Andrew Eccles is an NYC-based photographer with over 25 years of experience in the industry. His work has been seen on the cover of numerous magazines such as Time, Vanity Fair, New York Magazine and Esquire. He has worked with countless high-profile clients, celebrities and was also commissioned to photograph the 2016 Oscar winners. Aside from his long-standing career in the commercial industry, one of Andrew's on-going passion project is photographing the dancer of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. For the past 20 years, he has produced stunning images of the company dancers which have become the signature brand for the organization. In 2015, he was invited to document the Ailey company's historic visit to South Africa where he captured beautiful images of the dancers in various environments as well as their interactions with the community.
I met Andrew while working with him during an Ailey photoshoot. Not only is he insanely talented, but he's also one of the nicest, down-to-earth and knowledgable people I've ever met. I wanted to learn more about his story, how he became interested in photography and what it took for him to garner so many notable clients. We never interacted much prior to the interview so I was a bit nervous when I approached him about The Human Side, however, he was very open and easy-going and provided insight about his journey that I think many will find invaluable.
Is photography something you knew you always wanted to do? Tell me about your early experiences with photography.
Andrew: I knew from a fairly young age that photography was something I liked doing. I recognized that there were photographers in the world and that it was a job—probably as much of a job as it was an art form—and that it was something I wanted to pursue. When I say a young age, probably from around 12, and a number of things sort of collided. My father gave me a real 35 mm camera, and simultaneously, I found myself fascinated with Life Magazine and National Geographic Magazine, and it wasn’t the articles, it was the pictures. So, I started taking pictures with this camera that my father gave me, and I was setting things up, composing and creating things and coming up with all these child-like ideas and concepts.
What was your high school and college experience like?
Andrew: As I entered high school, the next kind of photography I really started to notice and gravitate towards were the photographs I saw on album covers. I was in high school in the 70s and that’s when there was a wave of surreal photographic art on the cover of albums like Houses of the Holy by Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. There’s a design company in London called Hypnosis, which I didn’t understand until later were the ones behind the genius of taking these photographs and creating all of this surreal imagery. That was the stuff that looked so cool and exciting. I took pictures for the yearbook and then started taking pictures of my girlfriend on weekends, I also took my first photo class. By the time I was in 11th or 12th grade I thought, wow, this is something I really like doing and I liked my art classes a lot but had no idea what I wanted to do for a real job because although I recognized photography as something one could do, I didn’t imagine that I or anybody could actually make a real living doing this. So, I consulted with a few teachers about what I could pursue after I got out of high school because all of my friends knew what they wanted to do and I didn’t. My art teacher said, well you can go to art college, and a light bulb went off and I thought, that sounds amazing if I could do this all the time.
I applied to art college, got in and that’s where it started. I did mostly art classes like drawing, illustration and design but did photography classes throughout. By my final year of art college I was doing all photography classes and by then I knew. So, photography was sort of a thing that had been percolating from a very young age but by the time I got out of art college that was it. I wanted to head out and really figure out how to do it.
"You’re supposed to be a business man—which I didn’t really understand what that was—or you would be a doctor, lawyer, teacher, police officer and a fireman. Photography seemed like an artistic hobby except for those hardcore journalists who were running around covering wars, and I was certainly not going to do that."
Did you ever doubt what you wanted to do?
Andrew: I think that whole time is filled with doubt, I recognized that there was this thing I liked but being a product of the 70s, and like any kid growing up in North America, there were 'real' jobs that you're supposed to do. You're supposed to be a business man—which I didn’t really understand what that was—or you would be a doctor, lawyer, teacher, police officer and a fireman. Photography seemed like an artistic hobby except for those hardcore journalists who were running around covering wars, and I was certainly not going to do that. However, I was seeing that somebody was taking pictures for these album covers, magazines and portraits of famous people. By the time I was in art college, I gained a naive bravado about it and thought, Yeah! I'm going to be a commercial photographer. I think the wavering started shortly thereafter when I realized how incredibly complicated, competitive and difficult it was all going to be to achieve that.
Growing & Building
One of Andrew’s life-changing experiences was the 3 years he spent assisting famed photographer, Annie Leibovitz. When the opportunity of becoming her full-time assistant was presented to him, he almost didn’t take it due to fear. Afraid he would regret passing on a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity, he accepted the position and now coins the experience as a quintessential part in the development of his career.
