Q&A with Photographer ERICKA MCCONNELL

27Apr11

Ericka McConnell is a bi-coastal New York/San Francisco advertising and editorial lifestyle, beauty and kids photographer. With a large and diverse client list that includes T.J. Maxx, Frito-Lay, and Auberge Resorts, to name a few, McConnell shoots for some of the biggest and most well-known lifestyle brands on both coasts.

A Bay Area native, McConnell’s light-filled, warm and accessible images helped launch her New York career shooting for SELF, SHAPE and Travel & Leisure magazines and Kmart and Lands’ End clients. Three years ago, she returned to the Bay Area but has built a bi-coastal career that takes her to New York at least once a month to shoot for editorial and advertising clients.

I was very interested to talk with Ericka about how she achieves such ease and warmth in her photos, what a bi-coastal career entails and the differences between working in San Francisco and New York. We met for coffee and I had the answer to my first question within minutes. I always find myself looking for hints about a photographer’s work in their personality and with Ericka, it felt like I was meeting an old friend and was immediately comfortable yet alert to being in the presence of a passionate professional who loved and was extremely good at what she does. A perfect balance of San Francisco and New York. We’re fortunate to have her call San Francisco home…at least for three weeks out of the month.

And as one of the Bay Area’s leading lifestyle photographers I was excited to have her images up on the blog. Thank you to Ericka for sharing so much about her work and her beautiful images with POP!

POP: What is your background and when did you start shooting?

I got my first camera from my step dad when I was 16 and immediately starting shooting my friends dressing up. I had a vague idea that I wanted to be a photographer but it was a summer school class when I was 18 with Sally Mann that solidified that. In College I studied painting and photography but liked the social collaborative process of photography, spending hours alone in a studio painting just wasn’t for me. I was at a liberal arts school and wanted a more professional photography course so I spent a year in Italy studying with the now famous James White, (celebrity shooter) at the time he was teaching in Florence. He really pushed me to think about photography as a profession. Even in Italy with all the locations I was still mostly interested in shooting friends! After Italy I got an internship in New York at the 20×24 studio, Stacy Fisher of Exposure Reps was running it at the time and it was a crash course in the New York Photography world. I learned so much at that internship; It was a real turning point for me. Still it took about 5-6 years for me to build a book and start getting work.

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POP: How did your lifestyle, kids and beauty work evolve and how did you develop the warm, natural style you are known for?

Before I started getting hired to shoot jobs, I shot what I knew and what was around me. I shot my friends, my travels, my family. When I finally had a book together to send out I sent it to magazines that seemed like they had stories that fit my style (Travel & Leisure, Real Simple, Self) and then started getting hired to make work. I have always been interested in capturing a moment that feels real, making models look accessible and non-models look relaxed.



POP: Your work has that sought after mix of warmth, relate-ability and aspirational beauty and style. How do you achieve this? What elements are important to have in place before you start shooting and how do you capture it on set?

All the elements on a shoot help achieve this: the stylist you pick, the models you cast, the crew you book. But ultimately it is up to the photographer to direct and set the tone for the shoot. I try to get a good crew together: talented people but collaborators! I try to keep the energy up on a shoot and be a good communicator. Like anything, if your team is good you can do a better job.

With talent I try to set up as much as I can before bringing them on set. We nail our lighting, we find our locations: I have some very funny shots of assistants or friends pretending to be models on set. It’s a good idea to have as much in place before you start shooting especially with kids who have such limited attention spans. Once I am shooting I try to mix it up–with lifestyle to keep people moving, keep it fresh. I don’t shoot with a super long lens so I am usually there with the talent. If we are cold shooting in snow, I am there too, so there’s a feeling that we are all in it together. For the warmth, that’s how I like to see the world. With studio we are usually trying to recreate sunshine or soft diffused light with strobes and fill, outside we are usually trying to diffuse light. I recently started shooting strobe outside to make sun which has been really fun. I had a beauty shoot with overcast skies and we were able to light so it looked like sunshine.

POP: How do you like to work? Small or large crews?

Both. But I love collaboration and always have. This is why I shoot commercial versus fine art. I like input and what happens on a commercial shoot where each person has their area of responsibility and the vision comes together. It’s so satisfying to work with and collaborate with a good AD.

POP: At what point are you brought in to the creative process?

It varies by job. Sometimes I get the shot list that day. The input starts then. On set, I’m still looked to for best light and the best way to convey the story.

I’m on a job right now that’s two months out and we’re already talking about models and locations. This is super fun because the more input you have, the more you get to be involved in the overall look and feel of the shoot. This goes to why it’s so fun to freelance. You’re never doing the same thing twice.

POP: With AD’s that you have a working relationship with, are you brought in sooner?

There are AD’s I work with who hire me for how I shoot and what I bring to the table. As they get comfortable with you, they look to you for input (crew, locations, casting). Casting is so important. I strive to make my work beautiful, natural, and relate-able. A really good model can make my job so much easier. Over time, AD’s get more comfortable with you. I love to weight in on casting. Makes the job easier and I’m more inspired.


POP: When did you transition from editorial to advertising?

I started shooting lots of kids’ magazines and young, happy women. After three years I signed with an agent in LA and started getting bigger jobs. Advertisers wanted still, loose moments with pretty lighting and energy. With editorial you’re doing five to six scenarios a day with a smaller crew, to an ad job with clients, ad agency clients, larger crews…and still trying to create that same energy with a massive team.

Then I started shooting for Lands’ End, Sundance, Pottery Barn, Turning Leaf Winery and Kmart. Catalog shots keep same pace as editorial, where it’s sometimes 20 shots a day.


