Eric Meola is an incredibly talented commercial photographer out of New York City. He has spent his career attempting to make his work distinctive, photographing things like the incredible weather of The Great Plains and Bruce Springsteen on the rise. Eric began his commercial photography career after he graduated from Syracuse University, going from his first job as a photography assistant to Time Magazine. Throughout his career, Eric has been able to balance doing commercial work, which brings in money, and his personal work, which is much more important in the long run.
In this episode, Tom Kennedy, ASMP’s Executive Director, and photographer Eric Meola talk about…
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Hi. I'm Tom Kennedy, executive director of American Society of Media Photographers and host for this episode in Our Podcast, Siri's S and P Experts and Masters in depth Conversations about the art in business of professional Photography. My guest today is Eric Meola, a versatile and immensely talented commercial photographer working in New York City, whose work I have admired since my time at National Geographic as a director of photography there several decades ago. Eric, welcome to the podcast.
Good morning, Tongue. It's great to be here.
I appreciate you coming on, and I'm really excited to have our conversation. So, Eric, after you left Syracuse, how did you begin your commercial career?
In 1967 I called up a photographer named Pete Turner whose work has always interested me. I was in my junior year of circuits University, and I took the train down in New York, uh, interviewed with him, and, you know, he was in the middle of transitioning himself from, you know, his editorial work into commercial work. And, you know, I don't think it was all that interested. You know, the mere fact that I wasn't going to be around for another year, You know, on graduation s o, he was He was very noncommittal. And, uh, you know, I called him up when? When I got out of college and turned out that his first assistant was leaving and the timing couldn't have been better. And he asked me to come over and we talked a bit, and the next thing I knew, I was hired. So, you know, I spent a year, uh, you know, assisting Pete. Yeah. I think the good thing was that I realized pretty early on that I had two choices. Um, among several. One was that I could become a journalist and work for tryto work for life and trying to work for look well, which were still around them, or I could do commercial work. And at the time, you know, there was There were a lot of, um what I call illustrated photographers, which, which is a fancy term for commercial photography. Um, you know, there was. There was arcane, for instance, in Irving Penn. Well, and P, um, and a number of others who were doing work that it was much more suited to commercial advertising work. So that's how we started up. You know, I started up, you know, seeking out work that had Cem commercial viability. But at the same time, I wanted to do a tour. So, you know, after I graduated from from working with Pete, I approached Time magazine. They gave me a few assignments, and that's how my career start. You know, it was a mixture of commercial work and in advertising and an editorial.
You're known for that, I think. And you've straddled those two worlds brilliantly throughout your career. You know, I'm thinking of the photographs, For example, the editorial photographs you made of Bruce Springsteen throughout his career and books that you produced, like, Last Places on Earth. India, in your latest book on storm chasing called Fierce Beauty. I want to return to that later in the conversation. But how did you How did you think about as you were getting started and doing going back and forth between commercial and editorial work? How did you think about trying to achieve a balance? And what were some of the forces that were driving you in that regard?
That's very interesting question. I was very lucky early on in my career, uh, to meet the writer John McPhee. Of all people, I lived in the loft. That was, ah, commercial loft, and it didn't have any heat on the weekends. So I have a tall fireplace. Ah, modern fireplace that went up through the skylight. But I didn't have any firewood. Eso I called the forestry service. And about five minutes after I hung up, I got this phone call from John McPhee, and I had no idea who he wasat the time. Um and, ah, you know, he had arranged with forestry service that whoever was the next person call after he spoke with him. For that, I'm putting you in touch with that person. And, uh so he you know, I went with Jonah to town, called Carmel New York and cut fire, felt some trees, and he wrote about it for The New Yorker. And, uh, when I read what he has written, I realized, um, you know how little I was seeing with my with my own eyes. Jamie's l has this this, uh, this famous saying it's always around, but we just don't see it. And, uh, you know, media McPhee was one thing, and I also lived around the corner from Max's Kansas City. And I was walking by one day and I saw that this guy, Bruce Springsteen, was gonna be playing there. This is 1973. I heard a couple of the songs on the radio and, uh, I decided to go go there that evening and, uh, see the concert. When I saw the show, I realized, uh, at least I thought that, you know, he was an incredibly compelling, well singer songwriter. And I said to myself, You know, I'm gonna take somehow, take some photographs of this guy and ah, you know, a CZ. Things happen. Of course I didn't I didn't know how to get touch with them. Another year went by and he was playing there again. It's 1974 and, uh, I I walked up to him after the show and started talking with them a bit, and, um, I didn't let on at that point that I wanted to photograph him. But, um, a month later, he was doing a concert in Central Park, and it started raining, and I ran under the awning of the Pleasant Hotel and he was standing there, and that's when I first started talking with him and, uh, made arrangements to go down to Aspirate Park, New Jersey, photographing. You know, these opportunities come by and you have to recognize that if your own intuition is driving you that strongly, uh, you need to act out. You need to You need to follow your gut feeling that you know this this guy's gonna go somewhere and, uh, you know, for me, it was fun. It was a diversion. It was a way to get away from essentially doing other people's photographs, which is what you do when you're doing commercial work. You know when when you're shooting an ad, if you've got a lot of different agendas, whether you're trying to fulfill and least of those agendas is your own agenda, which is, you know, to try to make a great photograph. Um, you know, you're making someone else's great photograph, and, uh, so I've always, uh, try to balance doing commercial work, which brings in money relatively quickly with my own desire to do, um, work that, uh, you know, that I feel is much more important in the long run. Um, you know, my personal work. I've always whenever I've been traveling for commercial assignments, um, you know, trying to go out and photograph for myself and, uh, when when I haven't been traveling for commercial assignments, I've always gone out and sought out. Those kinds of assignments are given myself. There's a science to to photograph of the things that I feel a report.