How did you land the opportunity to assist Annie Leibovitz?
Andrew: When I left art college in Toronto, Canada, I actually went to Corpus Christi, TX and a very good friend of my went to New York. He won the lottery and got a green card, and I had gotten a green card as a kid when my parents moved to the states. So, we were both in different parts of the country, but he ended up getting a job assisting Annie. After a year in Corpus Christi, I came up to New York and got in touch with him—the short story is that he said, come on in and be second assistant here at Annie’s. This was after being in the city for a few months, and I had assisted some smaller photographers, less known, but when I came into Annie's studio it was a whole different level.
One of the first shoots that I assisted on was the Bruce Springsteen Born in the USA album cover. So, here now, this was the big leagues. I did my best to learn and fit in but it was grueling. I watched it wear down my friend to the point of a near nervous breakdown; the hours, stress and responsibility that he was given was overwhelming, and it really took a toll on him. He got to a point where he really couldn’t handle it anymore and she’d let him go. She’d sent him on his way and I’d come in just innocently to be second assistant for a shoot one Saturday morning. She looked pretty upset and said, "I fired your friend. You're my assistant now." And I was like no, I'm not. I have no idea what I'm doing, I can't do this. We came to an agreement that she did want to hire me as her full-time assistant but recognized that I didn’t have that much experience so we used very experienced freelance assistants to train me, and over a few months I kinda got the hang of it and took over. It was a grueling 3 years that’s for sure but there’s no way I would be where I am today if it hadn’t been for that experience—it was literally life-changing
What were some of the challenges while assisting with her and what were the most important things you learned?
Andrew: When I was her assistant, I was her assistant.
This is not to take away from anybody else’s experiences there, but
she had one full-time assistant and that was me back in the early 80s.
So, it was tough because she was very successful
already but she was running a small business and it was me and a studio manager, and we hired freelance assistants. I felt fortunate in that for better or worse it was really raw and exposed back then. We spent a lot of time together, so I suffered a great deal in terms of the brunt of the responsibility and having to handle a lot of things on my own. I also benefitted from having this relatively close and intimate relationship with Annie, which may still exist but it's probably buffered now by the sheer size of her operation.
"There’s a cost that comes with greatness and it’s the sacrifice you make to do whatever it takes to get the thing you believe in."
What was the biggest takeaway from that experience for you?
Andrew: Well, there was the surface level stuff like I traveled all over the world and accompanied her in a fairly close way while we photographed some of the most important social icons of the time. We were, photographically, sort of near the center of the universe which was pretty exciting and dramatic. So, on the surface level stuff in terms of world travel and experience was one aspect, but really the biggest takeaway was the influence that she had on helping me develop a work ethic. I’d never been around anybody who worked that hard, who cared or tried that much. There was a lot of blood, sweat and tears and it could be an agonizing process but at the end of the day, what was tantamount in Annie’s mind was taking the greatest possible photographic portrait that she could make of that person at the time when she had them. She was relentless about it, I mean she researched and thought and consulted and thought. We would be completely set up for a photograph and the subject was gonna walk in in 10 mins. and she would come up with a new idea. We would have to scramble to reorganize our planning because she was constantly thinking while she was shooting. In a weird way it was chasing an elusive concept that may not even exist, but the drive behind it was palpable and simultaneously contagious and it rubbed off. I don’t work the way she does and I’m not that relentless. I’m not able to go the distance the way she can to get that picture—and that’s why she’s Annie Leibovitz. There’s a cost that comes with greatness and it’s the sacrifice you make to do whatever it takes to get the thing you believe in.
When you decided to branch out on your own, how long did it take before you started getting high-profile clients.
Andrew: I always jokingly tell people that it’s about an 8 or 9 year overnight success. The first step was assisting and after assisting Annie for 3 years, I was a freelance assistant and worked for a couple of other people, Robert Maplethrope and Steven Meisel, so I got some more experience from other great photographers. The first jobs were not very impressive looking or sounding, but they were thrilling to me because they were jobs I was being asked to do and being paid real money to take pictures. I remember my parents being very worried and concerned when I left Annie and I told them, you know, I’m shooting this exercise story for the back of Self Magazine. And they’d be like, Oh now dear, do you think this was such a good idea that you leave Annie? Because, you know, we were running around shooting world leaders and here I was photographing push-ups for some ladies magazine. It just didn’t seem like it was such a smart plan, but I tried to reassure them the idea was that I would be doing things that were hopefully more high-profile and significant later in life.
