CoPA member Erik Ljung is admittedly shy but having a camera in front of his face is his good excuse to interact with strangers he might otherwise be reluctant to approach.
“My camera is the perfect excuse to put myself in sticky situations,” the 27-year old photographer said. “I use my camera as a tool. I study photography and photographers all day, every day – it consumes me – but I rarely photograph without a purpose.”
Eric’s work was one of three exhibits which closed in July 2011 at the Portrait Society Gallery. His show had a decided purpose: to sing a paean to Kodachrome’s passing. He called his presentation, Pilgrimage to Parsons, Kansas, the destination on a documentary journey using his last 36-frame roll of Kodachrome film. Erik drove the 700 miles to Dwayne’s Photo when he heard the last photographic lab on earth that developed the slide film would be closing. Along the way he shot some medium format film that also will be displayed at the Portrait Society show.
Born in Northern California, Erik has a bachelor of fine art with an emphasis in graphic design from San Diego State University. Shortly after graduating in 2008, he arrived in Milwaukee on the Fourth of July, dropped off his bags, and headed to Summerfest as his first day’s experience in the city.
His first memory of photographing with a purpose was at a 6th grade camp with a disposable camera. “For some reason I was really determined to document my living quarters and experiences during the trip so that I could show my parents upon my return.” He was anxious for their approval of his photography ”as a source of documentation rather than beauty.”
It wasn’t until about 2006 that Erik began photographing seriously, he said. With little money in college, he had the good fortune to have a friend who gave him a Canon 30D. With that opportunity he began photographing for the campus newspaper. A photography course that inspired him was one taught by photographer Kim Stringfellow who instilled ideas of project-based art rather than “just making pretty pictures.” Another professor introduced him to Walker Evans and Lewis Hines.
Much of his inspiration stems from being new to the Midwest. “I find many of the small towns, diners, hand painted signs, and weathered buildings absolutely enthralling. I am sick of strip malls and fast food restaurants. Much of America is losing its distinct character. If you drive down the freeway every single exit is the exact same: McDonald’s, BP, Subway, etc. You can fall asleep (if you are a passenger) anywhere in America and wake up six hours later and you couldn’t tell the difference. It’s all the same. On my trips I prefer taking the back roads. That is where you will find the good stuff. Places with integrity, that have kept their slice of culture intact.”
What sustains his interest is curiosity. As he photographs he often finds himself lost in thought, trying to conjure up a backstory to a weathered building or unique individual. “I wonder about people's idiosyncrasies and about who used to live in these old buildings that I come across. I don't know that my photography attempts to answer those questions, but I believe my pictures do highlight the mystique of these individuals or locations, and hopefully the image will inspire the viewer to make up their own backstory to what they are seeing. I hope that my photography instills a sense of nostalgia and wonderment, and maybe a new awareness for their surroundings.”
Contemporary photographers who have influenced him are Steven Shore and William Eggleston. While both seem to focus on the banal, Erik feels they are able to elevate “our awareness of our tawdry surroundings.” More recently Erik has been intrigued by the work of Alec Soth.
But even Flickr has had its influence, he said. “There are so many amazing amateur photographers that I have connected with online that have similar sensibilities. It is great to be able to have some sense of community where you are able to share your images with others who appreciate the same aesthetic, and feed off the work they are doing.”
The theme of the Portrait Society Gallery exhibits was More than Real: The Death of Kodachrome, Besides Erik’s work, the show featured photography projects by Julia Taylor and James Brozek.