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Fifth Interview, January 7, 1998: Experimental
Photography in the 1990s and Closing Thoughts

Harvan Home | Photo Exhibition | Oral History | Historical Essay | Credits
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Audio
Dublin:Another project, one that I've been aware of you working on in the years that I've known you, has been this Polaroid photography project, where you've moved into another medium that you hadn't used that much earlier in your photographic career. You want to describe a little bit, what you've done with that, and what that's given you as another way to express yourself in your work?

Harvan: As you know, I've done very little work in color during my career in photography. I concentrated mostly on black and white. I did that because I was able to control all of the facets of it. I regularly got the film that I wanted, I could process the negatives, make the prints, and I could manipulate the prints any way I wanted to. Also, if I wanted to make them darker or lighter, or bring out certain highlights, I was able to do it. For that reason, I concentrated on the black and white. I stayed away from color because I felt I always had a lot more to say making black and white photos. Even to this day, I feel there are avenues that I could still pursue in working within black and white. A number of years ago, a friend, Henry Jones, from Bethlehem, gave me this SX-70 camera, a Polaroid camera that kind of spits out exposed film from out front. It takes a 2˝ x 2˝ picture. The film is called Time Zero and it has a plastic coating on the front and back. The emulsion is trapped between these two coatings. I read at one time that you can move this emulsion around with a sharpened stick or some other pointed object, and as long as you didn't rip the plastic, you can move it around, and change the image.
Polaroid Collection.
Polaroid Collection
I was able to secure some outdated film and I started to manipulate the emulsion. I thought it had possibilities and in time, I was able to purchase good film. Through manipulating this emulsion, I have transformed a realistic image almost to an impressionistic type of a painting-type of a photograph. Most people think that I have copied paintings when I show them around. I have to convince them that these are not copies of paintings, but actual photographs. I explain how I manipulate the soft fluid emulsion. Sometimes I will start the process, right after I make the exposure. Other times, I'll wait maybe a half a day or a day. That way, I get different effects. When I accumulated a few, I sent them to Bill Johnson, who is the editor of Camera Techniques. In a few days, he replied in a letter that he likes them very much and would like to use them. When they will be published, I have no idea, but they are in the works.

Dublin: Are you continuing to do a little more traveling and shooting in that medium?

Harvan: Yes. They work very well with buildings, certain types of buildings. I had traveled to different areas of the state when I was able. Places like the Hopewell Village, near Boyertown. And the Daniel Boone Homestead, and Jim Thorpe, with its mansions, or the old buildings in Wilkes-Barre. These are just a few of the places that I have photographed. At the outset I thought I could move around the eastern part of Pennsylvania and put images of these places on polaroid film. I knew they would be kind of unique. Eventually, I'll donate them to the Canal Museum, in Easton.

Dublin: That's an additional chapter in your work.

Harvan: It's kind of a fun thing, because you don't need a darkroom, just a few sharpened sticks. You take the picture, sit down, look at it and determine how you want to work on it. You can obliterate and use your imagination. Maybe there's a telephone pole or some power lines in the photo when you took it, something you had no control of. But now you could block them out. By moving the emulsion around, you could more or less take out objectionable objects. It does give you some freedom and a little more control. Almost like a painter has. He starts with a blank canvas and puts down whatever he wants to. Sometimes in photography, when we're taking a certain subject, you'll notice something that should not be there, but there's nothing you could do about it. You've got to include it, either that, or try to come in a bit closer, but at times this is not possible. But with this process, you could take out a lot of these objects that you don't feel should be in the picture. But the best part is that you change the photographic image to make a more painterly rendition.

Dublin: Do you ever feel like you'd like to work with a program like Adobe Photoshop or printshop, because it sounds like, that in the computer, digitized world, one can also manipulate a photo in a way that the old darkroom techniques don't allow.

Harvan: No, but I'm sure you can do that with Photoshop. It's a little late, I think, for me to get into that. There's still a lot I want to do with black and white in the conventional way. There's a lot I can learn in the medium. But I agree, if I was just starting out or had more time, I would definitely get into it. I don't approve of what some are doing with the digitized images. I don't think putting a man's head on a horse is the way to go. But I realize that there are uses for the modern technology and the digital way of doing things.

Dublin: It's one thing as art. It's interesting that the contradictions that it entails as a documentary record, because people can actually manipulate and doctor the records to make it appear as if a person was at a scene and a location when he wasn't. Or to take the person out. I mean, as the Russians used to take out political leaders when they went into disfavor at a certain point. So as a photographer can do something like that, which is problematic.