Was there a particular project that resulted in gaining bigger clients?
Andrew: One of the very first things that I ever photographed was a dance company. A woman who managed a dance company that Annie had photographed met me while I was assisting Annie. When she moved to a company called The David Gordon Pick Up Company here in Manhattan, she thought about hiring Annie to photograph David Gordon’s company but knew she couldn’t afford it. So, she got in touch with me and said, “Do you think you could take pictures that would look and feel like what Annie would do?” and I, in my novice, naive kind of way, said sure, I’ll try. We did pictures and I bonded with the dancers, got phone numbers and set up photographing tests with them on my own personal time. Then, I put together pictures for my first portfolio that were primarily dancers. When I ran that portfolio around I started getting fitness pictures for magazines, and the fitness pictures kept coming enough that I was making a living. Some of them morphed into skin stories and then beauty stories, and once I started shooting some of the beauty stories of faces and models, somebody gave me an actress to shoot for a beauty story, and then I got a portrait of an actress followed by a portrait of an actor. So, over the course of about two years, this little thing that all started with one photoshoot with a dance company evolved into shooting actors and actresses for magazines like Rolling Stone, GQ and Esquire.
"I had a TV on in both rooms and I could hear them on at the same time. I'd also taken a bath and was waiting for room service, and I think I was standing on the 30th floor or something. I caught my reflection in the window overlooking the night sky of Chicago while wearing a white bathrobe, and I was like oh my god, that’s me. Like, I’m really here! Somebody sent me here where I can wear this robe and wait for room service. This is ridiculous."
Tell me about a moment when you thought, "Holy shit, I made it! I'm a successful photographer."
Andrew: There were numerous pinch-myself kind of moments, but it’s funny because I was just talking about this the other day to someone. I was sent to Chicago by GQ magazine to shoot comedians from the comedy troupe Second City, and one of them was completely unknown, very funny improv comic at the time named Chris Farley, and there was another guy, who nobody knew at the time, named Tim Meadows. They were a bunch of guys who end up being hugely famous on Saturday Night Live, but it was still a big job, and I remember they put me up in a suite at The Four Seasons. It was one of the nicest hotel rooms I had ever been in; I was amazed because there was a bedroom and a living room. I had a TV on in both rooms and I could hear them on at the same time. I'd also taken a bath and was waiting for room service, and I think I was standing on the 30th floor or something. I caught my reflection in the window overlooking the night sky of Chicago while wearing a white bathrobe, and I was like oh my god, that’s me. Like, I’m really here! Somebody sent me here where I can wear this robe and wait for room service. This is ridiculous. I remember that was one of the first moments where I thought, Geez, I am now getting the physical evidence that this is going somewhere. It was happening more regularly and it didn’t go away; it wasn’t like a one-off. I was getting put on planes and being sent to places, put up in hotels, and people were paying for my expenses. People were paying me to do this thing that I actually quite enjoy, which was crazy.
What would you say are the benefits and drawbacks of not having a traditional 9 to 5?
Andrew: I still jokingly say I feel fortunate that I don’t have a real job. The schedule in some ways is one of the benefits because it's more flexible, but it’s very hard to schedule personal events ahead of time because a job will come up out of the blue. So, you plan to go to your friend’s wedding and then your biggest job of the year comes up for that weekend and then you have a choice. You can either tell your friend you can’t go to their wedding and take the big job or not take the big job. It’s hard. And that has happened consistently, really for the last 35 years because the years of assisting was like that too. So the drawbacks are the schedule and the travel can be relentless and can really take its wear and tear on your personal life and relationships, pulling you away from your spouse, kids, and friends. The upside is you sort of work for yourself—but you don’t really. People say, oh it must be nice being your own boss. I’m not. Every day that I shoot, somebody else is my boss. I don’t just pick and choose what I wanna do and do it the way I want to. I’m invited to take the photograph—and I’m grateful that I have been invited—but it’s essential that I please and do the right thing for the people who are hiring and paying me, and quite frankly, if I don’t do a good job I get fired—meaning I don’t get hired back. So it’s not fully working for myself but the schedule can be freeing and there’s always amazing benefits like you get sent to great places and can sometimes take an extra day to actually see the place you've been sent. I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve been to many great places in the world; I’ve been to the White House half a dozen times. I just did portraits of the winners of The Oscars a couple of months ago. I’ve had the opportunity to be places, see things and meet people I never would have met if I had a straight up 9 to 5 job.
