Interview: Eric Kayne

I first met Eric Kayne here in Seattle in the summer of 2007 while was interning at the Seattle Times, and we’ve been staying in touch ever since. He’s currently a contract photographer in Houston, Texas at the Chronicle. As most know, there was a big storm – Hurricane Ike – that rolled through and devastated parts of Houston a few weeks ago. I was keeping in contact, as best I could, with Eric in the run up and aftermath of the storm and I thought he would be a terrific person to bring on for a DVA interview, to tell you a little bit about his amazing story and his work as a newspaper photographer in Texas. He has had a very different path through photography than either of us here at DVA and probably more winding than most of our readers. Without adieu..

(This is a long one, but Eric has a lot of wonderful history and stories to tell, so I’ve left it as-is. be sure to continue after the jump!)

(The pictures accompanying this article were edited by Matt from Eric's blog Throwing Candy. Click on this photo or the link on the blogroll to be connected)

Tell me about your life as a photographer. Where did you start, how did you get to where you are now?

It wasn’t a straight line from there to here. I started making pictures when I was 13. It was a combination of experiences. I took a black-and-white photography class in sixth grade and loved it. I also wanted to have an excuse to hang out with my older brother and all his skater friends. Photography from then on was an on-again, off-again experience. I actually got kicked out of a photo class in high school because I couldn’t stop making jokes. Later, the teacher entered one of my photos in a contest without asking me and it won. Go figure.

I got back into it after high school. I was living in San Francisco and was having a chat with an uncle. Not having much direction in my life at that time, he asked me to make a list of the things I was interested in. The only two things to make the list were playing drums and photography. I enrolled at the Academy of Art College (I think its called something else now).

The level of work and the seriousness of the students was something new for this provincial Texas boy and really opened my eyes. I was exposed to Winogrand, Weston, Friedlander, and many others through the curriculum. I had no idea one could do such things with a  photograph. I lasted a semester until the money ran out and I had to go back to Texas.

I jumped around through two different state universities, one art school and two community colleges before transferring to the University of Texas at Austin. The plan was to get a degree in something practical like computer science so I could graduate and pay my own way through art school. Long story short, I’m the world’s worst computer programmer and I ended up earning a BA in studio art.

I had no plans after school. I moved to New York City without a clue. When I got to my new home at a fourth-floor walk-up in Spanish Harlem, situated right next to a burned-out building, I knew if I didn’t find something I could only do in New York, I would last two weeks, tops. I literally opened the phone book to “photo agencies” and saw the word “Magnum.” They happened to be interviewing for interns and I made the cut somehow. A couple of memories: Bruce Gilden coming in and always having little packages of M&M’s to hand out to everyone, especially the interns, and James Nachtwey walking in with a copy of Inferno hot off the presses. Myself, a couple of editors and his assistant at the time and now amazing photojournalist Samantha Appleton watched as he turned each page. I was stunned by the images. James talked about how pleased he was with the printing.

The casket of Cpl. Joshua Alexander Molina, 20, who passed away on March 27, 2008 while honorably serving his country in Iraq is transfered from St. Matthews Episcopal Church to Houston National Cemetery.

After that, I  spent the summer of 2000 at the Maine Photographic Workshops working as the “E-6 Process Manager.” Quite a fancy title, but mostly I spent my time dropping in on all the photo classes. Pretty sweet summer. By that time, however, I had started to notice the deficiencies in my education. I knew how to print and tone an image in a darkroom, but I knew nothing about Photoshop.

I moved back to my hometown, got a jobby-job at a photo lab and started asking around at San Antonio College, the local community college, about Photoshop classes. The photo advisor, Tricia Buchhorn, said she’d teach me Photoshop if I would work at the school’s newspaper, The Ranger. Long story short, I loved it.

I pretty much haven’t looked back since. I parlayed a year and a half at the The Ranger into a part-time staff job at the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung, situated just outside San Antonio. Its a small 6,000 circulation paper that actually used to publish in German up until the 1950’s. A few months into it, we had national news when persistent rains topped the spillway at a local dam. Major flooding ensued. I remember traipsing through mud up to my knees, looking across the street and seeing AP photographer Eric Gay. I felt like I was in my element.

That job turned into a full-time staff job at a sister paper 50 miles south of Houston in Clute, Texas at The Facts. After ten months there, the siren’s song from California called me back. I lived on a beach at the mouth of Tomales Bay for two years in a village called Dillon Beach. I freelanced intermittently for the Marin Independent Journal, but my main source of income was from delivering milk for an organic creamery. I stayed involved with the local photography community there, which is very strong. I began to realize major deficiencies in my work, especially after a life-changing meeting with Jim Merithew, who was a picture editor at the San Francisco Chronicle (I think he’s a picture editor at Wired magazine now.) I had no visual voice and my work looked like every other guy or gal’s on the wire. Most important, I had no stories. I had the standard news, features, etc., but unlike what I had learned at the community college where I cut my teeth, the basics won’t cut it anymore if I wanted to work at the places where my ambition was pointing me.

