Posts by Eric Kayne

Where are you from?
I was born in Port Arthur, but we moved to Beaumont when my mom remarried. That’s where I’m from but I freelance in Dallas now. I moved out of Beaumont in 2004 to go to the University of North Texas.

What’s your degree in?
Photojournalism and International Development

Tell me about working at The Orange (Texas) Leader.
It was a little 8,000-circulation paper back in 2002 and I did that for two years.

How did you get your start there?
My mom had saved up a small college fund for me.  After I finished my chemotherapy at 18 I ended up messing around in college my first semester at Stephen F. Austin (a college in Nacodoches, Texas) and came home with a 1.0 and went to Lamar for two years (a college in Beaumont, Texas),  but I still wasn’t really figuring anything out. So I took what little bit of college money I had left, worked two jobs, and saved up enough to spend three months backpacking Europe.

How did your experience in Europe change you? 
The thing about Europe was that it was really the first time I was truly on my own.  I’d been sick since birth and the cancer only magnified my somewhat sheltered experience growing up.  When I left to backpack I was suddenly forced to rely solely upon myself.  Build relationships with strangers, monitor my cash, develop a budget and suffer the repercussions of not sticking to it.  I’d found myself in churches a lot of the time too and developed a stronger spiritual life.

How did you hook up your first staff photographer position at the Orange (Texas) Leader?
I was shooting this Bridge City [football] game and the editor of the Orange Leader saw me out there and asked, “hey, do you want a job? There’s a Lion’s Club carnival tomorrow. Do you want to go shoot that and that’ll be your trial run?” I woke up the next morning and went and shot the Lion’s Club carnival and got a bulldog page on Sunday morning. I worked for them for two years for something like $6.25 an hour.

When I returned from Europe I had had this sense of adventure under my belt and a stronger belief in myself.   When I got the job for the Orange Leader, shooting daily assignments, a lot of that experience I’d learned in Europe about socializing with a variety of people and stepping out of a comfort zone was utilized in a constructive way.  I used to think that that first job for the small daily was not only a continuation exploring daily life but it was also a boot camp of sorts photographically.  I’d talk with classmates at Lamar about the nature of the business and say how much I enjoyed the variety of experience.  How I could be at a kindergarten classroom at nine, a homicide having lunch with the sheriffs department at noon and a basketball game by 730.  It was all really exciting for me at that time in my life.

You mentioned chemotherapy earlier. Can you talk about that?
I had lymphoma from age 15 to age 18.

Did the experience influence your work in any way?
Not immediately, no I think it took a while. About the same time I got my driver’s license is about the same time I found out that I was sick and I was already the confused teenager anyway and so once I got a car I would just go wander off around Beaumont. Just cruise around town until sundown. This is before I did photography. I’ve always had this drive to get out and cruise around and explore and meet people.

You are a former Dallas Morning News photo intern. How did that come about?
The Morning News had me intern with them in ’05. Chris Wilkins called me and asked me if I wanted to do an internship and I said let me check my fall schedule for school and (Dallas Morning News photojournalist) Mona Reeder called me back immediately and she said “What the hell do you think you’re doing? You just say yes to stuff like that. Don’t worry about school right now.” So I called Chris back immediately and said I’ll take it. That’s how I started to [later] begin freelancing for them. After college, I just naturally went into freelancing full time.

We all went through this cusp, this in-between, where you and I both have a photojournalism degree but the NPPA job bank didn’t necessarily have anything in it.  Freelancing bridged the gap.

 You and me both met at the Eddie Adams Workshop.
Yeah, we both had Bill Frakes.

What did you draw from that experience?
That I went too early. I couldn’t even tone my images properly back then. There were some other people there that had a portfolio and had a really good experience for networking and having an actual dialogue about work. But for someone [who] hadn’t even finished college yet it was a bit premature I think. It was more of the experience of meeting other people. It was more about the social interaction and getting a taste of what professionals do.

