Eric Melzer

Posted in Photography on Oct 02, 2009

I realize there’s hardly enough time to get through “Star Tracks” in People (and that doesn’t even entail reading), but if you happened to be lucky enough to get through the Travel section of the New York Times back on 4.19.09 you’ll be familiar with the work of Eric Melzer. The slide show above shows some images from his trip to Vietnam and Laos where he took photos to accompany the story in the New York Times. (more on that in the q&a below)

Eric is an incredibly talented and thoughtful photographer whose photojournalistic work has taken him to all corners of the world, whose conceptual work will stop you in your tracks, and whose travel images take you on an excellent adventure.  Get to know him here at Mom Culture and then wander over to Eric’s website — nothing like an intimate conversation with the artist to make your art-viewing experience even more meaningful.

Don’t miss his tips below on shooting your own great photo, as well as the Proust Questionnaire at the end of the interview…personal questions that bring you right into the artistic mind!

Enjoy your journey!


You went to Vietnam and Laos to shoot for a story in the International Herald Tribune / New York Times. What was the mission on the Vietnam/Laos journey? (see slideshow at top)

Thomas Fuller’s (the writer) great grandfather, Antoine Fayard, was a French Colonial engineer who was given a posting out in the region at the turn of the century. Armed with a silk map of his, some letters and a few photographs Mr. Fayard had taken, we lit out to trace his public works projects. (these projects included building dams which created irrigation and verdant lands)

I published about 1% of what I shot.

What was your most impactful experience on this trip?

Seeing people living in relative poverty who are so grounded and happy. I think our culture tends to focus on what we don’t have and an expectation of having it. Just as a camera can’t focus on an image that’s too close to the lens, so it is with travel. Sometimes a proper perspective of  our situation is dependent upon distance for clarity. I was reminded again of my wealth even though I live modestly by our culture’s standards.  I was also reminded of my own relative poverty because of the personal and professional stresses I impose on myself…like so many Americans do.

Do you know what you want to shoot and look for this or do you let the experience unfold in front of you?

When shooting a story like the Vietnam/Laos story, I do what writers do – I look for themes and archetypes that identify the essence of a place or a person. My awareness of those elements grows the longer I’m able to be in a place or with a subject. I choose them and then look to “put myself in the path of serendipity.” I see elements unfolding and make sure I’m there when they do.

What photo are you most proud of?

On the Laos/Vietnam trip, the portrait I made of an old Vietnamese man next to a rice paddy that rings really true. I do feel like I captured his essence. It’s likely the closest I’ve come to producing an Allard (William Albert Allard-more about him a few questions below.)

ricepaddy man

If we’re talking overall, I made a conceptual image of my mother’s cello in a lake that is the closest representation of a dream of mine I’ve ever produced. I’m really proud of that image because in the dream I heard my mom’s voice and I turned and saw her cello “standing up” out of the water’s surface on a large lake. I turned and she was gone. She died 12 years ago. I made the image because it reminds me of her…reminds me that she’s always there in one form or another.

eric violin

How do you photograph people without appearing invasive?

I’ll start by watching a person – how they’re interacting with their environment and the people around them – and then decide what I feel is important for me to say about them.

Ideally I’d have time to get to know them a bit. In many cases I don’t have that luxury. If they seem shy I’ll try to stay back with a longer lens and just let them do what they do. Sometimes I actually like being very close with a short lens because invading someone’s space in a paced, confident way can actually bring an intensity to a portrait that reveals what they might otherwise hide. It’s their ‘truth,’ seeping out. Done respectfully that often makes the best portrait.

Do you always let your subjects know you’re photographing them?

No. It’s situation dependent. As I’d mentioned above, if I had my way I’d spend a lot of time (a couple of days) getting to know a person before I ever brought out a camera because that makes choosing what I want to say easier. More time makes them forget about me. Other times, a person is so well integrated in their environment that the shot would be lost if I spoke with them before shooting.

What makes a great photo?

I’ll lean classical here and paraphrase James Joyce :

1) Compositional Integrity – after putting a frame around objects they are no longer separate, they become one.  Compositional Integrity is the framed elements seen as a whole.
2) Consonance – how each of  those elements interacts with those around it is key.
3) Clarity or Claritas is the sublime, which is true aesthetic arrest — not moved toward the experience with desire, nor away from it with fear; the viewer simply stands in awe.

It’s basically luck, skill and timing combined. Right place. Right time. If a photograph is fortunately achieved it will have all three of these elements in some measure.

Who are some of your favorite photographers?

Jacques Henri Lartigue, Richard Avedon (iconic photographer famous for portraits), William Albert Allard not necessarily in that order.

Jacques Henri Lartigue was a prolific photographer and painter. He had a real gift for capturing the spirit of life and the subjects he shot with an informal lilt that is very difficult to achieve.

William Albert Allard is a National Geographic photographer of exceptional ability. His imagery carries a visual weight in terms of emotional subject matter, color and composition that in my estimation puts him a notch above his contemporaries.

We parents are always chasing after our kids for the perfect shot — any advice on how to get a great photo?

Make sure you decide what’s important about the picture you’re taking and point that out. If, for instance, you like your child’s eyes, shoot close enough to make their eyes the focus of the image. If you love it when they get off of the school bus and run across the yard to your spouse, figure out the angle that best shows the essence of that experience (e.g. don’t shoot so they’re lost in some busy bushes, shoot from an overhead angle so they stand out against the grass). I want to know what you feel is important – so show me. If you didn’t get it, shoot it again.

Other little things :
Keep backgrounds simple.

Shoot (and edit) a lot.

Use flash as little as possible unless you know what you’re doing (and use a tripod or the back of a chair or something to steady the camera if it’s a bit dark).

Do anything to change your perspective – it might even be as simple as bending your knees…that will help you see subjects differently than usual and that’s what makes it fun.

Shoot during evenings and morning avoiding midday because at that time there is such a great contrast from the brightest highlight to the darkest shadow. Digital cameras and film like a lower contrast. Additionally, objects are inherently more interesting to look at when their shape is defined. Directional light (e.g., evening light) shows shape well because there is a dark side and a light side to that object which helps create the illusion of three dimensions even in a two-dimensional medium like photography.

Proust Questionnaire for Eric Melzer:

  • my favorite snack is:  salted almonds
  • don’t ask me to:  mow the lawn
  • i would put in a time capsule: my family photographs
  • my favorite place is:  the west coast of ireland
  • when i have a creative block I:  write, play music or make pictures
  • my favorite mantra is:  “Be the planet, not the weather”
Images in this Mom Culture interview and slideshow images © Eric Melzer 2009 All Rights Reserved