Memphis, Through the Lens of Tyre Nichols

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MEMPHIS — Steel bridges curving over calm water. Neon lights pulsing above blues clubs. A fiery sun melting into a bank of clouds.

Through the lens of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old aspiring photographer who loved skateboarding, Memphis was a landscape of unexpected color punctuated by moments of stillness.

In 2020, Mr. Nichols moved to the Tennessee city on the banks of the Mississippi River from his hometown of Sacramento after the end of a relationship. He joined his mother and stepfather in Memphis.

Mr. Nichols was only beginning to find his footing in the city, friends say, when he died in January, three days after he was stopped by Memphis Police officers and brutally beaten.

Nearly two months later, the investigation into Mr. Nichols’s death has embroiled the Police Department and members of the city’s emergency services. Six officers, as well as two E.M.T.s and a lieutenant with the fire department, have been fired.

By many measures, Memphis has struggled in recent years. It has one of the highest crime rates in the country and is one of the most racially segregated cities. Some swaths of downtown sit vacant.

But through his photos, Mr. Nichols showed another side of Memphis: a vibrant city steeped in music and surrounded by nature. He captured murals painted along the streets, blue skies framed by pedestrian bridges and sunsets reflected in the wide expanse of the Mississippi.

In the wake of Mr. Nichols’s death, his photography, some of which is presented here with the permission of his mother, offers a glimpse into his relationship to his new home. On Beale Street, Mr. Nichols took in the bright lights of the city’s cultural artery, where blues and rock ’n’ roll spill out onto the streets at night. But his eye was most often drawn to nature. At Shelby Farms Park, a sprawling 4,500-acre green space on the outskirts of the city, he spent long hours along its winding trails, vast fields and shimmering lakes, where great blue herons glide across the water.

“Tyre was different,” said Rico Howard, 57, a close friend of Mr. Nichols and his family. “He caught a part of Memphis that we all had never thought about catching.”

Mr. Nichols’s transition to Memphis was rocky at first, said Angelina Paxton, 28, a childhood friend from Sacramento. She said he felt lonely, especially being far away from his young son. His days revolved around his evening shift at FedEx and his mother’s house, where he took his 7 p.m. meal breaks.

Ms. Paxton worried about him. Mr. Nichols had stopped skateboarding, and the occasional contact with hometown friends had become infrequent, she said.

She had been close friends with Mr. Nichols since they met in high school, when they bonded over photography. Mr. Nichols would tag along on Ms. Paxton’s long trips through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, twisting through a maze of dirt roads in search of a good shot of the sunset.

Soon after, he bought a point-and-shoot camera and started taking photos of his own. For Mr. Nichols and Ms. Paxton, both self-described introverts, those hours spent watching the sun set over the water were meditative.

“That was our kind of church,” she said. “It took him some time, but I think he found those same kinds of places in Memphis, where he could just be still.”

Mr. Nichols eventually started to venture out into his new city, Ms. Paxton said, pushing past his comfort zone to find his own corners of Memphis.

Around the summer of 2021, he pulled up to a Starbucks in Germantown, a suburb of the city, in his bright blue Nissan Sentra, blasting the rock band AC/DC with the windows rolled down. He caught the attention of Perry Williams, 60, a cafe regular sitting outside. They fell into conversation and became fast friends.

Most mornings, Mr. Nichols joined Mr. Williams and a half-dozen others in a sunny corner of the cafe’s patio, chatting leisurely. They called the area the “No Judgment Zone,” and the table around which they sat “The Love Table.”

“We’d just sit out there and drink our coffee and talk about the flavor of the day,” said Nate Spates Jr., 42.

Mr. Nichols was much younger than the other members of the group, but he fell naturally into their easy rapport. He would often swing his legs over an arm of the chair, sipping on a large caramel macchiato with almond milk and extra caramel, friends said.

Mr. Spates said that Mr. Nichols reminded him of a younger version of himself. Like Mr. Nichols, Mr. Spates had moved to Memphis as a young man and had been interested in the arts, particularly photography.

“It was like looking in the mirror at myself 13 years earlier,” Mr. Spates said. “Just trying to find out who you are, what you want to do with this life of yours.”

Eventually, Mr. Nichols began spending time at a skate park in the Memphis region. At Tobey Skate Park, a concrete expanse of ramps, stairs, bowls and rails east of downtown, skaters said Mr. Nichols impressed them with his smooth, relaxed style of riding and his laid-back demeanor. He was known to hype up fellow skaters, shouting support when they landed a new move.

Kameron Blakely, 25, said he met Mr. Nichols a few times at Tobey, where they would cheer each other on. Mr. Blakely’s skateboard is now stenciled with “Justice for Tyre Nichols.”

“I wanted it to be a constant reminder every time that I hop on the board,” he said.

Many friends and relatives have reflected on Mr. Nichols’s singular vision of Memphis. His photographs highlighted peaceful corners of the city that some longtime residents said had faded into their periphery. At his funeral on Feb. 1, mourners viewed his images of sunsets and bridges on screens in the church sanctuary.

Mr. Nichols often declined invitations to go out to bars or clubs, said Mr. Howard, Mr. Nichols’s friend and a co-worker at FedEx. But on Beale Street, he turned his lens to the flickering pink forks of the Blues City Cafe, the oversize Gibson guitar of the Hard Rock Cafe and the neon four-leaf clover of the Irish bar Silky O’Sullivan’s.

“He wasn’t trying to fit in,” Mr. Howard said. “He was his own person, and he changed me.”

Mr. Nichols rarely shared his photography publicly, Ms. Paxton said.

His online portfolio went mostly untouched until about a year before his death, when he started posting, filling the website with images of his favorite parts of Memphis.

“My vision is to bring my viewers deep into what I am seeing through my eye and out through my lens,” he wrote on the site.

Ms. Paxton was thrilled to see his newfound confidence.

“It was the first real proof that he was starting to find joy again,” she said.

Other friends noticed the shift in him, too. In his final months, Mr. Nichols seemed optimistic about the future, members of the Starbucks group said. He talked about buying a drone to take aerial landscape photographs, securing his own apartment and traveling to Las Vegas.

“It was just simple stuff that would make a huge difference in his world,” Mr. Spates said. About a week before his friend’s death, he recalled Mr. Nichols being excited about getting new tires for his car.

Mr. Spates said he has not been able to bring himself to watch the video of Mr. Nichols’s beating. But he has returned to their cafe regularly, each time expecting Mr. Nichols to reappear.

“It brings a lot of peace and solace just to sit with the crew and talk about him and laugh,” he said. “It’s almost like he’s not even gone. It’s like he’s just not here today.”

Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs contributed reporting. Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

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