He may crack Ansel Adams jokes and have a soft spot for Zelda 2, but photographer Eric Ray Davidson is living proof that adhering to your obsessions, nerdy or not, can be a recipe for a wildly successful life.
After spending his formative years voluntarily sequestered in a homemade darkroom, Davidson now passes the time jet-setting between New York and LA, working for top magazines, and photographing some of the world’s most gorgeous women (and dashing men).
You’ve likely seen his work already—he shoots the five featured looks at the top of our GQ Selects page each month. But as the samples above indicate, he’s as skilled shooting stunning portraits as he is in the wilds of Fashion Week, documenting the streets and the shows.
Davidson was kind enough to answer a few questions for us (despite being on vacation in Yosemite National Park this week):
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How did you get started in photography?
“My father gave me his Nikon F3 when I was 14, and it instantly became my obsession. I built a darkroom in my basement at home and basically lived there. In high school, I made a habit of getting notes from my photography teacher, so I could be excused from my other classes to go down to the lab and work.”
Do you prefer shooting in a studio, or on the fly?
“Studio is great because you have so much control. I love being able to build an environment where everyone is enjoying themselves—that puts your whole team in the best possible space to create. Being in the field, in a documentary-type environment, is so completely different. There’s so much that’s out of your control. You’re really a nature photographer at that point—you have to be aware of everything that’s going on around you.”
What are some of your current inspirations?
“Movies with beautiful photography, like Beasts of the Southern Wild [cinematographer: Ben Richardson]. If ever there was an example of how to make a killer movie on a small budget, that’s it. Just beautiful available light. I also spend quite a bit of time on Tumblr. It seems like everywhere you go on there, you’ve got some 16-year-old kid putting together the coolest curation of photography and art. It’s got its own visual culture going on—I just can’t get enough of it. Just an endless amount to look at and live through.”
Your subjects always seem super comfortable—what do you do to create the right atmosphere on-set?
“Easy—I never stop talking. When things get quiet, people start to think they’re doing something wrong—or that you don’t like what you’re looking at.”
Who has been a fantastic subject to work with?
“That’s a tough question. I’ve been fortunate enough in my career to work with a lot of amazing people from all different walks of life. For me, really, the best person to photograph is the person who wants to be photographed. It becomes a collaborative experience between you, and then you really have no idea where it’s going—and that’s the most exciting part of photography.”
Your wife is celebrity stylist Ilaria Urbinati. What’s it like being married to someone who dresses leading men for a living?
“Ha, where to begin with this…Ilaria’s always got an opinion, and it’s always spot-on. She’s not the wife/girlfriend trying to get you into that ugly sweater that all your buddies are going to make fun of. I’d like to think, every once in a while, I teach her a new thing or two—but don’t tell her I said that.”
What are you up to in Yosemite this week?
“Getting back to nature! We just got back from a horseback trail ride. Tomorrow, we’re doing a big hike through the park to try and get a good view of Half Dome. I’m sure I’ll be able to hear Ansel Adams rolling over in his grave when I bust out my iPhone to take a photo of it. That’s a serious photo-nerd joke there, by the way.”