I decided to go to grad school to help fill in the gaps. I chose the School of Visual Communication at Ohio University for a number of reasons, but most of all, it was the work that students in that program had created while there, and the success that followed once they left school.

It must have worked since two years later, I have three internships under my belt (San Antonio Express-News, The Seattle Times and The Dallas Morning News) and am employed as a contract staff photographer at the Houston Chronicle.

Physical Medicine Tech Barbara Martinez works with Thiep Bui by gently attempting to get Bui to bend his damaged right knee as he recuperates at Baylor Hospital August 29, 2008 in Dallas, TX. For the second installment in an occasional series on the Bui family, all five of whom were in the Sherman bus crash Aug. 8. Three were seriously injured; the two youngest children were banged up but didn't spend inpatient time in the hospital. Matthew Bui, center, works with Chris Comstock during a physical therapy session inside the rehab gym August 29, 2008 at Baylor Hospital in Dallas, TX. Chris Hauff, 23, was a specialist in the army and an Iraq war vet who is now speaking out against the war. “The war is pointless. We shouldn’t be over there. There are too many that have died for somebody else’s gain,” he said.

How is life as a newspaper photojournalist. What is great, what would you prefer was different?

You know, its really hard to complain when I make pictures for a living. Everyday I get to go out and practice my craft and put a window on the community I live in. Houston is such an interesting, diverse and lively city, I love the people and all the different communities I get to explore. That and the fact that Houston is such a newsy town. At the time I asked him, our director of photography, Steve Gonzales, who used to be the director of photography in Kansas City, said he would have been lucky to have just one of the five or six stories we’ve had in the last month and a half in a six month period in Kansas City.

If there was something I preferred was different, I would have to say long-term documentary story-telling. I’ve only been there since February, but it seems that it’s not something that’s part of the culture at the Houston Chronicle. I’m not saying it can’t be in the future, but photographs happen on their own time. There’s just so much news here, though, and I guess that trumps all other matters. Nonetheless, I’m just as happy shooting dailies as I am long-term stories. However, there are stories that aren’t being told because of this.

Why are you a photographer?

Because retail sucks. That’s both a joke and the truth. I’ve had just about every jobby-job you can think of, and I have to say nothing brings me satisfaction like making a picture that tells a story, is well-seen and is printed in the paper the next day. It never gets old.

(More Pictures and words after the jump)

What is a successful picture for you? Who do you take pictures for?

A successful picture for me has content and style. The best photos surprise me.

I take pictures for myself first. I think most creative people are selfish by nature. The great thing though is the altruistic nature of photojournalism: I get to satisfy my selfish, creative and needy ego and the reader gets to learn about places they can’t or won’t go and about people they might never otherwise meet.

Yousef Shareef, 3, stands between his father Ahmad Shareef, Jr. and grandfather Ahmad, Sr. during Eid Ul Fitr at Reliant Center in Houston. Eid is one of the major holidays for Muslims worldwide and signals the end of the holy month of Ramadan.  According to the senior event manager at Reliant, 7,000 to 8,000 people attended.

We all knew about the storm headed for Houston and the Texas coast at least a few days in advance. What did this mean as a person and photographer living in the aim of the storm?

It was a little surreal. I remember having a food assignment to shoot on the Thursday before the hurricane, which struck less than 48 hours later. I’m having trouble getting to my food assignment because the roads are clogged with PEOPLE EVACUATING THE CITY.

As a person and a photographer, it means being prepared and ready to go and not being caught with your pants down. Like our director of photography told us in an e-mail, as a team, we’re only as strong as the weakest link. Thankfully I had already bought most of my hurricane supplies for Gustav. Mentally, I think I was as ready as I was ever going to be.

All in all, it was a mixture of fear and excitement, two emotions that can become addictive if one isn’t careful.

Karen Gerdes of La Marque cleans debris from the front yard of her house after Hurricane Ike passed in the night, Sept. 12, 2008.

What was the pre-planning at the newspaper like?

Lots of e-mails and preparation. Back-up e-mail accounts. Plans for gasoline. Plans for food, sleeping arrangements. It was my first hurricane, but not for many in the newsroom which added some comfort. As photographers, we had a couple of shopping lists to fill. Gas cans, cans of Fix-a-Flat, power bars, water, fresh clothes, etc.

