I am constantly impressed with the talent of Australia’s emerging photographers… I guess at times we struggle to find our way in the international design scene in certain creative fields… but we do sure do produce some awesome photographers. Andrew Elliott is another young Australian photographer to watch, but unfortunately for us (fortunately for him!), he’s based in New York City.
Andrew is great friends with recent interviewee Louisa Bailey, and in fact it was Andrew who helped her out when she first got to NY, hooking her up with Craig McDean for some assisting work. It was also Louisa who suggested I chase Andrew up for an interview… and I’m so glad she did!
Andrew’s work is so incredibly varied… his travel shots and dreamlike night-time landscapes are mesmerising… his portraits of family and strangers are thoughtful and considered, and yet his spontaneous snapshots (often of his gorgeous model/Ivy League student girlfriend Cameron Russell) are so natural and unstructured. (I guess it helps when your subject is as beautiful as Cameron!)
The other thing I find so inspiring about Andrew is his success as a young photographer in New York… it can’t be easy being a little fish in such a big city… but Andrew seems to have cemented his position there, and it’s clear he’s in for the long haul! He recently went out on his own, after assisting high profile photographers Craig McDean and Steven Meisel for the last few years. I’m sure Andrew is destined for big things… watch this space!
ps) Andrew also has a photo blog here.
Tell me a little about your background – what did you study and what path led you to what you’re doing now?
Like so many photographers I’ve read or seen interviewed, I became interested in photography between the ages of 12-14. In my case it was on a trip to China when I was in 8th grade. My high school had a good darkroom, which made it easy for me to experiment with photography through to the end of 12th grade. I’ve had countless fleeting interests ever since I was born but when the time came to choose what to study further, photography was the only thing that I’d honestly maintained a consistent interest in for several years. So in a way, by a simple process of elimination, deciding to study photography at university and put my energy into being a photographer was one of the easiest decisions I’ve made.
You left Melbourne in 2004 and headed straight to the Big Apple to study at Parsons School of Design. What prompted this courageous move, and how has NYC treated you as an emerging photographer?
I’d been fascinated with New York culture – music, art, film – since my early teen years, so when I finished my undergrad studies and was itching to get out into the world and live in a different city, New York was at the top of the list. And it seemed like a logical idea for a photographer because it was – and is – the capital of the photo industry, at least economically speaking. There’s a great creative community in New York, and it’s been exciting to often be in such close proximity to people whose work I’d admired from Australia. During my time in New York I’ve met many people whose work I’d admired from afar back in Australia.
After a year at Parsons, you dropped out to work for photographer Craig McDean. This must have been a big decision at the time! How do you feel about that decision in retrospect?
It wasn’t the easiest decision at the time because I like to finish what I start if possible, but I recognised it as a good learning opportunity for me and have never looked back. And when I say learning opportunity, I don’t really mean in the sense of learning how to light subjects or how large shoots are structured and organised for example – I mean in the sense of meeting people and gaining life experience, regardless of what particular path I would follow with my own photography. Going from the MFA environment to working on fashion shoots was quite a shift, but working in fashion at that level was often fun, challenging, and allowed me to meet so many interesting people from all around the world. Craig was great to work with, and since he’d started out in London as Nick Knight’s assistant there was a lot of valuable photographic knowledge being passed down and that was a privilege to be a part of. I then went on to work for Meisel, which was totally different but also great experience.
There are many things about fashion that aren’t so great, but to me the best thing about it is that it can be really international. The stereotype of the fashion industry is that it’s shallow and fickle, and there is some truth to that, but it’s easy to overlook the more positive aspects – and they are very real. If you were sitting at the lunch table on any given shoot, you could be surrounded by people from Hungary, Russia, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Belgium, England, America, or places you’d never even given any thought to, like Martinique or Slovakia. I can’t think of many work environments you could be in that are international to that extent. You have a lot of time to talk to people while you’re working, and you really do learn a lot from exposure like that and watching people interact with each other. It reminded me of meeting my father’s students at graduation parties in our back yard in Melbourne when I was younger (he was an English as a Second Language teacher) where there were people from all corners of the world packed into a small area. There’s something ideal about that.
