Sphere of Influence

by Paul Slaughter

Eric Swason

July 01, 2011 — I first met Eric Swanson in 1989 when I moved to Santa Fe, NM. Eric has a winning smile and easygoing manner, along with a constantly evolving creative approach and versatility to his photography. With that winning combination, Eric has become one of the most respected and sought-after photographers in the Southwest.

Getting Started
Eric’s photographs have appeared in major publications in the U.S., Asia and Europe, including Travel & Leisure, People, Outside, Burda Publications, Newsweek Japan, Businessweek, Stereophile, and O. His stock photography is represented by Veer/Corbis and he is also an active member of the New Mexico Chapter of the ASMP. Eric enjoys taking pictures of unlikely subjects in fading light, a celebration of the surprising pieces of life, like a broken rock, a child holding a snake, a cactus or a jar of wild rose hips.

Growing up around theater and college art departments meant Eric always felt comfortable in the art world. His father taught theater in colleges in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and Florida, and his mother was also very active in theater. While his parents were very supportive of his choice to pursue a career in photography, it was his aunt, a photographer, who first taught him to develop Tri-X film in D76 in the kitchen sink. He later learned how to make photographic prints under the direction of his high school science teacher.

Eric received a scholarship to the Daytona Beach Community College where he completed a two-year course in photography. Eric says, “It was a great school and it gave me a firm photographic foundation. For a few years, while holding day jobs, I exhibited and sold work at outdoor art festivals in Florida and worked diligently perfecting my black-and-white photography.”

His acceptance into photography school came after his first assignment: photographing Ronald Reagan at a campaign stop in central Florida in 1976. Just out of college, he got a book assignment for the state of Florida, photographing 24 major artists residing in the state. However, in an unfortunate, and somewhat ironic twist, Eric was out of a job six months into the project. The job was connected to a Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) grant, which Reagan had cut from the Federal Budget.
A World of Influence
From Florida, Eric traveled around the country, eventually ending up in New Orleans, where he got a job as a photographer for Louisiana State University Medical School. While there he completed a certification program with the Biological Photographers Association that covered a very broad base of photo techniques and gave him a sound technical foot in photography.

Photographers like Robert Frank, Ralph Gibson, Harry Callahan, Clarence John Laughlin (whose surreal photographs of the South influenced Eric’s move to New Orleans), Duane Michaels, Eugene Smith and Albert Watson all have had great influences on Eric’s photographic and artistic development, as well as American writers John Steinbeck and Thomas McGuane. He says, “Technically there really was no one other than Ansel Adams whose basic photo books taught me just about everything I needed to know.”

Eric gained further insight working as photo assistant. “When I moved to Santa Fe 21 years ago I assisted photographer Terry Husebye, from whom I gained considerable aesthetic and technical knowledge. I love street photography. Bruce Gilden, an established documentary photographer, made an impression on me when I spent time with him during a Daytona Beach Bike Week. I also did a workshop with the award-winning photographer Ralph Gibson, who once worked as assistant to Robert Frank and Dorothea Lange.”

Wherever he travels, Eric spends time in museums observing composition and color expressions from all historic periods. “After years of looking at images I have developed a basic gut reaction, instinctively knowing when something is working in a photograph.”

Wheels in Motion
By the time Eric moved to Santa Fe, where he currently resides with his daughter Anna and his three dogs, he was ready to support himself solely with photography—for better or worse. He is not a big city person and knew he wanted a life as well as a career. He says, “I don’t think moving [to Santa Fe] was the best career move, but I have to admit it wasn’t the worst either. My editorial assignments 20 years ago were based on phone calls and FedEx, before the wide usage of fax machines, cell phones and computers. I shipped portfolios out that consisted of large transparency dupes painstakingly mounted on black boards. In the late 80s, I went to NYC and hit the streets portfolio in hand. I produced mailers and work started rolling in based on a large degree of word-of-mouth and referrals. I have sent out a portfolio only twice in the past three years. Marketing and getting jobs is all Web-based promotion now.

My local work is all referral with minimal marketing on my part. I don’t want to travel too much. I have a young daughter and enjoy being around her, so most of my work is regional with the odd travel job thrown in. I have a diverse group of clients, so when one is slow the others are usually doing something. I’m pretty fortunate to have loyal clients that I work for year after year.”

Eric works out of his large studio south of Santa Fe with a 16-foot Cyclorama and a whole package of gear that goes along with it. He has a part-time studio manager, Jenna Gersbach, whom he says saves his life on a weekly basis and keeps everything on track. Currently this works for his business, which is best described as “commercial” for lack of a better word. He does a little of everything, tabletop, still life, portraits, product, architecture and some landscapes.

A few years ago Eric produced a book: With a Measure of Grace: The Story and Recipes of a Small Town Restaurant, with graphic designer and business partner Maria Levy. The book, published by Provecho Press, has been well distributed and spreads the word about tolerance, sustainability and environmental concerns, while being disguised as a cookbook.

Here’s to The Future
 “I am really interested in influencing the world in a positive way, or in a small or big way, it doesn’t matter,” Eric says. “I want to use my skills to help the world get better for everyone. I am doing that by trying to raise my daughter in the best manner I am capable of.

“In five or six years (depends on when my daughter wanders) I want to take a hard look around and see where I can do the most good for the most people. Maybe that will happen with or without photography, I’m not sure. I have spent so much of my life with a camera attached to my body and a lens in my eye that I have no idea what I would do, perhaps go walk about.”

View portfolios of Eric’s photography at www.ericswanson.com.

Paul Slaughter is a world-traveled photographer and writer residing in Santa Fe, NM. Paul specializes in location, stock and fine art photography. An avid jazz lover, he has an extensive photographic collection of the jazz greats. His new book, Paul Slaughter / Jazz Photographs 1969-2010, classic photographs of jazz legends, is now available. Preview a copy at www.blurb.com. You can also view portfolios of Paul’s work at www.slaughterphoto.com/.

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