Photographer Michael Eastman focuses on what's next
While his work captures the present, photographer Michael Eastman often pictures the future.
Whether he’s anticipating the images from his latest shoot, planning his next overseas photographic trip or perfecting his signature barbecue ribs, Eastman is forever excited about what’s next.
“I’m always thinking, ‘How can I make this better?'” Eastman said.
Remembering the joy
Growing up in Clayton as the second of five children, Eastman absorbed the typical Midwestern childhood lessons along with an important subliminal message: True happiness lies in the realm of creative pursuits.
Eastman’s parents --- a stay-at-home mom and beverage wholesaler dad -- came to life in front of the easel, behind the lens and in the kitchen. His father’s cooking, amateur photography and horseback riding, and his mother’s dabbling in oil portraits and still lifes are embedded in his visceral memories.
“I still love the smell of turpentine; it reminds me of her,” Eastman said. “It’s amazing; the thing you see your parents enjoy when you’re young, especially if they don’t live a life full of joy -- which most people don’t -- really sticks.”
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and before picking up a camera in pursuit of a living, Eastman co-owned a store in Brentwood that sold bell-bottoms in an area called The Lower Half and shirts in The Upper Half.
But in 1972, after playing around with a Nikon on loan from one friend and a darkroom borrowed from another’s parents, Eastman realized his passion was not pants but photography. Moving back in with his parents gave Eastman the means to purchase his own equipment. He taught himself how to use it.
“I started taking pictures of pretty much anything; it became clear to me this was the thing I liked to do,” Eastman said.
For years, commercial photography paid the bills, and offered a variety of other benefits.
“It was the idea of getting paid to learn, and the other thing I loved is the structure it provided; I didn’t have to create it because I had assignments,” Eastman said.
Eastman’s commercial gigs included five Time magazine covers, assignments for Life and the New York Times and ads for Jack Daniels, IBM and Marlboro.
“My claim to fame is that I bummed a cigarette from THE Marlboro Man,” Eastman wrote in a follow-up email after the Beacon interview.
In 1974, only a few years into his new career, Eastman had a solo exhibit at Washington University and was one of five photographers chosen for special “New American Imagery” issue of Swiss Camera magazine. Three years later, he won a National Endowment of the Arts fellowship grant. By the mid 1980s, his work had shown at locations ranging from the St. Louis Art Museum to galleries in Kansas City, Los Angeles and New York.
On Valentine’s Day 1985, Eastman came to the attention of another important influence: Cupid. The archer of love shot an arrow through the heart of this 39-year-old self-described “man about town,” when he met his future wife Gayle, now a jewelry artist, who was then pursuing her doctorate in psychology.
More than a quarter century later, with their two daughters grown and their large University City home now too big for their needs, the couple bantered back and forth in their living room about their attraction.
“When I met Gayle, I knew I wasn’t going to find anyone else like her. It was just a great fit of our interests, our joys and our passions,” Michael Eastman said.
“I think it was our common love of Steak ‘n Shake and eating in cars,” Gayle Eastman joked.
From the Eastman lens
Most of the couple’s meals on wheels have taken place during cross-country photographic journeys. The menu varied on trips to Europe, and later Cuba and most recently to Japan, but the common denominator has always been work.
Whether the subject is crumbling bits of the American landscape, European elegance or Eastman’s renowned horses, his wife is an important asset.
“I think I understand Michael’s intentions when he makes art ...” Gayle Eastman said.
“... and my limitations,” Michael Eastman finished. “I have a tendency to repeat myself.”
Armed with ambitious plans and shot sheets, the pair has little time for sightseeing on their trips. A three-week jaunt to Italy during which they often worked until midnight exemplified their typical packed agenda.
“You’re in a cab going back and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s The Colosseum,’” Gayle Eastman said. “It was like we were never there.”
“But we’re not complaining,” Michael Eastman added. “We’re doing what we want to be doing.”
The art of barbecue
Eastman’s collaboration expand beyond his marriage. He’s also known for partnering with other artists and writers on projects including three books.
Branding and design strategist and former St. Louis Magazine editor Stephen Schenkenberg has teamed up with Eastman on projects including a magazine spread on the Highway 40 construction.
“He loves to find people to work with who push him and give him something new to think about,” Schenkenberg said. “He never wants to sit back and gaze at his work and say, ‘Man, this was really a great one; let’s all talk about it.’ He’s more interested in the craft of his work and finding a new way to look at things.”
Eastman’s constant tinkering also extends to his famous barbecue, according to Tuan Lee, Eastman’s former studio manager, now an accomplished photographer himself.
“Give him a fire and meat and a grill, and its magic on a plate,” Lee said.
Adjusting the marinade, deciding whether to smoke the meat, and perfecting the dry rub are just some of the modifications Eastman has made to his barbecue, a creative outlet whose results are of a more ephemeral nature.
“Cooking is an art form that has no pretension; it’s a meal -- it’s gone. But sometimes you think about it, you remember great meals,” Eastman said.
Always ready to try something new in cooking and in photography, Eastman nevertheless still shoots only film. But that may change soon.
He’s already discovered the value of Photoshop, which revolutionized his work beginning with his series of horse portraits.
“My control over the printing process went up 100-fold,” he said.
Among Eastman’s current projects is a series called “Urban Luminosity,” which took him to Japan and will open in New York Sept. 13. His first piece of public art, a work involving heart imaging to be installed at Barnes-Jewish Hospital’s cardiovascular center. The BJC piece uses a type of 3-D process he invented and is having patented.
At 65, Eastman believes he has many more discoveries and adventures ahead of him.
“I’m still learning, and that’s the thing that’s so wonderful,” Eastman said. “No matter what your age, you can still grow.”