Capturing the Moment
Meet the man behind the lens — one of America’s legendary advertising and editorial photographers, who makes photos that reveal light in the darkest of storms and beauty in earth’s most unexpected places.
Eric Meola’s photography personifies the art of observation. His camera, a Nikon D810, is his tool to give reason to the world, and a means to take a beautiful moment out of time and hold it still.
“I’m in photography for the art of it and sharing something visually with the gift I’ve been given,” he told Taste of Life via telephone from his home on Long Island, New York.
The next day, Meola would be back on the road, chasing epic storms with a team of meteorologists through the Great Plains of America. His latest project, a photo book titled Tornado Alley: The Sky Above the Land Below, is scheduled for release in 2019.
It’s a photographic quest he’s dreamed about since the late 1970s while on a photo shoot in Nevada with rock star Bruce Springsteen. He recalls how they encountered an incredible storm of Biblical proportions with all sorts of wind, rain, threatening clouds and lighting.
“I got some pretty dramatic photos out of that,” says Meola, “and it’s always been in the back of my mind to go out and find more storms. But as happens in life, one thing happens and another, and you put those dreams on the back burner.”
Now on the eve of turning 70, Meola is seizing the moment to take those trips and capture those images once stifled by the demands of an illustrious commercial photography career.
After assisting colour pioneer Peter Turner, Meola became a legend in his own right. His photos splashed across the pages of Time, LIFE, and Esquire magazines. He shot advertising images for the likes of PorscheAudi, Johnnie Walker Scotch, Coca Cola, and Timberland apparel.
To ask a photographer to pick his favourite image seems akin to asking a parent to declare which child they love best, yet as we talk, it’s evident there are a handful of images that Meola holds especially close to his heart. There’s the cover shot of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” album, depicting the legendary guitarist leaning on the shoulders of his husky saxophonist Clarence Clemons — like most of his work, a picture with a story behind it.
Driven by the desire to photograph one of his favourite musicians, Meola inconspicuously followed Springsteen on tour for almost six months. The two coincidently came face-to-face one rainy afternoon as they sought shelter under the awning of a hotel. Meola recalls awkwardly telling Springsteen how much he liked his music and suggesting he become his subject, but it wasn’t until two years later that the rock star showed up at Meola’s studio. Some 700 photos and 20 rolls of film later, the iconic black-and-white album cover was realized.
On a 1972 photojournalism assignment to Haiti, Meola took one of his most recognizable images, “Coca Kid,” that would not only “put him on the map,” as he says, but showcase his talent as a true master of colour.
He retells the moment like it was yesterday. “There was this wonderful old Coca Cola billboard in Port-au-Prince. It was the perfect backdrop for a photograph, but without life, it was meaningless.”
He set up his tripod across the street, put on his telescopic lens, cropped the photo just the way he wanted, and waited. Hours passed. People passed. There was always something not quite right — the clothing of passersby clashing with the colour of the sign, or their movements jarring when compared to the sign’s fluid cursive typography.
“Suddenly this little boy walked by. Between his white shorts and long, swinging arms, the concept just came together!”
In those seconds as the boy passed, Meola held down the shutter for a motorized burst, using the last of his film. “In those days, I had to wait two weeks to get back home and process the film.” As he went through his images, holding his breath, he got to the three or four shots he had captured of the boy.
“The very last photo was just perfect.”
In a candid moment, Meola reveals that the heart and the mind are the true lens of his work — a realization that stirred a spiritual awakening while in Burma collecting images for a book depicting the disappearing beauty of various cultures.
He was photographing a young boy as he knelt before a monk who was shaving the boy’s head. In this ceremony, known as Shin Bu, the child was initiated as a monk, and stepped onto the path of becoming a Buddha.
“Within seconds, I started crying,” Meola says. “It was incredibly emotional visually, spiritually. There was a lot of dust in the air, people singing, just colours… It just was extremely moving.”
No longer just an observer, but a participant, “In that moment, I felt that I, too, had crossed into another place and found the key to these other worlds I had imagined.”
“There’s moments when I feel almost hypnotized by the beauty around me,” he says. “Like during a storm, I find myself watching the shapes and the colours and trying to stand up straight while the wind is blowing, and can forget for a moment why I’m there.”
If there’s a mystic quality to Meola’s images, one might attribute it to his childhood fascination with magic tricks and the illusions of Houdini.
A teenager with a vision
At the age of 12, Eric Meola says he had a clear epiphany as to his life’s calling. His dad may have wanted him to follow in his footsteps and be a doctor, but for Meola, his own career would be decided in a darkroom.
“One of my dad’s patients had a photography hobby and invited me over to his house to show me some of his negatives,” says Meola.
“I was intrigued by the darkness and the red light. Watching the first print appear in the developer was a moment I will never forget. It was in those 30 seconds I decided I would be a photographer.”
With earnings from his first job making sodas and sandwiches at the local pharmacy, Meola bought a camera. Suddenly, no place was boring when he had a pocketful of unexposed film. On a family vacation to Rhode Island, Meola, then a teenager, observed a flock of seagulls and shot a silhouette of a bird against the sun. On a whim he sent that photo to Audubon magazine.
“I’d almost forgotten about it, when three months later I got this letter that they wanted to use it on their cover. It was the vindication that I needed. I can do this.”
Today as he meets a new generation of photographers, he encourages them to approach their career with “their head in the clouds and their feet on the ground,” a formula that’s evidently worked for him, as he still approaches photography with the excitement of a child.
Images courtesy of Eric Meola