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How did you first become interested in photography? When I was fifteen years old, the camera became an invitation to take a closer look at the world. Making images was weird and wonderful, a place where intuition was my most important asset. Without a doubt, documenting the human condition in the pageantry of everyday life was the most interesting part of my early years taking images. The camera gave me purpose—and still does.

After graduating from the Rochester Institute of Technology, I took a job with the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. I worked as a photojournalist for five years, covering news events, rallies and debutante balls on the eastern coast of North Carolina. Documenting interesting and unusual events in the early ’80s for a newspaper in the South was pretty fun. I also followed American painters of the early 1900s and never grew tired of the everyday characters rendered beautifully by artists like Thomas Hart Benton, Mary Cassatt and Winslow Homer.

Why did you decide to switch your professional focus from editorial to advertising? My attraction to photojournalism fueled my work in the direction of people. I pursued a commercial career because of my love of people—and it also made life financially easier.

I jumped into commercial photography with both feet. I took out a $4,000 loan, bought some lights and started shooting like crazy. The Martin Agency in Richmond, Virginia, kept me busy. So did the Raleigh-based agency McKinney, Silver & Rockett, which was a powerhouse on the national stage for advertising. Cofounder Charles McKinney was a masterful orator and creative icon. He would write, supervise, type and art direct—all while pushing clients like Piedmont Airlines to break rules and win customers through the power of suggestion. Famous art directors like Larry Bennett, Bob Ranew and Michael Winslow—along with McKinney—set an example for me of just how nuts you should be if you want to succeed in a creative field. After a lot of hard work and traveling, I was hired consistently for international clients like Hardee’s and Bahamas Tourism.

Back in the day, art directors saw a good photographer as an artist and had faith that she or he could create the right image for the ad campaign. There wasn’t too much specialization.
You can retouch certain things in a photo or video, but you can never retouch what’s behind the eyes—the emotion.”

How is this different today? There has always been specialization, but twenty years ago, there was more trust, from the selection of the artist or photographer right through to the finished piece. Today, I think there is a lot of pressure for both art directors and clients to get it perfect the first time, every time. They must reach that perfection quicker than yesterday. It is counterintuitive to the creative process. We need to have room to make mistakes because mistakes let us discover the uniqueness and authenticity that give us a fresh look at the world.

Many artists are hired today because they have imagery that fits the comp. I think in broader terms. For example, clients may say to me that they want to bring attention to their products. I think “people” right away. I always approach it from the human side. Things and objects are not as interesting until you have a human touch. Having a dad who worked in a factory instilled in me a respect for the common person.

Why has montage been essential to many of your images? A year ago, I realized that my artistic voice was getting stale. I had been shooting in such a pure style for so long, I decided to try a new one. So I created a series called The Delicate Mind, which merges images together to create an emotional, profound, introspective landscape for the viewer. Some of these images have a raw, intense quality. Montage images also create an opportunity for the viewer to fill in the story. It has a dreamlike quality of tapping into the subconscious. This is powerful because the viewer’s perspective fills in the narrative and becomes a part of that experience.

For the series, I teamed up with Wes Hardison, who did the retouching. He is a master colorist, a complete computer geek and a genius at Photoshop with an artist’s eye. It’s been an amazing experience working with him at our Petaluma, California–based post-production studio FatCat Digital.

What has the post-production process taught you about capturing photos? Be patient, and work without any rush to get it done. Great work is slow. In my career, I have seen the pendulum swing from images reminiscent of Life magazine—a leader in photojournalism and a pioneer of the picture story, with photo essays on theologian Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa and the like—to highly stylized compositions. In my book, I want to see a genuine, believable person in the image, even if the images I’m working on are rooted in fantasy. You can retouch certain things in a photo or video, but you can never retouch what’s behind the eyes—the emotion.

Also, creating a calm, relaxed environment with the people you photograph or film is the most important thing, since this will reflect in the imagery every time. My photojournalistic background has helped a lot in relating to all types of people. I never ask them to do something I wouldn’t do. They know that, and it puts them at ease.

