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Of all the master photographers we've interviewed, Eric Meola is the youngest, and that's probably why he has been quicker to be comfortable with a digital workflow. But though he's used Photoshop since the early 1990's, like most of the other photographers who are confident in their vision, he only uses Photoshop to reproduce the image he saw in his mind during capture. Check out Eric's web site, which contains many more of his iconic images and his "Last Places on Earth" book, which has been over 30 years in the making.

New Eric Meola book of Bruce Springsteen photographs
scheduled to be released September 2006

Chris/Larry: Weíd like to start at the beginning of your career. You graduated from Syracuse University in 1968 with a degree in English Literature. But your first job was as an assistant to Pete Turner. How did a young English lit major impress a master photographer like Pete Turner?

Eric: Well, I didnít. Just to go back a bit, my dad was a doctor and he really wanted me to be a doctor. But he introduced me to an engineer whose hobby was photography, and as soon as I saw an image come up in the developer I was hooked. I was 12 or 13 at that time working as a soda jerk at a local pharmacy and saved up all my money to get darkroom equipment. Once I built the darkroom and started printing, I was on my way.

In my junior year at Syracuse I came down to New York to see Pete. I had seen his work in magazines, but at the time he was just heading off on an assignment. The following year I graduated and went back to New York again. I was just lucky that someone who had been working for him was leaving at the time, so I got the job, simply on my own desire to work for him. I had no experience whatsoever but that didnít really count for me or against me. I guess what did count was my obvious passion to work with and learn from him.

Chris/Larry: Did you show him your photographs at that time?

Eric: I did, and I guess I had a pretty good portfolio for a kid. He liked it, but I think it was my all out desire, which expressed itself by my coming down to New York to see him, that really made it happen.

Chris/Larry: Well, you obviously were a quick learner as well because after about 18 months of assisting Pete you opened your own studio. You did editorial work for magazines like Life, Travel & Leisure, Esquire and Time. That's big time stuff for a new guy competing with really established experienced photographers.

Eric: (laughs) It didn't happen that quickly. The way that things worked with Pete was that he felt that after about one to two years you would learn what you were going to learn and it started to get a little stale for both people. I think he was correct in that regard that we started to get a little too used to each other. Itís always good to have someone new.

Coca-Cola Kid ©Eric Meola
Coca-Cola Kid

So I left and struggled for five or six years with odd assignments. My first lucky break was when I went to Haiti for Time Magazine in 1972 and did the Coca-Cola kid shot, which started to put me on the map. In 1975 the "Nikon Image" book came out. It wasnít an overnight thing. It took a good five or six years.

Chris/Larry: Can you tell us a little bit about your vision and what went through your mind when you would get assignments? Tell us about the process, the way you approached the work. What kind of approach did you use that really would formulate your work so that you came up with the images like the Coca-Cola kid?

Eric: I think one of the things that went through my mind was I should work my butt off night and day. I wouldn't force the images but it was very important to me that someone was taking a risk hiring me and that I had to do a good job because I wasnít ever going to get that opportunity again. It's always important to do your best, but itís especially important on those early assignments because they can lead to the breaks that can really help you.

Chris/Larry: Would you ever say to yourself, how would Pete Turner approach this or how would Jay Maisel approach this?

Eric: I think I would. But I would reject that, not because they werenít good photographers, but because it's really a question of what you see with your own eyes. One aspect of Jay's and Peteís approach I did use was working my butt off.

Photography for me is a passion, not a job. Once it becomes just a job youíve lost sight of why you originally became a photographer. It was obvious to me early on that if I took the attitude of hey, I got the job and that's it, I wouldnít have gotten anywhere. When I was in Haiti I worked night and day. I didn't stop just because the sun went down. I would still go out with a tripod or Iíd be up before the crack of dawn. That's the way I treated all of those assignments.

Chris/Larry: In the "Nikon Image" book you are quoted as saying that photography was an all consuming thing in your life, and if you werenít making money at it, you would still be pursuing it as intensely. What really helped you to hone your vision and create the great images that we see today?

Eric: I think probably it was shooting a lot, experimenting a lot, trying blurs, trying multiple exposures, shooting at different times of the day. But ultimately it comes back down to your eye. I was trying to make images that would stop people as they turn the page, whether it was through the use of color or graphics or the subject matter. I was trying to make bold images that made people stop and ask who took that picture. I was trying to get my name around literally through the graphic style and use of color, and I guess it worked.

