all film, mostly. It then organically evolved into this story of a girl.

Mark: It’s about this privileged girl who rebelled against her parents and she is a prostitute at night. So she had this innate sadness within her. We tried to keep her sad throughout the whole thing.

Elizabeth: The parking lot makes sense now.

Photography & GIFs by Alex Thebez and Elizabeth Renstrom

Lizzy: Yeah, so that was our story. It was a night shoot. We left the city at three. She was the best model because she was into the concept. She was really into the art of it. She was willing to be in thirty degree weather, naked, dancing for a full two minutes. She was a badass. We didn’t get back into the city until 2 in the morning. The Dino, again, is something that we found on Google Maps in a McDonald’s. We were just looking for a place that was open, a 24 hour place and then we went to McDonald’s.

Elizabeth: I mean, Jersey is perfect for Diners. That Diner in the shoot, I’ve been to a few times. It’s a very great spot.

Lizzy: Yeah it’s a good spot. The hair stylist thought of it because he lives in the area.

Elizabeth: I am really into it. Did the McDonald’s crew into it?

Lizzy: They didn’t know we were shooting there.

Elizabeth: Are you really swift? When you shoot, you are pretty quick, right?

Mark: The arcade where we shot was downstairs. So Lizzy was ordering drinks, and we went downstairs and found the Dino.

Lizzy: And then we almost broke up, or we did break up, or I got fired or a combination because I wanted the Dino on the cover and Mark didn’t want it.

Mark: My thing was the Dino was inconsistent with the rest of the story, but I was convinced in the end.

Elizabeth: I think it works! It’s very different from your last cover and things that you’ve done in the past.

Lizzy: What’s funny is Mark is the one who took the darn picture and then I still have to fight for it, as if –

Mark: I had made it already!

Lizzy: He had made it already! He made the cover, put the titles on and then I had to fight for it to the death.

Elizabeth: Yeah! Everyone has their own process.

Lizzy: Yeah both Mark and I are pretty stubborn.

Elizabeth: What magazines inspire you right now?

Lizzy: Mark doesn’t look at anything.

Elizabeth: You don’t look at any contemporary fashion magazines?

Mark: Not really.

Elizabeth: Cool. That’s pretty awesome. I think, as a photo editor, I have to kind of keep up with some things. But it can be damaging to my work, because I just get that feeling that everything I want to do has been done. It restricts me from giving the opportunity to shoot something the way I would have in the first place.

Mark: I hate the idea of references or being informed by specific references — or being boxed and that’s all that you do. I guess I like making more than looking so that is what I end up spending most of my time doing.

Lizzy: Sometimes yeah.

Elizabeth: I mean, on the other hand (to Lizzy) you are swimming in magazines.

Lizzy: Right, I look at everything, obviously. I look at all the magazines. One of the best magazines right now, I think, maybe, is Noon Magazine. I think Noon features a lot of very exciting work. It’s what Sleek or Achtung used to be for me but now Noon took over. Jasmine Raznahan started the magazine. She gets a lot of photographers, and one of them is this person was virtually unknown until she shot for them. The person has a very gender ambiguous name, a Scandinavian name. They get a lot of super cool people. But you know, I look at everything. I look at Rika, The Gentlewoman, Luncheon, Metal, Garage, Tush,Wonderland, i-D, Document, Muse, Lula, LOVE and Pop. All the European magazines. Then, I look at Interview and W just to have cardiac arrest sometimes.

Elizabeth: I understand, but you would never want to structure Nicotine in such a way.

Lizzy: No, I don’t think so. For us, we really do enjoy working with people who no one has ever heard of. I think even when we get to the point where we can comfortably create print and anyone in the world would want to shoot for us — we want to be a mix, a healthy mix. You know, not like three people at the front of the book, but an actual, real, mix — where you get a well story by Charlie Engman, then you have a well story by someone like Ren Hang, before anyone ever had heard of him. An environment, where you know, you can trust people doing their thing.

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Kota Shouji for Nicotine

Elizabeth: Yeah, you’re like a sandbox photo editor. What’s your favorite Hitchcock film?

Lizzy: I don’t know. (laughs) Birds? (To Mark) What’s your favorite?

Elizabeth: I guess I should’ve asked you what is your favorite David Lynch film?

Lizzy: The one with the bunny, Inland Empire. What about you Mark?

Mark: Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive.

Lizzy: Yeah it’s a hard one because the movies that I love the most are neither by Lynch or Hitchcock.

Elizabeth: What’s your favorite movie then?

Lizzy: Hiroshima, Mon Amour is one of my favorites. In the Mood for Love is another.

Elizabeth: Oooh, Wong Kar Wai.

Lizzy: I am more of a reader than a movie watcher in general.

Elizabeth: Why do you guys choose not to promote as much as other indie magazines? I am really curious.

Lizzy: The both of us are more makers. We both love to make it and put it together and after it’s made it’s over. I’d post an Instagram, and Mark will do one — and that’s pretty much it. Neither of us is really interested in that kind of thing.

Elizabeth: What are some of your favorite editorial photographers working today? Or some people that you would really love to have in Nicotine?

Lizzy: I don’t really know how to answer that and Mark doesn’t really give a shit about all of that.

Mark: I mean, I prefer to have contributors who don’t necessarily have work out there and get them an outlet to show their work. The bigger names are fun, but I don’t think it’s not that important for them to be in Nicotine.

Lizzy: It’s hard. I feel that when we start introducing people that I love, who are at that level — we start to, you know lose track.

Elizabeth: Right. That’s why it’s such a great platform for up and comers.

Lizzy: When we finally go into print, it is definitely something that we should think about. I’ll probably get fired. We’ll probably break up. Because when we finally make a print issue, I would want it to be a real mix of people who are established and people who are just coming up. We’ll definitely start to seriously consider that then. There are so many photographers that I would love to work with, to see what they would make when they are put in certain parameters. Or rather, given the opportunity to work without any.

You can find Nicotine Magazine online and on Instagram.


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