Thursday, March 31, 2011

Interview with Steve Harper: Part One

Steve Harper has been a well-known figure in the Northern California night photography scene ever since he taught the first college-level course in night photography at the Academy of Art College in the 1970’s.Steve is one of the few people who have had the opportunity to have witnessed the progression of night photography from the early days of personal experimentation, through the rising popularity in the “film era”, up to the recent popularity of digital night photography.

Steve and I recently talked at length about the early days of modern night photography, and his thoughts about how night photography have changed over the past thirty years.

Steve,you started out on the “other side” of the camera, and somehow ended up as a night photographer.
I began my experimentations in photography based upon perceptions gained while standing in front of the cameras of Diane Arbus, Irving Penn, Howell Conant, Horst P Horst, Richard Avedon, et al, during the ten years I was a model and television actor with the Ford Men's Agency in New York City from 1959 to 1969.

That sounds like a great way to get started in photography.
Not all of my perceptions were of a technical nature, : )! - even so, with the patient teaching by some of the darkroom assistants to those photographers above and other kindly New York photographers, I began to learn and to build an editorial fashion portfolio, photographing my fellow Ford models before leaving for California in December, 1969.

Photo by Clifford Coffin

Was that a good move?
Having moved from the middle of Manhattan to the small, isolated northern California coastal village of Mendocino was a profound artistic experience also. The purity of nature and the atmospheres created by the magical coastal light literally changed my conceptions and the direction of my interest in photography.

„The purity of nature and the atmospheres created by the coastal light“??? What does that mean?
I had just arrived in Mendocino from the middle of Manhattan where I always felt that I was just an image - always on the outside looking in. Until I left New York, I remained overwhelmed and overpowered by its multifaceted immensity. The buildings blocked out the sky and the hordes of people rushing past were alien to me and the whole was so alien to my own concept of living that in 1963 I bought a farm in Northfield, Connecticut, a four hour drive away unless I violated the speed limits, yet, until December, 1969 I was still with the Ford Modeling Agency - a long, dispiriting commute.

Mendocino must have been quite a place back then.
In 1970, Mendocino was a run-down community of locals and artists. At that time, there were few if any tourists. I could walk out of the back of my house, cross the open lands, and sit on the coastline watching the weather patterns form and sweep across me. Some formations were poetic in their fragility and the way they were touched with light. Some were powerful, dark and threatening. All complimented and dramatized the magnificent beauty of the untouched coastline. And it felt natural and pure to me. It was there where it occurred to me that I was a minuscule, yet very meaningful part of the universality of all things - no longer just an image.
Shortly thereafter, I experienced my first realization of the myriad elements involved in taking an image in light so low, that it involved an extended exposure, resulting in the compression of time onto a single piece of film.

Helicopter Rising from Behind Greenbrae, by Steve Harper

So, you had this moment of clarity somewhere on the Mendocino coast?
No, I was in San Francisco to connect with a friend I had known in New York. I was watching the changing of the street windows at the I. Magnin department store across from Union Square. No spotlights were on - only small incandescent bulbs provided the subdued light. The mannequins stood there bald and totally nude. Then a couple of men began rushing in and out carrying articles of clothing for the mannequins. They just hung each article of clothing on the mannequins shoulders in readiness to dress them. What I realized was that the men hurrying in and out of the scene - and each of their furtive seeming movements - would register as a ghosts on film, creating scenes at different stages of dress and undress with multiple interpretations.

You never showed us that photograph.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera with me. But that scenario has stayed in my mind seemingly as clear as it was that very night.

How did all this lead to your involvement with the Academy of Art College?
Gene Dennis, who headed the photographic department at Macy's in New York hired me as a model for Macy's from one hour to full day bookings almost every week. He moved from New York to San Francisco and soon began teaching Fashion at the Academy of Art College. He knew of my interest in photography and mentioned me to Paul Raedeke, Dean of the College, who checked out my portfolios, which by then included images from Mendocino. He was particularly interested that I had stood on both sides of the camera, so he hired me to begin teaching a number of classes beginning in 1979: Natural Light, Art Appreciation, Environmental Portraiture, and Figure.

Walking Figure, Valley of the Fire, NV. Photo by Steve Harper

How did the Figure Photography course work out?
The difficulty of teaching figure Photography at a school in downtown San Francisco is that you are almost automatically confined to studio work only; however, I combined the Figure classes with my Night Photography Classes when we went on camping locations, such as the one to Mono Lake and Death Valley, or up the coast, north of Bodega Bay.  Being out in the myriad choices of backgrounds offered by nature freed things up a bit insofar as student creativity. At the end of the Figure class nearly every student presented a Final Portfolio of images they had shot during those outside locations.

I had expected to have difficulty finding models for the class, but lucked out with both an outstanding male and female model who were free enough to go on those camping trips also.

Once you were at the Academy of Art College, why did you start a course in night photography?
Because of my interest and somewhat limited portfolio in night photography, Dean Raedeke also asked me to research and develop a structure for teaching night photography. My research evolved into the first college level semester offering of the subject of night photography. It was instantly popular with students and I taught night photography for two classes each semester, including the summer semester through 1990.
Persimmon Tree, by Steve Harper

How did you come up with the curriculum for that first night photography class?
When I was asked to teach night photography, it was near the starting date of the semester I was to begin teaching it. There was very little time to make an in depth search for guidelines as to how to begin. I did find Brassai's memorable atmospheric images of Paris, noting in particular how the misty air caught and augmented the ambient light. I also admired Jessie "Tarbox" Beal's New York street photographs for her similar approach. But I couldn’t find any images that were annotated with the times of the exposures, the apertures used, the type of film used, nor the film processing used, so I started from scratch.

Did you let the students shoot whatever they wanted? Or did you give them any structure?
Since night photography of its very nature is ultimately conceptual and conjectural, I felt that in order to teach it, there had to be some common denominators in order to "ground" it. To me, that meant, when photographing in color, the sky must be blue and the grass, green. Like most photographers who have a go at night photography, I started with daylight films, and even though some of the color shifts were interesting, the sky was an unrealistic green color. Then I tried Kodak's Ektacolor 160 Tungsten film which rendered everything at night a more natural color. And the sky was definitely blue. I had the film professionally developed successfully and it became the assigned color film.

Cloud Formation, Mono Lake. Photo by Steve Harper

Was it all about color film? Wasn’t black-and-white more popular in the 1970’s?
Yes. I had already used Kodak's Tri-X 400 black and white film at night with some success, I just needed to find a developer that reduced the contrast. I settled on Rodinal, using a strict regimen to further reduce grain and contrast.

Did you do all your shooting in downtown San Francisco?
Even though I could not find annotated images, there were further questions that needed to be settled before I wrote a syllabus and handed out exposure guidelines to my students. I decided rather quickly to teach night photography in all degrees and circumstances of the night. We would move progressively from photographing in the ambient light of urban situations - continually moving into locations with less and less ambient light.

Now you’re getting out into the boondocks.
That brought up the choice of locations to achieve such variance in exposures and that were sufficiently extensive so that fifteen students, or more, at times, did not get in each other's way and that each of them had a panoply of scenes to consider. I gave students guidelines for "city" images, fireworks, neon lights, etc. to experiment with on their on because if they made a mistake,they could readily correct it themselves without class involvement - except for critiques. As a class, we started in the China Basin Industrial area of San Francisco where the ambient lighting was considerably less and there were dramatic buildings, ships and the waterfront and plenty of room to move about.

"Self Portrait - Kief's Blanket - Sutro Baths", by Steve Harper

Did you take the students anywhere away from the downtown lights?
We went to the Sutro Baths ruins below the Cliff House on the Pacific coast. Sutro Baths ruins was a magical location because it was on multi-levels and there was a mixture of light predominated by the spot lights lights in the cliffs below the Cliff House which were mercury vapor. They lit the small islands close by. The street lights above were sodium vapor. But the main reason it was "magical" was that the exposures were truly time exposures - up to fifteen minutes, depending upon the aperture, the position of the moon and the ever-changing atmospheric conditions.

Other than the lights from the Cliff House restaurant, it can get very dark at Sutro.
We also went up the coast past Bodega Bay to a deserted beach. There was no lighting except for the moon and the stars. Students could do 45 minute exposures and begin to use star and planet trails as design elements.

Bodega Bay? That’s really getting away from San Francisco.
From there, we did annual week-long camping trips to the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Mono Lake and Death Valley National Monument. These camping trips were scheduled so students could begin working three nights before the full moon, and the night of the full moon.