It sounds to me listening to you that the this is a way of replenishing your own well, springs of creativity. Do you feel that this is a recipe that others who are seeking to become professional photographers should be following or thinking about in their own way?
You know, I think you've you. I think it's only natural to want to do commercial work, Uh, because it's obvious that, you know, it's a way to earn a living. And but that's not why I got into photography. And I don't think that's the reason most people get into photography. They get into it because they love and, uh, you know, they have a sense that this is what they want to do with their lives. And they have, you know, big dreams of, uh, you know, going out somewhere and photographing something and seeing it in print. Um, unfortunately, print has gone by the wayside and we're dealing with the Internet these days. But yes, it's a way of recharging your batteries. You know, there's a lot of things that that drive you in terms of, you know, doing a science, whether their science you give to yourself or whether there are signs that some of us asked you to do well. Ultimately, what you're trying to do is make your work distinctive. You know, you're you're working for someone else. Oh, very often, but you're you're trying to do your own work at the same time. So doing, doing work for yourself is something that I think every photographer has to do. And ultimately, it's what makes you work distinctive. Even your advertising work. You know, you develop a style, you don't develop an approach, and ultimately it comes down to a couple of simple things, which is that you're trying to make a statement and, uh, save people. This is who I am, and this is what I do. And I think all you were, whether it's commercial or personal or both, is driven by those two things.
And for you. How do you seek to answer those two questions? What? What's important to you? What matters to you in terms of having the world understand you as a photographer?
I don't think there's any any simple answer to that on. I think it's it's driven every day by by something different. Um, you know, I think is for me. It's driven by listening to other photographers. For instance, I'm sitting in my office right now, and I've got, AH, number of votes, uh, tacked up to the wall by other photographers. And if you don't mind, I'm gonna read a couple of those off.
No, go ahead.
So there's one by Ernst Toss, which in some ways I agree with, and in some ways I disagree with. And he said, I don't think there are many editors who could give me the assignments I give myself. I agree with that on some levels, but I But I disagree with it on many other loves. One of the things I've always learned from science is that you know even the most basic level. Oh, I learned something different light. I learned something different about the chaos of the job. You know when you get yourself in a sign it? Yeah, you're easy on yourself. Um, when When someone else gives you the assignment, there's all sorts of things that you know, cause chaos. Um, you know, there's there's, there's the availability of maybe the person you're photographing or whatever, whatever their mindset is that day, uh, you're you're presented much more with failure When when someone else is demanding, uh, that you go out, make a photograph. Uh, it brings about doubt. Brings about reflection on, brings about discipline. I don't think when you assigned yourself something that you give yourself the discipline that you get when someone else assigns you, that's fine. Um, was hope from San Able photographer needs to get out into the world and make mistakes. And, uh, you know, I think we're we're all too way too concerned with perfection and, you know, getting it right the first time. And I can't tell you the number of times like made mistakes. And it's caused me all sorts of frustration and thinking about what the hell it was. You know what? Why, why? Why do this? Why don't I see, uh, my way clear to do this right the first time. Um, you know, I think having that kind of doubt, that kind of reflections for uh and then that I mentioned earlier, which is it's always around, and you just don't see it on. I come back to, uh, media writer John Lexie and, uh, you know, John, walk into a room and walk out of the room 30 seconds later and name every single object in the room and where it was placed on. That's something that I cannot do, even though in theory, I was a visual artist. So you know it, Sze. It's a process of growing and maturing that have to be open to, um, you know, it's also, I think, opening yourself up to other disciplines. For instance, my background was off, you know, literature. I graduated with a degree in English literature. I don't think it's extremely important to know your subject in terms of a background, but, um, you know, when I when I started photographing on on the great Plains of photograph stores, uh, I was just driven to I read a lot of books about the Great Plains. You know, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath again. Um oh. Stop her from the thirties. The Great Depression. Right? Morris, who had a great book called The Inhabitants, which is mixture of his reign. And this photography. Well, there's the writer, William Least Heat Moon. You wrote a book called Very Earth, which is about a town hall conduit Falls in Kansas. Well, you know, it's important to read these things, and, uh, I I also was very, very interested in the work of a spark for named David Plummer. Well, David, uh, has always photographed small town life, and he's got a book called Commonplace With is very different from my work. There is no resemblance to it whatsoever. Um, it's all black and white. It's all 204 square. Well, but his his energy and his concentration and what was important to him, um became in a way important to me. Uh, I'm gonna read a quote from David. It's tacky to my bulletin board. I wasn't just going out photographing for fun. I was going out to photograph because I felt this had to be done. It was a mission. It really waas. I felt I had to show the changes because I was so devastated by changes that happened, they reflected on stuff that's going on in my whole life. I felt I could not let these things go by with paying homage to them. I won't die happily unless I spent my life out there showing some of these magnificent things that have been cast aside. So Davis essentially graduated from Yale and immediately went out, uh, and started photographing, Oh, steam engine trains. And that was a passion for him. And, you know that. Let him out on the Great Plains and photographing small towns and, you know, the disappearing of the small towns and villages in the churches. Oh, you know, it was something that hey was driven to do and his focus on his whole life and she that purpose, that single minded concentration on one subject for your entire life. Oh, it's something that I've never had personally, but I'm realizing a time goes by how important that is because it enables you to make a statement about, 01 thing that the interests you beyond everything else. And that's sort of the way I feel about the Great Plains going out to photograph storms. Well, it's something that, um I guess was there all I didn't realize it.
