Photo Journal: Erika Larsen - A Quiet Elegance


By Jim Colton

Photographs speak to us all in different ways. That’s part of the beauty of our craft. When I was a photo editor at Newsweek magazine, I loved images that captured the scene and told the story without the need of a caption. Similarly, when I was at Sports Illustrated, nothing grabbed my attention more than a “belter,” that smash mouth, in-your-face, peak-action moment. 

Erika Larsen by Rebecca Hale and Mark Thiessen/National GeographicIn auditory terms, I’d categorize those as the louder moments. But a photograph can also speak volumes with a whisper. The stoic beauty of a quiet moment can pierce the heart. Few have managed to do that as well as Erika Larsen. Her work, in a word, is enchanting, simple in structure, thoughtful in composition and always conveying her vision with a quiet elegance. 

Larsen graduated with a BFA and MFA from the Rochester Institute of Technology. After being accepted to the Eddie Adams Workshop in 1997, she embarked on a career in magazine photography. She has also received several grants including a Fulbright Fellowship, New Jersey State Arts Council Fellowship, Women in Photography Individual Project Grant and the Lois Roth Endowment.

Her work has been recognized with a World Press Photo award and has been included in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, the Swedish Museum of Ethnography and the Ajtte Sámi Museum.  Her photographs have been published in dozens of magazines from AARP to WIRED and she was even a contributing photographer for Field and Stream.

Her latest work “People of the Horse,” will be featured in the March 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine. (See link below) 

Jim Colton: Please tell us about your early years...where you were born, your background, growing up and when you discovered that photography was going to be your calling. 

Erika Larsen: I was born in Washington DC and grew up in Maryland. I believed at a very young age that photography was a type of magic; that it had the ability to bring something very far away, near. I wanted to be a part of that magic. In many ways it is still as elusive today as it ever was. 

JC: Whose work, current or historic, do you admire or influenced you?

EL: There are so many images, photographers and bodies of work that have made impressions on me over the years.  My actual list would be too long.  Here are some that have made lasting impressions on me and others that I get moved by when I see the world through their eyes.

Arthur Tress, Pascal Maitre, Trent Parke, Anna Claren, August Sander, Martin Chambi, Shannon Taggart, Cristina Garcia Rodero, Pieter Ten Hoopen, Malick Sidibé, Sally Mann, James Nachtwey, Oleg Videnin, Jeff Jacobson, Laura Mcphee, Gertrude Kasebier, Tim Hetherington, Andrea Diefenbach, Diane Arbus, Rena Effendi, but there are so many more…

JC: Meeting you at FOTOfusion this year, you told me that I was the editor who critiqued your portfolio submission to get into the Eddie Adams Workshop. I know it was a while back, but can you tell me what you remember about that experience?

EL: I remember feeling very out of place because I was in a room with 99 photojournalists and at that time (1997) I was creating digital art from memories and dreams. I did not have an image in my portfolio that remotely resembled a “real life” scenario or journalism of any sort. However, it was when I heard the photographers who spoke in the evenings and showed their images that I realized that, in different ways, we were all speaking about our human experiences. It dawned on me that I was doing the same but with a different vocabulary. 

JC: You've had a long professional relationship with Marcel Saba and his photo agency Redux Pictures. How did that come about and what has that dynamic been like over the years?

EL: I have been with Marcel since he started Redux in 2003. He was interviewing photographers for his agency and I was brought in by an invitation from Melanie Skrzek. After that meeting I joined Redux. 

Marcel and the amazing crew at Redux have supported me and my work wholeheartedly from the beginning. I have an immense amount of trust in him and the agency. He has supported my growth as a photographer and, more importantly, my growth as a human being. 

JC: The editorial market and assignments have been diminishing in recent years. How have you diversified to accommodate that change and what resources do you reach out to (grants, fellowships, etc.) for funding?

EL: For the moment I am still making my living from editorial work and have been fortunate to start a relationship with National Geographic over the past few years. I have also been awarded a few photography grants and fellowships that have allowed me to delve deeper into personally driven projects. I used crowd funding to produce my first book, Sami-Walking with Reindeer.