Life Lessons & Advice
What have you learned about working closely with celebrities and what has it revealed about fame?
Andrew: It’s an interesting question. I think you have to start with the fact that fame now is really different than fame used to be. It seems that on one hand people today are more obsessed with fame than ever before, but in some ways, they don’t respect it quite the same because there’s a lot more inside information on it than there used to be. Social media, and the general media, has access to the good, the bad and the ugly to such a degree that it’s not exactly as upheld or as glamourous. Most celebrities’ flaws get exposed pretty quickly and the overexposure of celebrities sort of tarnishes it all and the glitter comes off. A few of them may have been left unscathed like the George Clooneys and the Tom Hanks of the world have somehow managed to still rise up to that level of greatness. I get this little momentary first-hand glimpse into it, so I get to see how normal and mortal many of them are, how nice they genuinely can be and how unpleasant sometimes they can be—I have to say, not that often the latter. Most of the people that I get to photograph are pretty cool, which is nice and comforting.
Can you tell me about your most challenging moment or a setback you had and how you dealt with it?
Andrew: There’s a general answer to the question. I’ve had specific shoots with incredibly complex and difficult personalities. When somebody’s behaving in a way where they clearly are unhappy with what’s going on, it’s very difficult to not take that personally somehow. Usually, it doesn’t have anything to do with me. It has everything to do with them and how they feel about themselves and about publicity, how they feel about life in general and about their success or failures. Photography can be as upsetting to some folks as going to the dentist or going to some kind of therapy. When I’m up against those types of situations, I usually try to not take it personally. I try to hold the person’s hand through it and gently confront it versus shy away, curl up in a ball and panic. I think in the past there were times where I did or there were the times where something wasn’t going well, it didn’t look right, and everybody in the room knew it. For whatever reason, the lighting and the subject weren’t gelling—this happened yesterday. Believe it or not, 30 years into my career, we set up the lights, everything looked like it should be good and the person I was photographing stepped in front of the lens and the first picture that came up on the monitor looked awful. I knew everything was wrong and probably in the old days—maybe even several years ago—I might’ve panicked and just gone through it and shot it anyway. I looked at the subject, the editors and all the people around me and was like, I would like 5 mins to have a lighting do-over if you don’t mind. And you know what? We re-lit everything and I re-took a picture that turned out really nice and everybody was thrilled.
"You sort of need to be whatever you need to be that day. Be it somebody’s friend, therapist or confidant. You have to be careful not to collude with your subject so that your client feels left out or vice-versa. You can’t leave your subject feeling like you’re whispering and talking about them. It’s a pretty complex little dynamic and I jokingly have said after doing this for so long my toes hurt from tip-toeing gently from person to person."
What’s an important life lesson you’ve learned?
Andrew: A lesson that I feel like has come from experience and time is just try not to panic because it’s easy to have this feeling like you’re gonna miss the moment. A lot of photographers panic and people around photographers panic. I feel like it’s my job to stop the panic. I mean specifically, yes, I’ve been on shoots where the lights have blown up, or things have blown over, or the weather’s been insane, or the celebrity stormed out and slammed the door and gone. I mean I’ve seen all kinds of things and there’s adversity left and right, coming from all sorts of directions, things you can and can't control, but I don’t really remember a time where I didn’t come back with some kind of photograph. Even if somebody left, I got a picture before or I ran after them and got them to come back. You sort of need to be whatever you need to be that day. Be it somebody’s friend, therapist or confidant. You have to be careful not to collude with your subject so that your client feels left out or vice-versa. You can’t leave your subject feeling like you’re whispering and talking about them. It’s a pretty complex little dynamic and I jokingly have said after doing this for so long my toes hurt from tip-toeing gently from person to person.