So how did you first go to make the decision to do that? Especially given the inherent danger that comes with approaching the phenomenal whether occurrences that are typical of the Great Plains. I mean, I've known storm chasers during my time at National Geographic, and, uh, I know the risks involved. I'm just wondering how you processed it and how you came to make the decision to start working on the project.
Well, I I approached it naively. Let's put it that way. I was up in my office. Uh, this was 2011 and, uh, it was getting close to dinnertime. I walk downstairs, turn on the TV. Um, and a za TV was fading in. I heard these voices screaming in all this chaos And the town of Joplin, Missouri, uh, have been wiped out just moments before. Before, before the TV came on, uh, people were already talking about rebuilding within minutes on, you could see, you know, people looking out realizing that they have lost friends, they lost their houses. 100 I don't remember, probably incorrect here, but I think 165 people. Harish The town was just love. Oh, I realized, oh, immediately that that was something I wanted to photograph. I wasn't really sure why? Um, A number of years before a couple decades earlier, Uh, Bruce Springsteen. I went out to Nevada. We saw this incredible storm out there and I vowed to myself, I always go back and photograph storms. And I think the 22 events came together for me that evening watching, watching Joplin. Oh, so the next year I called up this company, I did some research and there was a company called Tempest Tours, which operates out of Arlington, Texas, and I have no idea what I was getting into. But they had come highly recommended and flew to Oklahoma City, and I went with out with them, photographed in storms. They had a Promesse track record of safety, and they seem to emphasize it more than anything else in older literature. Um, so I had felt relatively safe until I saw my first tornado. And this is the strange thing is, you know, we were in a town called Millsap, Texas, on a lot of sun, You know, you know all of these events lead upto you. You hear the meteorologists on there, huh? You know, shortwave going back and forth, uh, about all sorts of things that you don't understand in terms off sheer and instability, moisture lift. And it's all very confusing at first. Well, it still is to a large extent, but, uh, you know something? You're presented with a tornado that's 1/4 of a mile away from you. And you know, you're looking at them and they're looking at you and you're there looking out at the tornado and you're not really sure you know how how safe it iss, um I came to learn over time that they had a very, very deep understanding off the mechanics and logistics of of, uh, you know, just how the tornado formed and when it was safe and where it was safe to be. Um, you know, it's something that, uh, yes, you're you're putting your life in their hands. But, you know, they've been doing this for 30 35 years and you come to trust them. And you you realize that your desire far outweighs any sense of danger
That's so interesting to me. that you say that because in looking at the images in your book, which I think is fabulous and I recommended to anyone who would like a gift, you know of a photo book in the near future that there's a power the power of the weather systems that you're photographing is undeniable. But the way that you photograph them expresses that power with such precision and clarity. And i e that you bring it order to the chaos that, you know, is really impressive to me. And I'm I'm just wondering when you're in the moment, how are you able to achieve that kind of clarity and precision?
Well, I think one of the strange things for me is where these weather events occur. Well, 20 years happened in the Great Plains, which is, uh, you know, west of the 98 Meridian and east of the Rockies. Um, and it's Ah, very flat open, very peaceful, Oh, part of the country. You know, there's no Grand Canyon out there. There's no spectacular you somebody. It's just flat land dirt road of small towns, uh, old churches, Lutheran churches and, uh, the people, the people, the Great Plains. So is it? These events occur in one of the most peaceful. Why areas that you could imagine And the contradiction is that they're so violent. So that's something that I tried to show, you know, I wanted to show, um this incredible beauty. Um, you know, these storms, because when you when you see them on TV, of course, the news is concentrating on the damage in the devastation. Um, and you know, usually storms happened during the springtime and they happen of started enable. And the first storms that form usually form more in the Southeast, you know, Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas. And then as the season progresses, a CZ, you get closer to June, the stars move a little further, Western will further north, and they start to slow down and they for war, say, uh, quiet and you get these magnificent cumulonimbus clouds in this incredible. You know, meteorologists refer to this as architecture has structured. And that's that's what I was trying to show is trying to show these Oh, magnificent uh, cloud formations on the light like a CZ. The one school lives you get further into June in early July becomes more spectacular because the days are longer and the sunsets take longer to form and the light less less, you know, well, into the evening. And I was trying to show this contradiction this this incredible, well, landscape off. No, these stores Oh, in this area that otherwise is very, very peaceful, very open. And, uh, for me, that was was what I was trying to do with this book.
When you are in the moment in on a what's it like on an average day for you preparing to chase a storm? And when you're in the moment, what are your primary? What's drawing your attention? What are your what? Your primary area of focus in in making the decision of how to photograph that particular event?
