Interviewed by Jacob Pritchard
Edited by Jules Ameel
Eric Ogden is a photographer known for a distinctive cinematic style. When I spoke to him recently, it came as no surprise that music videos were an early influence in his career. For him it was the work being produced for MTV in their early days, at a time when cross over illustrators and photographers were creating innovative work in the form of music videos.
Eric and I talked about his early days working in New York City, and moved on to how his career changed when he made a decision to embrace a more specific style, even knowing that having a distinctive approach would prevent him from landing some jobs.
We also talked about the current state of the creative industry. Eric pointed out that while now is a challenging time to be in business as a photographer, there are also many new opportunities that have come along with digital media. For Eric, we’re entering into another “Wild West” period, and like the early days of MTV, there’s a lot of opportunity for photographers and artists who know how to capitalize on it.
Jacob Pritchard: Let’s start with the beginning of your career. You moved to New York after school and were working as a production assistant in the beginning. I’d love to talk about what the road was like from just arriving in New York to getting your first job on a film set, to the beginning of your photography career.
Eric Ogden: I came to New York right after art school at the University of Michigan where I was focused on drawing. That’s what I had been interested in most of my life before. I had started making low‑budget videos with friends so my passion for filmmaking was already there. In my second year of college I took a photography class. That was when I realized that you could have a point of view in photography and that it didn’t have to be straight photojournalism.
I saw that with lighting and careful editing and framing, you really could create something. I love movies, and I felt like you could actually create that storytelling within single frames. That was very exciting for me. I just threw myself into it and I would spend hours and hours in the darkroom. Basically, I just submersed myself in the world of photography.
Jacob: When you came to New York was it with the intent of becoming a photographer?
Eric: At that time, I was interested in being a director, a photographer and an illustrator. There were a few people at that time who I thought were doing very exciting things. I feel like MTV was at a creative peak at that point. There were some really exciting directors who were cross‑over photographers who also did illustration. A handful of people were just doing cool stuff and I wanted to be in on that.
Jacob: Are there specific inspirations?
Eric: Three people in particular are Dan Winters, Frank Ockenfels and Matt Mahurin.
It’s interesting, because I think things got very boring and commercial for a while after that period, and now, because of the new age of digital media we’re almost back into a period where it’s a bit of the Wild West out there. I feel like there is this chance to have a multiple discipline creative outlet. It’s tough economically, but I feel like there is potential for really exciting stuff to be done creatively.
When I came to New York I was really excited about making movies and independent films. I just talked my way onto film sets and met people. I would work 12 or 16 hour days for food: the kind of stuff you can do when you’re that age and sleeping on a futon somewhere. I would be an extra, hold the camera, try to light, all that kind of stuff. That’s what’s great about independent film. It’s not unionized and you just have a handful friends trying to do everything themselves, so you get to learn a lot more.
At some point, photography came to the forefront. I started shooting my own personal work, and meeting a lot more people in the industry. I’ve probably said this before elsewhere, but it really only takes one or two people to want to give you that helping hand. They might start hiring you somewhere. Then if your work is good, other people see it and will catch on.
Jacob: Can you identify a couple people who really championed your work and helped you out in the beginning?
Eric: Yeah. One in particular, who is still very close friends is Nancy Joe Iacoi. She was at Time Out New York, and she started giving me some assignments there. That magazine in particular was really a great foothold for me. After Nancy left, the editor that came in after her did the same thing. We had a great relationship.
Jacob: At the beginning of the career, it sounds like you were really shooting a lot of editorial.
Eric: Yeah. Lots of editorial. You just learn by doing and learn by failing [laughs]. Learning what you would not do again, what you wish you had done. When I say failing, I don’t mean you didn’t turn in the job or the client hated it. It could just be artistically you didn’t feel like you achieved what you wanted. It could be very small things: the way they interacted with the subject or how you had wanted to try new lighting and it didn’t work.
Jacob: Now you also shoot a lot of commercial work. Was that a smooth transition or was there a certain point where something changed in what you were doing.
Eric: For me, there was a transition that happened around the first five years of my shooting. I knew I had a personal point of view of how I wanted to shoot. You want to get hired for what you do, not just what any person could do, so you want to be able to put your stamp on it.
There was definitely a period of time where I was successful and working a lot, but I don’t think a lot of what I was shooting was recognizable. I had a stamp on it, but it wasn’t what I do now. I really pushed to create the style that I have now. In that process there are growing pains because once you start doing something that is specific, or have a certain style or point of view, it’s going to open up a bunch of doors, and it may close some.
