Andrew Eccles talks to PhotoVideoEDU about how he got his start as an assistant, how he broke out on his own, and how some of his most meaningful images affected his life and the lives of others.
Andrew Eccles has been a freelance photographer based out of New York City since 1987. Prior to becoming an independent photographer, Andrew assisted a number of outstanding photographers, including Robert Mapplethorpe, Steven Meisel, and Annie Leibovitz.
Eccles's photography delivers a classically composed, technically flawless image, one that is infused with humanity and respect. Mira Sorvino, Demi Moore, Steve Martin, and Michelle Pfeiffer are among the celebrities he has photographed.
Corporate clients including Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., ABC, NBC, FOX, Miramax, Sony, Warner Bothers, and Atlantic Records incorporate Eccles's photographs in such media as CD covers, movie posters, billboards, and press kits.
Eccles's photography also appears regularly in dozens of magazines worldwide. Esquire, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Time, LIFE and GQ are a sampling of past and current magazine clientele. The New York Times Magazine honored Andrew by using one of his award-winning photos of Steve Martin on the cover of their 100 Years Of Photography issue.
His continuing interest in dance and personal projects resonates in much of Eccles's work. He has collaborated on promotional projects with dancers and dance groups, including Alvin Alley, Martha Graham, and Ralph Lemon. Eccles has also teamed up with designer Geoffrey Beene, photographing New York City Ballet dancers wearing Geoffrey Beene fashions.
As personal projects, Eccles has documented the Exxon oil spill in Valdez, Alaska, a Southern Baptist community, and outsider artists in the deep south and New York.
PhotoVideoEDU: How did you become interested in photography?
Andrew Eccles: My background in photography really goes back to when my father gave me his camera when I was about 12 years old. I knew that it was more than a tool I was going to use to record vacations and family members with. I started seeing through the camera in a creative way at a pretty young age. At about 15 or so, I knew this was something I might want to pursue for the rest of my life.
I used to hang out with my high school friends and we would all talk about what we were going to end up doing with our lives and I remember jokingly saying I was going to be one of the greatest freelance photographers in the world. They would all laugh hysterically. I have hardly achieved that, but I have managed to make a living at it, which is pretty remarkable in my eyes.
I went to art college in Toronto, Canada and pursued other mediums. I tried drawing and painting, always trying to achieve photo-realism, and finally realized in my last year that my photography classes where my most successful classes and the ones that I enjoyed the most, and that this was the thing that I was best at doing.
I had always wanted to pursue photography as a fine art medium versus a commercial lifestyle. But, I figured if I am going to be able to support myself, maybe I could take pictures and make a little money, then spend the rest of my time pursuing my fine art photography.
I came to New York and assisted various photographers: Annie Leibovitz the longest, about three years, and brief freelance stints with Robert Mapplethorpe, Steve Meisel, and a couple of other top photographers. I had a really wonderful, well-rounded education when I came here, and that’s when I really saw the way commercial portrait photography was done and applied in the market and thought that was what I wanted to do.
PhotoVideoEDU: How did you get your first job?
Andrew Eccles: Actually, I snuck into the Parsons School of Design and somehow got to their job placement board. There were some photographers there looking for interns and assistants. I got their names, made some calls, and ended up getting a position at a still-life photographer’s studio.
In those days there were photographers that were not making a lot of money and weren’t terribly successful. They were looking for cheap help and I was willing to work really cheap. Long hours for nothing. I mean, we are talking 18 hour days for $30. That is essentially the way it was then, around 1982 or ’83.
I put in a lot of hours and time at this still-life studio and really felt that I wasn’t learning about the kind of photography that I was interested in, which was people photography. A friend of mine from college who had also come to New York had somehow worked his way up to the Annie Liebovitz studio assisting there. He had a little lead time on me, he had been here a year longer than I had, and when I got in touch with him he said he was working over there at her studio why don’t I come in tomorrow and interview as a second assistant.
I came in, yes I was nervous, but I got the chance. I still didn’t know how to load a film back, but I just tried really hard and observed, watched, listened. After a few weeks, he was let go and I was offered the job. I still wasn’t sure of what I was doing but I knew I had to take it; I knew it was important that I tried. That was it. The die was cast for the next three years.
There is a certain amount of fate and luck to the way things have gone for me. I think if you are fortunate enough to have that set of circumstances occur, then it is how you pursue it, how hard you try once handed an opportunity. So I tried really hard and worked like a dog to figure out what I didn’t know.