You know, every day storm chasing is very, very different from the day before the day after I have tried to learn a little meteorology is time is going by, um, meteorology, life. Any science deals a lot with math, And, uh, it's, uh, you know something that you don't pick up overnight. So the Storm Prediction center, you know, you can go to ah site pole Spc. Uh huh. And they we'll show you a day. One day one is always today. Eso tomorrow will be a day one for tomorrow. Uh, they too, if today's they want his is tomorrow. And a tree is the day after tomorrow. Uh, that's about as far out as they go, and they won't give you a target area. Um, no, that that might be three or 400 last by three or 400 miles. The other direction. Um, and they'll show you where there's, you know, there might be some tornadoes. There might be some super cells, which are He's a rotating a dress. Oh, moisture. Uh, so you were a little meteorology. You know, usually you start out with, uh, the group will meet, and there will be discussion about what We're going to do that thing. What you're likely to see her problem becomes No. The storm prediction center. Uh, well, give you several different areas. There might be an Aryan Oklahoma. And then there's an area. Let's say, in North Dakota, Well, you obviously can't chase both those areas because they're hundreds and hundreds of miles apart. So then you look a day to, you know, do you try to rush up to North Dakota on day one. Uh, you, uh, you know, you're gonna miss stay one up in North Dakota, but does day, too. What does they to look like in South Dakota? Um, so a lot of it has to do with the logistics of, uh, know, deciding where you're going to be for the next few days. A lot of that falls to the group of meteorologist. Um, so, you know, you spend the early morning hours, you know, grabbing a quick breakfast and then, uh, learning about the weather for the next few days, and then you end up dropping, you know, usually a minimum mofo, 253 100 miles a day and sometimes as much as 900 louse of one single day. Uh, first season I went out 2013 drove from from figures Denver up into Saskatchewan one day. So, um, so you know, once you get out there and you get into, uh, the modus operandi I have chasing the storm itself, Um, then you're faced with another phenomenon, which is usually storms will form groups, and they tend to form from the southwest and move, uh, dying only up to the Northeast. So you might. One song will undercut another, and the decision becomes, you know, do you try to drive all the way down? If you're up north, you try to drive to the storm. That's what they refer to his tail and Charlie and tryingto try to photograph the storm. You know, that's in the Southwest. Usually that's that's a good decision, because that storm is in clean air. It hasn't been, uh, you know, affected by all the storms around it. Um, you know, so very often the day starts to come alive. So to speak around 56 in the evening storm center for later in the day is the atmosphere heats up and, uh, you know, then you find yourself on a gravel road or dirt road, maybe 100 150 miles away from the nearest town. And, uh, you need to get a hotel on. So you're booking a hotel based on where you think you're going to be. But very often you'll chase that storm for another 100 150 miles up until 99 30 10 o'clock. Then he might go out and shoot lightning. Uh huh. So you might not get into your hotel room toe one o'clock in the morning. Um, so that's what it's like. And of course, you forego dinner because you're some. You end up in some little town and all the fast food places are closed. And, uh, very often you'll drive up to the motel and all the lights will be out on the key. Will have the Kiesel have been left under a rock for you. So it's not a glamorous life. Let's put it that way.
Sounds like a tremendous physical and mental challenge. How? How many days in a row would you typically be chasing storms in, you know, in 11 go?
The most that I've ever done is three weeks. You know, the head meteorologist will chase for the entire season, but he's been doing it for the best part of his life. Um, this is very hard on your body. I try thio, get out early in the morning and walk around the towns that were in just because I like to see them. It's a beautiful time of day to wake up, walk around these towns, see what they're like. Um, try to exercise a little, Um, you know, in the middle of the day, you stop fast food places. Um, you know, just get out of the car and try to do a little, you know, palace tax. Just walk around, Lou. Um, because it really does. Oh, eat away, you know, psychologically, physically. Uh, even though you're sitting in a car most of the day, that's that's the problem right there. You know, it takes a tremendous toll on your body.
Yes, I can imagine that. What do you What do you feel when you're in the moment and you're confronting a storm? And wouldn't you know, witnessing the formation of a tornado that's right in front of you? What does that feel like? And And how do you respond? Not only as you know, in terms of your own awareness and sense of the danger, but also sort of what is How do you keep your composure, so to speak, so that you're able to really produce the kind of photography that you see throughout your book.