Chris/Larry: It obviously did work. You were able to create some wonderfully strong images. Some of those early photographs are in your recent book ďLast Places on Earth.Ē It seems that the seeds of that book started very early in your career. Was that always something that you had in the back of your mind or did you conceive of it later?

Half Face ©Eric Meola
Half Face

Eric: I think I did have it in the back of my mind; itís just that I didnít realize it. I was always interested in icons and in the way that one culture had insinuated itself into another culture. As I went further and further in my career I was dreaming and thinking about taking an assignment and making it into a book. But the years kept going by. I would be flying off doing these great advertising assignments in these exotic places but then I would be back shooting stuff in the studio. Although I was getting some great assignments, what I had always wanted to do just kept getting pushed further and further back.

Chris/Larry: I understand Kodak was involved with the book. How did it all come together?

Eric: Kodak was involved right at the beginning. I had taken a personal trip to Burma and came back with a lot of images. Inkjet printers were starting to come into their own at that time, probably 10 years ago. I made an inkjet portfolio of large prints and happened to run into a woman from Kodak at an ICP award show. She asked me what I wanted to shoot which I thought was a very strange question from the standpoint that people knew what it was that I had been shooting. We were about to go into this awards show and she said why donít you come up to Rochester and explain a little more to us what this is all about. At that point I knew something was up. So a couple of weeks later I was up in Rochester with all these people and they were firing these questions at me. Where are the last places on earth? How long would this project take? What would it cost? About two hours later the meeting ended and they took me on a tour of Kodak and I flew back. They werenít really forthcoming with what this was all about.

About a week later my contact at Kodak called to tell me that I got the project. What do you mean I got the project? She said, you can go off and photograph whatever you want to photograph. They were not interested in a book because they had been involved in some publishing things that hadnít worked out. She explained that they were coming out with a whole new series of E 100 films and they wanted me to shoot with that film and let them use the images for advertising. So they left it up to me as to where I wanted go and what I wanted to shoot. That was the beginning of the book. I always knew that I wanted to do a book but it was just that Kodak, though involved, wouldn't be doing the actual publishing of the book.

Chris/Larry: When you got this dream assignment, how did you go about selecting the locations that you traveled to?

Hamar Girl of Southern Ethiopia ©Eric Meola
Hamar Girl
Southern Ethiopia

Eric: I hate to tell you this but it was completely arbitrary. I didn't want the book to be chapter and verse about different tribes and A to Z. I really wanted it to be more of a spiritual journey, which is what it turned out to be. I went to places that I had always wanted to travel to. Ever since I saw Lawrence of Arabia as a kid I wanted to go to the Sahara Desert. I had always wanted to go to India. So literally it was a chance to go wherever I wanted to go to, and that's the way I did it.

Chris/Larry: When you are photographing people in a foreign land and dealing with a completely different culture how do you manage to connect with them so effectively? How do you manage to put the viewer in touch with your subject and create rapport when the context is so different?

Eric: I think like most photographers, I was intimidated by going to some of these exotic places because when you start to point your camera at someone you feel guilty right away. Then they shy away or they say no, or they raise their hand. You donít know if you should switch to a telephoto lens, try to sneak the picture or not even shoot at all.

Becoming Buddha ©Eric Meola
Becoming Buddha

When I went to Burma on this personal assignment right after shooting a big campaign for Johnnie Walker Scotch, I went through a sort of spiritual transformation. I came across this little boy getting his head shaved in the ceremony called Becoming Buddha at the Schwe Dagon Pagoda in downtown Rangoon and it was one of the most incredible things that I have ever seen in my life. Photographing him, getting that image, changed me both spiritually and the way I, as a photographer, saw things visually.

Iím not sure that I can really explain how this all happened, but from that point on I just was empowered to walk into those situations and make images. Nothing intimidated me, I didn't try to steal the images, I didn't try to force my way into these situations. I was very aware of the personal space of the people that I was photographing, the culture where I was, and the religion. I respected that, and yet somehow I had been given this key to walk into these situations and make these images. It just was all transforming, and it started with being able to photograph that little boy in Burma.

Chris/Larry: Thatís a remarkable story. It sounds like your epiphany blessed you with an understanding and a confidence that attuned you to your subjects.

One of the powerful visual techniques you used in a number of images in the ďLast Places on EarthĒ was strongly colored negative space. Many photographers use selective focus to isolate their subjects, but typically such out of focus backgrounds are muted. You seem to be drawn to intensely saturated backgrounds. Can you tell us a bit about that? Do you look for those possibilities as you create images or is it unconscious?