Beyond pictures, how was the storm and aftermath?

For me, the biggest inconvenience was not having power for 12 days after the storm. I had finally gotten a new air conditioner just a week before the storm. The old one broke the day my landlord left for two weeks for Costa Rica. Talk about feeling the heat. So, for me, the biggest thing was trying to sleep with no computer, music, air conditioning, refrigeration, hot water or any of the other conveniences we seem to take for granted.

None of that is anything compared to what many people went through and are still going through. Destroyed homes, property and in some cases, lost loved ones.

It was strange though. First night after was SO quiet. This is Houston after all. I live close to downtown so there is usually noise from IH-45 and IH-10.

My window was open and in the distance I could hear what sounded like gun shots. No highway noise, no traffic, nothing. Just these eery pops around one and two am.

Everything seemed to be broken. No streetlights worked. Traffic signals broken. Shattered glass and debris covering the streets in downtown. Hard to find a cold beer. Very surreal.

Cleveland Turner sits on the stump of the tree that destroyed part of his yard art Oct. 2, 2008 in Houston.Tell me about your role as a photographer in the aftermath?

Go out and make pictures. We all worked together as a team, but at the same time, there wasn’t a lot of direction in the days immediately after. We were surrounded by the news story, so basically it was just go out and make pictures, move them early and often. About the only direction I got was being told about early deadlines.

What are some of your most meaningful memories (and, maybe, pictures) from this storm?

Going back to my needy ego, I’d have to say the best memory was walking into the newsroom the day after the hurricane struck in the night. Our director of photography asked me to take a bow. I didn’t know it until a few moments later, but one of my photos was edited to run as the dominant six-column front page photo for the first post-hurricane issue. I thought, this must be what its like to hit a grand-slam in a play-off or world series game in the MLB.

I’d say one of the most meaningful was visiting a public housing apartment in Galveston, something I’ve been following up on. I don’t think enough attention has been paid to those folks. They have none of the safety nets many other victims have like insurance and nest eggs. These people are living close to the bottom, if not at the bottom. They were evicted and, to my knowledge, have been given little if any direction as to where to go or what to do.

Cover of the Houston Chronicle on September 14, 2008

Tell us something we probably missed in the media coverage about the affects of Ike.

Chambers County early on, but that’s picking up a bit now. That’s a rural county east of Houston that really took the brunt of the storm. Some of the coastal communities out there look like a nuclear bomb went off. They’re that devastated. The sexy story everyone was after was on Galveston Island. For me personally, its the people who have little to lose and have now pretty much lost it all – those in public housing that has been destroyed by the storm surge from the hurricane.

(in the most SAT question …) Could you reflect on the storm, as a person and as a photographer working for a local publication?

I’m not the same person I was before. I feel more bonded with my co-workers and with the city through the shared experience of living through a hurricane. I’ll be that much more ready for the next hurricane, or whatever life decides to throw at me.

What is next for you?

Right now I’m working on strategies for staying solvent in a struggling industry. I’m keeping my eyes on the short-term – having contingencies such as building my wedding portfolio and saving as much money as I possibly can, and the long-term – travel and documentary photojournalism, specifically to India, and possibly to a conflict zone, in the next ten years.

Who are some photographers that you admire and that we might not have heard of?
I love the minimalism of Richard Misrach, the complexity and lyricism of Lee Friedlander, the acrobatics of Garry Winogrand.  Eugene Richards has been a huge influence on me. Dan Winters, Eric Ogden, and Brent Humphreys have been some recent favorites. I’ve been increasingly fascinated with editorial portraiture and have been working more and more on my lighting skills.

Thanks much to Eric — for agreeing to answer some crazy questions from me and for all he has done for me personally over the last year. He is a great resource for midnight editing emergencies! There were many many more pictures that I wanted to post with this interview that I couldn’t find space for, so please go visit his blog and website to see more.

Now, in what might become a tradition, here is a picture of the featured photographer, this time provided by Eric himself. Now this is working your ass off.

(c) William Farrington, in the same scene as the first photo of this post

5 Responses to “Interview: Eric Kayne”

  1. Scott Strazzante

    Love the site and the Eric Kayne interview.
    I spent a fun night in Ohio awhile back playing darts and shooting the shit with Eric. A great guy! Glad to see that he is finding success in Houston.
    Keep up the good work.

  2. Kevin Fujii

    It’s nice to see you get some love. Now, aren’t you glad someone scolded you after you said Ike was going to hit on your day off? Good luck and best wishes.

  3. Ellen Banner

    GREAT to see your success. You were a joy as an intern when you were here in Seattle, and I’m so glad that you are still sharing your images with the world. Great eye.

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