Interview: Rangefinder Magazine
Eric Meola & His Magical World of Color Photography
by Paul Slaughter from the October 2008 issue of Rangefinder Magazine
There have been a handful of photographers who are innovators of color photography, long before the galleries got hip to their artistic merit and commercial value. Eric Meola is one of those particularly inventive and imaginative photographers, along with Ernst Haas, Pete Turner, and Jay Maisel.
Last year on a cold December day I received an unexpected call on my cell phone. It was Eric Meola visiting Santa Fe. Mutual friend and fellow photographer, Pete Turner, asked Eric to give me a call. Over drinks at a local hotel on the (Santa Fe) Plaza we talked about our lives and work. It was a rare opportunity to meet with one of the masters of photography. Eric, in his laid back, soft-spoken cordial manner, talked about his life and a project he was just finishing up — a major photo book on India, to be released in October 2008.
Eric grew up in Syracuse, New York where his father had a medical practice. One day, when he was about 14 years old, Eric was introduced to a patient of his father, an engineer whose hobby was photography, from whom he learned to develop film and make prints. Eric’s boyhood hobby was magic. He loved magic tricks, had read about Harry Houdini, and was greatly influenced by Tony Curtis’s film portrayal of the master magician.
Eric says, “The first time I saw a print come up in the developer it was — well, magic! I remember very clearly that I knew at that very instant second I wanted to become a photographer.”
“I’m largely self-taught. I recall waiting by the front door every week for Life magazine to be delivered, memorizing the names of all the great photographers of that era that the magazine published. My dad shared in my enthusiasm — he loved photographer Eugene Smith’s “Country Doctor” photo essay shot in the small town of Kremming, Colorado, and the captivating coverage he did on Dr. Albert Schweitzer in French Equatorial Africa, now called Gabon. Even reading the local papers, I’d be able to tell you who took each photograph after I had gone through the paper just one time. I would look at the work of photographers like Cartier-Bresson, Richard Avedon, David Douglas Duncan, even Mathew Brady. I used to work at a pharmacy as a ‘soda jerk.’ I saved up and built a darkroom and bought a camera and started taking pictures — literally walking down the street and just shooting.
“Besides Life magazine, there was Look. Whereas Life was reportage and mostly black-and-white, Look was art, architecture, and lifestyle. It was photographers Irving Penn, Bert Stern and Pete Turner. It all seemed far away to a kid in upstate New York. There was this last guy — Pete Turner — whose work I loved, and who seemed the most inventive. I knew when I saw a specific image that it must have been taken by him, and it always was. After graduating from high school I went to college, and was torn between writing and photography — my major was English literature, but at the same time I took several photography classes at the Newhouse School of Journalism. Tom Richards, a great teacher, would corner me each day and we’d play a game. He would ask me to describe the colors of Wratten filters, and he’d start with, say a #15, and work his way all the way to #102. That was the killer — everyone knew the color of a #15, but no one knew a #102. But I did, because I had one.
“When I was in my third year in college I went to New York and had an interview with Pete Tuner. I was knocked out that he took the time to see me and he said to come back the next year after I graduated. But I didn’t think anything would come of it.” After graduating from Syracuse University with a B.A. in literature, Eric worked as Pete
Turner’s studio assistant for 18 months in 1969 and ‘70, before opening his own studio. Eric said, “Pete was demanding, but I wouldn’t trade those days for anything. He taught me how to think about a job both in terms of the creativity but also the business side. He was a great teacher, in many ways that most of the assistants, in what became known as ‘Pete Turner U’, didn’t appreciate or fully understand at the time.”
Eric has half a dozen potential projects he is currently researching. He has always wanted to do a book on America, but America as “pop art,” not the old gas stations and such, but contemporary America. He would also like to do a book of black-and-white landscapes. He has stacks of scrapbooks of places he would like to go to, and images that trigger ideas. He did six months of research on India before making any trips there.