One of the things that I don't think comes across in the book. Yes. You know, the environment around you. Um, very often it's just hard to stand up. I mean, you are in gale force wins attempting to take photographs and there's hail and there's lightning and very often, you know, cold, uh, rain is cutting into your face. I mean, this is rain that is not going vertically again from top to bottom. This is rain that's going horizontally, usually from left to right. And it's it's hitting you like like, you know, a sharp knife. No little pin pricks in your face. My school Oh, ring, uh, tremendous wind. Um, they're all quite often there are rattlesnakes out there. You gotta be careful where you're walking. Um, so you're faced with all of these things on your immediate surrounding and your mind is going a mile a minute looking at the super cell or the tornado that's that's in front of you. But you're also confronted with something called chaser convergence, which to sort of get into some of the dangers out there. Chaser convergence refers to a lot of chasers in the same area at the same time. So if you're if you're near a big city like Oklahoma City or Denver and you're chasing your very often, you have to get onto a main road up to the highway. And so you're dealing with other chasers, a lot of whom, you know, get wrapped up in trying to be the 1st 1 to get that, you know, get in front of everyone else and photograph the tornado. So chase a convergence, strangely enough, is one of the most dangerous things about chasing storms. People go through intersections without realizing that they've just gone through an intersection. Uh, so you have to be careful, Uh, you know, about about where you're walking and crossing the street and getting out into the road. Uh, and so your mind is working on a lot of different things, Some taste, And I try to, you know, slow down a CZ, much as I can, And, uh, you know, when I am in a sick place, I like to just watch the storm for the first couple of minutes and, you know, absorb what I'm seeing because that's that's a big part of the the fun. And that's for me, a big part of the strategy of deciding how you're gonna photograph. Do you want something in the foreground? You know, do you do want a road leading up to the sore June 28th of 2018 was probably the most spectacular day that I've ever seen. We were in a town cold capital, long Tanner. Oh, there's nothing really there to speak of. Um, and, uh, we saw five or six tornadoes in the space of two hours. So you are Oh, suddenly having to absorb the idea that you know, the tornado that you've just seen and looked about a spectacular as any tornado tornado you've ever seen Give us way to another tornado in another tornado on another tornado. And so you have these different days. You have days of incredible boredom, uh, where the landscape just goes by outside. And, you know, nothing much happens because maybe there's a hate bridge over California and that's preventing. You know, the air masses from moving over the Rockies, Um, or or you have a spectacular day where all of a sudden, five or six days of going by and nothing much has happened and you've got maybe 20 minutes to do, you know, make a break, we'll get some. Some photographs that are are as good as a CZ, good as you can get. So it's It's very disorienting. Uh, but it's it's a lot of fun. And, you know, you you you're just too to what you're seeing. And part of part of everything else that's going on is this is incredible flow of adrenaline, you know, because you're excited and you're scared. And, uh, as I mentioned, I've tried to absorb well, some meteorology, and very often we stare our distance from tornadoes. But on that particular day, we got quite close. Well, I didn't realize at the time, you know, because it didn't appear to me visually that tornadoes were getting further away from us. But we were literally chasing. They were moving to the north and to the east. And, uh, Rose, you know, we're following along the road in that direction as well.
How long did you spend then? Accumulating the images that made the book and I'd like to have you really talk about the process of then editing the images and and shaping it into the book that it became
when I first started photographing storms out on the Great Plains. I started making trips out there, you know, also in different seasons, uh, I went out in the fall when I knew there wouldn't be any storms because I wanted to get a sense of the land of the of the environment under different conditions. I wanted to do it at my own speed. I wanted Thio photograph things that I wouldn't be photographing or have the opportunity to photograph well during chief season. So I made quite a few trips out there and I photographed. Oh, you know, I spent one entire early spring photographing of Lutheran churches. I do did a tremendous amount of research, and, um, I wasn't sure what the subject waas. You know, it might have been obvious to most people that if you know, if you're gonna photograph storms, that that's your subject. But my bigger subject was the great plans. And, uh, and I went back to my, uh, remembering what my third grade English teacher with would say to me, which is, uh, don't forget your subject. You know, if your subject is storms, photograph storms. So I had, uh, literally enough photographs, uh, to do a book on the Great Plains without, uh, showing any of these storms. But I decided midway through the process that I had to edit those out. So a lot of thinking when into that was involved in the process of even just determining what my subject waas
did you have an editor that you work with? There was this entirely sort of you serving as your own editor.
I pretty much served is my own editor, except as we got, you know, see the point of actually designing the book. Great walking by ashy. Well, it's incredible all desire, and, uh, you know, he He also said to me, Look, these they're some very interesting photographs here, but they don't really belong here on. And I have to be honest, you know, I thought that because, uh, you know, my mind was set on, you know, showing. I felt some of those images gave you a lot of context. And then I realized, you know, I was I was also doing a lot of writing on my own, which I I would always take notes, um, pretty much every day about where we had been, what we had seen. And, uh, a CZ I mentioned was reading a lot of books about the Great Plains. So, um, you know it was it was a process in which, through my writing and through the reading and having someone like Greg say to me that you know, that's not your subject. Oh, that I realized what I should do is write an introduction show, show some textural images and, uh, you know, in 10 or 15 pages at the most, you know, I could have my my cake and eat it, too. I really needed to show the book was about storms. Well, and that's what that's what it needed to be around.