Talk about what you’re working on now.
For the past three years, I’ve been working in the Mississippi Delta. I started that in 2009. In between freelancing in Dallas. I go back as much as I can.

Where is “there”?
A network of about five communities in northwest Mississippi. I’ve been abstractly documenting daily life in the delta. I went there just to find myself at first, I wasn’t looking for a story. I was looking for something better than me, stronger than me. It ended up being this time to just speak with people and get back into a project and begin shooting for something that I wanted to shoot. It’s since grown into something beyond me. It’s grown into something that’s about other people. It’s about strength, and humility and pride, hope and religion and faith.

Tell me about your decision to use medium format, black and white film for your project in Mississippi.
The only reason I started shooting that was because I had a brand new camera, a 1973 Mamiya C330. I’d just got it and thought I’d take it for a spin, so to speak.
At Lamar, I was trained in black and white photography in the darkroom and I guess I wanted to go back to something familiar.  But I ended up finding this new thing; it was like a turning point in vision. I began finding something that’s mine in a way. Merging documentary traits with a more artful background.

Who was your teacher?
Keith Carter.

You’ve told me before that you bring a bicycle with you when you go to Mississippi.
Looking back, I think using my bicycle was a perfect compromise. I could cover more ground than walking but yet still be connected more so than if I had confined myself in a car. I liked the idea of using a bicycle because it allowed accessibility.  Naturally, a lot of people were just curious about what the hell this little dude with big glasses was doing riding his bicycle with this weird-looking camera. It was like an automatic attention-grabber. Conversation-starter. But a big smile and a wave goes a long way.

What plans do you have for the Mississippi work?
I think it’ll naturally fall into book form. I’m going to have my first solo show in Portland, Oregon at the Newspace Center for Photography. It’ll open June 7, 2013.

[With this show], I can begin playing with the images in a new way. I’m interested in seeing the relationships the images will take on with one another.  It’s different from the experience of a book or website presentation and raises all sorts of questions, but I’m really excited to begin the process.

What’s been the reaction to your photos by the people you’ve photographed for the project?
It’s humbling. They take a lot of pride in them. One of the families that I photograph told me once that, “when you bring back photographs of us, you give us joy.” And when I stay the night at their homes I find their portraits hanging in their bedrooms.

Building relationships be it in my daily work or personal projects has always been important to me. The experience and journey I guess you could say has always rode shotgun alongside the desire to tell a good story.

In terms of this new project in Mississippi I’ve been working on I think this is where I’m really beginning to not only explore a new visual aesthetic and way of developing my narratives, but I’m also relying on myphotojournalism background to search out my characters and choose my topics.

You don’t typically light your portraits. Why is that?
I can light a portrait, and I keep a reflector in the bag, but I tend not to overcomplicate things. It’s already a puzzle. I can appreciate exploring for natural light in an environment. Sometimes lights are just another damn thing that needs a battery or plug.

Sometimes lights are just another damn thing that needs a battery or plug.

Who was an early photographic influence on you?
The first guy I fell in love with was German portrait photographer August Sander. I was intrigued by his work ethic, being able to catalog so much work. It was scientific. And if [your images] make a government want to burn your book you know you’re doing something right. But most intriguing was his ability to communicate effectively with people on all levels of society.  That speaks a lot to me.


What’s the most interesting thing in your camera bag?
I have this, uh, I don’t even know how old it is. I have this crushed granola bar. I just pulled it out to check my luggage at the airport this morning and I asked the guy if it was all right if it was in there. Chocolate chip.

How long has it been in there?
At the very least, months.

What’s your favorite Texas barbecue?
Actually me and the lady, we make these short ribs in the oven and she makes a Dr. Pepper sauce and we smother that thing in that.

You don’t have to travel around the world to find interesting subjects…sometimes you can find the whole world in your own backyard.

