Alec Lesser on Erik Tanner - Rocket Science

Alec Lesser on Erik Tanner

Alec Lesser is from Marin County, California. He recently made Los Angeles his home after a few years between San Francisco and New York. He found a hands-on, artistic, and mentor-based approach to photography through assisting and dialoguing among artists and friends. This foundation yielded a desire to create images rooted in a nuanced dialogue and a soft approach. He tends to write longer paragraphs than Erik.

Alec Lesser →


Born in Little Rock, raised in Orlando, Erik Tanner has called New York City home since 2011. He pulls heavily from the canon of early photography, both in its use of tableaux and material as well as Baroque and Romanticism, with its love of form and tendency toward the dramatic.

Erik Tanner

1: Erik Tanner, 2: Alec Lesser, throughout the article.

Meeting Erik Tanner was an incredibly lucky introduction to photography as a practice and love. He set a precedent for me for how intentionally and specifically work could be made and how lovely a working relationship could be. He and I met six months after I dropped out of my first year at Parsons, on what came down to a gut decision and panic attack. School really hadn’t suited my interests or learning style. The structure of making work within a few weeks timetable without knowing what work I really wanted to be making or even liked was challenging. He was by far the best alternative, and teacher I could have stumbled into. Erik’s introduction to my life shifted photography from a vague idea of something I wanted to be a part of, to something tangible and occasionally, on the good days, incredibly meaningful and beautiful.

I messaged one of Erik’s studio mates on Instagram asking about the possibility of an internship. A few days later, I was sitting around a table across from Erik, Daniel Dorsa and Cole Wilson attempting to be charming and articulate that I wasn’t the worst choice in the world. The ruse worked. Having not known Erik or his work at all before becoming the new errand boy, I think it was a moment before we warmed up to each other. I was the wide-eyed lanky 19-year-old he had to coexist with and he the lanky, intimidating photographer whose shoulder I kept peeking over.

He started to hand a photobook to me here and and a photographer to look at there. Sometimes, that book was an invitation to a gallery with all the guys who shared the studio. It was one of the first times in my life I’d had a role model who looked at and made art for a living. Particularly a soft spoken male one who was not only doing well but was also simply a sweet guy. It wasn’t part of a reputation photography had to me before I started being a part of it. Being a successful photographer wasn’t something I really thought anyone could do while having a more art-based, personal practice. My lens and aspirations on things have shifted a great deal since thankfully.

After a while, I started to get a grasp for where Erik’s head was and what he liked. It built a creative trust and understanding that I still find incredibly unique. In hindsight, a lot of it was just Erik’s kindness and openness for allowing me to be a part of his creative process. I started to trust in my own ideas, however vague, thanks to Erik’s trust in me. It was an incredible gift and learning space to give to someone. There’s definitely something to be said, especially a few years ago, that we share(d) a lot of sensibilities, many of which I picked up from him and I am finding more of my own voice and sensibilities too, as I grow.

I wouldn’t say my pictures improved over the course of that first year with Erik. I did notice one day, that I started to really see and understand light in a way that felt like learning to read. I began to understand how and what subtlety Erik was constantly fine tuning in all of his practice. He’s one of the more obsessive perfectionists I know. I related to his creative attitude and routine profoundly. I’ve seen him meditate on images and fine tune a light set-up for hours. Even days when he starts playing with a set he’s been thinking about. It could mean he’s just a terribly slow lighter but I like to think and admire how meticulous he is.

I think one of the reasons Erik and I get on so well is a certain curiosity of perspective however far from the norm. There was a memorable car conversation he and I had on the way back from a job where I proposed that I really didn’t like Alec Soth’s work. It might well have been because we shared a first name and I was a teenager forming opinions looking to differentiate himself. I still have my hot takes but I’ve grown out of a few of them, at least my love of Alec Soth. Erik was incredible at providing the space to be able to stand on thin ice and take risks conversationally and conceptually with photography. It allowed my thoughts to evolve in a way I think they wouldn’t have otherwise without a little risk and freedom.

When I started working with Erik, he had pretty recently found a new focus and groove in his work. It elevated to a place I don’t think he felt it had been a few years before. Being present for some of the beginning of that momentum wasn’t something I was aware off. Realizing that now, watching someone shift and push their work to a new place successfully, especially after working for a few years might be one of Erik’s more important lessons and abilities to me. Now I’ve spent a few years trying to find a develop a dialog of my own and notice how easy it is to get stuck in certain pieces of it or styles. I go back to Erik frequently. Usually to talk out how to expand and push my work out of a place when it starts to feel stale or overly derivative. This isn’t infrequent.

To this day, I think my favorite shoot I’ve ever worked on with Erik was with Josh Brolin for the New York Times. By that point, Erik was starting to hire a new intern and I was running out of gas on surviving in New York and moving away in a few weeks. I had no idea what future held. Erik and I, however were working with a lovely level of mutual understanding. I believe we both showed up that day wearing white pants, a red t-shirt and dusty pink sneakers. I may have taken too many similar sensibilities at the time…

When Brolin arrived, he was a whirlwind of energy. Unlike anyone Erik and I worked with that year, Brolin jumped into the creative, brought a few of his own ideas, started eating the flowers, contorting his body, ripping his shirt off and filling the space with his presence more than anyone I’d seen before. He pushed how Erik could shoot. He pushed the energy of every image and engaged in a way that a very lucky few subjects ever do. He so intentionally unraveled himself on the stage Erik created. It was beautiful, intense and turned the whole experience into such a spectacle. The other nine people in the room who weren’t Erik or Josh were wide-eyed and gasping as images came in. Erik needed a fan from all the running around.

The high from the few moments like these makes the whole job and the photo world so incredibly meaningful to me. I get this lovely little window into beautiful moments and  interactions between people that feel genuinely rare, unique and profound. It may be what I seek out and enjoy the most about the whole world we work in. It can be hard to do so intentionally, but I’ve been lucky to have a few moments of my own since.

In the years since Erik and New York, I’ve been assisting some brilliant photographers and shooting in different places, with different people, all over. I’ve had a few moments that had me absolutely giddy with joy and awe and meaning in a wonderfully overwhelming way. I’ve found myself driving up the California Coast, a place and road trip very close to my heart, in countries I can’t believe, or similarly giddy in a beautiful home in LA designed by architects I’ve long admired. The constantly varied and surprising nature of this work has been so special to me and some of the things I’ve seen still take my breath away thinking back on them.

I’m incredibly lucky to do something I love and I would not have found the space I’ve starting to carve out in it without Erik’s input, subtle suggestions and nods for what it could be and how I might find my path in it. The people I’m grateful for are constantly expanding but Erik is such a huge part of how I got to where I am now as well as one of many continually important parts to where I think I’m going. I’m still finding that path in some ways, but I still enjoy the practice day in, day out more than almost anything and I couldn’t have discovered it all from someone better.