Working for yourself can be really difficult for creative people. What are the challenges you have faced working for yourself – do you struggle with the business side of things, for motivation to get started on a project, or networking etc? How do you tackle these parts of your job?
I haven’t been on my own for very long at all, so I’m really a novice at it. Motivation is the easy part – I’m interested in and motivated to do so much more than I would ever be able to find time for. When it comes to personal projects, funding and access are the key difficulties. Commercially, the difficulty is building a reputation for yourself and convincing people to see financial value in your work. The ultimate challenge really is all about developing and improving your work, and the reason I think that’s so difficult is because that’s really about developing and improving yourself. There’s no substitute for life experience, and it takes time and a lot of experience and reflection to make that kind of progress.
Which photographers, artists or creative people are you inspired by?
Tibor Kalman – for me, the early issues of Colors magazine were the pinnacle of the magazine publishing industry so far. I can remember reading them at the local newsagent when I was a schoolkid, and even back then I knew I was looking at something really special. I dare somebody else out there to make something that good.
Gerhard Richter – formally, technically, and aesthetically there’s no better artist working today.
James Nachtwey – is especially admirable in terms of the subjects he covers and his personal investment in them. The documentary ‘War Photographer’ is a must-see for anybody interested in photography, conflict, or the social politics and moral complications of photographing suffering.
Wolfgang Tillmans – the breadth of his work is especially impressive. There have been only a handful of photographers who have covered such a broad scope of subject matter and made it as interesting, beautiful, and unexpectedly coherent as he does.
Jonas Bendiksen – is a great young photographer with Magnum. His project ‘The Places We Live’ was one of the best things I saw last year. I came across a short video interview of him online where he was saying something along the lines of how the people who will inherit photography will not necessarily be making the best compositions, but rather have the best ideas, or be telling the most poignant stories. I thought that was a great attitude to have towards photography, and it’s something that shows through clearly in his work. I’m eager to see what his next big project will be.
Robin Schwartz – makes amazing, funny pictures of animals.
Bruce Davidson – has been around a long time, and has done many great documentary projects. ‘Subway’ still amazes me – especially since the small world it documented doesn’t exist any more. There are quite a few photographers at Magnum, like Josef Koudelka and Martin Parr whose work I’ve followed and admired since my first year studying photography.
Where else do you find inspiration (books, particular magazines, the net, everyday life?)
Novels – Don Delillo, Jonathan Lethem, and J.M. Coetzee are great. Internet – NYTimes, Funny and Interesting, 5B4, Arts and Letters Daily, Facebook, Magnum blog. In general – travel, talking to friends, watching action movies, walking. I like to keep up to date about what’s happening in the Japanese photo/publishing industry in particular – there’s a lot of good work happening there that gets little recognition outside Japan.
Coffee, then in no particular order: time online reading and emailing, photographing whatever project I’m working on, going to the lab, editing and scanning, bouncing ideas off people, sending my folio out, walking, and the occasional protracted internal dialogue.
What are you most proud of professionally?
I try to avoid professional pride as much as possible. Dissatisfaction with your work is a great motivator to be making progress.
What’s the best thing about your job?
The fact that I can make an actual adult living through my teenage hobby.
And the worst?
Finding the right balance between making a living and making the right work.
What would be your dream project?
Taking a simple picture of the earth from orbit. Anything in space, come to think of it.
What are you looking forward to?
Photographing an upcoming portrait project for a non-profit start up called Interview New York. Visiting Melbourne in august – it’s been more than two years since the last trip. Getting film back from the lab tomorrow.
NYC Questions –
Best design/art bookshop in NYC?
Dashwood on Bond Street.
What/where was the last great meal you ate in NYC? Akamaru Modern ramen at
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
Tandem biking to Café Orlin to eat malawach.
NYC’s best kept secret?
Doyers on Doyers lane is great. The section of the Berlin Wall on 53rd street. The Russian souvenir shop on 14th street that’s never open.