JMI Photographer Jessica Todd Harper has a passion for storytelling and has always loved to share her own stories, as well as the stories of others by way of a camera lens. When she was asked to have her own show at Galerie Confluence in Nantes, France it was obvious that Jessica would be a great next interview subject for our “insider interview series". We sat down to discuss the show and to explore her roots as a photographer. Along the way we discovered a bit more about her style, her family history and what she loves about photographing people. Jessica has been a part of the JMI family for a while now, yet we even managed to learn some things we didn't know about her!
A major thank you and congratulations to Jessica Todd Harper for sharing her creativity, insights and displaying such passion during this interview process! We know that the show(s) will be a major success and are excited to hear all the tales of the trip!
Note: If you can't make it to the show in France, have no fear! Jessica is also having a show in the US at Gallery 339 in Philadelphia from September 21st-December 22nd. More information to follow!
JMI: Tell us how you became interested in photography? Your work has such a fine arts feeling to it! What’s your "photography history"?
JTH: For as long as I can remember I wanted to be an artist. I used to sit on museum floors as a child and teenager, copying paintings with my sketchpad.
One summer, when I was 15, I took a figure drawing class at Russel Sage College in the mornings. I had signed up with the intention of taking drawing in the morning and painting in the afternoon but there was some kind of mix-up and I ended up in Photography.
Once I picked up that camera, I never put it down.
JMI: One of the unique aspects of your images is the way in which you use natural light. We picked up that you specified that the class was “in the morning”. Did you notice that?
JTH: No, I didn’t! Hmm…
JMI: Your light and style are quite specific. What do you use for inspiration? Or should we say, who is your inspiration?
JTH: Well, a lot of it comes from looking at paintings so much as a child. I wanted to be just like John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, or Edgar Degas. All of them worked with the figure and their portraits drew me in.
JMI: A photographer who is inspired primarily by painters, it’s quite a different trade. Do you usually set up your images or do you catch moments as they happen?
JTH: I do both.
Sometimes, I am inspired by a certain kind of light and lead people into the space.
Sometimes I am simply interested in the figures themselves and how to fit them into an interesting rectangle (or square).
JMI: Let's talk a little bit about the transition from fine arts photographer to advertising shooting. How do you feel the creative processes differ? Do they?
JTH: They are similar in that they both are about solving some kind of intellectual puzzle. You have a subject(s) and a space to work in. And then you have a message you want to communicate which is generally more opaque in fine art shooting.
As the photographer, the fun part is then figuring out how to manipulate the subject, the environment and the idea into a compelling (and beautiful) image.
Perhaps the biggest difference is that on a commercial assignment I begin with the message firmly anchored in my thinking and in fine art work, I generally figure out the message during the process.
JMI: Well, now that we've discussed and covered a bit about your creative process, let’s talk about the upcoming solo show at Galerie Confluence in France! How did it all happen?
JTH: The gallery owners had seen my book, Interior Exposure and emailed me about how taken with it they were. They proposed a show right away.
It will be during a photography festival – and Jazz festival – in Nantes. So they are hoping for a lot of traffic. I will be giving a lecture as well as part of the program. I speak some French, having lived in Paris as a student. But, thankfully they will have a translator at my talk!
JMI: Wow. What an unbelievable opportunity! You say the owners were taken with your work, do you know what exactly it is about it?
JTH: I think they liked how the work related to the history of painting in a classical sense and also the “exoticness” of a very Northeastern United States aesthetic.
JMI: You're going to be very involved in the show itself, giving a lecture and spending time in Nantes. Were you involved in the image selection for the show?
JTH: I let them choose entirely. My feeling is that I stand behind all the work and it is always interesting to let someone else choose their favorites. As tempting as it might be to “micromanage”, I like to let curators, curate.
JMI: As someone who lived in Paris, surely you are excited to get back to France! What are you looking forward to most about the show?
JTH: I am curious how a room full of foreigners will receive the work. Since I’m giving the accompanying lecture as part of the show, I wonder if they will have the same sorts of questions and comments I usually get, or if they will be curious about different things.
JMI: The question we’re going to ask, and surely you get all the time: what’s next?
JTH: I have been experimenting with some of the interiors of some lovely old homes in Philadelphia. I still work with people. I don’t think I will ever morph into a landscape or still life artist.
JMI: Why not? What it is about people?
JTH: Man has known since it first started depicting itself how exciting it is to celebrate the brevity, the divinity, the mystery, and both the utter familiarity and strangeness of humankind. Every portrait is exciting for me in that it is a new puzzle to be solved, and life to be celebrated. It never, never gets old.
I really love telling stories and passing them on from generation to generation. For me, that’s what’s at the heart of a good photograph. Behind every person there is a good story and I like to know the history of people.
JMI: Would you mind sharing your favorite story?
JTH: Since I am really family-oriented, I love hearing the stories of my ancestors and sharing them between generations has always been an important part of the fiber of our family.
Because of this, there are just so many stories, it’s hard for me to pick one. If I had to it would probably be the one about my great-grandmother in the Civil War and the way she protected her son and husband. Shortly before the war started, the confederate solders came into their home and, fearing for her son and husbands safety, she welcomed them in. She read them stories from the journal she kept (of our family stories) and captivated the soldiers’ attention.
The solders fell into a deep and restful sleep. Waking up the next morning, they were appreciative of all my great-grandmother did and the kindness she showed them that they left the house without even thinking twice about her son and husband.
Her actions may very well be the reason I’m here today.
JMI: What an unbelievable story. Surely the story of your trip to France and the solo show in Nantes is a great one to add to the family book. We're looking forward to hearing many of those stories upon your return!