Any parting thoughts?
I think the most important thing I’ve realized over the past few years is that you don’t have to travel around the world to find interesting subjects. You can of course, but sometimes you can find the whole world in your own backyard.

Where are you based?
I’m based here in Houston, Texas. I don’t have a studio per se because most of my work is on location. I live in Katy, which is sort of outside of everything. But it’s good for family, it’s just a lot of driving.

So why Katy?
It’s really just where I landed when I moved here from New York. My wife’s family all live out there and we have a daughter who is seven now and the family recommended we move there for her. It’s worked out but I think I’d prefer to live closer in.

So you used to live in New York?

It’s been a long road to get to the point where I’m at, but it was fun. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it

I lived in New York for ten years. I went up there to study photography at the International Center of Photography there and then assisted a bunch of people. I never got a degree in photography but as I was working, I would take courses at night here and there as I could while my wife was going to college. It was a very long road. It’s not an easy way to go. But over the years, I’ve amassed the experience to finally go out on my own. At this point, I’ve been shooting freelance for myself for nearly eight years. It’s been a long road to get to the point where I’m at, but it was fun. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.

Who were some of the people you assisted?
There were a lot. The notable people would be Ben Fink. I was his first assistant consistently for two and a half years and he’s probably the most influential person on my own career. He’s a food and travel photographer, very well-respected. He’s shot a lot of cookbooks, and things like that. He’s really the person that changed the direction of my career. I really wanted to do more photojournalism and documentary work, but that’s how I veered off course. But it’s all worked out, I’m happy with that.

I’ve also assisted Bruce Davidson, a Magnum photographer. I loved his work, I still do. In a distant way, he still influences my work. I really go for honest portraiture and a straightforward approach to my work. I tend to try and capture things in the moment as opposed to directing things much. People seem to like that approach.

If you could synthesize everything you’ve learned from them, how would you sum it up?
The main thing that I learned was that it’s really about your eye and not so much about all the production and you don’t need a whole entourage of people and tons of equipment and unlimited funds. It’s all about opening your eyes and discovering what’s there and making something bigger and better and more beautiful out of it. I think both Bruce Davidson and Ben Fink, both had that sort of effect on me, you know? They just have a very amazing eye. They just see right into a situation and zero in on that thing that’s amazing and beautiful and fascinating and powerful. It’s the kind of thing that stays in the back of my mind in my head while I’m shooting.

it’s really about your eye and not so much about all the production

How long did you assist Bruce Davidson?
[My time with Bruce] was fairly short. I took a class from him at the Jewish Community Center. That’s where we were introduced. He was recommended to me by an instructor at ICP. They saw some similarity to my work and approach to street photography and documentary work and thought that we would gel. So I searched him out and that’s how I found that he was giving this class at the Jewish Community Center. So I went there and started out by being his class assistant and then that led into assisting him on a few jobs. He’s a very special guy. No pretense, no attitude, just a kind, helpful guy, straightforward and giving. He shared a lot with me. It didn’t last long before I landed a full-time job with Ben Fink. I assisted a lot of other people, a lot of fashion and still life and architectural photographers and all kinds of people but not one of them I think back to and look at my own work and say that they had some sort of influence. It’s really only those two.

Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Tougaloo, Mississippi, just outside of Jackson, Mississippi.

How has being from a small town in Mississippi affected your work?
I’m not sure. I think that where I grew up and how I grew up was probably pretty different from most people. It was a college campus and it was a closed environment. I didn’t venture out much to see beyond that. It was a little biosphere environment of it’s own. When I did leave there, I think I had so much to discover and everything was so new that I think that just coming from a small town where your exposure to things is so limited that it’s very easy to find wonder all around you. I think that really helped me as far as going out and exploring finding all these things that to other people are run of the mill or everyday and might pass up. I think I’ve seen quite a bit since then, but I still try and keep that. At my core I think I’m still that person where I’m still amazed by things.

