May 31, 2017
He approaches photography as he would high art. Echoing with art historical references yet ultra contemporary, often saturated with colour and simultaneously dreamlike, the images created by Minnesota-born, 33-year-old Erik Madigan Heck are both timeless and futuristic and always aim for maximum beauty. It is no wonder that Sotheby’s Diamonds chose the photographer to shoot its latest campaign – it is one step in an impressive career in which Heck has photographed for publications ranging from W and Harper’s Bazaar to The New York Times Magazine, while collaborating with such fashion houses as Valentino and Comme des Garçons, and brands such as BMW and Levi’s. We caught up with him to discuss his process, his selling exhibition at Sotheby’s London and his work with Sotheby’s Diamonds.
Mariko Finch: Let’s start at the beginning. When did you first pick up a camera?
Erik Madigan Heck: When I was fourteen. My mother was a painter, and she bought me a camera and took me out photographing every week. In the beginning it was like a chore, but then one day it just made sense to me. I knew then that I wanted to be a photographer. I studied political science and philosophy, not photography, but I knew that was what I was going to do.
MF: Do your photographs attempt to emulate the magic of painting?
EMH: I always wanted to use photography as a way of trying to paint, because I was a terrible painter. I prefer painting to photography, I always have. When I talk about my fascination with painting, people assume that I mean the end result, but it’s actually more about the process: I’ll take a picture and then sometimes spend weeks building up the colour, layer upon layer, like paint on a canvas.
MF: What artists or movements resonate with you?
EMH: I’ve looked at art since I was a kid. My parents would take me to museums. My mother was partial to Impressionism and painters such as Édouard Vuillard, the Nabis and Edgar Degas. I never really set out to recreate anything, but you can tell what I like because it comes through in the work. I look at contemporary painters like Peter Doig and Gerhard Richter, but I’m also looking at Flemish portraits from the 1500s. It can come from anywhere, and that’s why the work looks like a weird hybrid.
MF: Do you consider yourself a photographer or an artist?
EMH: I think the distinction between photographer and artist comes from intent. My friend Christopher Anderson is a photographer in the truest sense of the word: he shoots every day, all day long. Then you have art photographers, who might work on one project every five years. I am somewhere in the middle. I don’t think like a photographer. If you identify as an artist, most of your work starts as a concept, and a lot of the time I’ll have thought for a long time before I even pick up the camera to make the picture.
MF: How do you manage to create such evocative images?
EMH: My studio work tends to be thought-out: I design the sets and everything associated with the finished image. With landscape work, I am shooting on location, so a lot of the work happens after the fact, building up the colour over and over until I get it to a place that I really like. The colours are eventually what binds my studio and landscape practices together.
MF: There are flowers, trees and plants even in your studio images – why?
EMH: Most of the work that I have loved since I was a kid has been landscape-focused. There are so many images being made today that are very cynical and don’t show an empathetic view of the world. There isn’t enough work being made that is actually beautiful and shows our relationship to nature. I think that is important, especially in fashion.
MF: How did the Sotheby’s Diamonds campaign come about?
EMH: I believe I was chosen for it thanks to a picture of model Kirsten Owen, a profile that looked very similar to early 1500s Flemish portraiture, I had made for Harper’s Bazaar UK in October 2016. For Sotheby’s Diamonds, it was very important that the work be referential to different periods in art history and tied in quite overtly. The image of the girl in the gold dress, for instance, revisits the compositional aesthetic of Old Master paintings and updates that tradition for the viewer. There are three different campaigns, based on three different collections. Some images are vibrant and Impressionist in style, while others focus more on classic portraiture. The jewellery was to be the main focus, so the images were developed around each of the pieces.
MF: Is collaboration important to you?
EMH: Collaboration is a mode of production. It would be arrogant to think that you’re the best at everything. But I want to work with the best people, whatever project I’m doing. If I want to print a work I don’t print it myself; I’ll seek out the best printer for that colour. If somebody else can help you make it better, that’s infinitely more valuable than this romantic idea of the artist slaving away by himself. I worked with the stylist Leith Clark on the shoot, and we collaborate a lot – shooting regularly for Harper’s Bazaar so that working relationship is very close and dynamic. If you were to come and watch us working, it looks like a theatrical set, with the objects and materials we choose when designing the background.
MF: Can you tell us about your upcoming exhibition at Sotheby’s London?
EMH: The exhibition was a curated selection of works from Old Future, the book I recently published with Thames & Hudson and Abrams Books, which spans ten years of my production. The images were selected chromatically – just based on colour. It was really exciting for me to show at Sotheby’s and felt very appropriate, because so much of my work is steeped in art history. If this whole thing had been a conceptual art project, Sotheby’s couldn’t have been a more perfect a venue.
Erik Madigan Heck’s Old Future, published by Thames and Hudson, can be purchased here.