Pyramid Lake, by Steve Harper

Did you do the research yourself, or did you involve the class?
Naturally, at first, I had to photograph these locations myself so I could give students guidelines for shooting, but also to show them how each location was usually very different insofar as the variances in lighting, exposure times and atmospheric conditions.

You mentioned leading your students through China Basin, which used to be part of the harbor for San Francisco. Now it's best known as the location of the AT&T Park and it's  quickly becoming yuppie-fied. What did China Basin look like back then?
China Basin Industrial Area began at the China Basin Building on Mission Creek and extended southward to he beginning of Potrero Hill. All buildings were unique and built for the purpose they served in supporting the San Francisco waterfront and the various shipping industries. To me, the most iconic of all the buildings was the Southern Pacific Train Garage.

Nearly all buildings were shuttered at night and many were empty in anticipation of the redevelopment plans underway for the whole of China Basin. The only lighting was from the glow of downtown San Francisco caught in the ever-changing atmosphere and from the street lights that were few and far between. There were many mysterious alleyways so one's creative imagination could run rampant. But the unique buildings and storage facilities were the main focus.

China Basin Building. Photo by Steve Harper

Was it safe to shoot down there?
It was very rare when I photographed in China Basin that I saw one other person, which increased the feeling of mystery.

Sounds like the perfect night photography location.
The first time I photographed the China Basin Building, 1979, I was suddenly surrounded by three police cars, lights flashing. As soon as I explained to them what I was doing and let them look through the view finder, we ended up as friends and any time I saw them from then on if I was with or without students, they waved and continued their routes. One policeman even posed for me, holding still for two minutes! as he guarded the piers that were awaiting the arrival of Queen Elizabeth's ship on a visit to San Francisco in 1984.

That area is completely different today.
I left the Academy of Art College in 1990 and I left San Francisco in 1994. I did not see the beginning of the tear down of those historic structures. When I came back to the Bay Area, I wanted to see the Giant's new ball park and, of course, drive through China Basin. I had not experienced the feeling before that the spirit of a a place could be made void by being usurped by a few bland, featureless buildings. Someone referred to them as  "yuppie kennels"

Southern Pacific Rail Station, by Steve Harper

There was still a lot of open space when I last drove through. The land where the magnificent Southern Pacific Railroad Garage was empty at that time.

There’s no open space there, now.
It was a very sad passage.

Steve Harper at Mono Lake. Photo by Joe Reifer

I'll post Part Two of our interview next week.

In the meantime, you can see more of Steve Harper’s work on his website. You can also see an interview that I did with Steve on my short night photography documentary film which is available on YouTube (part1, part2, part3).


Anonymous Steve Harper said...

Thank you, Andy. I am impressed with this very kind and generous tribute, not only to me, but to the history of night photography.

9:50 AM  
Anonymous Steve Harper said...

Andy, thank you for this very kind and meaningful tribute, not only to me, but to the history of night photography.

10:06 AM  
Anonymous Tim Baskerville said...

Great Job! - Andy and Steve - can't wait for the next installment!

9:04 AM  
Anonymous Kerstin Nelson said...

Really interesting. Thank you.

9:33 PM  
Anonymous Steve Harper said...

Hi, Andy: I hope this does not label me as long-winded!

But it is very nicely done and I am grateful for all of the energy you have put into telling this story.

There is one change: you use the word "ascetic" back there somewhere when we were discussing portfolios and I had hoped to use the word "aesthetic" instead.

Best to You!

11:29 AM  
Anonymous Amod Mantri said...

Impressive :)

10:56 AM  
Anonymous Altuá said...

Mr Frazer, as I am writing to you from Azerbaijan, I have really been affected by your photos and your ability to cope with life, being a true leader, running for Sunnyvale City Council,and being able to tackle this wonderful night photography you have produced. In Azerbaijan we have a saying "Ağıllı düşmən nadan dostdan düşmən yaxşıdır" - "Intelligent enemies, it is impolite to friend and foe" - thank you for inspiring this young Azebaijani boy, I want to grow up and become a photographer too. And maybe become President of Azerbaijan too. Thanks for the boost of confidence.x Altuá

5:32 AM  

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