Nicolas Bruno is a New York-based artist working in the mediums of photography, sculpture, and costume design. He create surreal self-portraiture based on his experiences with Sleep Paralysis, a sleep disorder that causes terrifying visual hallucinations.
Hi Nicolas, tell us about yourselfI'm Nicolas Bruno, I create self-portraiture based on my experiences with Sleep Paralysis. During these episodes my mind becomes conscious during the trajectory into REM sleep, which generates a dream that exists on the plane between waking and sleeping. I am faced with visions of shadow-like figures that enter my room, along with physical feelings of suffocation and drowning. To combat this negative situation, I transform my dream journal sketches into photographs.
My process begins by creating a drawing based on my journal entries. This drawing helps me figure out what props and costumes I need to create. I set the stage for my artwork along the marshlands and shorelines of Long Island. I traverse through heavy rain storms and knee-deep mud to reach the ideal location. Everything that I create happens in front of my camera. I use the built-in interval timer in my DSLR to shoot continuous images, which allows me to model for each character and modify the scene. While my camera shoots, I can change costumes, move props, and use smoke bombs to paint the scene with fog. Once I acquire all of the images, I layer them together to create the final photograph. This process lets me work independently on a low budget. I am willing to create imagery in any season or weather pattern.
I recently created The Somnia Tarot, a 78 image photography series that tells the tale of the classic Tarot through surreal photography. I exhibit my artwork internationally and engage in public speaking events to spread awareness of Sleep Paralysis. I also engage with school districts around the world to inspire young students to use art as a therapy.
What's in your Camera Bag, Film, Digital or both?I work with a bare-bones gear setup to create my imagery. I keep my equipment load light because I have to carry my props long distances through rough or aqueous terrain. I shoot with a Nikon D850 and 50mm 1.4 lens for my portfolio work. I primarily work in natural light, and if I’m using an external light source, I will use candles, handmade torches, or a campfire out of frame. To create smoke or fog in a scene, I bring smoke bombs to paint the scene, or a modified bug fogging machine that uses food-grade liquid to create a mist. My tripods take a beating from salt water and mud, so I generally bring tripods that are used or from the thrift store. I keep other various tools in my bag, such as scissors, twine, tape, and a ziplock bag to shield my camera from rain. My Langly bags always keep my gear safe from the elements, especially with rain, snowstorms, and mud. I bring trash bags along with me to clean up litter on my way back from the shoot.
One of my recent memorable photography experiences was the creation of my image “Inviato”, which features a shrouded horse and rider from my Sleep Paralysis dreams. The rider stands halfway submerged in the ocean, stoic and ominous, ready to deliver a message beyond the realm of sleep. As I continue to have these dreams throughout my life, I often wonder if the figures that I see are messengers, or under the command of some other unseen force. I created this image on a foggy Long Island shoreline during the start of the pandemic. Alike many other self-employed artists, the future of my career became uncertain when the pandemic hit, causing virtually all of my income avenues to close. To keep a positive mindset, I made it my mission to focus solely on creating new artworks. This process led me to creating The Somnia Tarot series, and “Inviato” was one of the first images I created for the body of work. Modeling for this spectral rider was a unique sensory experience. The horse featured within the image is a large fiberglass sculpture. This sculpture which allowed me to create alternative images for the Knights in the series. It also allowed me to avoid putting an animal in a stressful situation for the sake of art. Humorously, I drove and carried this horse sculpture all over the North Shore of Long Island, which caught the intrigue of beach-goers and dog-walkers alike.
What’s your most memorable photo?
What does your next photography adventure look like?I am planning an expansion to The Somnia Tarot collection of work, which will include over 30 new images that involve my dream journal recordings, dream symbolism, archetypes, and a pantheon of mythology from the world between sleep and consciousness. Creating 78 new portfolio images over 2020 was extremely difficult and exhausting, but the production helped me elevate my craft to new heights. I spent 2021 exhibiting the works, publishing The Somnia Tarot Card Deck and authoring The Somnia Tarot Companion Book. In 2022, I am looking forward to immersing myself into a new timeline of creation. In the future, I dream of photographing imagery in Scotland, Iceland, Italy, and Greece.
How has photography evolved since you’ve started shooting?My first experience with photography was in my early childhood, where my mother would buy me disposable cameras from the pharmacy. In my backyard, I would take photographs of nature, action figure setups, and Lego forts. I loved the feeling of getting 5x7 prints back and going through them all. I took interest in Photoshop in middle school, and then fell in love with digital photography in early high school. I became interested in photographing the interiors of abandoned buildings in black and white. When Sleep Paralysis became prevalent in my life, I started using these buildings as the backdrops for scenes involving shadow-like characters. This self-portrait process set me on a therapeutic path, which helped me find my purpose and voice. I branched out to working in color and developing a vocabulary of visual symbolism for my work. In college, I took advantage of the different studios in the visual arts building, such as the metal and wood shop. I refined my hand skills in order to become independent in the production of my artwork. In my professional career, I continue to push myself to create images that break boundaries and inspire others to use art as a therapy. I aim to be a pioneer in the genre of Conceptual and Surreal Photography.
Where will we find you when you’re not taking photos?I have numerous hobbies, some of which have heavily influenced my style of creation. Some activities that I really enjoy are woodworking, metalworking, martial arts, hiking, historical weaponry, playing various instruments, and throwing boomerangs. I grew up fascinated by tales of knights and treasure, which sewed the seeds of my interests today. I started creating real-life treasure hunts on Long Island and releasing the coordinates online for my fans to engage in. I’m looking forward to creating more treasure hunts in the future. If I’m not creating my personal work, I enjoy creating imagery for Fell & Fair Productions, which involves the themes of historical fiction, fantasy, and popular culture.
What advice have you got for the younger you, just starting out on your photography adventures?It’s not necessary to have the most amazing camera to create a beautiful work of art. It’s also not necessary to travel far to set the stage for an image. With a bit of planning and experimentation, you can set up a striking photograph in your backyard, local park, or even on a handball court which can serve as an outdoor studio backdrop. I keep my shoot budget low by sourcing materials and props from the thrift store, trash day, or online local marketplaces. I also repurpose the wood from shipping pallets that are normally thrown out by businesses. I recommend experimenting with crafts that are outside the photographic medium, such as woodworking or sewing. These hand skills will allow you to expand the production of your images and add another level of independence to your process.
The Somnia Tarot 78 Image Card Deck was brought to life through an independent crowdfunding campaign and is now available to ship. You can pick up a copy of the deck or Nicolas's new book on somniatarot.com. Nicolas recently created a short documentary with 60 Second Docs, which showcases his photoshoot process and inspiration. A few other documentaries about his work can be viewed on Mashable, BBC, and Vice News. Nicolas is currently working on a short film, which should be released in Summer of 2022. He has released some behind the scenes videos of his photoshoot camera rolls on YouTube, where you can see how I go about composing an image from start to finish. You can keep up with me on Instagram at @nicolasbruno and @somniatarot.