POP: How did you bring your editorial style successfully into advertising shoots with very different circumstances?

There’s something about that first frame that is very fresh so I try to have as much of the back and forth take place before I start shooting, If the scenario changes I take a quick break and regroup, so when we start shooting again, it feels new again. I am a fast shooter. I don’t labor over the tiny details because I am trying to catch a moment. Even though with advertising you have so much riding on each shot, there are still overlapping realities. I still have a concept I am trying to illustrate, and a client who needs to be happy with the results. With advertising my client has a client (the AD for the agency has to please their client), and with editorial the photo editor has to please the editor.

One of the real big differences with ad jobs is the amount of time you have to get the shot. The challenge, again, is to try to keep it fresh. When I went to South Africa for Sun Chips I shot one woman in a field with a bag of chips for 12 hours: we needed to keep rethinking the shot! The location helped a lot, we moved our model around, I stood on a ladder and shot from above, we ran together in the wheat fields, and finally we shot at the end of the day with the beautiful golden light.

POP: Why South Africa?

They wanted the sun flare. Where the wheat fields are here in US, the mountains are too high and block the sun flare. In South Africa we had 360 degrees of background. The mountains were very, very low. The day went really long and we could shoot until 8 at night. You fly for two days and land there and find it’s full of photo crews and celebrities. Then you go out in a wheat field and had to shoot three women looking happy and beautiful.

POP: You are bi-coastal, shooting for magazines and clients in both New York and San Francisco. Does this work well for you? What is your schedule like and what are the key differences in the two markets?

I go to NY about once a month for work. It’s a mix of advertising and editorial. I try to stay for a few extra days and see clients and work with my current agent who is in New York.

When I lived in NY, clients would say they felt that my work was very Californian. I was mostly on the road. I shot in The Hamptons, Miami, Europe, and if I shot in Manhattan I was in a studio. It wasn’t until we moved West that I got to shoot in Manhattan and surrounds. It was so fun to have the city as a backdrop, and of course the energy.

The light in California is is different. It took me a little while to understand it. Here I shoot mostly on location, when I get to work in a studio its a real treat.

NYC is more densely populated with talent, and much more competitive. In NY you’re always mixing it up in terms of your crew, so you’re always evolving and learning. It’s where the fashion industry is and where so many creatives are, so it’s true melting pot of energy and creative inspiration. SF on the other hand is more insular, and it seems like many people might work with one or two companies and similar crews over and over again. Here in California you get inspired in different ways. You’re surrounded by natural beauty and its much easier to get to. Just like the urban edge in NYC, here you have a natural beauty that is hard to duplicate.

So fashion shooters go to NY or Europe and No Cal has lots of still life and lifestyle. I enjoy both places, I am influenced by both places, and I’m glad I get to work in both places.


POP: What do you bring to your Bay Area clients that you learned in NY?

Until you leave, you don’t realize what you’ve learned from living there. You have higher expectations and a real drive because you’re working with such high caliber people and constantly working with new crews and teams. But still—and maybe this is a California thing—I’m very open and I love collaboration. It’s hard to articulate, but when you’re in a vibrantly creative atmosphere you go to a restaurant and see a chair and then you get hired for a job and remember the chair and you realize it would work for the client’s brand. Or you walk by a store and see something in the window, a fabric, a bag, and you can just send a stylist to go get it.

In NY, you’re shooting inside or traveling and shooting with assistants who are working with thirty other photographers and you learn from them. I perfected my lighting in that period and have become more of a technical photographer than I was.

POP: What do you enjoy about working in San Francisco?

The landscape here is incredible. I have New York clients who come here to shoot and want to shoot out in Pt. Reyes so it looks like Ireland, or up in Napa so it looks like Italy. So while California is distinctive, it can look like other places. It’s very flexible. I recently did a job in Vacaville, and it was just like South Africa. We had a lake, a barn, horses, trees, a hammock. It was like five different places in one location.

And there’s great talent here in the Bay Area too: Lots of creative people come from here, or have moved here for family and lifestyle.

POP: Favorite current clients which you have a successful, collaborative relationship with?

I love my TJ Maxx jobs. Because they have overstock, when I’m shooting for them we’re not trying to sell exact details in the clothes. For TJ it’s more about a feeling and to illustrate trends. It’s my job to make aspirational images. We get great models and great locations. I got to shoot skaters and super active shots. The Creative Director is very seasoned and smart and just great to work with.

I love shooting the Fitness covers, with ladies in bathing suits in beautiful locations looking happy. Early morning light and golden hour. Being on a little island and watching the model in the light. Having time like that is a luxury.

POP: Where do you look for inspiration?

Everywhere: friends, nature, photography, museums, beautiful well curated homes and stores, travel, my kid and her friends and the light in my studio!

POP: You studied painting in college but chose photography for the collaborative process. Have you returned to painting or another creative outlet that’s just for you?

I do still paint! Mostly for friends who ask for a painting. All abstract with colors you also find in my photos: pale celedon green is a constant! Messy dripping paintings!

POP: Favorite recent finds?

A black Moroccan mini pouf with pink stitching and a print of a nude by Christian Johnson. I also love Matta rugs made from recycled trash! And four yellow Steelcase chairs that have already made it into my shoots!

POP: What’s next?

I have a recurring job for a beauty catalog—we always shoot in the wine country. I’m shooting fashion for a kid’s clothing chain (in-store, ads and web), and I’m shooting an ad for a new beverage company in NYC. With freelancing you never know what’s coming up, but always exciting to get the call.



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