At my core I think I’m still that person where I’m still amazed by things

What was your first big break?
That’s hard to say. I’ve had a lot of little breaks that have led into where I am. One thing I haven’t talked about is how I got into all this to begin with or how I left Mississippi which is probably my biggest break was when I was 16, I was studying ballet. I got a scholarship to leave Mississippi and come to Houston and dance with the Houston Ballet’s academy. Then that eventually took me into being a professional dancer with Houston Ballet. That allowed me to escape that little world I was in and see all this new potential for my life and discover all these new things. That was probably my first big break. Though it had nothing to do with photography, that was the thing that set me on this path to new things.

That didn’t last long – I was  a professional dancer for about two seconds before I injured myself and then that was that. But, it got me out and got me exposure to new things and allowed me to discover photography and put me on this path.

Since then I’ve had lots of small breaks. One of them, when I moved back from New York to Houston, I immediately got picked up by Houston Magazine and they’ve been incredibly generous and loyal. I’ve shot for them now for at least five years. I don’t think I’ve missed an issue. They’ve hired me consistently and allowed me to build my portfolio and get all this access to things. I don’t think I would have had that same break in New York to where I’d have been able to get sort of loyalty and shoot that much for one person.

If I see an opportunity, I’ve learned that you have to grab it

That has led to so many other things. I’ve shot cookbooks as a result of that where I’ve been able to travel to Finland and France. I’ve landed this amazing opportunity with Midway Corporation and City Centre to be their designated photographer which has given me a lot of consistency which, when you’re a freelancer, is hard to come by. It just continues to open up things constantly come my way and fall in my lap to a certain degree.

To a certain degree I’m an opportunist. If I see an opportunity, I’ve learned that you have to grab it. Maybe it’s not necessarily the perfect opportunity but it is an opportunity and you take it and you run with it and you make it something bigger and better. If I’ve had any success, the secret to my success is I take those opportunities and I run with them.

How did you establish your personal vision?
Being in ballet, in theatre, really gave me an appreciation for drama and the theatrics and a love of the dramatic image. I may not always be successful, but I always go for a dramatic, impactful image the same way when I was dancing that was the sort of performance I’d try to put out there – something that had power and resonated. It’s a goal, I don’t know if I ever really accomplished that.

What was your best career decision?
My best career decision was to stop assisting and get out there and work on my own work. I had assisted for nearly four years and it was turning into a situation where I could have been a career assistant. That’s totally great for some people – there are a lot of full-time assistants I really respect – but for myself it just wasn’t satisfying, it wasn’t where I needed to go. So it was just taking that leap and deciding that I was going to be broke for many years and struggle and just get out there and do my own thing. Had I not done that I’d either still be assisting or doing something entirely different.

My best career decision was to stop assisting and get out there and work on my own work

How do you define success in your own career?
It’s cliché, but to me it’s being happy everyday with what you’re doing. I’m not the type to worry too much about finances or getting rich or anything else like that. I didn’t grow up with money.  I don’t feel much need to have it. As long as I’m working and people appreciate what I’m doing, I find what I’m doing fascinating and I’m happy, I feel successful.

How do you stay motivated?
I think a big part of it is my family, my daughter. Her and my wife, they’re both inspiring to me. I want to do well for them. I just want to do something they’d be proud of. That’s a certain motivation there, but I think that I have this innate desire to explore and see things and the idea that I’d ever have to stop and get an office job and at best, I wouldn’t be able to handle that. It’s that desire to be constantly moving and out there and discovering that keeps me motivated, keeps me going.

Do you have a favorite thing about shooting in Texas?
I think I enjoy the access. I think that a lot of places, they’re so many photographers, they’re so jaded towards that it’s a real process into a place with a camera. When I was in New York, there’s all these permits you need to do something on the street. You need permits here, too, but there’s just as intense…you know I could probably call any institution I wanted to and say I want to come in and take pictures and they would be open to that. There’s just a friendlier environment I feel like towards photography and photographers.

