Jessica Todd Harper isn't simply a photographer; she's a storyteller.
In her portraits, Harper aims not for compositional perfection, but rather: organic imperfection. The excellence of her photography lies in its ability to render those sincere moments-between-moments that occur within the domestic sphere of familial interaction. A risky approach for the conservative photographer, this is an artistic method that not only works for Harper, but also allows for a refreshing and unpretentious presentation of humanity.
Flipping through Jessica's portfolio, her collegiate background in Art History becomes immediately evident. With a palette reminiscent of Renoir and a composition comparable to the likes of Cassatt, the photographer displays a fascination with natural light in her work that only further fuels the emotional interaction between her photographs' subjects. Utilizing pure daylight to guide the viewer's eyes throughout the picture plane, Harper continues to deepen her work's psychosomatic complexity - turning seemingly ordinary moments into breathtaking glances into the intricacy of human intimacy.
Spontaneous and sincere, Harper's photographs allow for an unrivaled depiction of the pure, beautiful honesty that ignites human interaction. A New York Photo Festival 2008 award winner, a 2008 Lucie award winner, a 2009 recipient of a PA Council for the Arts grant, and named one of PDN's "30 Emerging Photographers to Watch," Jessica took a few moments out of her busy week to chat with JMI's Jennifer about her noteworthy (and highly-decorated) photographic career.
JMI Reps: How did you first get started as a photographer?
Jessica Todd Harper: I was taking a figure drawing class during the summer when I was 15. It was at a local college. They offered painting, too, and I had signed up for that as well, but instead - through some accident - I was put in the photography class. I didn't even know how to use the shutter button! I was a complete novice.
JMI: Your collegiate background includes the study of eminent painters... How would you say this has shaped your photographic style?
JH: I looked at a lot of Northern European painting in college, and I learned a great deal from that genre about what environments can say about the people depicted in them.
JMI: Would you say that your work has evolved at all since you first started out in the business?
JH: Well, one always hopes one has progressed. When I look at my younger work, it feels a little less sophisticated; but that's o.k... I'm pretty sure I was a little less sophisticated back then.
JMI: Your portraits are celebrated for their candid, real portrayals of humanity. Is this capture something that comes naturally, or is it calculated on your part?
JH: Ha! I would love to claim either or both - that I calculate everything meticulously, and/or that I'm naturally just brilliant. I think that, while I do plan, and there is also just a "style" that one has, there is also a lot of luck and hard work involved. I spend a lot of time looking at other people's art, and all of that gets internalized; those paintings and images have their influences in the work I make later. Also, most of the pictures I make I don't end up liking very much... that doesn't mean that they are a waste though; it is all a grist for the mill.
JMI: What is it about your work that you think resonates so strongly with people?
JH: Well, I think sometimes art can describe something we can't put words to, and that feels very satisfying when we see it. The writer Alain de Botton likes to say that I bring "glamour" to the everyday; not in a celebrity way, but by making seem special the things we don't necessarily notice anymore. Sometimes I can make this happen for someone else, and that is wonderful!
JMI: From where do you draw your creative inspiration?
JH: Watching people and how they move in the space around them.
JMI: Do you have an all-time favorite person, place, or object to photograph?
JH: I have found inspiration in my sister Becky ever since she was 8 and I was 15.
JMI: Are there any other photographers, or arists in general, past or present, who influence your work?
JH: Andrew Wyeth, Vermeer, John Singer Sargent, Arnold Newman, Sally Mann... just to name a few!
JMI: Have you ever found yourself struggling with anything particular in your work?
JH: All the time! The trick is not to worry too much about failure. You have to "shoot on goal," so to speak. If you don't try you will definitely not get the light/emotion/whatever.
JMI: Your photos are frequently recognized for their almost ethereal use of natural light. What is it about natural light to which you're partial? Do you find that it lends itself to the composition of a photograph better than, say, artificial light?
JH: I don't really know how to answer this. Perhaps it is just something I respond to on a very basic level; sunlight effects us on so many levels, biologically and spiritually. Sunlight isn't always "better" per se, but it does create a certain mood that can feel very real and intimate for certain subjects.
JMI: People are frequently analyzing your work, and many argue that there exists a deeper contextual layer to it... Do you aim to instill a deeper analytical element into your photography?
JH: This is hard to know. I do not try to overthink my pictures, because then they can lose their veracity.... but at the same time, they are reflective and careful pictures. While I mostly seek to make pictures intuitively, I also try very hard not to be sloppy. Imagery - just like words - means something, and just as I would not pepper my language with a lot of expletives to make sure you hear me, I wouldn't toss a lot of symbolism into a picture just to make sure you pay attention.
JMI: Which photograph in your portfolio is your personal favorite?
JH: That changes all the time! I do like the one with the two men sitting across from each other and the children all over the frame (inset below)... It just was so hard to get all of that in one frame! (No Photoshop). And I love that house...it is in a community...in Philadelphia that seeks to restore their historic neighborhood, and I admire that.
JMI: Alright, last one! If you had to pick ONE goal to set for yourself (creatively speaking) for the coming year (2014), what would it be?
JH: My 5-year-old son recently said that he knows when a book is beautiful because he gets "a special feeling in the back of [his] neck and in [his] forehead," and I thought, "I know exactly what that means!" That is what I wish to do: to make something beautiful for a stranger.