After all these years, do you still experience self doubt?
Andrew: (laughs) I had it yesterday. I looked at the monitor and said, “Oh my god,” and I looked at the subject and I said something like, thanks for your patience while I figured that out. Thankfully it looks really good now because I think it looked really sucky in the beginning, and she laughed. Yes, I second guess myself often probably more now than I used to, and I’ve said to many of my friends and colleagues that I miss the ignorance and bliss stage of being young. When I was in my 20s, I didn’t know enough to ever question my direction. I kind of had this naive arrogance, hopefully I wasn’t a dick about it, but I used to think, This is the only way it can be done. Now, more often than not, I’m like Oh, we can do it that way, but if we did it this way it would be nice as well, I’m not really sure. The more I know, the more I’m fairly certain I don’t know that much if that makes any sense. In some ways I probably have a better sense of what might be a successful way to make a photograph for a particular person, but no, I question a lot more than I used to. The self doubt is absolutely there but now it’s comforted by a blanket of real genuine confidence that comes from experience.
Do you have personal projects you do for your own creative expression?
Andrew: I’m gonna be completely honest, there have been times in my life where I’ve had specific personal projects and at other times I have not. I have some photographic clients that meet both needs and, funny enough, Alvin Ailey has been one of those types of relationships over the years. With the Ailey company, when I photographed their 50th anniversary book project, I was given the freedom to do what I wanted. When I went to South Africa with them in September of last year that felt highly personal. I want to be that photographer who’s constantly in this state of wildly prolific creativity that’s doing this project and that project but I’m just not. For years and years I was so busy that sometimes I didn’t feel much like taking pictures when I wasn't being assigned to take them. These days I feel like I’m sort of starting to plan what I really want to do with photography versus what I have been doing. Not that I haven’t enjoyed what I’ve been doing immensely, but that’s playing a bigger role on where I think I’m probably going to head with photography, and I feel like that's going to be a thing that is hopefully a lot more precedent in my work and career to come.
What is your definition of success?
Andrew: It’s kind of corny but we started the conversation with my dad. He probably gave me the most solid piece of advice anybody ever gave me and that was: Try to do for a living what you would otherwise do for free. The truth is, I’ve tried to live by those rules and again without sounding corny, success really doesn’t have very much to do with recognition or how well known or how rich and I’m not gonna lie, I want to be financially secure enough to have the freedom to take the pictures I wanna take when I wanna take them. If I win the lottery tomorrow, I’m not saying I would turn down the rest of the jobs that came in this year, but I might take less and probably take more pictures for myself. To me, I monitor success by the pictures I took over my career that I can proudly put in a frame on the wall, stand back and go, Wow, I think that’s really beautiful and I think other people will find that beautiful too. Honest to god, that’s success. Movie posters, paycheck, all that stuff is terrific, if I can put my kids through a nice school, that’s all great, that’s all success too. I tell students this when I teach: I really think the thing that connects us all and why we do this is so that we can hold up something really pretty, show it to somebody else and say, isn’t this nice? That’s really the whole thing, it’s so simple. Not that it’s necessarily pretty or interesting or captivating, moving or emotional, but it’s the holding something up and showing it to somebody and going, wow, isn’t this worth looking at?
"When it comes to actually getting people to see or notice the work you do, the one thing that seems to work the best is pursing work that you care about rather than trying to pick work to do that you think is gonna impress people."
What advice would you give to aspiring photographers or budding creators?