Eric: It is unconscious. I let the subject or whatever it is that Iím seeing dictate what happens.

Nomads Shaking Hands ©Eric Meola
Nomads Shaking Hands

In the pictures in the book the color ranges from the primary colors that are from the early part of my career to much more muted tones and the strong use of browns and maroons. I knew I was changing when I was working on the book and I was allowing that change to happen. I was shooting in a style that was very different from my early work.

Fishermen Inle Lake Burma ©Eric Meola
Fishermen
Inle Lake, Burma

My early work tended to be very carefully thought out and I would not work around the subject shooting a lot. But when I got to Burma I couldn't stop shooting. I literally shot 5000 photographs in 4 or 5 days. I was shooting day and night, shooting very rapidly. Not thinking about anything technical from the standpoint of my early images. In shooting my early images, I always thought about things that were technical. I always looked at the exposure. You could ask me 10 years later what shutter speed I shot a particular image with and I could tell you.

Here I was sort of subliminally aware of the technique. I was using aperture priority. I was aware of the shutter speeds and the F-stops in the viewfinder, but not really thinking about them. I mean if it was five stops under what you could normally shoot at with the F-stop and shutter speed combination, I didn't care. If I was shooting at a 1/15th second hand held with a 300mm lens, I didn't care. It really came down to, hey it might work or it might not but it's interesting. I know there is not enough light but Iím still going to shoot it. Whereas before I would have said to myself, I can't shoot in this situation so I wouldnít try.

Chris/Larry: It sounds like you were becoming more intuitive and less intellectual about your shooting. Do you think that great photographs are more likely to come from having an intuitive connection to the subject?

Eric: I think itís different for different people, both for the viewers and the photographer. Take Cartier Bresson who always went for the decisive moment. I think only he would know when the decisive moment was for him. It could be different for you or for me.

I don't have any regrets about using the intellectual approach when it worked, but it reached the point where it wasn't working for me anymore. I was ready to make that change. It didnít matter that 50% of the images might be blurred or unsharp or whatever because of a lack of technique, I had to do it. I had to see what it looked like. I had to shoot whether there was light or whether there wasn't light. It was just something I was going through.

Chris/Larry: Your wife Joanna McCarthy is an excellent photographer in her own right. How does being so close to another photographer influence each of your work?

Eric: Iím glad you brought that up because Joanna has been an enormous influence, both because she makes good images and because of her simpler approach to things. I tend to over think things. She always approaches things with a sense of wonder. Iím always startled at how differently we see even when we shoot standing next to each other. Weíll both be pointing our cameras more or less in the same directions but when we come back and see each otherís images Iíll wonder where the hell she was shooting to come up with images that I like so much.

Chris/Larry: If we were to categorize photographers by their choice of perspective we could say that there are the telephoto shooters and the wide-angle shooters. Your work is pretty much telephoto shooting. You take advantage of the way longer lenses compress space and isolate your subjects. Wide-angle lenses tend to expand space. Either technique can be wonderful depending on the vision of the individual. How would you describe Joanna's work?

Eric: I would categorize Joanna in the middle, meaning she tends to shoot with 50mm lenses a lot. When I came out of Pete Turnerís studio, one of the things that I was very aware of was that I had a 20mm mentality. Pete tended, especially at that point in his life, to shoot with a 20mm lens almost exclusively. Of course there are always exceptions, but for the period of time I worked with him in 1969 Ė1970, he was using a 20mm lens like it was a glued to his eye.

I came out of there and realized that I was tending to do the same thing. There was another guy, Tony Edgeworth, who had also worked for Pete. And he was photographing all these great portrait of the guards with natural light and telephoto lenses. That was a big influence as well. I realized that youíve got to see with your own eyes and youíve got to shoot things the way you see them, so I got away from the 20mm thing right away.

But Joanna's work has been a huge influence and I think it's because I can get instant feedback. Iíd see these images and ask, where did you see that?

Chris/Larry: Can you tell us a little bit about the circumstances surrounding some of your classic images? Like the Coca-Cola Kid or your signature image ďThe Promised LandĒ? Are those things that you set up or are they things you just come upon?

Eric: Coca-Cola kid was not setup at all. I saw the Coca-Cola sign and I saw people walking by it and I simply set up my camera across the street. I took a number of images as different people walking by, then that kid happened to walk by. It was one frame out of a motorized burst of seven or eight images. None of my travel images are setups.

