With a name like Eric Ray Davidson, it’s easy to imagine big-time fame, high-stakes confidence, and fast-living would follow you since birth. It reads like one of those 1950s Hollywood stage names that just resonates with a mnemonic stick-in-your-head traction. Being a celebrity photographer, photojournalist, and all-around cool guy, Eric Ray Davidson has certainly lived up to that neon-painted bet his parents hedged with this excellently crafted name.
I mean, you don’t get to jump onto a porn set with someone like James Deen unless you exude cool. You don’t become an associate photo editor at Details unless you, again, you have that French je ne sais quoi hyper-mystique. Stylish to the point of a crisp Simon Spurr suit, pristine as an idyllic midsummer nap on the wings of a rosy-cheeked cherub, all of Davidson’s photographs have that cool — like a cold-kiss-from-a-sexy-stranger cool. They’re close-up, intimate, observant, yet seemingly far away. They revel in that undefinable it.
In this interview, Eric Ray Davidson talks about making a dark room in high school, explains his approach to lighting, reveals what it was like shooting in a porn set.
Your work is really great. How did you get your start? How would you describe your style?
Thank you. I’ve wanted to be a photographer since I was 14 years old. I built my own darkroom with my father in my house freshman year in high school and pretty much lived in there throughout high school. I attended Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, assisted photographer Paul Jasmin and then became associate photo editor at Details magazine 6 months after graduation.
Your eye for color is killer. You also like shooting at night and getting grain – I like that. When you first started shooting, which patterns did you find yourself being drawn to? Do you remember?
I don’t remember being drawn to anything specifically. I was certainly inspired by magazines from a very early age – working at Details during my early twenties certainly fueled this. I continue to be fixated on the theory of what it is to be a working artist – and what it takes to continually build and improve.
Were you ever unsure of your talents? When did you realize you could actually make it?
Early on in your career you need to believe that you’re better than you are – it’s a very useful delusion.
What do you usually shoot with? For some reason a lot of your photographs give me a 70s vibe, especially the 1st one in “Cannes”.
I work with a Nikon D800, D3X and a Phase One IQ250. The documentary work in Cannes was all Nikon D3x.
Your Fashion Week Photo Dairy captures some great candid moments. The Moment Feb 12 is a good example. I love this image. What approach did you take to your Fashion Week Photo Dairy? How engaged were you with the models and the people backstage?
My approach was to NOT engage at all with the models or subjects backstage. I wanted to take more of a nature photography approach with this. I generally worked from a distance and just paid close attention to my surroundings to find unique moments. I wanted capture the range of emotion and chaos that is NY during those 8-10 days.
In the Valley with James Deen is a very interesting world. Why did you want to document a porn shoot? What was your aim going in? Any surprises or revelations?
Ive actually been fortunate to do several very interesting and very different documentary projects – including traveling to Marrakech Morocco to shoot behind the scenes photographs on a Paul Haggis film (in the Valley of Elah). The Deen project came up very last minute – but I was certainly intrigued by the idea of using my documentary skill set in an environment like this. When I was in school I was greatly influenced by the documentary work that photographer Jeff Burton did on adult film sets. This project was a pretty intense, interesting experience– and probably a lot more like most film sets than people realize. The challenge was to document what was going on in a way that could be understood – but could also be published in a non-adult magazine.
Your portraits seem very deliberate and well-planned. The one of Frank Ghery is a great example of how you use light for a chiseled effect. When making a portrait, how much time do you put into researching a person? What’s your pre-preproduction process like?
The lighting that I use is dictated in a way by the visual identity of the client that I’m shooting for – if I’m going to do something that dark its been agreed upon ahead of time. Most clients these days are looking for a much more energetic lighting and mood.
The 1st image of Lizzy Caplan has a captivating pose and composition. Was this improvised? Or did you go in with a shot list?
You can prepare and plan all you want for celebrity work – but once you’re on set it’s going to change and you have to be prepared to just go with it. Working with actors is pretty exciting if you’re into the collaborative aspect – which I am. Actors are used to working with directors and creating much more complex characters than what you’re going to convey in a photograph.
Greatest tip you ever received about making great work?
To stay excited. This is the best job on the planet but it’s easy to lose sight of that with all the hard work and pressures that come with it.
Eric Ray Davidson a man of his word and one of the most looked up name has proved that humility and success can go hand in hand.
Be sure to check out all of Eric Ray Davidson’s work on his website!