Known mostly for commercial photography, Jim Erickson is now showing his more artistic side with two new books based on potraits of people near his San Francisco Home.
"I love pictures that touch the human spirit," says photographer Jim Erickson, quietly. He returns to this theme again and again. "I like landscapes, but I truly love pictures about people and who they are—pictures that capture what they’re feeling."Erickson provides the photography world with a positive role model, combining talent, passion, style, heart and mind. He has created a successful business while at the same time unleashing timeless art forms that speak to our inner human commonality.
"Artists are caretakers of the soul," he says. "Most photographers want to touch the human spirit. In the end you’re just drawn to it. Then you can have a dialogue with your own inner spirit."
For more than 30 years, Erickson has been shooting powerful, moody images of people and places. He’s based in the Bay Area, but his work has taken him to countries around the world, including Pakistan, India, China, Morocco, Australia and South America. Erickson’s craft has won numerous photographic and advertising awards, has been shown in many major cities and has been published in the prestigious Photo Annual for the last 12 issues.
Erickson also is one of the lucky few who recognized their destinies at an early age. "I enrolled in a photography class when I was in junior high school," he says. "After my first class I had powerful dreams and, when I woke up, knew I wanted to be a photographer."Born and raised in Wisconsin—"Yes, I’m a Cheesehead," he admits—Erickson took up his first photography job at the age of 15 in his home town of Eau Claire, snapping photos for his high school newspaper. "My first camera was a Minolta Hymatic 7 F 35mm Rangefinder," he recalls.
Since then, he has always been emotionally committed to his craft and its ability to help others. He also feels that all art stems from a need born of insecurity. "I remember seeing and feeling different than most kids," he says. "I have a fractured personality, and I’ve risen out of it and used it, like a phoenix."
Erickson was most influenced by such masters as Edward Steichen, Eugene Smith, Jacques-Henri Lartigue and August Sanders as he began learning his craft. After studying photojournalism at the Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York, he headed south, beginning his professional career as a photographer for the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. After four years on staff, he left the paper to begin freelancing, shooting editorial assignments for Outside magazine, Newsweek and others.The process of photography, he says, is a personal process of healing—of "taking internal wounds and creating something new," he explains. "Photography has given me a way out of my losses—a way to contribute and make a good living."
Commerce and respect
As his freelance career blossomed, he began shooting advertising imagery. "One day I decided that I wanted to shoot advertising photos, walked in and got a $3,000 loan from a bank, bought some new equipment and started knocking on doors." He recommends this strategy for every aspirant. "I would shoot anything and everything," he says. "Slim Jims, checkbooks, you name it!"
He’s come a long way since then. Today his most recognizable work is in full-page glossy magazine ads, with a client base of heavy hitters such as American Express, Kodak, Audi, IBM, United Airlines and many others.
Along with the higher pay from commercial clients, Erickson says he made the changeover from editorial to advertising work, in part, due to his dislike of the "predatory nature" of news photographers. He also feels that news shooters weren’t (and still aren’t) respected by the editors in the newspaper business. "Even though photojournalism serves a valuable need, I wanted more from life," he says.
Though the final say must come from the client, Erickson says he tries to use his own artistic voice while practicing the fine art of listening to his commercial patrons. "Sometimes you’re like a ventriloquist finding the right voice for the right job," he says. "Ultimately, a photographer’s listening skills may be more important than artistic talent."
The artist within
Through it all, though, independent projects, rather than commercial photography, lie closest to Erickson’s heart. "It’s wonderful to be commercial, to be successful. I’ve had many great experiences, traveled a lot and made good money. But still, I want to be an artist," he says, with emphasis."Photographers, like other artists, remind us of our humanness," he says. "I think that if you choose the [artist’s] path, you have some insecurity, but have chosen to step out of the box and look at the world in a different way." Indeed, these differences set photographers far apart from other mainstream professions, he says. "Art is a journey to find happiness, and photography is my gateway." Although Erickson is successful, he struggles today with many of the same difficulties as other American photographers. "I want to do books, and more books without any ulterior motive," he says. "Shooting for art’s sake allows me to make pictures that remind me of the human spirit. And I want to have joy in making these pictures, too." His first photography book, "Mother," was released last September and received critical acclaim. "It’s an exploration on a personal level, and took me five years to complete," he says. "It was a real exercise in discipline." He is very pleased with the book’s outcome. As he compiled "Mother," Erickson says he wasn’t wedded to one particular style or even film format. Some photos look like painstakingly arranged studio portraits, while others resemble quick snapshots; still others have the aged, sepia-toned look of prints from the Civil War era. "The majority of the images for ‘Mother’ were shot with a 4x5 Graflex. But the book is a spectacle of photographic diversity," he says. "I used 35mm, 4x5, 8x10 and even some Polaroids." Erickson’s dynamic portraits, tinged with the muted earth tones that are the signature of his work, provide a look into his subjects’ souls, and into his own as well. "Portraiture is one of my favorite categories," he says. "With portraits, you almost can’t make a bad picture."