I'd like to talk now a little bit about the process that you used to get you. This particular book published what the editing was like and working with a designer. And what things that has taught you owe are confirmed for you about the process. Since you've done
several books, you know, the process for figuring out where you're going with the book is different with every book in many ways and in some ways similar. Um, I think one of the problems for me was I wasn't sure. My subject waas um, I fell in love with the Great Plains a long time ago when I first used to travel out there, and, uh, I photographed a lot of things that I knew intuitively. We're going to be issues. I photographed a lot of Lutheran churches. Um, I photographed small towns. Um, you know, even photographed some old build warrants that were on from these old towns. Uh, and I wasn't sure how those were We're gonna fit into the book. And ultimately, ah, great walk bash you designed the book said, You know, this was really should come out. There's those air, a different subject. That's a different book. And, you know, it's a photographer. I think it's your usually you're your own worst editor. Um, sometimes you can be, uh, you know, you get in your own way, and, uh, we initially edited the photographs down about 400 images, and then we started dividing them into two subjects tornadoes, dust storms, lightning roads, things of that nature. And then we cut the 400 well down in a single edit to about 75 images. Um, I felt 75 was way cut out too much. We went back, uh, put a few back in that were taken out, and then I was still shooting. I wanted to get some images in from from this year. So, you know, ultimately, we we came up with about 115 images. And then then, of course, you're working on the pacing. So one of the things that I did to get what I refer to is the canes off the book. Uh, I had a very elaborate dummy. May buy company out in California. Cold addition. Warm. And they will make a very high end. Oh, book to the physical size of the final book. Um, great prince. Oh, you know, we laid the whole book out, did all the type of the text Ah, put in the captions and then we had them. Turnesa, dummy. Well, so we we had something that we could bring to a publisher. Of course, publishing is changed a lot in the last 5 10 years. So, you know, you're you're always up against what publisher is going to do a great job on this book. We definitely want a great printing. Well, we wanted a physical size that, um, you know, was dramatic. That was horizontal. That showed the, um you know, the photograph. Soft to best effect. And we went to several publishers, got a few rejections, and, uh, ultimately, we ended up getting the book printed in Belgium. Well, the publisher was in Australia. Well, it was a process. You know, getting getting books, uh, accepted by publishes is difficult these days. There are a lot of different subjects out there. A lot of different books are being done. And, uh, I think doing that dummy was very, very important because it enables you to walk into a publisher's office and say, here it is. This is it. This is exactly what it's gonna look like, which could work to your advantage. Head to your disadvantage. But I think in this case is it definitely worked for a panic.
How important is it for you to be on press and overseeing the production to ensure that the power and fidelity of the photographs is being faithfully reflected in the final
output? I think it was more important in the past to be on press. I wanted to be impressed for this book, but I also wanted to be up chasing storms, and I felt very confident with the person that the publisher was sending the Belgian toe oversee the book. Printing has improved tremendously. Uh, last 10 2030 years. The technology is is a lot better. We The main thing for me was, uh, the publisher wanted me to convert the images Thio us rgb. You know, for us to see him like a in the European color space. So European printers have their own convention for Oh, see him. Okay. Which is different than what? The North American version. And, uh, you know, I spent a lot of time of getting the files correct. Well, what was important for me Waas that I refer somewhat dismissively too. A lot of storm photography. People want to emphasize the fireworks when I call the fireworks. You know, the lightning storms of the tornadoes and the contrast in the color. What was important to me was to emphasize the quietness. When I refer to is the quietness of the images. I wanted the color to be faithful to what I saw out there. Oh, I didn't want anything to look like it was Photoshopped our process too much. You're too contrast to your two colorful. I really wanted it to look really in the problem. Today is the photographer's work digitally. And so you're working with an image you're working always with raw files that deliberately, uh, you know, when you when you have a raw color file, the raw file looks very flat? No, no, Very little contrast. And so you're trying to bring it back to what you remember in your mind's eye? Well, which is difficult, you know? And if anything, uh, you know, I spoke with with great walkabout she the designer in the seventh grade on I emphasize this to the representative from a publisher who was going to be impressed. If anything, I want to err on the side of low contrast and flats because ultimate lady, when you're out photographing the storm, you're photographing through the atmosphere, stormy, photographing through the haze and the rain. And you know all of the moisture that's in the air, which tends to give it a somewhat flat work. So it's it's, uh, it's very easy to err on the side of things looking thio colorful, and that's something I really didn't want. And then we we actually had some serendipity happened at the last minute, which was that oh, normally, printers put a varnish on paper and, uh, the person who was unimpressed Oh, decided not to put the varnish on because they felt when they looked at it, that gave a little bit more of a flat Look. Oh, I really wanted these these images to almost look painterly. Oh, in the positive sense of the word. And, uh, that did the trick. Uh, you know, the images have that, uh, vividness, in a sense, off the power of the storm. But the flatness of looking like, Oh, you know, you're looking at it and older, uh, style printing. You know, it's it's it's something that I really I'm not sure most people would understand what I'm getting at. But if you look back at the the books, let's say that Eliot Porter did the place that no one knew his book on Erica. Uh, there's a very different look to those kinds of books. You look at the early books that Irving Penn did moments preserved. Um, you know, color has evolved over the years, and the problem with color evolving is that things get sharper or camera lenses are sharper or the digital process in and of itself is sharper. We worked with higher resolution screens are wiser, more used to sharpness, you know. And there's a whole quote by Ansel Adams that you know about Hutch. You can have a great shark picture, but ultimately, you know, I'm paraphrasing here. That's not what makes the photograph, you know. Well, it's really the image has to be there. Having a sharp image is in of itself, obviously not going to make the photographs. And the problem is, we live in a world where a lot of monitors, all the Niners and, uh, all of the things that we used to create images A ll through through the chain of the production of the image are sharper and more colorful and therefore start to get from them for their way from what the image really looked like. And that's what I was trying to avoid.
That's a really interesting ah set of comments about the publishing process and the look that you were trying to create because I as a viewer looking at the book, I felt all those things coming through very clearly so I can appreciate what it is that you're saying. Here you succeeded. I would say very, very admirably on that. Thank you. What? One thing that strikes me is because of the location where you've been working. You know, it's also an area that gets a lot of attention, sort of in the political discourse of our times. What? What would you want people to know about this area? That you think that, you know, maybe the mainstream media is not focusing on our getting wrong or, you know, how do you think about it as a result of your experiences out there?
