Meet the Fashion Photographer on a Quest to Capture Magic in the Mundane
Eric White on how his career trajectory informs his current work.
When Eric White first came to Manhattan after departing from his childhood residence in upstate New York—"it was really, truly like cows and corn and bonfires"—it was photographer Roxanne Lowit who ushered the newly-out 19-year-old into the illustrious world of fashion. He tagged along with her as she captured clandestine backstage moments at Christian Dior during the Galliano era and effectively lifted the veil from this fantasy land.
Though in relation to the perilous boundary between photojournalism and editorial imagery, White errs more towards the latter, as he was able to glean important lessons about intimacy and irony from his documentarian mentor. "She was such a wallflower and she was always watching," he explains, recounting an instance where she stopped to capture a model eating an ice cream cone backstage. It's that journalistic notion coupled with a sense of voyeurism that sparks the magic in White's photos.
"You're the one driving that ship, so if you feel nervous, if you feel intimidated, if you aren't treating these people like people, it is such a mirror in your images," he explains. He prepares to a certain degree, staging all the variables to create an environment of comfort ripe for relaxed candor. "I think those moments you can plan for in the way that you set yourself up to be able to have the time to find them, but if it's any less organic than that, it shows." Once he strips away the tension, White can transition back to journalist and capture something more natural. Below, White explains how his career trajectory informed his current work, recounting how he strives to capture magic in the mundane.
To start off, I was wondering if you could just walk me through your background and why you chose photography:
"I grew up upstate, near the Finger Lakes area, and was very much like a rural kid. People hear New York and assume New York City, but it was really, truly like cows and corn and bonfires. So I think being away from actually a lot of influence of fashion and art and culture forced me to find it for myself. I got really into just stealing my mom's film point-and-shoot camera, walking around the yard, and taking pictures of probably just plants and my dog. That kind of grew and grew, and it became a favorite pastime. I was planning to go to college for pharmacy, but then my senior year [of high school], my mom passed away, and I reevaluated what would actually make me happy. I decided to go to art school for a year and try to enjoy myself a little bit. Cut to four years later, I graduated with a degree in visual media and photography, so it didn't go quite as planned, but I definitely found a real passion for it.
"Through school, I realized it could be a real job and not a hobby. The only photographers I knew were newspaper journalists, wedding photographers, school portraits, and then like the Olan Mills at the mall, and that's it. So I think realizing that there's this bigger world of creative freedom and commerce definitely gave me the drive to at least give it a try and move to New York."
How would you kind of describe the photos that you shoot?
"It's funny because I see them as two-dimensional, but I also have all the memories attached to them from the circumstance I was in. I love shooting a lot of travel and portraiture because I always remember being there, either talking to the person or the food I was eating, or what I found interesting through the camera. I think because I was formally trained at art school, it comes out through this lens of very graphic, linear yet emotional captures. I think all of those things—light, observation, sensitivity—are all super important, no matter what I'm shooting."
Walk me through your process leading up to a shoot. How much are you planning, how much are you leaving to the situation once you get there, what's kind of going on in your head?
"It definitely depends on the type of job. Obviously, if it's a commercial client, I'm doing way more planning. But my favorite shoots are the ones where I just get along with someone and we're walking around and we find these little intimate moments that are dependent on the five minutes that the sun was in the right place as we happened to walk by. I think those moments you can plan for in the way that you set yourself up to be able to have the time to find them but if it's any less organic than that, it shows. They're not constructed, necessarily, but they are sort of off the cuff. It's hard because I'm a Virgo, so it is really difficult to get myself outside of the need to know exactly when, where, why, and the how of it all."
What are your favorite shoots to work on?
"I love portraiture and portraiture through the lens of fashion. Yes, the clothes are the focus, but they're not on some throw-away character. Even if it is a model who is like somebody from Ohio and has no interest in the clothes, I like to dress them in this way that seems natural to them visually. I think that allows a story to develop. Riffing on those things, whether it's just a feeling and a color or it's a full story, those are the most exciting for me. Otherwise, if it doesn't have that, it does really just become clothing advertising."
What has fashion's role in your career been, and how have you learned the stylists or the fashion people that you've worked with?