Although he has shot many famous clients, the apogee of his work lies elsewhere. "I enjoy seeing the nobility in everyday people," he says. "I believe it is a more noble effort to show normal people with great dignity." His portraits—often straight-on shots that make eye contact with the viewer—reflect a direct connection to his subjects, which in turn makes for lasting images.Asked if there are any great secrets about portraiture that he can share, he responds, "The secret ... the secret is the same as with a great fisherman: make an honest, persistent attempt. Then you will get a great picture."
Physical, spiritual travel
When asked why he entered the world of travel photography, Erickson’s quick answer is "I wanted to travel!" In a more serious frame of mind, he says that all creative people can be loosely grouped into two categories: those who create from within and those who are influenced largely by their environment.
"I think photographers fall into the [latter] category," he says. "They need outer [stimuli] to create inner dialogue. To see things, we must react. After you’ve traveled, you learn things about yourself."
Asked about some of the unusual places he would recommend to aspiring photographers, he says, "Being a photographer is like having a passport to interact with the world. Go to Rajasthan [in India] for color. [Portraits of] places like that show people whose emotions are right on the surface, not like here. Here, we are insulated. There, you can see true pathos, joy and compassion."
Any talk of travel photography these days, of course, is colored by the awful events of Sept. 11, 2001. Like all Americans, Erickson says, he feels the pain both economically and emotionally, but adds that the negative effects on the travel photography industry have been a long time coming. Last year had been "tough for photographers, even before Sept. 11," he says. "Now, agencies are unwilling to take a stand, and are afraid of losing clients. The creative side is messed with."
Remarkably, however, the latter part of 2001 has been a pretty good one for Erickson’s business, in part due to a change in his attitude toward travel, both professionally and personally. The former globetrotter is, today, more interested in his inner travels and local explorations. Now happily married and raising a 3 ½-year-old son, Luke, he feels that "the real journey is home. Home is the most interesting place for me.
"I’m a surfer," he adds. "I surf at Dylan Beach, in Marin County," near his home in San Francisco. This brings up a problem for Erickson because he can’t surf and shoot at the same time. He laughs and says, "Many times I’d love to shoot something, but I can’t not surf!"He admits that his wife and son have softened him and kept him from being too preoccupied with his work. "I’ve been told that Luke is the best production I ever created," he adds with a smile. "To everything there is a season and time. The trick is to listen to the season." Erickson’s season finds him staying in Northern California for the present.
Doing it the hard way
As far as equipment is concerned, Erickson is a bit of a throwback, and adamant about his usage of seasoned camera bodies. In particular, he rhapsodizes about the look of his favorite old Canon F1. "Oh, that F1 is buttery, dreamy, juicy—truly an outstanding piece of technology," he says.
For his commercial clients, he usually shoots 4x5s in great quantity. "I sometimes go through 200 [4x5] sheets in a session. I fly through the film," he says. His reason? "I look for scenes that reflect a brief gesture, a tilt of the head, the blink of an eye or motion."He prefers natural light and normal lenses rather than long or wide-angled ones, he says. "Normal lenses provide the appropriate volume and perspective. I like lenses made before 1960. Although the 4x5 is slow and cumbersome, I find great beauty in the difficulties."
He seems to almost prefer hardship and challenges, and maybe there is a lesson in that approach. "I think we live in a age of revolt against the computer," he says. "Many of the cameras today are ultra-sharp, but I like images that have flaws and show they were made by human hands, images that hearken back to a simpler time. We should try to touch the romance in the human heart."