Andrew: Well, I usually give folks the same kind of advice that I have over the years. I can’t say that all of it is coming from my own personal experience because I sometimes wish I could go back in time and take my own advice. There’s a relentlessness that is necessary and sitting in front a computer screen googling this or that is not relentless. Going out, seeing and feeling and learning, like traveling, taking classes or going to galleries—actually learning through doing. If there’s somebody to apprentice or assist that’s doing the thing you wanna do and being able to work alongside, near or around them, that kind of environment I think is really helpful. When it comes to actually getting people to see or notice the work you do, the one thing that seems to work the best is pursing work that you care about rather than trying to pick work to do that you think is gonna impress people. If you’re an illustrator and you look at the kind of illustrations Time Magazine tends to gravitate towards and you start doing illustrations that you think is gonna excite them, it’s probably not going to get you as far as doing work you love and really care about because that’s a contagious thing. I know when I take pictures of subject matter that I really care about, for instance, the Alvin Ailey dancers in a place like South Africa, I can take those pictures anywhere and show them to people and my genuine love of the subject matter in those pictures is going to come across. It’s gonna be infectious and people are gonna get it. Sometimes I take my portfolio to people and they’re flipping through and looking at the celebrities—I like these pictures and they like them too. But then I show them the Ailey pictures and they’re like oh my god; they get that I care and that it’s something that came from my heart and that I’m passionate about.
So, I usually recommend that once people have gained some skills in the craft they’re pursuing to work on a project that's something they care about. Put together the story and build the work in a way that isn’t a one-off—it has to be work you put genuine time and effort into—where it's almost ready to be published. Then, when you take it to the right venue, people will recognize that you're a person who gets it; you have the ability to see something from the conception of an idea to its final execution, and it’s something you care about, you have a heart, a soul, a mind and you brought it all together in this creative way.
How do you want to be remembered?
Andrew: No doubt, this question is tied into one’s own mortality, which really starts to kick in around where I’m at, which is 50s to mid-50s. I am thinking about what little cultural contribution will I leave behind or what will people remember, and I can’t help but believe it will be my pictures of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. There are lots of photographs of celebrities and lots of great portraits by all sort of amazing photographers, and not that I haven’t taken other photographs I’m proud of and that I love, but I feel like the pictures of the Ailey dancers will hopefully resonate for years and decades after I’m gone. They’re tied into a whole idea that this man and company had. It’s nothing I can take responsibility for independently because I was invited into this collaboration, but hopefully people will remember me as somebody who captured these dancers as well as anybody could. I hope that I’m also thought of as somebody who was good at what they did and who tried and cared, and accomplished the goal that I’d set out to accomplish at a pretty young age, which was to take a picture of something and be able to hold it up to others and say, “Look at that, now isn’t that pretty?”
What I really enjoyed during my interview with Andrew was his Yoda-like responses to all of the questions. I could have listened to this man talk for hours because there was so much value in everything he shared. Although he has found much success in the field he set out to pursue from a young age, he is well-grounded, humble and genuine in his demeanor. This is what I appreciate and admire most about him. Please enjoy some additional wisdom below that did not make it into the question/answer portion.
On creativity: You look at student portfolios and there are exercises they’ve completed and have done very nicely. Then, at the end of their portfolio, they show you 10 pictures they’ve been working on in the past 6 months, you know like photographs they took of their grandmother, and they’re amazing. That’s what breaks through because that’s the only thing that can really make a creative person unique at this point in our culture where we have trillions and zillions of photographers, designers, art directors, illustrators, etc. It’s gotta be a personal thing.
"This career is kind of funny and sweet where there are moments you think, Oh, I’m all set. It’s going to be great forever, and they amount to nothing. Or, there will be a little something you don’t expect that garners a lot of attention. It’s a long, slow burn of ups and downs."
On the unexpected: There were funny little moments where I thought something was happening in my career that was a real indication it was just gonna get huge and nothing would happen. I got assigned to photograph Pete Townsend. He did a solo record album and meeting him was amazing and unbelievable and I thought, Oh my god, Pete Townsend, one of my rock-n-roll heroes from The Who and I’m gonna be shooting him for the cover of his next rock opera album cover, this is going to change everything and everybody’s gonna know about it, buy it and see the pictures. The album was a complete flop. It went nowhere and nobody bought it. This career is kind of funny and sweet where there are moments you think, Oh, I’m all set. It’s going to be great forever, and they amount to nothing. Or, there will be a little something you don’t expect that garners a lot of attention. It’s a long, slow burn of ups and downs.
On fame: It’s a weird thing, this celebrity adoration, that our culture has. It’s kind of confusing and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. It’s not very important and I don’t know why we act like it is. I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds me because when I’m photographing these people and making them look good, I’m sort of throwing gasoline on the fire. There’s real issues taking place in the world that are a whole lot more important than some celebrity’s latest divorce.
See more of Andrew's work: