“I hope my work starts conversations,” says New York-based photographer Jon Ervin. “Though I never want it to tell you how to think. I like my work to be open ended, allowing the audience to make up their own viewpoints about it. I want it to encourage discussions around a particular subject, maybe even bring a different perspective that you had never considered before.”
Ervin says he’s inspired by the everyday, getting inspiration from watching people, nature, anything. “It could be the way a group of men are standing on a corner talking to each other, the way the light bounces off a building and lights up an otherwise dark spot, or how a group of teen boys are harping on each other while riding bicycles down an empty street,” the photographer explains. “It comes from anywhere at any time. I’m lucky enough to notice it and store it away in my thoughts for use at some point in the future.”
Ervin grew up in a farming town in Oklahoma called Mustang – football was the main interest for kids in the area and his school didn’t really put an emphasis on the arts. Despite this, he often found himself with a camera, using it to take photos of his family or to film his friends skateboarding. It wasn’t until he moved to New York that he finally felt like he had a creative environment to grow into. Ervin got a BFA in Photography from Parsons in 2012 and then gained his MFA two years later at the School of Visual Arts.
From studying photography formally, Ervin says the most important takeaway was learning how to contextualise and talk about his work. “The real world is a good teacher as to how to use lights, or how to use your camera. Those things come only from doing, and experience,” he says. “School was very useful for understanding why I took the pictures I do, or how to convey my thoughts into cohesive visual narratives. Also learning how to take criticism, and give it, was huge.”
Still based in New York, Ervin often calls upon imagery from his rural childhood landscape and his photographs are laced in golden tones. His projects vary from documenting people and places across the US, to investigations of masculinity and shared male experiences. These topics can be seen in personal projects such as Man Up, My Mother’s Son, and most recently Boys Will Be, which explores the different ways in which men construct and express their identities. Portraits and group shots are one of Ervin’s specialties and he manages to capture a palpable energy in every shot.
On top of personal projects, the photographer also takes on a range of commercial and editorial commissions, with Man About Town, Khaite, Ana Khouri, The Week and Departures as just some of his clients. Whether it’s personal or commissioned, Ervin puts an emphasis on research. “For [my own] projects I start by just taking a lot of photos about the subject, seeing what I gravitate to and what I don’t. Then I look at all the pictures, try to decide what is working, what each image is conveying. It helps me decide how I want the project to be read, what conversations I want the project to start and which ones I don’t want to address,” explains the photographer. “Then I gather a lot of research together, look at artists in the past that have addressed the same topic and judge how my work fits into that greater conversation.”
For commissions, the research comes in a lot earlier as building a catalogue of references allows Ervin to focus. “I typically gather all my materials together, go over it with the client, show them my thoughts and the direction I think it should go before shooting anything,” he says. “Once I start shooting some new directions always come to light as you figure out the subject, but the overall path is generally predetermined to some degree.”
Balancing the two types of photography work feels like a necessary part of Ervin’s practice, mainly because many of his personal projects are long-term, and require many years of graft. “Personal projects are often isolating as well, because it’s something you are doing alone, just going out and photographing a particular subject for years,” says Ervin. “It’s a lot of time in your own head. With commissioned work it’s faster. You can work on several commissioned-based shoots at the same time as well as working on your personal work. Sometimes they can inform each other as well which is lucky when that happens.”
For Ervin, this break from long-term projects gets him out of himself, and he also enjoys the collaborative aspect of commissioned projects. “It’s such a blessing to collaborate on the commissioned work. You have teams of highly skilled and talented people coming together for a day or so,” he says.
“Everyone, because of their various backgrounds, bring to the table a whole different idea and way of thinking about a particular subject. That collaboration encourages you to view the project in different and unexpected ways.”