In keeping with his penchant for traditional photographic methods, Erickson is not too keen on digital photography, either. "There are some applications for digital, but when’s the last time you saw a digital image compete with, say, a Lartigue or an August Sanders?" he asks. "When you see those images, you know it was made by a human artist. Otherwise, who gives a shit? I think that, for the moment, it’s hard to beat good old-fashioned photography."vHe is not, however, a complete technophobe, and he does admit that photograph-based digital software, such as Photoshop, can be extemely useful. "In many cases, the computer has replaced the darkroom," he says.
With the inevitable rise of digital images, he believes there is an increasing need for photographers to establish working relationships with the re-touchers in the digital labs. "I have a great dialogue with Fat Cat Digital, who know my work and my style," he says.
"I really like the collaborative experience," Erickson says, adding that he does some of his best work with assistants. "A good assistant can provide intuitive knowledge, and two minds are better than one." He likes to work with assistants for about three years, then encourages them "to fly away and do their own thing."
Mid-life is no crisis
Years ago, Erickson noticed that most successful photographers were in their forties. Today, at age 47, he feels the same is true, and that he is now in his prime. "Success doesn’t happen overnight," he adds. "Be patient. Keep at it."
For young photographers looking to get noticed, Erickson stresses that defining yourself in the marketplace is critical. "Follow your own voice," he says.
He suggests a method for focusing one’s own particular inner eye and inner vision. "Gather a bunch of photo books and magazines that you enjoy," he says. "Take a look at the photos that move you. Study the images, the lighting, the technique."
An unusual self-project can be a powerful motivator for photographers. "I recommend something like ‘spring training,’" Erickson says, a back-to-basics program that involves the creation of images with no commercial relevance. "It’s important for artists as well as baseball players."
Some time ago, Erickson completed his own unique spring training project. "I went to India with a Hasselblad to shoot black-and-white images of people." There was no commercial application in mind—"it was all about creating art," he says. Though not by design, sometimes these projects do end up being commercially successful. For instance, Erickson will soon be publishing a book of his images of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, which he began years ago as a spring training project.
By working on these spring training projects, Erickson can stay connected to the joy and innocence of his first experiences as a young photographer. "Some of my early images are still valid," he says. "They weren’t colored by the need to make money. In fact, some are more true to who I am—more true to myself."
I love pictures that touch the human spirit," says photographer Jim Erickson, quietly. He returns to this theme again and again. "I like landscapes, but I truly love pictures about people and who they are — pictures that capture what they're feeling.
IN THE LOUPE: Jim Erickson
Home: San Francisco, Calif.
Studio: Petaluma, Calif.
Gear: To Erickson, photo equipment only gets better with age. Along with an old, well-worn Canon F1, he normally uses standard lenses, preferably made before 1960, that "approximate what the human eye sees." He prefers Fuji Velvia film in a 4x5 format for commercial clients, sometimes downrating it to 32 to make it look like 8x10. "Sometimes I feel like I’m working like an old-time photographer—someone from the ’30s or ’40s," he says.
Recent subjects: "Mother," a book of portraits of mothers and their children, shot in various styles, was released in Sept. 2001 by Dillon Beach Press. Later this year, his second photo book, "Haight Street," depicting San Francisco’s colorful Haight-Ashbury district, is scheduled to be published.
Best advice to photographers: "You can’t simply shoot 35mm or [use a] Hasselblad and have your work look like everybody else’s," he says. "To be successful, you need your own voice and style." He says new photographers should practice fundamentals by concentrating on one subject or technique, whatever it may be. "Spend the time and money on something that you’re drawn to, then take a look at what you’ve done. It will tell you a lot about what’s in your heart."
Credits: Erickson’s freelance work has appeared in Outside, Photo Annual and Newsweek magazines. His awards include citations from Graphis, Communication Arts, Photo District News, the One Show and the Art Directors Club. He was also named Southern Short Course Photographer of the Year and North Carolina Press Photographer of the Year. For his commercial photography, Erickson has received a Kelley Award and has worked with such clients as American Airlines, American Express, AT&T, Audi, Cisco Systems, Harley-Davidson, IBM, Kodak, L.L. Bean, Mercedes-Benz, Norwegian Cruise Lines, Ritz-Carlton, United Airlines and United Parcel Service.