JC: You've photographed some of your long-term stories in unconventional ways. For your project on the Sámi People, you actually lived with them for an extended period and did everything from cooking for them to cleaning the bathrooms! Can you tell us about that project...including how it came about and how it was funded?

EL: The Sámi work was the project I embarked on after my children and hunting series. I wanted to explore further the primal drive of the modern hunter by living with a culture that had ancestral ties to animal husbandry. When I first went to Sápmi (Located in Northern Europe and stretching over four countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia) in 2007 I realized that in order to do this project I would need to immerse myself in a way that I had not done before. 

It took time to unfold but I was awarded several grants which allowed me the funding and visas to stay for the time I needed. I worked as a housekeeper for one family of reindeer herders in exchange for staying with them in their home and learning from them. This family was also the main focus of my imagery.  In time, I also learned the Sámi language, which allowed me an even greater understanding of the life that I was surrounded by. I also received a language grant. This was one of the most important and unique experiences of my life. Sápmi and the Gaup family will always feel like home to me. 

JC: Your portraits and your stories have a quiet elegance to them....not a lot of extraneous elements...clean, simple and powerful. Is this a cognitive effort on your part when shooting? What do you look for to fill the four borders before you squeeze the trigger?

EL: I believe I am searching for a moment of silence between myself and whatever it is I am photographing. That moment is when all the words disappear. I am also struck by the beauty in the world. 

JC: You've been selected as one of 11 photographers for the National Geographic project, "Women of Vision." Can you tell us a little about that project and what it means to you to be included?

EL: The project was conceived by Kathryn Keane, National Geographic’s vice president of exhibitions, and was curated by the amazing Elizabeth Krist, National Geographic magazine senior photo editor. It is a traveling exhibition, book and lecture series that highlights 11 women photographers who work for National Geographic to celebrate their dedication and vision to the medium of photography. (The 11 photographers are: Lynsey Addario, Kitra Cahana, Jodi Cobb, Diane Cook, Carolyn Drake, Lynn Johnson, Beverly Joubert, Erika Larsen, Stephanie Sinclair, Maggie Steber, Amy Toensing.)

It is an extreme honor to be included among these women, many of who paved the way in this field for a younger photographer like me. I would say they are all included on my list of inspirations from the second question.  I am really thankful for the short time I got to spend with some of them and hear their stories, motivations and how they work.  This experience reminded me to be thankful for all the incredible opportunities that I have been given to see the world and all its humanity. I hope to continue to honor the gift of storytelling. 

JC: Are there any new projects that you are currently working on that you are at liberty to share with us? 

EL: I have been working on a long term project called “People of the Horse” following the horse in Native American culture to learn about its significance culturally, spiritually, economically and so forth.  This will publish in the March issue of National Geographic.

I also just finished a project with Garrison Keillor where I photographed his personal geography or as he calls it, “A memoristic essay of life in a contained space.” This published in the February issue (National Geographic).

Last year I also began photographing my husband’s family and aspects of his culture in Peru, where my son was born, to collect as memories for him. I have also begun to do this with my side of the family. I am thinking this might turn into one of my longest term projects yet.

JC: You recently became a Mom...congratulations! How will this change your approach to your work, especially long term projects that may keep you away from your family for extended periods of time?

EL: I am not really sure how it will change my approach to my work. I assume like everything else in life, I will adapt and flow and grow with the tides. I do believe being a mother will allow me another level of understanding about our human experience that will hopefully inform my approach and manner as a storyteller.

JC: Looking back at your career, is there anything you would have done differently and looking ahead, what would you like to accomplish in the near future? 

EL: The only thing I could imagine to do differently would have been to start learning more languages sooner. I would have made this a priority. In the near future I would like to learn Quechua.

JC: Lastly, do you have any final thoughts or words of encouragement for the young photographer contemplating a career in photography?

EL: Take a moment to imagine how you would feel at the most vulnerable hour in your life. Next, imagine a stranger wanting to take pictures of you to show the world. How would you want that person to be, to act, to speak to you? 

Strive to be that ideal person you imagine.