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Photographer Erik Madigan Heck Pushes Boundaries

Erik Madigan Heck, founder of the quarterly publication Nomenus, discusses fashion.

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A photo from the Haider Ackermann series

A photo from the Haider Ackermann series.

Photo By Erik Madigan Heck

A photo from the Haider Ackermann series.

Photo By Erik Madigan Heck

Erik Madigan Heck

Photo By Robert Mitra

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Late one night, Erik Madigan Heck, a shaggy-haired Midwestern kid, found himself on West 118th Street well after dark. Bullets, an ax and a guy with a plastic bag zip-tied around his head were lying on the sidewalk and a crowd had begun to gather. A police car slowly rolled by, which Heck found a bit unsettling. But the truth was that the plastic-bag guy was fully alive, wearing designer gear on loan from the Japanese brand Undercover for a story Heck was shooting for Nomenus, his high-concept, high-fashion journal.

“There were people walking up and being like, ‘Oh my god, I thought...’ and then they would say, ‘What is this? A movie?’” Heck says, sitting in the kitchen of his Harlem apartment. “We were like, ‘No, it’s an art piece,’” he continues, laughing a little at himself and a little at how absurd his business can sometimes be.

But Heck is very serious when it comes to Nomenus, a quarterly collection of 11-by-17-inch photographs and essays mostly focused on fashion-forward designers (the name is a play on the “No menus” signs commonly taped to the doors of New York City apartment buildings). The first nine issues have sold for between $6,000 and $7,000 at stores such as Colette, Barneys New York and 10 Corso Como. (They also lived online at nomenusquarterly.com for free.) Despite all this, Heck insists Nomenus is not necessarily about fashion. It’s “an artist’s project,” and it is his labor of love. “This isn’t a big commercial venture,” says Heck, a staff of one. “I’m not making millions of dollars off this. It’s really about the love of it and trying to put New York on the map in terms of fashion.”

Many would argue that New York is already on the map fashionwise, but in Heck’s view, it’s too commercial. He prefers the European aesthetic, especially that of the Antwerp gang that includes Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester and Haider Ackermann, with whom he collaborated on a shoot in Florence for the 10th installment of Nomenus, which came out Wednesday. Across the Atlantic, he says, fashion is “more of a conversation.”

Heck, who is 26, grew up far from Belgium, in Minneapolis. His Croatian father, who sells supercomputers for a living, collects African and New Guinea art, and his Northern Irish mother, who works for the State Department in breast and cervical cancer control, is a painter.  

Heck’s interest in photography began as a teenager, when his mom gave him a manual EOS Canon camera. It only deepened when he started shooting his junior high girlfriends (though he winces at those sittings now, calling them “supercheesy, almost like ‘Great Expectations.’”). During high school, he placed first in his region in a National Scholastic Art & Writing competition, and after majoring in politics at Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I., he recently received an M.F.A. in photography at Parsons The New School for Design. He started Nomenus when he was 23.

“I wanted to have a space where the work being shown wasn’t cool and downtown,” says Heck, who was fed up with the kind of images seen in V and Purple magazine. “[The content in Nomenus] was really just slow, older ideas, I guess, of what is great.”

Up next, Heck has a 12-page spread with Giambattista Valli for the Belgian publication A Magazine, which has featured work by Jun Takahashi, who happens to be the designer for Undercover. Takahashi has yet to see his collection worn by bloodied-up models lying in the streets of Harlem, in the new issue of Nomenus. “I’m expecting the worst,” Heck says, anticipating the designer’s reaction. “But I think Jun’s crazy enough to think it’s going to be really, really special.”