EJ Camp: The Prowess of the Imagination

“I love the sea. It changes moment to moment and I never tire of its fusion of light, movement and complexity. The sea is like a face; it has many expressions.”

EJ Camp’s passion for the way light reflects off the changing surfaces of the ocean has directly evolved from a career spent capturing the light and emotion in her subjects’ faces. Internationally renowned for her incisive celebrity portraits, her roster of prestigious editorial and commercial clients includes GQ, Elle, Esquire, New York, Sports Illustrated, 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures and Warner Brothers.

Camp has also been photographing the sea for over 30 years — it’s her favorite subject, and some of her most memorable fine art images are of the North and South Forks of Long Island, which are among the most beautiful coastlines in North America. Her exhibition “Sea” opens at Leica Gallery Los Angeles on January 11, 2014 with an artist talk at 4 p.m. and an opening reception from 6 p.m. – 8 p.m. Both events are open to the public. The exhibition will run through March 1, 2014.

Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, an art form, or as profession? How long have you been a full-time photographer?

A: My father, a pathologist, had a darkroom in our basement when I was growing up, with a Leica enlarger. I used to help him print there when I was a little girl. Although I always fancied myself a painter, photography was my destiny.

I have been shooting commercially since my late 20s. I shot my first Rolling Stone Cover before I was 30 and my first movie poster, “Top Gun,” shortly after that.

Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or were you self-taught? Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?

A: I went to the Rochester Institute of Technology to major in photography. Laurie Kratochvil, at Rolling Stone Magazine, gave me my first big break. Because I was a fashion photographer at the time, she had me shoot a cover with Christie Brinkley, a major model back then. I told Laurie I wanted to shoot Rock & Roll and stop shooting models. Because of her, I shot many covers, including one with Tom Cruise. He, in turn, assigned me to shoot the poster for his upcoming movie, “Top Gun.” My celebrity portrait career took off after that.

Q: You mentioned that you primarily use the Leica S2. What features or characteristics of the S2 do you feel make it especially suitable for shooting the fine art shoreline seascapes in your portfolio?

A: Previous to acquiring a Leica S2, I had been shooting seascapes with a 4×5 Linhof field camera. I almost strictly used B&W film because I was not satisfied with the results I was getting with color film. Once I started shooting with the S2 the colors recorded were amazing and, of course, the files so large I could make huge prints. The colors that are captured with this camera are broad and subtle. This has great advantages when working with water, which can tend to be very monochromatic. And the camera is lighter and more water resistant that the 4×5, so I can be more adventurous.

Q: You built your reputation as a celebrity photographer creating signature images of rock and movie stars and yet this portfolio of personal work includes no images of people and seems to focus on the sublime beauty of nature. While many photographers shoot in a variety of genres, few have a body of work that is so disparate. Can you comment on this, and do you think photographing people has enriched your perspective on seascapes or vice-versa?

A: I consider my photography such a huge extension of myself in that it records what I am seeing and stimulated by in my world. What inspires me in my portrait work is love and respect for people. I want to capture a feeling that takes me further into that person. And all people interest me. I also love being outdoors and on or near the water. These are also elements I want to share through my photography. Both genres are about catching the moment. Similarly, I love the sea. It changes moment to moment and I never tire of its fusion of light, movement and complexity. The sea is like a face; it has many expressions.

Q: Most of your seascape and shoreline images have a painterly quality, and you mentioned that you always fancied yourself a painter. Why do you think photography was ultimately your destiny, what goals did you have in mind when you majored in photography at RIT, and what motivated you to transition out of fashion photography after you shot a cover with Christie Brinkley?

A: I do think photography was my destiny. As I mentioned, my father, a doctor in Kentucky, had a darkroom with a Leica enlarger, in our basement where we would make prints of family photos together. He gave me a Leica when I was 12. So really, I never wanted to do anything else. When I graduated from RIT, I wanted to be a fashion photographer, which was the cool thing to do in the 1980s, and I accomplished that goal. I moved to New York, where I apprenticed with Albert Watson. Shortly after that, I spent time in Milan where I shot for many of the fashion magazines there, and moved back to New York to continue a career in that area. But I was becoming very stifled working in fashion photography, since your subjects, other than the clothes, were young girls that were too hot, too cold or hungry. I guess it really felt a lot like I was babysitting. And when you work in that industry, the goal is to shoot as many changes of clothes as possible, in the least amount of time. Portrait assignments, on the other hand, were singular in their goal; a great shot or two of a subject that excelled in his or her field.

