Saturday, April 16, 2011

Interview with Steve Harper: Part Two

This is part two of my interview with legendary Bay Area night photography pioneer, Steve Harper. You want to read part one of our interview before reading part two.

Did you get any of the technical issues, such as film and developers, worked out before the class began?
By the time my first class began, there was sufficient time for me to experiment with both black and white and color films in a number of locations with varied ambient lighting to be able to give starting guidelines . During that period I photographed every night, if possible. I was also refining my film development and printing choices. By the time the semester started, I had done an in-house gallery showing of night photography prints which caused quite stir, not only in the photographic department, but throughout all departments at the Academy of Art.

Head,Valley of Fire, NV. Photo by Steve Harper

Back then it must have been very interesting for everyone to see night photographs for the first time.
The first class was quickly over-subscribed as were subsequent classes, which at times, led to teaching two classes each semester.

I'm surprised the class was so popular back during a time when there wasn’t a popular night photography canon of work to get people hooked.
I think what excited students initially was that they were seeing reality transformed as they had never seen it before - images that compressed the passage of time, the very alive atmosphere and motion into a single image. I believe that anyone who has photographed at night will tell you that excitement somehow continues, beginning with your initial attempt through to the final print of each image. Even with long experience,each final result contains a revelation.
As with any art, practice and study and intuition tend to focus and solidify one's personal expression. In my classes, students were taught to photograph in every stage of darkness - from city lights to total darkness - desert skies, lit only by the stars. From the beginning, I had considered performance in front of the camera and the adding of light as essential facets of the teaching of night photography. Students were encouraged to go out together and photograph every time they had the urge. Some locations were close by and were varied enough to reward frequent innovation.  The Sutro Bath ruins and the China Basin Industrial Area, both at San Francisco's watery edges, were highly productive locations for photographing at night.

Every other week we met in class and critiqued all newly submitted work in depth, from the technical acumen to the varied ascetic viewpoints.

Speaking of "varied ascetic viewpoints", how did you come up with the idea of photographing yourself while you were asleep?
I had thought of photographing myself asleep in bed for a long time before I actually tried. It turned out to be a very technical experiment.

Photo by Steve Harper

I estimated/guessed using aperture f/22 for a four and one-half hour exposure. In addition, I attempted to match the inside light to the ambient light outside the windows by replacing the overhead light bulb with a five watt bulb, placing a 3" collar around the fixture plate, and capping the collar with five layers of tissue paper to further diffuse the light. I chose that bright pink bed cover precisely because of the color. In the initial thinking, I knew I should make this photograph on a night when I was very tired. As you can see by the poinsettia plant, it was winter, near Christmas, so it got dark early. I set the alarm to waken me after four and a half hours, and as I had hoped, slept through the whole exposure. Then I reset the alarm for three and a half hours and did it again. The four and a half hour exposure was the more successful of the two attempts.

The resulting image was from my first attempt. I did take the image again, replacing the five watt bulb with a blue one and using f/16 for three and one-half hours which caused a completely different sleep atmosphere.

Did the students have to present a portfolio or a show?
At the end of each semester, students were required to present a portfolio of their work. The portfolio could be of images outsiders might consider eclectic, i.e., a finished, matted print from each of the very varied assignments - or students could present a portfolio of prints made from images taken in a particular location or choice of lighting the student had concentrated upon intently.

In any event, by the time a student had gone through a full semester, having been exposed to nearly every degree of ambient lighting at night and seeing the experimentation of their fellow students, he/she could continue photographing and refining their vision in the lighting situation and location that was their personal choice.