PhotoVideoEDU: If somebody came to you today with the same credentials you had back then, would you hire them?
Andrew Eccles: I already have. I have had people come in here with very little experience, but you can tell that they really want to be immersed in the experience, and that they like your work.
We had a young woman come to us about a year ago. She was from Israel, her English skills were poor, but she told me she had been in the Israeli Army for two years and she could fix an air conditioner. That was one thing that was definitely a plus. I liked her chutzpah but she was so nervous in the interview that I saw her hand shaking. This is somebody that really, really, wants this. I could just tell. It really didn’t matter that she had no experience. There was no harm in trying her out, and within a few days you could tell how eager she was to learn.
She started picking up thing after thing. Now she has been working with us regularly for a year. Her English is great, she has become a terrific photo assistant, and it is nice to know my instincts were right. I am totally open to having people with no experience. It is more important to me that somebody really wants to be there. You can learn the technical stuff within weeks to months. What you’re really looking for is the desire and drive when somebody is around you.
PhotoVideoEDU: Were your parents supportive when you started, when you thought about where you were going?
Andrew Eccles: I think they were always supportive, but there were times when I had my doubts. Like when I got the job assisting Annie Leibovitz. That, to them, was as high as I could possibly get in photography. They couldn’t imagine me actually taking the photo. They could only imagine me helping her take it. They would see her photographs in Vanity Fair magazine and they would be so proud because they thought that I was contributing.
When I told them I was leaving Annie to do this on my own they were, "Oh, oh, please, oh well, are you sure this is a good idea?" It was like they did not understand the whole point was that I was supposed to do this thing on my own some day.
The first couple of years was tough because instead of telling them I was going to a famous place, with a famous photographer, to photograph a famous person, I was telling them I am doing a fitness story for Time Life Books tomorrow. Nothing sounded as impressive or glamorous. To them my life seemed as though it had taken 10 steps backwards.
What they did not realize is that I was actually starting to make money and that I was working towards the higher goals and levels of photography. Finally, after about four years, they started to see my pictures of celebrities on magazine covers and they could proudly go into the supermarket and, in any given month, pick up two or three magazines that would either have my pictures in them or on the cover. Then they became extremely proud, I’m sure, and they understood the whole thing.
PhotoVideoEDU: Is there one point in time when you said to yourself: "Hey, something really, really important happened to me, something that changed my life photographically, and now I am ready to take the next step; now I am going to move ahead"?
Andrew Eccles: There was a trigger and it was perhaps in many ways a sad one. I think it was fundamental in changing the direction of my career. It was when my father passed away in 1989. I was very sad, very confused, and did not know exactly how to handle it.
There had just been an oil spill in Valdez, Alaska, and for various reasons I found some parallels in my father’s life and in the situation in Valdez. There were common things about the two experiences for me.
One of the things that struck me about Valdez was watching on the news, these clean up crews literally sitting on beaches wiping rocks off with these clean cloths and putting rocks, one by one, into clean piles. It just seemed like such an insurmountable amount of work. So much of the coastline had been spoiled, and I thought: How do they begin to put this back together?
There was something that I experienced when my father died which had been so painful, and so difficult, that I did not know how I was going to put the pieces of my life back together and go on with things, and I somehow found a parallel experience between these two different events.
I was completely compelled to go to Alaska. It literally just came to me while I was lining up for a movie in New York. I just looked at the person I was with and said, "I have to go." They asked where I was going, and I said Alaska.
The next day I was looking through atlases and reserving plane tickets. And I went. I went by myself, and I took my camera and worked very hard at getting access to the parts of coastline that were spoiled. I felt that I had to photograph these people that were putting this situation back together, and that somehow by seeing them do this it would help. It would be therapeutic.
And it was. Psychologically it gave me a lot of strength. And photographically, it was the first subject I had taken on for a reason, other than having been assigned to take a picture. It was something that I chose to do, something close to my heart, something that meant a lot to me, and also something where my photographs might help or make a difference to other people as well.
For me this was definitely a turning point in the way I thought about taking photographs.
Even in my college days, I always knew that I wanted to take pictures that would somehow have an impact on people, somehow influence them, somehow make them feel something, and this was the first time I had actually been able to do that.
Once they were published I began to get offers to do similar types of stories in other parts of the country. That is the work that I am proudest of and that is the kind of work I aspire to do down the road when I feel that I have gained enough financial security and am able to pull away from my commercial work schedule.
