Photographer Profile - Eric Ogden: "I wasn't showing my personal vision. After that, I tried to re-route things"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday March 15, 2016

Photographer and filmmaker Eric Ogden  has recently been revising a dummy for his first book, which he hopes to present to publishers in the fall.

It’s not a collection of his best celebrity portraits or advertising work— “It’s too soon for that,” he says. Rather, he calls the book a “visual memoir” about his home town, the city that cradled his creativity and fostered his future career.

Flint, Michigan.

Today the one-time auto-industry boom town’s inglorious reputation is based on a faded economy and polluted water supply. But for Ogden the city was a variegated terrain filled with characters, colors and ideas that helped inspired his visual style.

“There’s an element in my photography that is almost cinematic or surreal or magical — it’s not overt, but there’s an element of that,” he says. “Flint is probably not the first place you think of when you think of words like that, but it definitely shaped me,” he says.

Ogden left Flint after high school, attending the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in the early 1990s and then moving to New York City to launch his photography career. He went on to be named to the PDN 30 list of emerging photographers to watch in 2005 and to shoot for Esquire, the Hollywood Reporter, Men’s Journal, Vanity Fair, Fast Company and other magazines, as well as commercial clients like Nike, Atlantic Records, Sotheby’s and Maker’s Mark.

He is best known for portraits of film stars and musicians — Amy Poehler, Spike Lee, Matthew Broderick, the Kings of Leon, Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz among them — that are drenched in dramatic lighting and packed with narrative potential. In different ways, the narrative is about Flint, he says.

“I’ve noticed that whenever I have the chance to choose a location for a portrait shoot, I’ll end up in a bar with wood paneling, or I’ll be like, ‘Hey, let’s go to a parking lot or a supermarket,’ places that feel mundane and midwestern, which is not to say that the Midwest is mundane,” he says.

As his career has developed, Ogden has stayed in touch with friends in Flint, returning every year to visit and take pictures. “I don’t have family there anymore, but I know a lot of people who live there,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of changes in the city over that period of time, the disintegration of some stuff, but also attempts to rebuild and renew.”

It might be that by returning to Flint, he has been looking to find out more about his own creative instincts.

“I grew up in a neighborhood that was kind of rough — it was not a sheltered life,” he says. “So I was exposed to a lot of interesting characters and oddness. I probably already gravitated to that, just because of who I am, but all that gave me a slightly eccentric view of the world.”

Reckless Teenage Years

Art careers are about growth and the search for new ideas, but they are also about the search for an essential artistic point of view, the one that never changes.

“Today we are flooded with images — most people have cameras at their disposal and everyone is a photographic subject. Eric finds a way to cut through the clutter and do something distinctive, using his camera as a tool to explore,” says Fast Company Director of Photographer Sarah Filippi. “His cross-disciplinary concepts create unique worlds where we see the ironic or slightly-off moments that one would normally pass by. He draws influence from film and theater, giving his work a signature style. In many ways, Eric aims to make you see what’s in front of you in a different way, altering your perception.”

At his website, Ogden points to his experiences growing up in Flint — “endlessly drawing as a kid, playing in bands, discovering punk music and cinema, my reckless teenage years” — as his own personal reference point.

His first camera was a 1980s-vintage video recorder, which he and his high-school friends used to create DIY films. “We would sketch out these stories and figure out cool locations and then shoot them and edit them and add music. We would do stunts — somebody riding on the hood of a car, really dangerous stuff. And we started to get a little following. Each time we’d make one, our friends would be like, ‘Hey if you make another film, can I be in it?’”

At college he was exposed to cinema and art history, while soaking up more of the pop culture of the era —music videos by filmmakers like David Fincher and album covers by graphic designers like Vaughan Oliver. Then in his sophomore year he took his first photography course. “As soon as I realized photography didn’t have to be straight documentary, that you could manipulate reality through lighting and lenses, art direction and props — essentially what you do when you make a film — I got very excited about it,” he says.

When he moved to New York in 1994, all he had a handful of phone numbers. “I would talk to anyone,” he says. “I was so green and fearless that way — I didn’t know what was appropriate and not appropriate. I started to assist some photographers, worked on the crew of some low-budget movies, sometimes for a small fee and sometimes just for lunch. I worked in photo studios painting backgrounds and cleaning bathrooms.”

His first break came when he got an assignment from photo editor Nancy Jo Iacoi at Time Out New York. “She’s a great friend to photographers and has given many their first real jobs,” says Ogden. “My work started getting seen, and I was shooting portraits for Vanity Fair and fashion for Lucky magazine. I learned a lot from that; it added to my skill set for shooting and relating to people.”

A Career In Motion

Not long ago, Ogden heard from a photo blogger, who wanted to know what work he considered his best. Instead, Ogden told him  about a pivotal moment that changed his work.

“It was about a time when I was in my early 30s and my career was really taking off,” he says. “I was shooting a lot of jobs, but nothing that really showed my own personality or point of view. And for Christmas a friend gave me a set of DVDs of films by directors I loved — short films and music videos by Spike Jones, Chris Cunningham and Michel Gondry. I spent several days watching them and then went into a pit of despair. I was like, ‘I am so far off the mark. When did I wander off the trail toward what I want to do?’”

It was a tough time, Ogden says, but it turned out to also be a rewarding one. “I realized I wasn’t doing what I was put here for,” he says. “I wasn't showing my personal vision. After that, I tried to re-route things, being conscious of jobs I was accepting and not accepting and how I shot things. It was a turning point."

Since then, he has been able to plumb his own influences and experiences to find a unique voice. He’s also circled back to his early love of filmmaking, shooting a number of motion projects, including a comic sketch  starring actress Anna Kendrick that was done in conjunction with a photo assignment from Fast Company. The four-minute short was later named a winner of the International Motion Art Awards.

Last year he also joined other photographer/filmmakers, including Ruven Afanador and Frank Ockenfels III, in a project for International Flavors & Fragrances, a perfume and flavoring manufacturer. He’s now completed a director’s cut of the atmospheric video, which he plans to enter into film festivals.

“My point of view has evolved and expanded,” he says, “but I’m still the same person creating the work, and that feels good.”