Erik Madigan Heck, who identifies himself as a “painter who uses photography,” has elevated the world of fashion photography with his thematic use of nature and a focus on idealizing the beauty of his subjects. His work has been featured in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Harper’s Bazaar. He has also helmed his own publications, Nomenus Quarterly, and the forthcoming NO PHOTOS PLEASE, a zine featuring the collections of Comme des Garçons, Agonavich and Thom Browne. NO PHOTOS PLEASE will launch at NeueHouse on February 17th, before the zine is shipped to Paris and sold exclusively at Colette. Prior to the launch, we caught up with Heck to discuss fashion photography’s place in the art world, his past life as an aspiring hip-hop producer, and his muses.
What inspires you?
Everything. Most days I walk around in my head, coming up with a thousand different ideas for projects based on whatever is around me. It could be anything from a lamppost, to a piece of music playing in the background of a restaurant, or a poem from the inside of a subway wall. Right now I’m staring at an old lighthouse across the bay trying to figure out how to make a short film about it. I think it’s called the Beaver Point Lighthouse (in Newport, RI)-
Without over sharing your trade secrets, walk us through your process….
Normally my process involves going through ideas I’ve put on the backburner for a while, trying to pair them with whatever particular collection of clothing I’m shooting. Oftentimes the ideas start out large and end up being paired down to simplistic portraits depending on the constraints of the project. I generally spend a couple weeks developing the idea and then will try and execute it in a day, only to spend a couple more weeks on the color and post-production. I’m meticulous when it comes to the color, and am not a very technical photographer when it comes to actually capturing the image in camera.
You often make the choice to incorporate bold, contrasting colors into your work. Where does this vision come from? How do you use this to define your work?
I used to only shoot with black and white film for years, and when I made a decision to switch to color it was a conscious choice- I wanted my color to really be about color itself, instead of using the medium arbitrarily. Color has the ability to bring out intense emotions from a viewer, so I suppose I always strive to use it in a way that does just that, to be bold and emotive. I’ve always tried to emulate the color of my favorite painters, from Eduard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, to Vermeer, or even the skin tones of Lucian Freud. It’s amazing to be part of a post-photography world now, where digital photography allows us to treat photographs with a painter’s brush in terms of layering color.
Fashion photography is often oversimplified into “just pictures of clothes”, how do you overcome this? What are you looking to show in your photos?
When I was in graduate school (Parsons School for Design MFA) I used to try and show my fashion work in group-critiques, and discuss it in the larger context of photography as a medium. The professors for the most part wanted nothing to do with fashion photography, and I find today this is still true in the academic world, and the gallery world- fashion photography is still kind of the ugly cousin of Art photography. On the one hand I understand that on a base level fashion photography is simply serving a function: to advertise the clothing that it portrays. But, on the other hand, I think fashion photography is kind of a nothing term, where it can encompass anything and everything. It can be analyzed in terms of how it portrays gender, how it comments on socio-economic illustration (oftentimes in the most crass way), and it’s also unburdened from being critiqued by academia- so in many ways it’s free to exist as a true barometer for our time. It also has the ability to merge fantasy and illustration into a medium that I feel has become very expected. I rarely see Art photography in a gallery setting that excites or inspires anymore. But, I would be lying if I said I set out to use fashion photography as a way to discuss all of that, for me I’ve always seen my work as an extension of my interest in beauty as an ideal. Beauty is really the only thing that interests me. I think it’s the only true thing we have to discuss in art.
Do you believe in muses? Who are yours?
I don’t really have muses- but I would say I have a lot of collaborators. Guinevere Van Seenus has been my main collaborator over the last year. We have an amazing chemistry where she can really understand what it is that I seek in a character, and portray it effortlessly. It’s really true collaboration because she brings as much to the table as I do in making the image come to life.
You’re launching NO PHOTOS PLEASE with Colette in Paris. How did this come about? Where do you want the magazine to go from here?
The idea for NO PHOTOS PLEASE is to simply create images and release them into the world. It’s not about creating another exclusive magazine that pretends to be an answer. It’s about making the work and allowing it to exist on as many websites as possible, as many Instagram and Facebook feeds as possible, and to just give something to the world. The physical format of the zine is meant to be a loose collection of fine-art prints that can be purchased for a reasonable amount of money and hung as art. I see it as a celebration of fashion in its purest form- and the designers who I collaborate with.
How does creative life change when you transition from being a fledgling photographer to an established one?
I suppose it becomes more nervous, because you get farther away from your beginning point, and still want to create with the same naivety as when you started. The world keeps getting more complicated, and money never helps the creative process, so I guess it just gets a bit trickier with each step.
What do you wish people knew about you?
As a teenager I used to want to be a hip-hop producer, DJ Premier was my king. Then I discovered Jungle music and wanted to make grimy drum n’ bass records all day. Pretty much 90 percent of my time is spent consuming music, either ethereal choral music (I’m a massive Enya fan), or really grimy electronic music. Right now I’m replaying all my old UK garage records.
Are you a dreamer or a realist? Why?
Both. I suppose I have to be both, otherwise I wouldn’t get anything done.
Is failure just success in disguise?
I don’t know. I don’t think so…. Failure is normally just failure. Success is a whirlwind of perseverance, talent, luck, and the ability to not care about other people and what they think. Failure to me has always been giving up, or not trying hard enough.