White Horses: An Interview with Juliet Harrison
Juliet Harrison, Pensive
Teia Hassey: Thank you for joining us today. Can you tell me a short statement about yourself?
Juliet Harrison: I call myself an artist, first and foremost. My medium is traditional B&W photography. My subject is the horse. Photographing the horse is not the objective of my work. My objective is to create Art that in turn can speak about the horse.
TH: How did you come to love photography?
Juliet Harrison: I grew up on Long Island and thanks to my interested parents, frequently went into New York City to the museums there. In my childhood home they surrounded us with beautiful objects, fine art and furniture. A great deal of respect was given to things of fine design, especially modern design. I would never have considered myself an artist. I cannot draw, paint or sculpt. But, I think I was honing my eye. What I did have, was a camera. Always a camera. A Kodak Brownie first and then 127 and 110 instamatic cameras. Nothing fancy. But I took pictures. I took pictures constantly. It wasn’t until I graduated from college with an undergraduate degree in Psychology, that I was given my first 35mm camera. It was then that I started to take pictures with any seriousness. I took an Adult Ed class in beginning darkroom. That is the only technical course I have ever taken in photography. In my 20’s I moved to New York City and worked in the administrative departments of custom photo labs and eventually as an assistant to a commercial photographer. From those jobs I learned about what might be possible to do with photography. From New York City, I learned that I could photograph the architecture and for the first time, create Art. I took all I had seen and grown up with in Modern Art and translated it to what I aimed my viewfinder at. Texture, light, shape, shadow, line. These were the elements that sang to me and that I could talk about through my photographs. At the age of 31, I returned to school to a studio program. And, still with no formal technical training, from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, 2 years later I received a Master’s Degree of Fine Art in Photography.
Juliet Harrison, Runnels
I used to say that I only photographed things that didn’t move. And that I preferred to photograph parts of things and things that were broken, worn and with a patina of age. But things have a way of coming together and reaching some kind of balance. My first life loves were horses. I can’t say why . . . it just was and is. I rode when I was young. Then I stopped for 27 years. I was 40 when I returned to the horses I loved. And along with my renewed riding came my camera. I began to take it with me to horse-oriented events and to photograph. It seemed so natural to combine these two elements in my life finally. I will photograph any horse. Any discipline. It does not matter to me if the horse is a fancy show horse or someone’s backyard muddy mule. Wherever I am, if there are equines I will want to photograph them. I do shoot other livestock as well. But not to the same degree.
TH: What type of camera do you use?
Juliet Harrison: I use a 35mm film camera. Specifically, a Canon Eos Elan 7N. I also have old rangefinders and an old Hasselblad medium format that I am starting to use as well. But always film cameras.
TH: Why do you prefer black and white versus color photography?
Juliet Harrison: For the most practical reasons, B&W works best for me. I can do it myself in my own darkroom and the toxicity to me is somewhat less than color. But that is not the reason. I work in B&W because of its simplicity. A simplicity that is extremely complex. When an image is B&W you have none of the distractions of color. Nothing that will automatically draw the eye the way a splash of red or green would. The image is reduced to its most basic elements. Form, shadow, texture, contrast, light and line are all I have in my palette to create with. To be successful with these, to draw the eye of the viewer, is a challenge that I relish.
Juliet Harrison, Vintage: Caballero
50% of what I do is in the camera. I let my “eye” find the image, I frame it in the camera and start with what I hope is a general capture of the light. The other 50% is in the darkroom. It is there that the image on the negative becomes Art. As I said, I am not an extremely technical photographer. So what I do in the darkroom is pretty basic. I have to start with good quality negatives. From there I will work with crops to make the images more powerful or balanced. Sometimes I want an image that is satisfying. Well balanced. Other times I want one that is deliberately not balanced. One that will be disturbing. That can be done with cropping the image. I also tend to increase the contrast. Something about a higher contrast image appeals to me. Bright whites and deep blacks. A bit of burning and dodging and that is all. If more needs to be done to improve the negative than to me it is garbage. I need a strong negative that requires just a bit of hand work.
TH: I find it fascinating that you hand-print all of your own B & W photographs.
Juliet Harrison: I work with film and the darkroom, instead of digital, for personal as well as artistic reasons. On the personal side, I love the darkroom. It is an isolation and meditation. And it is hand work. Remember I said I cannot draw, paint, or sculpt. So this is the answer to creating with my hands. Sitting in a lighted room at a computer has no appeal for me creatively. Not to mention . . . the years of re-training I would have to do to get to where I could create the satisfying images that I already know how to do with film and the darkroom. In addition, analog . . . film and silver print papers, give a range of gray (white to black) that can never be achieved with digital. There is a space, infinitesimal as it may be, between pixels that is not “empty” in film. The whole range is there. Digital prints are, for the most part, done with ink that is laid over the paper. Gelatin silver prints are created from paper that has silver imbedded into a gelatin surface. The process of exposing and developing the print removes silver from the paper in varying degrees. What is left when the print is fixed is a luminous surface of silver that reflects and absorbs light. To me, there is nothing more beautiful than that.