After shooting Christie Brinkley for a Rolling Stone Magazine cover, I asked Laurie Kratochvil, the photo editor then, if I could shoot other subjects for them. Laurie opened up a whole new area of photography for me.

My seascapes allow me to explore color, layers of perception, texture and moments of energy. To that extent, I do believe they have a painterly quality. My essential goals in photography have always remained the same as when I was at RIT: to shoot images that I can show and have appreciated, and to shoot all the time.

Q: Which lenses do you favor when shooting seascapes and shoreline images with your Leica S2? Do you believe, as many have stated, that Leica lenses have an identifiable signature in the way they render the subject, and if so is that important to you?

A: My primary camera of choice is the Leica S2, and I haven’t seen anything that comes close to it technically or ergonomically. But as the president of Leica Camera USA, Roger Horn, told me not too long ago, it’s all about the lenses. And Leica’s lenses are magnificent. The Leica look refers to the pop and clarity that is rendered with Leica lenses. This is not a myth. I would venture to say that the lenses can yield almost a surreal effect with the graduations they reproduce.

I generally shoot seascapes with the 70 mm, which is close to a normal lens. A normal lens sees closely to what my own eye sees, while still bringing the action close.

Q: Two things that characterize the images in your portfolio are a sensitive and masterful use of light, and a feeling of space and place — the sensation of actually being there. Do you agree, and can you say something about how you use light and capture this sense of presence?

A:. I have always felt with all my work that it’s all about the light. Whether watching the way light falls on a face, or the reflections of light on water, light has always been my fascination and obsession.

I recently saw for only the second time in my life Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring.” Vermeer’s use of light and shadow in the simplest of subjects, demonstrates that the impact of the moment. By working with a Leica S2, with its vast range of color depiction, and its total ease of use, all that is left in creating a great image is the prowess of the imagination.

Q: Out of the seven images in your portfolio five are in color and two are output in black-and-white. What is it that you find compelling about the black-and-white medium and how do you decide which medium works best for a given image? Is the decision an intuitive process or do you have specific ideas on the subject you can tell us about?

A: I would venture to say, B&W tends to be linear, and color painterly. Many times when the light is very flat, I tend to shoot B&W in order to reproduce the outer lines of the waves.

If color is striking, even if only a contrasting color is revealed against vast blue, I will shoot in color. By shooting at long exposures, generally not much less than ¼ of second, a painterly effect is achieved. Lines are blurred and colors will blend into each other.

Q: Orient Fog is a dreamy image that transports the viewer to another state of consciousness. It is really more of an experience than a picture and certainly validates the maxim “less is more.” What does this image mean to you and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?

A: Sometimes in my images, I like to be pulled more into the void of the subject, rather than left on the surface. It can be somewhat discomforting, and comforting at the same time. People tend to be drawn to one or the other approach — either the violence and activity of breaking waves or the tranquility of a calm sea.

Q: Saltaire II is another image that has a transcendent quality, as though the sea and sky comprise a cosmic unity separated by a thin band of golden light. What do you think the viewer takes away from this image and what was your intention when you created it?

A: Barnett Newman, the Abstract Expressionist, called these bands of color zips. He would use these to variegate the color fields. By seeing this strip of color in the center, the two fields of blue on either side of it become more powerful and seem to press back towards the center. The photo, in turn, has more force and depth. For these reasons, I like to make large prints so all these elements are more easily discernible. And the quality and size of the S2 image files allow the luxury of printing large.

Q: Do you still do commercial work including celebrity portraiture, and how do you see your photography evolving over the next few years? Do you have any plans to capture seascapes and shoreline images in any locations other than the forks of Long Island?

A: I do still shoot commercially, but not out of necessity, but what interests me. I have worked in so many different areas of photography, and feel that there is still so much to explore from behind the lens. How that evolves is a mystery since each time I shift gears, I surprise myself.

I would like to explore the coastline of the West Coast. But the timing of the shot is so critical, wherever I go, since I look for dramatic skies to balance the lower half the image, the sea. Because I spend a great deal of time in Eastern Long Island, I am able to go out with my gear when all the elements are right. But don’t be surprised if you are strolling along a remote beach one day to find me there, knee deep in the sea with a camera in my hand.

Thank you for your time, EJ!

– Leica Internet Team

To learn more about EJ, visit her on Facebook and her website.

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