Through cinematic and thoughtfully staged portraiture, Erik Carter’s previous life in theatre becomes paramount. Each and every subject is staged with great care and attention, while the story of the protagonist is laid bare in front of the lens. “Portraiture granted me the opportunity to make honest work while still being creative,” the LA-based photographer tells It’s Nice That. “My background is originally in theatre, where there’s a lot of focus on the self. But over time, I no longer felt the desire to have any of the attention.”
Upon realising his love of the medium, Erik began shifting this focus onto his subjects; he sees the process of photography as a constant dialogue between them both, and makes sure to spend time discussing how they’d like to be portrayed. “That realisation helped me understand that something I greatly value in an image is a sense of honesty and partnership, which is something I try to take into consideration with a subject on the street, or a celebrity in a studio.” Additionally, Erik uses the analogous grain of a film camera to bring his narratives to life, opting specifically for colour film as it evokes a sense of familiarity and nostalgia with the completed works.
Erik originally hails from Rowlett, Texas, a mid-sized town around 30 minutes outside of Dallas. Continuing his education at Southern Methodist University – at which he didn’t study photography – he later moved to New York City in 2010 at the age of 22. “At the time of my arrival,” he adds, “I had very recently come out. Being newly queer in a city like New York brings with it a stark and exciting education. My queer self grew up fast.” Upon moving to LA a few years down the line in 2019, the young and budding creative started to find his voice. A self-taught photographer, he’d never intentionally set out to develop his own particular style, and rather strove to “explore, uplift and exhibit Black and queer life”, all of which is shot in signature portraiture style. Using medium format, you can tell instantly how he pulls inspiration from photographer greats like Richard Avedon, Peter Hujar, Gordan Parks, Irving Penn, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Carrie Mae Weems.
Although technically adhering to the typical traits of a documentary photographer, Erik brings about a certain personality and rawness to his image-making. This is achieved through his drive to photograph the communities around him, “not only to document but also to champion,” he notes. “It’s not often we get to see the joyous or soft moments Black people experience, and it’s not often we get to see the full nature of queer life. It’s important to show these things. It’s important to tell these stories.” Although, when he isn't lensing these themes, Erik does tend to be drawn in by the smaller and quieter aspects of his subjects, too. “Those who might be described as unsung or introverted,” he describes, citing an interest in those we don’t often see in the pages of magazines.
Talking us through a couple of recent pieces, Erik points out his ongoing series titled Milk & Honey, during which the photographer explores the “chimerical perception of Black queer relationships”. One image, shown above, is a peaceful one; the natural tones and light uplift the two topless subjects in front of his lens. Their postures are gentle, with one looking longingly into the distance; the other, eyes closed and wistful. “While said relationships can be romantic, they can also be purely platonic, like the duo in this image,” says Erik. “There’s beauty and wonder in all aspects of that contact. The title actually stems from a song lyric that envisions a world where the joys of love and equality are possible, if only in our minds. These are my attempt at making them a reality and I think I’ll be exploring this series for years to come.”
Other pieces have similar emphasis on those that he photographs, which includes an image titled Jolene, documenting the end of a night of an event with the same name – a trans-inclusive strip night at Cheetahs in LA. Here, he's taken a quick portrait of a subject named Avery Jane. The picture encapsulates her playful persona, having witnessed her throwing out a few pieces of candy as she collected her tips. “I knew I only had a short time with her, maybe 20 seconds or so, because the night was so fast-paced. I asked if she could stand in front of an old vending machine located right next to the changing room. She agreed and quickly shared that same character with me, that same feeling of playfulness and charm, and I was able to get this quiet moment with her amidst all the commotion.”
Erik’s work is far from your typical display of portraiture and documentary. He spends valuable time acquainting himself with his subjects, which gives his work a natural, emotional and comfortable quality. “Sometimes there’s a danger in photography, in that it can quickly become dishonest, even grotesque, since the approach is often to make an image of someone as we see them, rather than how they might want to be seen,” he concludes. “For me, a successful photo teaches not only the viewer something about the subject, but in the process of making the image, it also teaches the photographer something as well. “
Erik Carter: Adonis Bosso (Copyright © Erik Carter, 2021)
About the Author
Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent the last seven years as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.