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!)
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.
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.
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)