"My first job in New York, 11 years ago, was for the photographer Roxanne Lowit. I was her studio manager. She was famous for doing backstage photography for John Galliano at Dior. She also shot a lot of celebrity work through the '90s and late '80s, but she was working in that era of backstage fashion work. And I think that fantasy, especially with Galliano at Dior was something that I, as a recently-out gay person in New York from my corn-fed little hometown, was finally allowed to delve into this stuff head-first. It unlocked a couple doors aesthetically for me. It was more about the permission to even think about that stuff, like it's not so crazy to think that these things might exist. The allowance to have these fantasy worlds that are just bright and vivid and saturated and alive was a definite pivot point for me. Walking into fashion week behind her and Anna Wintour and all of these people that I had only ever seen in magazines for the first time at 19 when the fashion week tents were in Lincoln Center was truly this spectacle to me. It was this Cinderella moment. Fortunately, through her, I met a lot of people, was lucky to get really good advice from them, and have been somewhere between success and struggle for the last 10 years."
It's how the creative industry works!
"Right? Chew 'em up and spit 'em out!"
How did that almost photojournalistic approach inform what you're doing now in the editorial sphere? What did you learn from her in capturing those moments that were actually happening?
"I think there were definitely a couple lessons. She was such a wallflower and she was always watching. There's no point where you shouldn't be watching, where you should have your nose in your phone. There was always something where she would catch it. If the model was eating an ice cream cone on the side waiting for her shot, she would say, 'No wait, hold the ice cream cone, get it in the shot, this is perfect.' It's something you just wouldn't think of if you didn't see it. It's this idea of voyeurism that I think she was really incredible at. In the same vein was to always just be talking to the people that you're working with and don't talk about the work. It really takes someone's guard down when you're asking them what they're having for dinner or about what their grandma thinks of what they do. If you just talk to people, like real people instead of a prop, I think you get way better images because they instantly drop their shoulders, maybe you'll catch a laugh. Maybe they're uncomfortable with how this fantasy of fashion looks on them, but if we can take it as a joke, it's easier to pretend to be serious about it for the picture. So, it's about creating an environment where everyone feels really at home and comfortable. You're the one driving that ship, so if you feel nervous, if you feel intimidated, if you aren't treating these people like people, it is such a mirror in your images."
Who are photographers whose work you really admire?
"David Sims I think is definitely up there. Juergen Teller I think is another super classic. Paolo Roversi, all these people that are in this fashion sphere. Helmut Newton, easy to rattle off those names, but I catch myself looking at non-fashion work often for fashion influence. I think there are a lot of researchable photographers, but there are also people who weren't successful or never got even credited for their images, like people who maybe shot a beautiful story for a '70s issue of National Geographic. It never really was fame-based back then. There's this photographer who is this incredible photojournalist, Alex Webb. He takes some of the most editorial-looking journalistic photos you can imagine. I show his work to everyone and anyone I know because I think everyone should look at the world that way."
What makes something fashion photography? Because we all wear clothes in anything we shoot. Is it just what publication it goes under or what we title it? Or do you think there is something about a fashion photograph that is different from other types of photography?>
"So I think it's actually the viewer that's determining that, more so the intention that you're looking at it with. If you're looking at a picture of Girl with the Pearl Earring, I think that there is this conversation with the viewer that's like, why am I looking at it? Then after why, what am I looking at? And if it's the girl, it's photojournalism. If it's the earring, it's fashion. The onus is really on the viewer because I could look at an abstract painting and it can be fashion. And I can look at a headshot from the 1800s and it's fashion if you take the fashion inspiration from it."
You have come of age working in this industry where your social media follower count can often be your currency, but it can also be your portfolio. How has that been for you as you've seen it come into play?
"It is such an echo chamber. It is the thing I try to ignore the most because I think when you start letting hashtags dictate your aesthetic, you're pandering to people who are looking at your work only on a cellphone. I hope my work deserves more than that and that the right people are going to find it if they look. But, that said, I've gotten jobs from Instagram. It's irrefutable that there is a purpose. But I think it's also taking the place of what agencies used to be to artists. Now you're self-representing and you're self-publishing this diary or portfolio, depending on how you use it. I get really paralyzed by it a lot of the time, but then I post something random and stupid and it's the thing that gets the most traction."
What in your own portfolio have you been most proud of and why has that sparked something in you?
"It's funny, I think the thing I'm maybe the most proud of doing was a trip to Africa in college. I went for three months to Ethiopia and was doing photojournalism in AIDS clinics. It was certainly outside my comfort zone. Suddenly I was 19, completely on my own in a third-world country for the first time for three months, and I still had to work. It was emotionally and artistically harder than anything I've ever done, but it was the most rewarding feeling to come back, not just with a portfolio of images, but having helped people directly in front of myself with what tools I had at the time. The perspective I had shifted to a much more global view. That also influenced the way I shoot fashion and portraits, realizing that everyone behind my lens has their own story and has stuff they go through. That has gotten me further than any schooling or fashion stylist that I've ever worked with."
Photo: Courtesy of Eric White
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