Eric doesn’t look at the rapid technical changes in photography in any particular way. He says, “It’s always evolving whether we like it or not. It’s strange to me that the era of the great photojournalists — Eisenstaedt, Mydans, Erwitt — was so short. In 1970, when Life was in its first phase of death throes, it was if the world had ended for photographers—it is hard to believe that today. Life had its time and place. It was a great magazine.
“Photography is always about a personal vision, about an Edward Curtis wanting to photograph American Indians, or Helmut Newton photographing nudes. Whether one uses digital or SLR cameras they are ‘still’ just cameras — it’s all about the one thing photography has always been about: light. For some people it’s form, shape, color or shadow. Or simply telling a story.
“We just think it’s become easier with digital cameras, and maybe it has. But in some ways I think it’s become harder. Gion Mili had to think about his images. And in some ways, Ernst Haas’s images came about because of the limitations—slow film speeds begat slow shutter speeds and some memorable studies in blurred motion.
“The engineer who first showed me how to develop film said to me, in a very serious tone, ‘Don’t ever do photography as a job.’ Well, I’m not sure just how he meant it, because I never asked. Ideally, we don’t make images ‘as a job’, we take and make them because we’re in love with photography. I think it’s easy to lose sight of that, to wake up in the morning and be so enmeshed with the details of a shoot that one day you realize that ‘this is not why you became a photographer.’ Once you start being paid to make images for someone else, you get on a treadmill that’s hard to get off. You can only make images for one person — and that’s yourself. Yes, you can earn a very good living while doing it. But what attracted me to Pete Turner’s work, in the first place, was that he had a unique vision and realized from the start that’s why the phone rang— because someone wanted him to project his vision onto their world, their product or their story.”
I asked Eric what advice he would give to a young photographer just starting out. He replied, “Whoever you are, it’s a long road — you earn your way and you pay your dues. Apprentice, apprentice, apprentice — work for someone whose work you like. It’s a way to understand and live the daily routine of the real world of how jobs evolve, of working with location scouts, meeting art directors, bidding jobs. But don’t be afraid to go out on your own and be ready to starve for more than a few years. Practice, practice, practice.
I’m mixing metaphors here, but Tiger Woods didn’t just pick up a bag of clubs and start teeing off yesterday. Do your own work — always make your own images, and do your own projects. So many photographers look at photography as pointing a camera at a scene and recording it. Technically, yes, that’s photography. But no one will be able to look at an image and know it’s yours, simply because—it isn’t ! It’s the image the camera saw. You were just the instrument that pressed the shutter button. Either you have a unique way of seeing, or you don’t. But developing that vision and having it mature takes time. “Irving Penn is 90 years old and still making images. I think it’s only natural as life’s timeline plays out, that you tend to become more serious about your work. There’s only one profession harder than photography, and that’s writing. I’d love to write a book about specific images and what they mean to me, but you don’t evolve as an Errol Morris or a Susan Sontag overnight.
“I don’t read much these days because I use my eyes so much as it is, but I’m a fan of Cormac McCarthy novels as much as I am enamored of Peter Matthiessen’s work or the incredible essays of Barry Lopez. I’ll just keep making images, doing my own projects. But I also intend to enjoy life, to breathe the air and watch my dachshund run in circles.”
“I started making images when photography was about inspiration. I was inspired by my mentors, and by their love of their craft and the magical way in which they captured and manipulated both the light and moments in time. If I inspire one kid to become a photographer, or to look at photography differently, then I’ve accomplished something important.” I’ve won lots of awards, but that’s not important to me. I want to do what amateurs do - go out and take photographs. I’ve learned that my father’s friend - the engineer who taught me photography - knew what he was talking about when he cautioned me to not do photography as a job. A few months ago, one frigid early morning in New Mexico, I was out photographing with my wife, Joanna, when suddenly, for no apparent reason, she exclaimed ‘Being a photographer is like being a kid...forever.’ I’ve never heard it said better.”