Juliet Harrison, Symmetry
TH: How does traditional black and white photography compete with the digital world of photography?
Juliet Harrison: There are debates about the archival nature of digital imagery. Whether the prints will last. And now whether the original digital material will break down with time. Certainly the technology to work with it is always changing, forcing those who work digitally to transfer their images constantly to keep current and not have data that they can no longer retrieve. I can print from the first negative I ever shot. Provided it was well cared for, I could print from the first negative EVER shot. And the equipment I am using to print would be recognizable to a photographer 50, 75 and perhaps 100 years ago. There is a legacy there that I love being part of.
TH: Do you have an idea of what you are looking for when you photograph horses?
Juliet Harrison: Although I work in some series concepts, I usually discover them after the fact. Frequently I will have a bunch of images and I will suddenly see a connecting thread. Then I will go out on a conscious level and work with those ideas when shooting. But it is more often not a deliberate thing. I am somewhat instinctive in my shooting. I trust my eye to find the shots. After I develop the film . . . then I will look and often be surprised with what I am doing. New ideas are developing all the time for me. And certainly the place or event I am at will determine what kind of images I look for there.
Juliet Harrison, Jack
TH: Is there a certain method you use to get the moving shots, such as at the racetrack or rodeo?
Juliet Harrison: When I returned to photography after a life break to raise my son and have a full time job, I first started photographing some local rodeos. What I was looking for there was to contain the extreme energy in a small frame. To halt the action and give it a moment of silence. I would pan along with the movement of the animal so that it would be clear and the background blurred. And the more dust the better. I printed these images very small. Mostly about 3 ½ x 5”. I wanted the viewer to get close and feel that intensity held motionless. I am still working on finding my concept at the track. I have no desire to do standard racetrack images. There are those much better at that than me. So far I have been working with trying to capture images that say something about the relationship of the jockey and horse.
Juliet Harrison, Boulder
TH: Your black and white photography is traditional, yet your photos are unique in that they focus on the abstract side of subjects, such as parts of the horse. What inspired you to turn a horse’s shoulder or rear-end into a piece of art?
Juliet Harrison: My using B&W is traditional and in many ways, so are my images. At least traditional in the sense of Modernist photography. I think they hearken back to the images of Edward Weston and his peers. And painters like Georgia O’Keefe. In that way my work is much more related to the world of art than it is to the commercial world of equine photography. I am not interested in creating pretty, technically perfect images of pretty horses. I am interested in the same elements as I was when I was photographing architecture in New York. Form, light, shape, shadow and texture. But now . . . I am working with a subject that I truly love and want to speak about that as well.
“What inspired you to turn a horse’s shoulder or rear-end into a piece of art?”
To me . . . it is a piece of art. It is the structure of muscle and bone beneath the skin. It is the texture and warmth of the coat. It is the pattern of that coat. My images are what I call a “Visual Touch”. They are what the horse person sees and works with. Not the whole, but the piece. The piece you are grooming. The part under your hand. The movement of one muscle group that will tell you if the whole is working right when you are training. This is what I am trying to tell my viewers about. Through the structure of modernist fine art photography, I am trying to talk about the horse. The icon of myth and history in its most elemental relationship to us, the viewer.
Juliet Harrison, B&W 1
TH: What is the significance of the White Horses collection as a book and calendar?
Juliet Harrison: The White Horses book came really out of a practical idea. I was invited to do a two-person show of equine themed work for a gallery. I had done a photo shoot with a Lipizzan horse group in the summer of 2008. I felt I wanted to work primarily with those images for the show. I knew that in doing a show like that the massing of the images would become more important than any single image. To be able to give my viewers a chance to walk away with the body of work in some form became important to me. And to allow others who would not be able to personally see the show an opportunity to view it in some form as well. Thus the idea of doing a book was formed. I had worked in the book business for most of my life. So putting my work in book form where it can carry my images farther afield is important to me too.
TH: Out of the White Horses collection, do you have a favorite shot?
Juliet Harrison: Of the White Horses series I have 3 images that are important to me. One, Vintage: Cabellero, is most literal, but embodies the legacy of the history of photography. Runnels, is truly that “visual touch” that I talked about. Part also of my Equiscape series, it truly reads as horse, and more than horse. And finally, Living Granite, which is pure Fine Art photography. Barely readable at all as horse. It is the total abstraction of reality that is possible with the camera.
TH: I’m really in awe of your work . . . Thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.
Juliet Harrison: Thank you so much. I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed this. It is the first time in many years that my work has been featured outside the equine art circle. It is gratifying to have others see my work the way I see and feel it . . .
Visit Juliet Harrison’s website to buy prints of her artwork