Harvan: In documentary photography though, you have to be very careful of what you take out. A photograph might include a row of buildings, with service poles, and wires connected to them. Someone might decide, "The picture's going to look a lot better if the poles and the lines were taken out. It's going to look nicer, cleaner." But, it's not going to tell the truth because not only is the building historic, but the poles that hold the wires are part of the actual scene. If taken out, it would falsify the record. I feel they should be left in.

Dublin: It's very confusing to the historian who wants to date a photo. All of the sudden, suppose you know that telephone poles were put in at a certain date. So you say this has to be before, let's say, 1895. On the other hand, it may be that some of the buildings on the street were only built after 1895, and yet, the buildings seem to be there, but the telephone poles don't. So, all of the sudden, it becomes a little too much a work of art and not enough a work of documentary photography. That, then, throws people off.

Harvan: That's why I said you have to be very careful with this new technology, that we don't go too far with it as far as changing the actual scene. I could understand where a rare photograph is torn or there's a big mark on it, someone should decide whether it is proper to take the mark out and restore it to its original form. In a way, you are altering that particular photograph, but maybe it would reveal more if it were restored, especially if the defect was occurring on a person's face or of that nature. I have noticed a lot of photographs of President Lincoln that good museums will not touch. If dirt marks or other blemishes are on the print they just let them on, they don't retouch. They just show them the way they are, and they have a point.

Dublin: This leads in very nicely, for some final reflections on your part, about what you tried to do in your career as a photographer. Maybe a little bit also how photography has changed in the years that you've been doing it. Do you have thoughts you want to reflect on? We've been doing your career in chunks, each of the interviews. But now maybe a bit a of an overview of your own.

_____________________________________________

"I think the greatest accomplishment . . . I could think of

is that I was able to stay with photography for practically my

whole adult life."

_____________________________________________

Harvan: Well, I think the greatest accomplishment that I think I could think of is that I was able to stay with photography for practically my whole adult life. A lot of people get into certain things, and after a few years they try something else. They branch into other fields. For some reason, I was able to stay into photography and a certain type of photography. I'm really not a maker of photographs, I'm more or less of a taker of photographs. I have to see a certain type of situation, and be part of it. When I go into a mine, for instance, I will never tell a miner to do something because it's going to look better, or "Look this way, you're going to look better." I would rather take him the way he is and what he is doing and let the chips fall where they may. If it's a good photograph, fine. If it's not, at least it's real. So that's why I think I'm a taker of photographs. Many photographers set up different situations, and they're good at it. They can manipulate lighting, manipulate subjects, and come out with very good results. I can't do that. I have to work the other way. I think that's what I've been able to do through the years. I do still-lifes every now and then, I might set up some objects, mostly as an exercise in creativity. But for my documentary photography, I would never alter it in any way. As for the remaining years I have, I would just like to continue taking pictures as long as I can.

Audio
       I'm working on circular prints now. I make these with a simple 4x5 box, outfitted with a 47 millimeter lens, which is a very extreme wide angle for a 4x5. It's equivalent to maybe about a 16 or 17 millimeter, on a 35 millimeter, which is fairly wide. What I'm doing is using all of the exposed area on the negative. I had done some work with the 8x10 circular prints, in the past, but for the last four or five months I've switched to the 4x5 and I've come up with a whole series of circular negatives. I haven't printed them so far. At the present time, that's the project I'm working on. I'm seeing things a lot differently, working up close on a tripod, shooting everything at a second, a half second, at f-32, getting extreme depth of field. I'm photographing subjects like -- on Saturday, when they were through shoveling the coal out of the mine car, onto a pile at the No. 9 museum. A shovel had been placed right in the middle of the coal pile. I thought it would make a good picture. Things like that, taking ordinary things and making a photograph of it. Nothing spectacular -- I'm not looking for the large or spectacular subject. Shovels, roots of trees, stumps in water, driftwood, things like that. I'll see how they print up.

Dublin: What do you do if you're using a 4x5 negative holder and negative, what do you do to block it so the light only hits the negative in a circular portion of that negative?

Harvan: All lenses give you a circular image. Camera manufacturers alter the above. They cut off a certain amount of the image, to suit their format. All images are round since the lens is circular. What designers do is if they want a square image, you have a square format, or they give you an oblong format, but in all cases you are missing part of the image from the top and bottom and from the sides. However, I am using the entire image just as the lens sees it. Nothing's cut off. Almost all the image, there's very little I'm missing with the round image. I think just that alone gives you kind of like a peephole effect. It's something that might attract your attention a little more than if I used a 47 millimeter that covered the entire 4x5 format. This is what the circular image is all about. I also am going to start printing my pinhole negatives, which I have been making for the last year or so. This is a very unique way of making photographs. I have collected about fifty negatives up to now, which I'll start to print whenever I can. I'd like to mount them eventually and have an exhibit of these unusual photographs.

