At a time where many have fled cities in search of seclusion amid the verdant reassures of the natural world and become family photographers out of cheer necessity, their options limited by the strictures of social isolation, American artist and fashion photographer Erik Madigan Heck has been years ahead of the curve.
The Garden, Heck’s four-gallery exhibition and forthcoming book, is an ongoing body of work depicting the artist’s wife and two sons set amid a landscape that evokes the myth and majesty of childhood fairytales. Describing himself as “a painter who uses a camera,” Heck transforms the original photographs into storybook scenes through the meticulous process of adding luminous layers of color and exquisite patterns while simultaneously flattening the images by removing shadows and depth of field.
Like Edouard Vuillard, the French Impressionist painter he admired as a child, Heck transforms the picture plane into a dreamscape where reality and fantasy become one. Where he once altered the photograph in the darkroom, Heck now does it digitally to produce the same effect: a photograph that transcends notions of the documentary nature of the medium.
“The original photographs I take don’t really resemble the end results,” Erik Madigan Heck reveals. “When everything is so immediate, there’s a real luxury in being able to put something aside, come back to it. There are photographs taken years ago and I’ll go through the archive and pull something out and then start reworking it. Sometimes I will spend weeks where I will do a little color, put it aside, and come back to it, which is basically the same way you would approach painting on a canvas. Time with the piece erases the moment when you took the picture first in because it’s no longer about that day you took the photograph.”
Necessity is the Mother of Invention
Over the past decade, the industry has taken note of Heck’s unconventional and innovative approach. In 2011, Heck was included in The 30, Photo District News’ annual list of now and emerging photographers to watch. The following year, he became youngest person to photograph Neiman Marcus’ prestigious “Art of Fashion” campaign. Then, in 2013 Heck was awarded the Infinity Award for Applied/Fashion/Advertising by the International Center of Photography. In 2014, he received The Art Director’s Club Gold Medal for his Old Masters Portfolio published by The New York Times Magazine.
With clients including Fendi, Gucci, Comme des Garçons, The New Yorker, TIME, and Vanity Fair, Heck has become a major force in the photography world. Unlike many contemporary artists, he doesn’t draw a hard line between commercial and personal work, understanding that they are all part of the same continuum. Like the traditional patronage system of old, Heck recognizes that whether he is producing work for a company or a gallery, the work is a commodity and the only thing he must do as an artist is stay true to himself.
The Garden illustrates the ways in which Heck’s work moves seamlessly between the realms of commercial and personal work. The series began in 2016 when Heck’s wife noticed he tended toward depression every August when the fashion industry shuttered for the month. She suggested he begin photographing her in the kids on the grounds of their secluded Connecticut home.
Heck, who had long kept his family life from his work, reconsidered the boundary he had imposed, reflecting on his longstanding admiration for Harry Callahan, who photographed his wife throughout his career. Then, there was also the matter of necessity. After leaving New York City that same year, the family decamped to the countryside. Living in the middle of a forest, limited Heck’s options to his innermost circle. “If I wanted to make work it would have to be on my wife because there’s nobody else I could photograph up here,” Erik Madigan Heck says.
Reveling in the Pleasure of Beauty
Heck began making photographs as a daily exercise, posting them to Instagram. Then one day, Kira Pollack, Director of Photography at TIME got in touch, asking to publish the work on the cover of the magazine. Then companies including Van Cleef & Arpels, Carolina Herrera, Rodarte, and Harper’s Bazaar UK began to ask him to shoot his family for them.
As the years passed, thousands of pictures emerged tracing the cycle of life and death with the birth of his two sons and the passing of his beloved mother, painter who gave Heck his first camera at the age of 14. As a child, Heck spent countless hours with his mother in her basement studio, where he would watch her work, as well as on weekly trips to the local museums like the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Soaking in an oasis of color, light, form, and line, Heck slowly built a mental encyclopedia of art.
“What makes Erik Madigan Heck’s style absolutely unique is that his work oscillates between photography and painting on the one hand and between fashion photography and fine art on the other,” says gallerist Christopher Guye. “The results are works that express an otherworldly innocence and spontaneity that art makes possible, allowing one to live in the direct, immediate experience of beauty.”
Unlike traditional family photographers including Sally Mann and Elinor Carucci, Heck eschews the documentary approach to photography. His portraits are not of individuals but archetypes, his wife and children acting as models for scenes befitting the most exquisite visions of our collective childhood imagination. In Heck’s hands, the photographs become meditations on the pleasures that can be found in the sheer joy of looking.
“There’s a side to these pictures that are hopeful and more in line with children’s book idyllic representations. It’s art that I would want to see when I was a kid as opposed to what I think the contemporary photography world is more interested in now, which is the documentation of identity and topics issues that are political,” Heck says.
While many photographers have turned to their families to create work throughout social isolation, Erik Madigan Heck acknowledges, “The work is not about 2020 or any specific time. It’s just about the essential elements that have floated through art history: color, form, landscape, and figure. These pictures are about pleasure and creating something that makes you happy when you look at them, that doesn’t need further explanation.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.
Erik Madigan Heck: The Garden
Published by Damiani (February 19, 2021), $90
Book available here.
On view at Jackson Fine Art through January 30, 2021
3115 East Shadowlawn Avenue, Atlanta, GA 30305, USA
On view at Christopher Guye Galerie through January 30, 2021
Dufourstrasse 31, 8008 Zürich, Switzerland
On view at Weinstein Hammons
908 West 46th Street, Minneapolis, MN 55419, USA