Do you have a dream assignment?
I think my dream assignment is more of a travel/documentary assignment. I’ve always been a huge fan of Saveur magazine. I just love their approach. They’re like the National Geographic of food. It’s more about the culture as opposed to…like what I do now is I shoot a lot of restaurant “stuff” – restaurant reviews and things for their website and hotels…it’s all great but it’s missing the culture behind the food as opposed to what a lot of these things are. It’s more surface and selling something. I would really love to get back to what attracted me to photography in the first place which is connecting with people and discovering cultures I wasn’t familiar with before.

What’s the weirdest thing in your camera bag?
Yesterday the weirdest thing in my camera bag, I discovered I had a hammer in there. When I was cleaning up my gallery, I was moving things around and somehow this hammer had fell into my bag. I didn’t even realize because I was in such a hurry, I went off to my shoot and it was so incredibly heavy I was like, “wow, why is my bag so heavy today?” And at the end of the day I’m exhausted and I open up the side back pocket, the one I don’t use that much and I open it up and there’s this big hammer in there and I’m like “oh there you go, that would explain it.”

Do you have a latest gear obsession?
That’s the funny thing about me is that I don’t care much about gear, I’m not that gear-oriented. I’ve had the same three lenses for seven years: a 50mm, a 16-35mm, and a 100mm macro. Those seem to do fine for me, and if I ever need something else, I’ll rent it.

the funny thing about me is that I don’t care much about gear

What are some of your all time favorite photo books?
One that has influenced me quite a bit is Nick Waplington who did “The Wedding.”. That book spoke a lot to me because there’s something very familiar about that whole environment there that is… if you see it, you’ll wonder how I grew up when you look at how strange it’s subjects are there, but there’s something very comfortable and familiar to me about that. It opened my eyes that as unsophisticated I am and my circle is probably that my demographic, my vision has worth and value and I can go out there and shoot the people I love and it’s valuable. It’s weird to say probably if you look at my portfolio because I shoot a lot for Houston Magazine which is very the wealthy and upper class and probably not like anything like where I’m from. That is the thing that impacted me. This is real, this is something familiar to me. I can see the beauty in this even if most people don’t.

What projects are you working on in 2012?
I’m very freelance, so from one day to the next I never know what I’m going to be doing. The big major thing I’m working on that has nothing to do with my own photography, but I’m excited about is this art gallery I’m opening with my partner Luqman Kaka. All these years we’ve wanted to do something together, some project that allowed us to explore some of our ideas that we’ve had. We’re a couple of daydreamers.

We’re constantly coming up with crazy ideas that have no ability or venue to make it actually happen. This opportunity suddenly popped open out of nowhere where I discovered this gallery space was becoming available and I thought this might be an opportunity here. So we’re going to do this gallery that’s focused on photography, but we’ll venture into other mediums occasionally and that’s going to get started July 2. I’m really excited about it. Who knows what will happen or where it’ll go.

What’s the gallery called?
It’s called Be Human Gallery. I’m definitely motivated to get Texas photographers in there.

What’s your favorite barbecue?
I’m a traditionalist. I still really love Goode Company Barbecue. I haven’t found a place I like better than that.

Do you have a favorite breakfast taco?
Cochinita pibil taco at a place called The Bullet in Katy, Texas.

Do you have any hobbies outside of photography?
Yeah, I really like gardening. I’ve always had a secret desire to be a landscape designer. So I mess around with a little bit of that at home. Not that great but I enjoy it. I also enjoy mechanics. I like to work on my car. My wife’s got a Mini Cooper. If you have a Mini Cooper, you know they break down constantly and they’re garbage but I love it because it keeps me busy. I’m always doing something with that car and right now it’s in a million pieces in my garage.

Do you have a favorite Texas getaway?
I really love going to Austin. We have friends out there we visit occasionally.

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