PhotoVideoEDU: What is the most interesting or stimulating project you’ve undertaken?
Andrew Eccles: The one that turned me on the most was when Art and Antiques magazine asked me to go into the Deep South to photograph what they call "outsider artists," which we also call folk artists.
Outsider artists are essentially creative people who are self-taught. The project was to send me throughout the Deep South to photograph 12 or 13 of these artists who were being exploited by certain galleries and gallery owners, mainly in the Northeast, New York, and Boston.
The process that was happening at the time, and we are talking about ’92, is the gallery owners were getting hip to the fact that the work of some of these outsider artists was really catching on, so they were going down to where these people lived to buy their work directly.
Now, I have to explain, we are talking about incredibly prolific, very arty people. These are people that weren’t creating for any other reason but to create; they could not help themselves. They would get up in the morning and paint, or they would sculpt. So a lot of them had houses filled with work stacked up against the walls. One of the artists had about two acres of property where every tree on the property had sculpture hanging from it. It was all over his fences, everywhere.
Some gallery owners would go down and offer these artists virtually nothing. Like: I’ll give you $350 to take everything you have in your house—essentially raping the artistic environment, filling up trucks and bringing it up here, and then marking it up by two to three zeros, with certain pieces going for as much as $25,000, and the artists only receiving a miniscule part of the sale.
Our story was to go down and identify these artists, celebrate them and their work, show our collectors and people who would read a magazine like Art and Antiques: These are the real people, the real artists. Look at their faces, look at their hands, look at what they are doing. And now, look at the way they live.
None of us could imagine living the way some of these people live. Tiny houses, maybe 200 or 300 square feet, with a bed and nothing else. No heat. No running water. These are people whose paintings were sometimes selling at galleries for thousands and thousands of dollars.
It was a fascinating story for me because I adored these people. To see the creative process in its purest form. These people do not care about being famous. They didn’t care about galleries. They just wanted to be paid fairly. But they needed to be educated about the whole economic process, so that’s what we were there doing.
It was also an incredibly rewarding project because it did lead to a certain amount of change. The galleries could not get away with it anymore. The public became hip to the fact that they were paying a lot of money for art where the artists were hardly being compensated at all.
PhotoVideoEDU: Have you ever taken a picture or worked on an assignment that made you cry?
Andrew Eccles: Another story that came some time after the outsiders was a story on the lack of federal funding for healthcare and also in the Deep South, essentially Afro-American communities.
I was a little naive going in and I got hauled into some pretty tough spots. My job was pretty much to record the lifestyle of the people in these communities, and to also cover whatever health clinics and doctors were there, and see how frustrating it was for them because they did not have enough money to treat the townspeople.
That one was really tough. I went into some homes with conditions that I couldn’t believe, met some people who were really sick that could not afford to go to the doctor because either they were not educated enough to know that they should, or there was absolutely no way that they could do it financially, no matter what was wrong.
There was an irrigation ditch in Mississippi that people had built shacks in. In one of the poorest rural ghetto regions in the country, there was this man who was probably in his 70s or 80s and could only see out of one eye. He was as thin as a rail and he was coughing, and he lived in conditions that we could never imagine, a tiny cinderblock shack with no windows, total darkness. If he spent the day inside he would not know if it was night or day. He was dying in there.
He had a tiny gas element that he cooked on. I had no idea what he was eating, and he was sitting on his bed and I was photographing him, and I just started to cry. I tried not to show him that I was crying, but it was impossible not to feel the intense amount of pain looking at this man and his situation. I could get on an airplane and go to New York City, but he was there and he was going to be living like that for the rest of his life.
PhotoVideoEDU: What was the result of the photographs?
Andrew Eccles: That story has a somewhat positive ending because after the pictures were run in American Health magazine, the story got a certain amount of attention and News 4 New York talked about it and showed some of the pictures.
Through a different series of events, one thing led to another and the story did end up contributing to Clinton’s campaign platform to change the healthcare system.
I had an opportunity to photograph President Clinton. I gave him as a gift, when I was in the Oval Office, a black-and-white print of the cover of the magazine for that story on healthcare, telling him I had done the story and had seen firsthand what he was trying to do to the healthcare system.
That story may have opened some eyes, it definitely raised some dollars for some of the health clinics that I photographed, and hopefully it changed a vote or two.
If you can take a picture that makes people think, you have done something very successful—not to mention some of those letters-to-the-editor in the following issue.
One person said that they had cried when they looked at the pictures, and that to me was one of my greater achievements in life.