Interview: Royal Photo Society
Interview: Journal of the Royal Photographic Society
May 9, 2018
One of the first things you notice about Eric Meola’s work is how much he delights in colour. He has a keen eye for composition and capturing the moment, but whether he’s photographing landscapes, portraits, street scenes or architectural abstracts it’s the creative use of colour that most often seems to inspire his work.
‘There's something very primal, something almost childlike about colour,’ says the thoughtful, quietly-spoken Meola over the phone from his home in Long Island, New York. ‘I admire black & white, but there's something about colour, and particularly the difficulty of shooting in colour, that I like. There has to be a lot of control in terms of your subject-matter, the time of day and the colour of the light. Colour is a lot harder to shoot.’
Born in 1946, Meola, whose father was a doctor, took up photography seriously in his teens. He set up his own colour lab at home, developed and printed his own work and earned money by making prints for other people. He went on to study English at Syracuse University, but already knew he really wanted to be a photographer.
Soon after he graduated in 1968, his career got off to an ideal start when he was apprenticed to the late Pete Turner, now recognised as a pioneer of colour photography. There he learned skills, both technical and commercial, that have served him well ever since.
‘Pete was a taskmaster and very demanding, but at the same time, very kind, open and generous,’ Meola says. ‘Working in his studio was a little like being in the army and undergoing basic training. Towards the end of each day, he would go home and leave me to basically do everything needed to bring the next day’s shoot together, including research, set building and lighting. I learned a lot about all aspects of running a photography business in a very short period of time.’
After 18 months working with Turner, who became a life-long friend, Meola was ready to set up his own business. ‘I realised I could either shoot editorial, in which case I might not make a great living, or to shoot more commercial work,’ he says. ‘At the same time, I wanted the glory of making my own images. So I mainly did commercial work and tried to pick assignments where the images would be used in an artistic way, while also shooting for magazines. I tried to have a balance of making a good enough income, but also to create the portfolio of images I had dreamed about making as a kid.’
Meola had a successful career for more than two decades. Along the way he won awards including the 1986 Advertising Photographer of the Year award and shot the cover of Bruce Springsteen’s album Born to Run. However, by the mid-1990s he found that the creative control and enjoyment he once had on commercial shoots had largely disappeared.
In 1995 he visited Burma for the first time, experienced a ‘spiritual transformation’ and became fascinated by disappearing tribes and cultures. Afterwards he scaled back his commercial work and spent more time traveling, particularly in Asia, Africa and Antarctica. These travels resulted in two books: Last Places on Earth (2004) and India: In Word and Image (2008).
Meola, now 71, is clearly enjoying shooting for pleasure. ‘I did enough commercial work that I can live comfortably,’ he says. ‘Now I really want to enjoy making my own images, at my own pace, of the subjects I want to photograph.’
In recent years, he has found a new and very different subject for his work: storm photography in America’s Tornado Alley. In 2013 he photographed his first storm and he was instantly hooked. ‘My immediate reaction was, “This is where I want to be for the rest of my life. Nothing can get better than this.”’ He has returned to photograph storms every year since. He’s currently working on a book of storm images and is planning to publish it in 2019.
‘It’s quite something to look at a cloudless blue sky at around 6 or 7pm, then in 10 or 15 minutes the entire sky fills with clouds and turns absolutely black,’ he says. ‘It’s almost like a movie special effect. The colours - cobalt blues and iridescent greens - are absolutely beyond anything I’ve ever seen. It’s like being a kid, being a young kid who has suddenly found a new toy.’