A Woman Defined

Art & Culture by Mahvash Mossaed

A Conversation with Photographer & Filmmaker Eric Minh Swenson

August 7, 2014

I had the opportunity to sit with photographer and filmmaker Eric Minh Swenson for a Q&A. Here are some highlights from that session.

How did you first get into photography?

My father, Lou Swenson, is a master fine art photographer who follows in the tradition of the heralded f/64 Group, a group of West Coast photographers like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. He bought me my first camera, a fully manual-operated Pentax K1000 during the summer of my sophomore year in high school.

My parents were divorced and I lived with my mom in San Antonio, Texas. It was during my high school summers that I spent my time with my father on the Colorado side of the Four Corners region. During that time he would take me on various day and weekend trips throughout the area photographing the immense geographical diversity that Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona have to offer.

In my sophomore year, instead of sitting in the mini van while he was photographing the landscape with a medium format Arca-Swiss, he bought me my first camera to give me something to do. After shooting my first roll of film and processing them in his darkroom, it was clear to us that I had a strong sense of composition. After that moment, I knew I was to be a photographer and I went to work.

How has your work evolved since you first got started?

The days of film processing and printing in a darkroom are no longer for me. Since I was 16 all the way through my college years in the mid-late 90s I was shooting 35mm film and always had access to a darkroom. The feel of sloshing prints around with tongs in chemistry under a red light and the smell of developer and fixer are considered vintage methods now. My shooting methods are now instantaneous and rapid. I can shoot an art opening and have the images downloaded and uploaded onto social media or files sent to a client within a matter of hours.

Who are the photographers who have influenced you?

My father’s work is the major influence in my life and by extension the photographers that influenced him, namely the f.64 Group with Ansel Adams. Through Adams I learned the Zone System and darkroom techniques. I also studied Edward Weston, the American movement spearheaded by Alfred Stieglitz and contemporary photographer John Sexton, where I learned to photograph in available light at dusk and dawn, or what Sexton called “quiet light.” Through these photographers I relied on the use of natural light that is a hallmark of my work.

Through high school I began to break away from my fathers work and started studying fashion photographers. Herb Ritts, Patrick Demarchelier, Richard Avedon, and celebrity photographer Annie Liebovitz. Then the next push was through film cinematographers Robert Richardson, John Toll, and Sven Nykvist among others.

Lately I’ve been influenced by surf photographers as I venture into more projects documenting beach culture and surfing, even as far as using flash fill photography on the beach.

How do you choose your subjects to photograph? 

I cover the Los Angeles art scene so I mostly photograph artists in their studios in situ  and portraits of the artists in their environment during studio visits. This also includes gallery and museum opening exhibitions of the patrons and who are considered VIP.

Furthermore, as a photojournalist I photograph interesting people in general. People with certain character and eccentric lifestyles, and sex appeal.

What makes the most successful shoot for you?

When the subject is happy and honored to have my photographing them and look forward to having me back.

What makes for the most interesting shoots?

When I walk into an artist’s studio and I’m blown away by the art and the process by which it’s made. I love the “WOW” factor and how it keeps me inspired. Most common people and collectors have no awareness how art is made.  I get the honor and the privilege to document that process.

When you photograph individual subjects how much time do you use to get to know them?

On a typical studio visit I schedule an hour with the artist. During that time I get to learn as much as I can about that artist, try to gauge their interest if they want to do a film or other projects, and shoot as much as I can during that visit .

How much planning you do for each shoot and how much happens naturally?

The only planning is the scheduling. Most if my shoots are very organic and free flowing. I encourage artists to have work to show me when I arrive.

You are also a film maker- how does each of these art forms relate to the others for you?

The films and photography compliment each other.  Sometimes the photography will include me as part of the documentation as a build my own history through my survey such as having my picture taken with the artist.

Furthermore, the films certainly distinguish me from other photographers who primarily focus on stills through smartphones and point and shoot cameras. The equipment I use are what the pros use, because I take myself seriously as a professional, opposed to being a hobbyist. What this ultimately means is that to film at the pro level I am working with large media files that requires a robust computer platform, up to date software, and plenty of storage space.

What is next for Eric Minh Swenson? What would be next for Eric Minh Swenson if sky was the limit?

The sky is already the limit because I get to green light my own projects, projects that ultimately excite people because of the reputation of my work ethic, my easiness to work with, how open I am to collaborate, and the fact that I produce worthy product and publicity that enhances artist’s lifestyles and preserve exhibitions for art institutions.
Eric Minh Swenson is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and photographer who documents the arts and culture of Southern California. He has filmed over 400 documentaries on artists and exhibitions. He focuses on process, concept and craft in his films, while finding humor and essence in his subjects.
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Photographs by Eric Minh Swenson

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