Interview with Cameron Davidson
from the March 16, 2014 issue of FuseVisual Online
Cameron Davidson: First off, thank you for agreeing to be a part of FuseVisual. In your Luminous-Landscape article “Seeing in Color” you mentioned the photographers who were shooting compelling color images: Hiro, Art Kane, Ernst Haas, Pete Turner and Jay Maisel. Was your early work influenced by them or were you already shooting and defining your imagery with color?
Eric Meola: Influences are a “work-in-progress”. I am always beating myself up, always hungry to see great visual art. I doubt there is a single photographer of my generation who has not been influenced by Ernst Haas. But my personal influences range from peers like Arthur Meyerson, Stephen Wilkes, George Steinmetz and Steve McCurry, to photographers as diverse as the Civil Rights photographer Ernest C. Withers, and landscape revisionists like Edward Burtynsky. I’m also influenced by modern art–Josef Albers, Jules Olitski, Kenneth Noland, Kandinsky, Miro, Mark Rothko, O’Keeffe, Pollock. And yes, photographers as diverse as Pete Turner, Jay Maisel, Hiro, Irving Penn, and Robert Frank. Photography is one of the most fluid forms of expression, and the concept that it is about realism was long ago put to rest by photographers such as Aaron Siskind. So I’m not sure at what point these influences affected my work, but certainly they became part of it ,and certainly they continue to be part of it. To me, that’s an exciting thing–to influence others, and to be part of an evolving sensibility of photography as art, and that this is a community of visual artists influenced by the changes evolving within a genre.
CD: Two of your images were a strong influence on my work: Coca Boy and Promised Land. I never realized it at the time but as the years have gone by I understand how they inspired me to shoot graphically and with intense color. What was your connection to the intense colors and graphic approach? Where did it come from?
Eric Meola: I grew up in Syracuse, New York–one of the snowiest, most grey cities in the NorthEast. When I first became interested in photography, the explosion of color in the works of modernists such as Pete Turner was something I gravitated to, and something which I’ve tried to put my own stamp on. Photographers shoot in color, but their subjects are seldom about color. As my work has evolved, my subject has become color itself–a celebration of color in all its permutations, both abstract and real. I’ve simply grown tired of the sensibility that dictates that photographs need to be real, that they need to be in a documentary style, that they have to have some preconceived notion of content. I simply love color, and Mark Rothko’s color fields speak to me as much as Gene Smith’s “Pittsburgh.”
CD: Your new work does not rely on vanishing perspectives as much as form and color. Tell me about the Tornado Alley, Yellowstone, and Atacama projects? Have these projects changed how you approach color and form?
Eric Meola: Photographing tornadoes is something I’ve always wanted to do–except I’m much more interested in “supercells” than tornadoes. The light, the drama, the sense of oblivion, of armageddon, of nature’s fury, of the rawness of light, and landscapes enveloped in a primeval infinity of mood–the rawness of the Great Plains, of an American wilderness that few people realize still exists. Death Valley, Arches, Monument Valley–they don’t interest me because they’ve become the “bucket list” of photographers who shoot with tripods. I want to literally be blown away, to smell the ozone, to feel the wind, to have the hair stand up on the back of my neck, to watch as lightning strikes all around me. The places I’ve chosen to go to–like the Atacama, and Yellowstone in the winter, still have that sense of a virgin, primeval landscape that draws me in to its textures, its light, and its moody, raw power.
CD: You photographed Bruce Springsteen in Black and White for two album projects. What was it like to see in B&W and how did the lack of color impact your compositions? Also, you have published two books on Bruce. What was it like, thirty years on, to go to your old negatives, scan them, and see them with a fresh perspective?
Eric Meola: Black-and-white is something my generation grew up with and was influenced by. I saw Bruce in black-and-white, not color. Bob Dylan’s third alum was photographed by Barry Feinstein, and it was a great takeoff on Woody Guthrie–a Sixties dustbowl pastiche. The “Born to Run” cover owes a lot to Richard Avedon, but my original concept was to photograph Bruce on Ellis Island! Bruce’s words were black-and-white, and that sensibility carried over to shooting in very contrasty “monotones.” Seeing and working with the negatives was a revelation, and continues to be one! There are times they look as fresh as the first time I saw them after they were developed on June 20, 1975. They are part of my soul, and I have come to a separate peace with them. I never wanted to be known for one image–such as Joe Rosenthal’s famous shot of the Marines at Iwo Jima. But, I can’t fight that. Those images are part of me, and part of what defines my life and my career.
CD: We have talked about peace, stop watches, and hunches. How do you balance the desire to shoot in risky situations to create new images versus the desire to shoot closer to home?
Eric Meola: Home is the riskiest of all. It’s not New Guinea, it’s not some sand dune in the Empty Quarter, it’s not exotic. It’s the place every kid asks you about–your backyard. And it turns out that my backyard is the universe, a broad empty space in the flatlands of Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas, that is part Coen brothers, part Lewis and Clark, part Fargo, part Sun Prairie, part John Ford, part Georgia O’Keeffe. But all enthralling, all addicting, all wild west, all a spinning vortex of light and dust and everything that has ever excited me about photography.
CD: What advice would you give a young photographer starting in this career today?
Eric Meola: Be yourself, find yourself, read books, take road trips, shoot constantly, know your gear, shoot the things you love, go outside your comfort zone, take risks, make mistakes and learn from them, have heroes, ignore the techno-garbage that is going on around you and realize that Facebook, Flickr, and Instagram are inventions of a society that places fame before substance. Make images, not social networks. Don’t look down at your iPhone, look up with a sense of wonder at the mystical, spiritual, magical world that surrounds us.