On the cover of the December issue of TIME, Adele sits against a regal shade of turquoise, the crimson of her lipstick looking as though it’s stained on her Edwardian pallor with acrylic. Two months earlier, it’s Nicki Minaj, bathed in a Warholian yellow on the front of The New York Times Magazine. She poses like a centurion, her volatile and complex charisma buttoned into a stoic glare.
In both instances, behind the lens is Excelsior, Minnesota, native Erik Madigan Heck, the sudden and accidental portrait artist for pop music luminaries.
“I think with every person there definitely is a subconscious element that factors into the photograph,” Heck says. “With Adele, I wanted to create a simple and beautiful image because I think that's an honest reflection of her. With Nicki, I wanted her to look iconic but also cold, because that's how I view her public persona.”
Heck has been a visionary in the fashion world for the last five years, but 2015 was his first go at capsulizing musicians. In 2012, he became the youngest person to shoot Neiman Marcus' provocative "Art of Fashion" campaign. And since then, he’s amassed an Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography and a gold medal from the Art Directors Club.
Currently, at 32, he’s a resident photographer at Harper's Bazaar UK and has become a mainstay in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and New York Magazine. Last year, he brought his lens to the arena of music. Despite creating two instantly iconic portraits and working with stars the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Carly Rae Jepsen in addition to Adele and Minaj, he doesn’t seem very phased by the abrupt career pivot.
“I didn’t seek out these jobs, they just called me, and I obliged,” he clarifies. “I love shooting anything, really. If someone commissioned me to shoot janitors working in Alabama, I would be as excited as shooting the next Dior collection.”
Regardless of the genre he’s commissioned to work in, Heck is an artist. At a consummate level, he’s a tactician — his methods are exact and do not bend to subject. Instead, he lets the person or object he’s capturing dictate the mood themselves. Then, he applies his tools to what they present.
“The physical process always remains the same,” he says. “The only difference is their personas, I don’t change my approach. It's always the same: a window with natural light, my camera, and a subject. Very simple.”
Heck likens his photography to painting — a metaphor that’s blaringly evident in the TIME and New York Magazine covers. The dreamlike hues and intrepid primaries seem otherworldly, whimed into the world deliberately by his hand. Though the final images are as impressionistic as oil paintings, it’s in the brushstrokes in the editing room that Heck finds the resonance between the two arts.
“When I say that I'm a painter who uses photography, it's not that the photograph looks like a painting, necessarily,” he explains. “The process of how I get to the end is much more akin to painting than it is to photography. Normally, there will be hundreds of layers of color building up to an end result, which is more like building up a canvas.”
Heck learned art from his mother, a talented painter, while growing up in Hennepin County. She taught him to layer colors when he wasn’t busy riding around the neighborhood in his BMX bike and stealing candy from the drugstore. But he left Minnesota over 13 years ago to pursue his passion for photography, knowing he’d have to adopt transience to make it work as a profession.
“There are elements of [Minnesota] that I miss, but it's more of missing a part of your life than the place itself,” he says. “I always knew I needed to travel the world and be somewhere else for my work. I miss my parents, but I never really looked back.”
Heck pauses time for his subjects, giving an immensity to a single moment, but he does not indulge in the same infinity. For him, time is inconsequential. It just keeps going forward.
“I always feel a bit like I have amnesia,” he says. “Obviously, I'm honored to be asked to do such covers, but nothing has really changed since I was at Benilde-St. Margaret’s in Minneapolis. I still just have a camera, a window, and a subject. The only difference is now the subjects are famous.”