What challenges did you face when you first started producing video content? Video has a language of its own. It has the same overtones as a still photograph, but the two serve different masters.

On set, the talent, or actors, want direction, a place to land emotionally. I push these wonderful people to give the still camera a big moment that tells the story in an instant. But this can unintentionally come across as corny when I’m directing a spot or film. On my film sets, I’ve often seen a team photographer work with actors when there is a break between motion takes. When the actors come back from that session, it takes about fifteen minutes for them to transition to a more understated style where they are not reaching for the peak emotional moment. After working with a still photographer, actors are understandably juiced up and excited. They want to give big emotions, which is great for print, but not a goal for film. Essentially, “big” is usually good for stills—but bad for film. When the camera is rolling, the story is more about creating subtle, more compelling nuances. You can tell this story in the smallest of moments.

People often can’t believe this when they see my spots, but I shoot with a very minimal crew—sometimes just by myself. A big production can spook whoever is in front of the camera; intimacy is a product of trust, and authenticity is more powerful when the moment evolves. Sometimes we forget that as motion photographers in our rush to get the shot.

What’s enabled you to sell your stock images and videos directly to clients instead of going through agencies? We are in a good position of having our own stock photography and video website, Erickson Stock, which I started 20 years ago. There was a time I had production crews all year long. Over the years, I have insisted on keeping the copyright of my work, and I have created a boatload of new content on my nickel. So, when we were between assignments, we could keep working. And the work naturally gravitated towards healthcare, relationships and seniors. It’s the personal work that clients find the most interesting. I also carry a camera with me 24/7.

In 2016, Erickson Stock started releasing royalty-free image collections. Was it a difficult choice to expand to this new pricing model? The industry has suffered greatly in the last two years. Everyone has been impacted by the downward pressure on price. Large corporations are offering imagery from talented artists for a fraction of the cost it takes to produce. So, moving to royalty free has been a good, yet double-sided decision for me because it influences photographers and the field of photography. I worry about the trust between talent and photographers being devalued. The market’s focus seems to be on how many images you can produce cheaply, instead of how well you can produce them. As an artist, I’ve always tried to aim high.

You’ve started featuring emotional portraits of seniors through short storytelling videos and images. Is your new focus, in any way, a response to the way you see aging or healthcare being portrayed in the media? The human connection is the strongest currency we have, and seniors hold a key role in our lives that is often overlooked. Everyone loves someone who is aging. The legacy that seniors pass on is both compelling and informative, but the depiction of seniors in the media only tells a fraction of this story. With healthcare on the minds of many, I capture emotional stories through prepackaged spots that can be licensed or customized. It’s a revolutionary solution that simplifies production—and costs—tenfold. The spots highlight aging, relationships, health and community; with an authentic voice, they shine a majestic light on seniors and the passing of the years. I like to capture seniors doing remarkable things in the world—things we don’t normally associate with the word senior. Millions of baby boomers are seniors now, yet many artists find the topic of aging boring. I find it fascinating because age is rich in wisdom, beauty and grace. Who wouldn’t want to connect with that?
Commercial motion and still photographer Jim Erickson is known for his ability to capture emotional, intimate portraits with a light on aging that deeply connect with the viewer. For more than 30 years, he has created imagery for hundreds of blue chip clients, including AT&T, HBO, United Airlines and many more. Erickson is an award-winning photojournalist and commercial photographer, having won more than 100 awards from the most recognized industry publications and organizations. A native of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Erickson received formal photography training at the Rochester Institute of Technology before settling in Raleigh, North Carolina. In 1991, Erickson relocated to San Francisco, where he could pursue his career in a larger market. Later, he moved to Petaluma, located in Sonoma County, where he and his business reside today. When not on assignment, Erickson can be found surfing the Pacific, practicing yoga and spending time with his sons, Luke and Leif, who have quickly become Erickson’s favorite subjects for his personal work.
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