Promised Land ©Eric Meola
Promised Land

Promised Land on the other hand, was a setup. I was photographing for a moving company in Pasadena California and they had just built those storage garages. The red paint, the blue sky and the white stucco of the building instantly looked like a metaphor for our flag to me. For some reason I got the idea of sticking a white Cadillac in the doors, sort of a symbol of America biting of more than it can chew. The next day we saw one on the street and we stopped the guy and asked him if he could put the car in there, so that was setup.

Chris/Larry: Youíve photographed Bruce Springsteen for the "Born To Run" album cover. I wonder if he named his song "Promised Land" after seeing your picture or you named the picture after hearing his song.

Eric: It's funny because I took that photograph right around the time of "Darkness on the Edge of Town"í and had been there in the studio and heard Bruce recording that song. One day Bruce and I were out at a racetrack and he happened to mention the Chuck Berry song "Promised Land". He took it from Chuck and Chuck took it from somewhere, you could go all the way back to the biblical reference, but yeah I got it from Bruce. (laughs)

Chris/Larry: Tell us little bit about your relationship with Bruce Springsteen. Youíve shot such classic images of him that the public almost knows him through your vision.

Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run album cover ©Eric Meola
Born to Run
Bruce Springsteen album cover

Eric: Well, I think the vision really came with ďBorn to RunĒ. I happened to live around the corner from a place called Maxís Kansas City in New York where I went to see him and he was just unbelievable, I mean I was just completely swept away by the music. A month later I decided to see him at a concert at Central Park. Then I went to see him at Red Bank, New Jersey and basically bumped into him and Clarence. And little by little, I started to take pictures. Then one day I got a call from Bruceís manager Mike Appel saying we would like you to take some pictures for his new album called "Born to Run". We only shot in the studio for a couple of hours, but came up with an iconic image. Bruce is a great guy. Heís the most down to earth person you ever met, easy to know, not at all a rock star kind of a person. It goes back to following your instincts. I think that happens a lot with photographers who are passionate about the work.

Chris/Larry: He seems to be someone whose passion for music is very analogous to your passion for photography. You clearly appreciate that level of engagement.

Eric: That's an important point. At that time Bruce was evolving musically. I think he wasn't really comfortable with his own persona or look, but it all came together on that album. Before that he wasn't quite sure how to act around the camera but from that point on he was equally interested in photography and being photographed.

Chris/Larry: When did you begin to shoot digitally?

Eric: I started shooting digitally about 3 years ago. My first digital camera was the Canon 1DS. Until recently I didnít think that the quality was there. It's really been the evolution of three things -- the computers, the software and the cameras -- that allowed me to finally move into it.

The workflow was the bear of the transition, not the cameras or the other technology. It also brought in a huge change in how you could catalog your work. Iíve been scanning, believe it or not, since the late 80's because I realized everything was going to transition to electronic submission and that kind of thing. But back then computers werenít powerful enough, RAM wasnít available, and Photoshop wasnít even able to handle RAW files.

Chris/Larry: Could you describe your typical workflow from shooting to finished images?

Eric: Well, Iím basically a Photoshop kind of guy. I shoot with the Canon 1DS Mark II now. I always shoot in RAW. I sometimes carry a laptop around but I don't use digital wallets. I had some compact flash card problems in the beginning, every once in a while loosing an image or two, but I think thatís all smoothed out. I do preview a lot on the back of the camera and I edit on the back of the camera to some degree but I tend to leave most of the editing until later on. Up until recently Iíve been using Photoshop CS2. As soon as I can get my hands on Aperture, Iím pretty sure thatís the way I am going to edit in the future. Iíve seen demos of it and it just seems like the way to go in terms of its speed and the way itís been thought out.

Chris/Larry: Has shooting digitally changed your vision at all or do you see it as a different tool to accomplish what you would have done yourself anyway?

Eric: I don't know that itís changed my vision. I do think itís an incredible tool. I shoot a tremendous amount more but itís not because there is no film or processing costs or not having to wait for the film to be processed. I can experiment a lot more with digital. Things that I might not normally photograph or think might not make a good picture I shoot anyway just to see what it looks like. I can always edit it or just erase the images. In that sense it has changed the way I shoot.

Chris/Larry: Do you shoot ever film anymore?

Eric: No.

Chris/Larry: Early in your career you shot images as the start of an enhancement process, using duping or other techniques to intensify color or the graphic quality of the image.