Well, the area of the Great Plains is very often refer to his flyover country. You know, we live on the East House. We live on the West Coast. Uh, and you know what I get from here? From New York to California, you fly over the Great Plains. Um, people should go out there and drive through. You know, it's it's the country where Lewis and Clark first explored its extraordinarily beautiful in a very quiet way. Uh, you can go out there and disappear for hours down a dirt road. The people are wonderful, uh, and you really get a sense of what the country was like. Well, let's say back in the Eisenhower era, and I mean that in a very positive way. The people are wonderful. The vory open. Um, you know, there are a lot of farms out there, and unfortunately, you know, it's it's going to change is as well there's a lot of fracking that's starting out there. Oh, the big firms are taking over the small firms. Big agriculture has moved in s so there's a lot of positive there. Then there's some negative. Mmm. But despite the fact that there is not a yellow stone out there or well, you're somebody or Grand Canyon Oh, it's extraordinarily beautiful on. And there's a lot to explore in some of these small towns. I would highly recommend it to anyone.
Well, I think you did a beautiful job of capturing some of that in the book, and I commend you on that. Thank you. I'd like to shift now a little bit too, talking about photography and the profession landscape, so to speak, given particularly to give voice to what younger photographers entering the profession now would need to know. So let me start out with this question when if you're a young photographer today and you're trying to put a portfolio together. What do you think should be in a good portfolio and why?
I think whatever is in your portfolio has to make a statement. We'll come back to those two things I said earlier. Whatever's in that portfolio has to say something about you. It has to say this is what I do. This is who I am. And so, uh, you know, I see a lot of landscape photography today that, uh, to come back to the fireworks tries to emphasize the fireworks. You see a lot of, oh, time exposures late at night where people, you know, show star trails and show the galaxy, you know, because our cameras today are capable of doing that. What is it that distinguishes your style from the final someone else? What is it about where you approach when you photograph? That's different. Then the way someone else approaches that, what is it makes your work distinctive, and I think it's it's always extremely important when you get in a Simon to learn slowly. It's not just completing the assignment, it's well, going out and photographing the assignment. But, uh, not only do we in your spear, hopefully distinctive style but shooting around exploring things that you're uncomfortable with, trying things that you might not ordinarily try even if it's and it's most simple form. It's shooting a vertical instead of horizontal. You know, uh, work around the subject because I think what's what's probably the most frustrating things to an editor would be to give out on assignment, and, uh, you know, have that person come back with what they assigned. I think what they're looking for is yes, I don't see what they assigned, but, uh, they hired you for a reason. They hired you because they saw something hopefully in your portfolio that that excited them. And that said to them, You know, this person can probably give me something that I don't realize I'm looking for. So I think that's what you have to build up in your portfolio over time, uh, showing again something that states this is. This is what I do, and this is who I am and and effectively this is why you should hire me,
and do you think that it's necessary or helpful? Toe Have your own work examined by others as part of the portfolio preparation process before you go to see editors or art buyers.
I think it is. I I think you know, we we tend to, um because there are so many images out there today that we, you know, seeing sexual media, hundreds of thousands of images of day, millions of images a day. Ah, we lose sight off. Oh, what it is to do assignment and what makes you work Distinctive s. So we're not our best editors. And I think it's, you know, part of the process is, uh, you know, being being told, uh, you know what? What's not exciting? Someone you know what it is that they feel that, uh, you've missed. Oh, I think you know, Even if it isn't something critical, I think it's it's always good to have that feedback. Um, you know, I think part of the process Uh oh. Developing your style is that time goes by and we don't realize how much the rest of the world is evolving. And it's, I think, especially hard in this era of technology, uh, to realize that things things have gotta change a lot of ways that we can't even anticipate. So look, I look back at my career and, uh, you know, I have this thing up on the wall. It's sort of reminding, you know, surrounded by all these these things from my past. So when I started out, um, man had not landed on the moon yet. Uh, you know, a ce faras our campus go. We obviously didn't have digital cameras. Oh, there was no FedEx, no facebook. Oh, we use dark rooms again. We didn't have digital cameras. There was a company very famous company called Kodak. Well, that's no longer around. Um, today are esos are measured, you know, in the thousands. 3200 eyes. So you know the concept of getting a clean, noiseless image. I saw 32,000 is unimaginable, um, or wasn't unimaginable to us. We didn't have drones. We didn't have Photoshopped. Well, we didn't have the internet, so, you know, we don't have GPS reading their WiFi. So all these things have changed. And, uh, you know, you're not just thinking in the short term, but you've gotta be thinking in the long term, in terms off, how are things going to evolve? And of course, you can't be a mission you can't foresee over these things, but you've gotta have a long A long term plan is, Well, it's a short term plan.
And so to that end, what do you think are the fundamental, huge differences from a business perspective that exist in today's market relative to say When you entered and got we're getting started? Because I think, you know, certainly the market has changed and in some of the same ways is technology over the years.
