Look closely or you won't see him, the tall, slender man in the background. There he is, hoping you won't notice him, standing in those comfortable shadows, clutching the camera that rarely leaves his hands.
Joel Nichols isn't trying to hide. He just desperately wants his lens to find you. Not the you smiling for the camera, but the you smiling because you're happy.
He wants nothing posed, nothing phony.
"Capturing time," he calls it, this work he has done on the Winthrop University campus for 46 years.
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But quietly, as he's done everything else, he's retiring. The end of the month marks his final year as the university's photographer.
Please, make no fuss. Pay no attention to the man behind the camera. He's not showy. Shoot, he initially didn't want to be interviewed for this story.
That's the irony of Nichols: He's not a talker, yet his photographs have told the story of Winthrop as it transformed from an all-white women's college to one of the most diverse universities in the state.
That's also the beauty of him, friends say. He recognizes that he's not the story.
"If he's in the room, he tries to be as anonymous as he possibly can," said longtime friend Bob Breakfield. "He doesn't want to be the center of the attention. He wants to be a wallflower, so to speak. ... That's how he gets his good photographs."
Nichols was born into the photography business. The family legend is that his grandfather once traded a farm animal -- he doesn't know what kind -- for a camera. His grandfather passed the trade on to four sons, who set up studios in Clinton, Chester, Newberry and Greenwood, where Nichols was born.
When he was about 7 years old, he picked up a camera. His uncles would come over to his house, set up their cameras with his father in the front yard and compare equipment.
The boy just watched from the sidelines, photographing them.
Growing up, he spent Saturdays sweeping his father's studio, taking out the trash and mixing chemicals for developing film. But Nichols didn't get serious about his craft until he joined the Army.
Back then, the idea was that if you volunteered for the service instead of waiting to be drafted, you had a better shot at doing something you were interested in. The Army wanted Nichols to go to radar repair school. He wanted to study photography. In a rare moment, his wishes prevailed.
At Fort Hood in Texas, he shot everything from boxing to the fashion shows of officers' wives to tanks in the desert.
Here, his limelight-avoiding approach paid off. While his peers sweated through drills, he took pictures of them.
"That worked out well," he said.
First job opens doors
After Nichols' service ended, he walked into the office of The Charlotte Observer and asked if the paper had any openings. He had no portfolio, save his claim of being an Army photographer.
But the chief photographer also had taken pictures for the Army. Nichols got a job.
In the few years he spent at the Observer, Nichols was the go-to guy for all assignments no one else wanted.
So when Winthrop called the Observer's photo lab looking for a photographer, someone handed Nichols the phone because he was known to travel down to Rock Hill and spend time around the pretty girls.
This Winthrop gig didn't sound like a bad opportunity.
Nichols had no idea that colleges even employed photographers. He saw the job as a chance to do more work, to get away from those projects other shooters passed on.
He started in September 1962 with two cameras and a basement office. He took photos for campus publications and the student newspaper. The job included lots of public relations assignments, but many photos he found by simply wandering and observing.
He had been on the job about a month when he saw a brunette studying in the library. He was there shooting an assignment for the alumni magazine, and he was told to get something about Plato. So he asked the pretty senior if he could move a statue of Plato's head near her and take her picture. She agreed.
Later, the girl came by his office and asked for a copy of the photo for her mother. He didn't remember her name, but he was charming enough to land a date anyway.
The senior found the lanky photographer handsome and easygoing. He took her to Southport, a small town on the North Carolina coast, where he photographed her on a shrimp boat.
For a guy who doesn't like posing pictures, that slightly staged Plato shot was worth it.
Joel and Janice Nichols married in June 1963.
Capturing the shot
How can a man seamlessly weave himself into an all-female campus? Could he get those candid shots without drawing so much attention?
Just ask Jean Wells.
Now a reference librarian at the university, Wells was a student at Winthrop in the 1960s. Everyone knew Nichols, she said, but he went about his business so inconspicuously that he could drift in and out of rooms without being recognized.
She learned this when a photo of her appeared in the school yearbook. At first, she refused to believe it was her. Then her roommates pulled a blouse out of her closet as evidence.
"I kept saying, 'I would have known if he was taking my picture,'" she recalls. "But I didn't."
With his gentle manner, Nichols took shots that defined the moment. He photographed the university's first black students and its first men. A 1969 photo of a woman waiting for a math class is a campus favorite, her long blonde hair, miniskirt and boots illustrating the fashion of the times.
He was snapping away when Michael Jordan played in an exhibition game at the Winthrop Coliseum, when Ronald Reagan dropped by a local frat house and when Hootie and the Blowfish rocked the Shack by the Winthrop Lake.
When the men's basketball team began its run of trips to the NCAA Tournament, Nichols followed the squad, traveling as far as Tucson, Ariz.; Spokane, Wash.; and Denver, Col.
'A quiet storm'
For someone who's seen so much, Nichols doesn't talk much about himself. But those who know him want to gush.
They love to switch roles for a moment, putting the flash on the man whose glory they say is long overdue.
"He's an institution within the institution," said Tom Moore, Winthrop's vice president for academic affairs.
In Moore's office sit two of Nichols' classics: photographs of Moore's sons, both of whom graduated from Winthrop.
Each image was shot as father embraced son during his graduation walk.
"They're treasures," he said.
After she graduated from Winthrop in 2005, Ashlye Clark got a package in the mail. Inside was a card from Nichols, along with his photographs of her being crowned homecoming queen and graduating.
Clark knew Nichols from her work as a campus ambassador, when she was photographed for various campus publications. Although Nichols didn't say much, she did, and made a point of getting to know the tall, gentle photographer. She learned his demeanor masked a mind that had done so much for her school.
"He's a quiet storm," she said. "That's for sure."
Still, she was surprised by his gesture.
"I saved the card, and of course I framed a couple of the pictures," she said. "Very, very sweet."
Breakfield, who met Nichols when he came to teach at Winthrop in 1976, has many Nichols photographs.
Nichols shot his wedding in 1979 and photographed his first daughter when she was an infant.
"I'll bet that Joel Nichols doesn't go to bed without his camera," Breakfield said. "His camera is like his shirt or a pair of pants."
Janice Nichols knows how rarely her husband puts down his camera.
"Whatever he tries to do, he's committed," she said. "He's just a hard worker."
Much of Nichols' work has been at home. He took numerous photos of his two sons as they were growing up.
Since Joel and Janice recently moved from their house to a condo, they've been trying to find room for all their images.
"We've got lots of good memories here," she said, "things to pass on to our children and grandchildren."
Time to study, travel
A man toils 46 years at a college, not counting the four he already had spent earning his own degree, and he wants to take more classes?
Yes, Nichols says. At 73, he's retiring because there are some things he wants to do, including sitting in a classroom.
He wants to take history classes, specifically those dealing with the Depression era. He wants to know more about photography during his father's time, how he survived selling portraits for a dollar apiece.
Nichols also wants to travel. He and his wife have planned a trip to Germany, and he'd like to venture through the American West, maybe back to Spokane, Wash., where he documented Winthrop's defeat of Notre Dame, the school's first-ever NCAA Tournament win.
And there's something else...
Ask anyone who knows Joel Nichols to describe him and two images come to mind: his camera and his bicycle.
Since he bought a $65 Schwinn in the early 1970s, Nichols has made two wheels his primary form of transportation. He's on his third bike, and he hasn't bought a parking sticker in 10 years.
So it's fitting that his retirement plans include a journey to his hometown of Greenwood, where he wants to ride his bike to the old spots he once pedaled as a kid.
There, he can blend into a familiar scene, at home in every possible sense.