Refinery ©Eric Meola
Refinery
Galveston Texas
In camera multiple exposure

Eric: Yes, but I don't feel that way at all now. I will say this however -- if you shoot digitally, at some point, you or someone that you hire will need to process your images. In my case itís me. I don't know of anyone who simply opens the image and hits "save". No matter how good the profiles are or how good camera is, part of the control is to be able to adjust the contrast, the brightness, or saturation. But I try to do it minimally. I try to process the image to really capture what I saw with my mind's eye. Now that's obviously not always going to agree with what was really out there, but then, what was really out there?

Chris/Larry: Was that what you were doing with film 30 years ago?

Eric: Well, no, 30 years ago I was intellectualizing a lot more, thinking about multiple exposing or radically altering with duping later to change the image. Now I tend to do what I see in my mindís eye but itís a lot more realistic. If you were somehow able to show the original subject next to my finished images 30 years ago, compared to the way Iím shooting now most people would see my current work as more natural and normal.

Chris/Larry: You have been working with Photoshop since the very beginning, scanning film before you began shooting digitally. Do you still do all your own Photoshop work today?

Eric: Yes that's correct. Iíve been using Photoshop since the early 90's and I am very cognizant of all the different ways of altering an image. I use Photoshop as a tool to work with my images, as opposed to altering them. There is a tendency is to alter images a lot more than they have been altered in the past and I don't think that's necessarily a good thing. It all comes down to who are we as photographers and what are we are trying to do with our images. If youíre an art photographer, and those things are appropriate to what youíre doing, fine. But a photojournalist making a gray day into a bright sunny day? Iím very careful about how I process my images both from a technical standpoint and with an understanding of what the image looked like originally.

Chris/Larry: You were a success for many years in the advertising field but the whole business of photography is changing. What do you see as the good and bad from those changes?

Chopper ©Eric Meola
Chopper
Sikorsky Helicopter photographed over Dallas

Eric: Well I think one of the biggest changes is that a lot of good new photographers arenít getting an opportunity to make a living. Advertising was great for me. I made money at it. I made a reputation at it. But the other side of it is that I was spending so much time doing things that are not related to photography. 98% of my time was spent bidding, putting the job together, and dealing with all the personalities to make everyone happy. In the end you can't make everyone happy and I didnít become a photographer to spend only 2% of my time making images.

Fire Eater ©Eric MeolaFire Eater This was shot for Almay Cosmetics in 1981. Originally they wanted me to shoot straight down into a tank of water and have the woman's face submerged, popping up. I had to go through hoops to explain why she'd reflexively be clenching her face and have trouble breathing. I finally I convinced them to let me shoot her in a much more tranquil way, floating in the tank of water. I used a large bank of gels to reflect into the water for the background, then lit her face with a blue gel and spot-lit her lips; we cast more than 200 models for the "perfect lips." Then the agency told me I had chosen the model they always worked with! We built a large plexi tank and when it was filled it began to bow to point where it nearly came apart, with live wires running all across the floor. We had dozens of polecats spring loaded, pushing against the plexi walls from the outside. The heat had gone off in the studio that day and the model was freezing. Everything that could go wrong did, but in the end we got a great shot.

Chris/Larry: Do you see the Internet as an asset for photographers?

Eric: I think it's a definite asset. The issue becomes how much money and time do you want to put into your web site. You can have an amazing web site but people may still not go to it. Like anything else, it requires all of the efforts and concentration that self promotion has required in the past to stand out. You not only have to have great images and have a great web site, but youíve got to promote it as well. People have to know itís there and what the URL is.

Chris/Larry: What kind of advice would you give to photographers who are trying to establish themselves today?

Eric: Iíve wrestled with that problem a lot lately because I have being doing a lot more speaking. I always come back to that original belief of having passion. You canít just generate passion; youíve really got to have it from the beginning. You need believe in yourself and in your projects. Very early in your career you need to shoot things that you believe in, things you that you really want to shoot. You need to take risks. Donít wait for the phone to ring. Success is only going to happen if you are out there really working to make it happen.

New information added 20 April 2006
Eric Meola just notified me of a new book scheduled to be released in September 2006 titled "Born to Run, The Unseen Photos". There will be two versions, a regular version and a limited edition boxed set.
 

Contents of the Interview © 2005 Chris Maher and Larry Berman
Images and text are protected under United States and International copyright laws and may not be reproduced, stored, or manipulated without written permission of the authors.

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