Dome, Water Storage System, Death Valley. Photo by Steve Harper
Everybody seems to agree that your night photography courses laid the groundwork for the strong night photography community that still exists in the Bay Area.
I taught full semester night photography classes at the Academy of Art College for eleven years and did workshops for a number of years after that. All were fully subscribed so I introduced night photography to hundreds of students from all over the world. If you check Google "night photography classes and workshops" you can see how interest in night photography has spread and learning it is readily available internationally.  Many of these classes and workshops are taught by my students - and now, by their students and their student's students. California remains a west coast center of dynamic study of night photography taught by such notables as Tim Baskerville, Tom Paiva, Troy Paiva, Joe Reifer and yourself. And Lance Keimig teaches in Boston, and does workshops internationally. He has written a definitive and comprehensive text book entitled "Night Photography - Finding Your Way In The Dark" which should be read by all night photographers, regardless of their experience. I have learned something new each time I have opened the book. I highly recommend it.

It’s amazing to see the rise in popularity of night photography over the past few years.
A lot of this impetus in night photography is due to the advent of the digital camera and the Flickr website. The digital camera has facilitated taking images at night. Research is not as necessary to begin photographing at night and  progress and the creative processes are dependent primarily upon one's stamina and his/her innate talent - and the weather! 

What do you think is the special appeal of the night to so many photographers?
As I wrote in the Forward to Lance Keimig's "Night Photography" book:

“What impels many of us to photograph at night is our fascination with the transformation of reality by the passage of time; the compression of time into a single image. Motion, atmospheric changes, the unexpected and the unexplained all etch themselves upon the image during the long exposure. The resulting image, at times touched with poetry, suggests another dimension or an altered reality - usually one that is more beautiful and more peaceful.

Lightning Storm, Mono Lake. Photo by Steve Harper

“At night, in remote areas, while standing alone and focusing upon nature during a long exposure, you become aware of the universality of all things. The Earth is constantly turning in relation to the stars and the planets. The atmosphere around you becomes palpable whether it is totally still or on the verge of a storm. These elements, beyond your control, will alter not only the mood of the image you are exposing but its design and, at times, its ultimate meaning. Depending upon the direction you are photographing, the stars and planets will etch themselves upon the image as spirals around the North Star inferring motion and infinity, or they will make diagonal lines that at times, point directly at what your camera is focusing upon. The atmosphere, either still or moving, will mysteriously amplify the mood.”

“With so many imponderables as a constant, night photography will perhaps always remain a subjective art allowing wide-ranging latitude for creative expression.”

Night photography is also a capricious, playful, off-the-wall playground for the mind. The creative imagination is less jaded, more experimental and many times, playful.”

How do you think the creative process has advanced along with the tremendous increase in the number of people taking on night photography? Or do you think that many people are just enamored with the ability to record a well-exposed shot at night?
I see a lot of images that I wish I had taken myself. And I see some that I do not think advance the creative and technical processes.

Altamont Pass, by Steve Harper

One of the things I’ve always liked about night photography is how it can transform some that looks ordinary during the day time, into something so surreal at night. Shooting abandoned buildings at night has always felt like combining an excellent subject and excellent process.
During the day we tend to drive past them with little more than a glance whether they be homes or buildings that produced something essential to society, or at least, something essential to the well-being of their neighbors. At night, they take on the spirit of what has been and is no longer. In the quietude, the fact that someone has spent their whole life there becomes more tangible. Consequently, such buildings in various states of abandonment and decay represent either sadness or progress, depending upon how it effects you.

When I look at photographs of abandoned homesteads in the desert, I always wonder about who lived there, and why they left.
A former student of mine, Kim Stringfellow, who now teaches at the University of California, San Diego, has done an intense study of areas where people have moved on and left their homes to chance and the environment. She has turned it into a recently published book, “Jackrabbit Homestead”.

Night People Looking Out Over the Pacific. Photo by Steve Harper

Are there any current photographers who impress you or are doing interesting work?
I think all of you who teach have reached a technical level so that the images must be respected and admired for that alone - but you do not reach the level of being a teacher of night photography without your own personal experiments and creative sense.  I have come to admire your excellent sense of design and mastery of color.

