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Monday, June 23, 2008

Eli Reed - Powerful Simplicity

Magnum photographer Eli Reed reveals his technique for capturing the elusive moment, and why he'll always shoot film, at least in black-and-white

Eli Reed"I'm inspired by life. My work is, in essence, a meditation on being a human being.”

So says photographer Eli Reed, whose work on assignment for national and international publications has covered the gamut since joining Magnum in 1982. But the invitation to be a part of an organization that has captured iconic historical events since World War II came as quite a shock to Reed.

“You always want to be the best at what you do, but I was startled about being asked to join Magnum,” admits Reed, whose images from El Salvador, Guatemala and other Central American countries caught the attention of Magnum. “Joining the agency definitely brought a new level of excellence to my work.”

Reed has since shot for a broad spectrum of clients, ranging from the visually arresting pages of Life to the grandeur of National Geographic. The year before joining Magnum, he was a Pulitzer Prize runner-up, then nabbed the Nieman Fellowship at Harvard the same year he joined Magnum. Reed has collected a host of other awards over the years—the Nikon World Understanding Award in 1983, the Leica Medal of Excellence in 1988, the World Press Award in 1988 and the Kodak World Image Award for Fine Art Photography in 1992. Honorable accolades indeed, but for Reed it's more about the quest to learn and, more importantly, never being comfortable with a camera in his hands. “You're dead meat if you are,” says Reed. “If you're closed off, partitioned in your own world, you're way too comfortable. It's imperative to keep learning things, gathering fresh content and being open.” Having traveled extensively across the globe, how does Reed manage to uncover the fundamental essence of any given moment, anywhere, anytime?

“The first trip anywhere on a project is energetic and nerve-racking,” admits Reed. “You're trying to get a quick understanding of everything that's going on, everything that's passing in front of you. Then you make decisions, you choose your weapons and go forward to capture people in their world.”

“There are things that come out on film that you never see in digital,” says Reed, who still loads Kodak TRI-X and T-MAX when conditions match the mood. “Sometimes it's just the immediacy of the grain and the feeling you get in response to that. Something esoteric.”

Film Over Digital
Weapons of choice for Reed include black-and-white film, something he feels digital has yet to master. “There are things that come out on film that you never see in digital,” says Reed, who still loads Kodak TRI-X and T-MAX when conditions match the mood. “Sometimes it's just the immediacy of the grain and the feeling you get in response to that. Something esoteric. If you know how to print black-and-white film, it really is a big difference. The image just jumps out at you with film—it's a straight shot to the blood system, an infusion of juice through your veins without the charge of color.”

Having said that, Reed does embrace the digital image in color. “To me, it's better because it has a feel of what you're actually seeing,” posits Reed.

But whatever the weapon, immediacy is the main requirement for the Magnum shooter: “When you're shooting consistently every single day, it's not about metering, not about playing with the gadgets. It's basics. I just want to be able to see color and move to frame the image accordingly.

“It's all about perception,” adds Reed. “You stop, go through those doors and immediately set the camera for a shutter speed because of the quality of the light, or a lens opening to reflect what you see, or feel what you're feeling. But everything has limitations, not just the digital image. There's always something you have to deal with, no matter where you are or what you're using.”

Fade In
The requirement to keep funds flowing also has brought Reed into other creative avenues, such as photographing on various movie sets. After photographing more than 25 feature, documentary and cable network films, Reed is a proud member of the Society of Motion Picture Still Photographers (SMPSP).

Shooting stills alongside the likes of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins on A Beautiful Mind and director John Singleton on Baby Boy helps keep Reed motivated. But his own work ended up being the inspiration for Deakins on A Beautiful Mind.

“I was told by the production designer that the look of the film—the set design and feel of the lighting—was all taken from my Black in America book,” reveals Reed. “It was weird because I suddenly realized why the photography felt so easy for me. I was honored to find out.”

Reed also enjoyed his experience on set working with Russell Crowe. “He's a very knowledgeable photographer and he pays attention to everything that's going on,” says Reed. “He's one of a kind. He has the drive, energy and intelligence to do anything he wants.”


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