Well, I think when when I was starting up, one of the things that has always that I was always aware of was that I would be hired, um, to do things that I personally felt. I had no idea how I was gonna photograph people, took risks. I would go to an ad agency and I would show my landscape pictures and, uh, I get a call back a few months later, and the art director would say, Well, I want you to go out and photograph the Porsche campaign, and of course I couldn't believe I was getting this aside, but I only saw as photographing cars. I didn't look at it from the standpoint of the art director who saw something in my last day for he said himself. You know, I love above these landscapes. You know, I don't care where they were, whether he has any cars, this portfolio. I wanted to photograph our cars in these landscapes, so I'm gonna see what he can do. So I think today is it's a two way street. You know, there's what happens today is there's so many photographers out there, uh, that when you get an assignment, they hire you because they've seen that work in your portfolio. So that's one of the big things that's changed. This was a lot less risk taking. Oh, you know, I think that most of the work today is is done for the Web. And you know when when I was coming up, the work was done for print, so there was a lot more money involved in terms of producing the image. There was a lot more. Oh, you know, hand retouching the photograph. Something needed to be retouched. Well, things moved a lot slower. Well, things move a lot faster now, so I think those air challenges which we don't have to face, uh and how do you stand out when you know, let's say you're a great landscape for Tarver, but there's oh, not just 100 great landscape photographers, but 5000 well, so having work that's distinctive, always, always doing a great job because you've been gifted with this assignment that this person didn't get, uh, they didn't get the assignment you did. And you've gotta turn in spectacular work, even under perhaps terrible conditions. So it's not not just getting the work, it's it's how you produce it. You deal with the client. All those things are extremely important.
One of the things that strikes me is that there's a challenge these days in terms of being able to really focus, uh, not completely, but fundamentally on image making, as opposed to having to do many, many other things in order to make a living. I sometimes worry that that's really bleeding out a certain kind of creativity from the marketplace in total. What's your sense of that?
I think Listen, that's a very important statement, you know, way get seduced by, uh, older technology around us. You know, we have our iPhones are digital watches, all these things where things are beeping and giving us messages and, you know, we're total upload things, that drop box. And no, the sheer volume of things that take away from the image making process so again to come back to something I did in my career, which it was, too. Oh, try to give myself my own assignments. I think that's still about thing. Um, you know, I recently saw the work off. A photographer was photographing for The New York Times. Then he decided to go to a pencil factory and photograph on high resolution cameras. Oh, and when it was, in fact, doing was photographing the death off a technology. You know what's more basic than a wooden pencil? Uh, and the photographs were quite exquisite and really made You think about this, this one little factory in New Jersey that still produces pencils And how how many people love pencils and still use them? Uh, you know, because they're tackle, they give you a connection with ready young paper off drawing on paper. And I thought it was ah, fascinating thing to approach. So, having the time to, um, step back from all this is extremely important. And yes, you're you're right. We we get? Well, I lost it. There's a quote at the beginning off the storm book that I did from Minor White, and again, I'm looking at it upon my wall. The photographer is someone who has his head in the clouds in this feet on the ground. And I think that's that since everything is that we need to drink, you know, there's a doctor named Stephen Curry. I'm sure you forever.
Oh, yes, that we work with Steve
very early on in his life in his career, he tucked a camera under his jacket and walked across the border in Pakistan. So you've gotta have that. Um, you gotta have that courage, that insight, that ability to realize that, um, if all you're going to do is well react to the technology by oh, no, absorbing it the way everyone else does you've got you've got to go beyond that. You've got to dream off doing things that only you can do. And you need to make those steps to do your own work and to be your own person.
If you were to offer one piece of advice to young photographers starting out, that maybe either comes from your personal experience or some piece of advice that was given to you early on. What would that be?
Follow your own instinct for your own passion. You know, coming back to Bruce Springsteen. I was just starting to, uh, have a really good career. The phone was ready. I was doing assignments, and, uh, it was I wouldn't say you charged him, but it was a hardship, too. Break off and photograph. This guy who is his daily schedule at that point in this life was very different than mine. No, I woke up to daylight, and, you know, Bruce woke up the darkness, You know, he wake up at night, you know, and go to, uh, to play in the van. And so his his schedule following him around, You know, taking the subway one day and going up to Penn Station taking the train down to Aspirin park was a big deal. Um, you know, I remember walking, uh, a mile or two from the train station to his house and knocking on the door, and he was just barely forming the sleep out of his eyes. Uh, you gotta follow your own passion. Your own instinct. Oh, and photographs some things that and go outside of again your comfort zone. If you're not comfortable with tortured stuff, I don't accept that. You know, you've got you've got a realize that that's something that you might be good at. You're just timid. You're too shy you haven't done. You haven't done it. Of course you have to be good at it. But it might turn out that, you know, it's something that really you are good at. So, you know, you've got to try these things you've got exterminate. And, uh, I think that the kiss of death is essentially to just stay where you are and do what you're comfortable with.
Well, I certainly would agree with that, Eric, I want to thank you. You've been incredibly generous with your time today, and you really have treasured this conversation's I really appreciate it. If you found today's conversations valuable, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes or your podcast platform of choice as it'll help others to discover us and listen in the future. As always, we welcome your feedback, particularly if you have suggestions about guests that you'd like to hear from in the future. Send us your comments and suggestions to communications at S and p dot or GE. That's communications at SNP dot org's as always, Thanks for listening.