Thanks, Steve. Are you just saying that because it’s my blog?
No. I also always watch Susanne Friedrich, Joe Reifer and Toby Keller because they experiment wildly as I tend to do and with a sense of humor, but the images are always iconic and technically acute. I admire Tom Paiva's research and mastery of the technical areas of night photography from the use of 8x10 film to his new, prized Sony digital camera [the Sony NEX-5, and consequently, his drawing the attention of commercial interest.

Lance Keimig has done very well introducing night photography to the community around Boston.
I greatly admire Lance Keimig. He is not only one of the very best teachers of night photography, he is the curator of Darkness, Darkness, a meaningful, traveling show featuring notable current night photographers. He also did a great job writing his book: "Night Photography - Finding Your Way In The Dark", which I highly recommend to night photographers, regardless of their experience.  And close by, on Mare Island, we have Tim Baskerville's The Nocturnes . He has mastered the art of teaching, be it his legendary workshops in choice locations or at Bay Area colleges. Such organizational excellence has brought The Nocturnes to their upcoming 20th Anniversary and my congratulations!

Have you ever had any unusual adventures while shooting at night?
Usually I find the experience of photographing at night, the most profoundly peaceful part of my twenty-four hours, but there have been adventures that were somewhat unsettling.

Two rather dramatic incidents were both at Olmstead Point on Tioga Pass in the Yosemite National Park. Both incidents happened late at night as I wanted to get star trails in the perceived images. One incident happened around 11:00 at night. I brought a friend with me this time!  We parked in the Olmstead Point parking area and were in the process of taking the equipment out of the trunk and suddenly a rather piercing light appeared coming up Tioga Pass on our left.  It was strange in that it bounced up and down as if a person in a hurry were carrying it. Then, just as it fully rounded the curve so that we were totally in it's sight, the light went out and we heard the sound of a cascade of falling rocks, as if the person had suddenly turned sideways up the cliff. We kept looking for a few nervous minutes - all around us - and never did see the light or the "person" again. Definitely no longer in a creative mood, we repacked the equipment and headed back down the mountain to the Aspen campground near Lee Vining and Mono Lake.

This rock at Olmstead Point in Yosemite National Park has come to be known in the night photography community as "Steve's Rock". Photo by Steve Harper.

Didn’t you get chased out by coyotes one time?
One time I was alone and intended to rephotograph what has become known as "Steve's Rock". While I was well into the taking the image, I heard the yelp of a coyote to my right and behind me. Shortly it was answered by another coyote to my left and behind me. Then they began creeping closer on each side, one yelling and the other answering, until it finally unnerved me so that I just picked up my camera while it was still on the tripod and hurried back down the glacial moraine to the car, resulting in some bizarre star and planet trails as the shutter remained open.

Is there anyone out there on the Internet you’d like to mention?
A lot of excellent photographers who are on Flickr have grabbed the generous hints and bits of information accompanying images posted by night photographers and are having a go at it.  They readily produce images equal in quality to their excellent day time images. I highly recommend checking out Bob West, Lee McCain and Fort Photo.

Bob Fagella, by Steve Harper

Last question. You recently self-published a retrospective book of your night photography. At some point most photographers think of publishing a book. What made you decide to finally jump in and do it?
When you get on in age, you become concerned about what you are leaving of yourself. That concern is, of course, a primal urge that is very personal to one's self. Since Night Photography has been my primary expression for almost forty years and counting, I believe it most reflects who I am, how I think and how I see the world around me. Perhaps it reflects a fantasy world to most people because it comes from one who has gone through life, having always felt he is on the outside - looking in. But I believe the vision is more beautiful and more peaceful and that it considers the universality of all things.

You can order Steve's book here. 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 rohini said...

it was realy wonderful blog..!

10:25 PM  
Blogger viji paul said...

very nice blog. the Lightning Storm at Mono Lake is awesome.

1:10 AM  

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