It’s like any artist in any field. You have a point of view. Not everyone is going to agree with it, so you’ll have people who say, “Oh my God, I love that,” and then people who say “That’s not for me. I don’t really like what that guy does.” You can’t worry about pleasing everybody, and I think if you do then your work’s going to suffer.
Jacob: Can you tell us a bit more about the book project that you’re working on.
Eric: Sure. I’m done shooting it but it’s in its editing phase and I feel like I’m recreating the book a second time in the process.
Essentially, I started shooting it around seven years ago. I went back every year. I didn’t know why I was doing it at first. Originally, I went back and I hadn’t been back to Flint in around 10 years and my parents had moved away at that point so I didn’t have family there. I was going to go see some friends and revisit the old town. I took a camera and a bunch of film and I ended up shooting all day every day. When I got back, I felt like I really had something great.
After that I wanted to rush out and publish a book like every photographer. I met with a publisher and they were interested but they said that they also had similar things in production. I’m grateful for that because it would have been a very different thing than what it will be now.
Jacob: How has your approach changed with more time?
Eric: It’s become much more autobiographical. It’s less about the city. It’s about a certain period of my life when I was growing up and about my family. I feel like it’s gotten richer and deeper in the process. I’m very excited about it.
Jacob: Is the approach explicitly autobiographical or are you trying to convey a feeling from your history?
Eric: It’s the second. I’m re‑appropriating images to tell a story but those people are not me or my family.
Jacob: How did things come together for the image that we’re featuring?
Eric: This woman answered an ad that I placed in the local newspaper. I think I was looking specifically for younger mothers. She had these two kids and was a single mom. At that point I had started using locations that were more meaningful to me. We went to a park where I actually played when I was a kid. I got there and I saw this swing that the kids were already playing on.
I love photographing kids because they’re completely unselfconscious and then they just start doing the weirdest stuff. It’s a combination of letting them do their thing and then when I would see something great try to get them to hold that or repeat it, which is tricky.
In the frame you’re talking about [the featured image] that was just a real moment, just a thing that happened and it happened really fast. I didn’t really see what was happening as much as when you actually look at the image. There are two things that I really like. One is that they’re brother and sister, which was pretty interesting, but also that the girl has these very adult gestures.
She has her hand on his neck the way a woman would do to her lover or something and the way her mouth was open like a real kiss.
I don’t want to make assumptions but kids are sponges so whatever they see they absorb. Maybe she’s emulating what she has observed in real life or a movie or something like that. It’s totally innocent but at the same time, it’s a very seductive gesture. Then the kid is holding a rock with his hand, almost like he’s going to crack her with it or something.
I don’t know. I like it because it’s just an open‑ended image where some people could look at it and be like “Aww” and other people could be like, “That’s strange.” He’s holding this rock like a violent suggestion and her with a kiss.
Jacob: Can you tell us the technical details of the image?
Eric: I was shooting Kodak Portra 400 rated at ISO 100 on a Mamiya RZ67. I started with a few Polaroids and then just start shooting film. Lighting‑wise, I had all Profoto 7B strobes. I shot with two Photek umbrellas and two Profoto fresnels. I was using the old style ones that have a big glass, not the new ones that are smaller.
It was getting towards the middle of the day, which is the worst time to shoot. I just didn’t have an option. I tried to overpower the sun but also to enhance it I used the fresnels to create this strong back and sidelight. Then the Photeks are to essentially build from the front and the side.
I don’t the light is obvious. There is a little bit of slightly heightened sense that it’s not quite natural light. I’ve done shots outside where I use lights just to make it look natural. Rather than be at the whim of the sun beating down you can recreate natural light, but then at the same time have control over it.
Jake: You have this background in film making, which is especially interesting right now, because a lot of photographers are looking at creating motion work and crossing into working as directors. You’re still making films, but also you have this book project and you’re showing work in galleries. What do you see in the future for your career?
Eric: I think the old structures are collapsing, basically. That can be scary in some ways, but then it also opens up a sea of possibility. I’ve always admired people who work in many formats: someone who could have an exhibition, publish a book, shoot a magazine spread, shoot a commercial job, do a music video or an installation piece. I find the cross‑disciplinary thing really cool, because I have interests in all of those things. Everything from film‑making and editing to sound work and music, to drawing, writing and photography. It’s creative work and cool if you can feel satisfied doing it.