Dublin: And this is through a pinhole camera that you've made?

Harvan: Yes, I have about six or seven different pinhole cameras, of various formats that I use. Some use photo paper as a negative base. These run up to 13" wide, 10"x13". Then I'll contact this paper negative onto a piece of paper. I'll expose right through the back of the negative onto a piece of sensitized paper. When you're in photography for a long period of time, you strive at times to get away from what you've already done. You don't want to duplicate what you've been able to do in the past. I have much better cameras now than I ever had. I have cameras I never dreamed I would own. Automatic Nikons, I have a 645 Pentax, with three lenses that 20, 30 years ago I would have given my eye teeth for. But, basically, they all give you the same type of picture that I was doing 20, 30 years ago. It's just your imagination that changes things. And sometimes, the instrument you use, like the pinhole or other cameras that I have made, that will change the way you see things. There are subjects that I take now using the circular image that don't work. Then you have to look for a subject that will work. I might go out for two or three hours and come back with two or three pictures only, but they will all be different, I never duplicate. I take one exposure and that's it.

Dublin: You think about a street scene. And it's extremely rectangular. The way we visualize and the way a city block is constructed, that might, for instance, not fit so well into a circular format. You would sort of lose some of the defining characteristics of that image.

Pinhole Camera Photos.
Pinhole Camera Photos
Harvan: Yes, you must find a subject that fits your conception of what you are trying to say. You do look across a street, a long street. It's got that horizontal look. And you look at a building, a skyscraper, a vertical look. You can't put a subject like that into a circular image, no. But, a subject like…let's see, what did I just photograph? I was up at the G. A. R. Cemetery, in Summit Hill and I noticed that some flags had blown off their supports and were just lying on the grass. It was wet and they just lay crumbled. It seemed awfully ironic that these flags, at one time, on May the 30th, were flying proudly over some veteran's grave, and now in the fall, with the rain and other elements, they were discarded more or less. As I walked around I saw numerous flags in the grass in the same condition. I thought these would make an interesting statement about discarding certain values that we shouldn't be. And for this it worked out great. I was able to work maybe 2, 2˝ feet from the flags, real close to the ground, and make the exposure. But I have got extreme depth of field, with the small aperture, if something was in the background, say 30 feet, I was also able to keep that sharp. Yes, it works for certain subjects, you're right. Square subjects should have a square format. And there are subjects that only take with the pinhole camera. You can't expose into the sun because the direct light goes into the pinhole and causes an excess amount of fog, so you have to wait for a cloudy day or have the sun to your back. You learn after a while what will work. Mating a particular type of camera to a certain subject is what it's all about. It's always been that way.

Dublin: So, you end up seeing things differently, disciplining your work differently. There's no one picture that's a better picture than another. They serve different purposes or do different things. And you capture them in different ways.

Harvan: After a while, you want to go into different areas of photography, exploit other areas, where you have a better way of expressing yourself, or perhaps as you get older and you look at life a little differently and look beyond the obvious -- also try to get a little more of your feelings beneath the surface image. To make an image that is sharp and clear sometimes doesn't work. A soft image made with a pinhole, in which the depth of field is uniform but nothing is really sharp, can express your purpose a lot more. A subject can be 2 inches away, but all the surrounding area will still have the same degree of sharpness, but it will not be needle sharp, not like the image a good lens would give you.


Audio
Dublin: It's a little bit like, I see parallels in being a historian. At some point, seven, eight years ago, I made a decision to begin a major project on the anthracite region and on the twentieth century. I'd never done that before. I was much more prepared at that point in time to write yet another book about the nineteenth century in New England, and yet, it wasn't calling on all the range of skills or ways of doing history that I wanted to do. By doing the coal mines, 1) I learn a lot about the coal mines, 2) I have to learn about oral history; it's something I couldn't do for the nineteenth century. There's no one around anymore who could talk about it. So, it forces me to grow. And you're talking about growth and change and ways of expressing yourself that have the same integrity and the same richness as other things. But, for a while, you won't be as good at. But, the outcome will be that you will learn in the process.

Harvan: I think that's what it's all about. You're constantly striving to learn more and by using other instruments, it changes the way you think about different subjects. You can't take action shots, for instance, with a pinhole camera, because you're not going to get a satisfactory picture. So you have to choose a static subject, and you have to transform that static event into something that people look at and appreciate -- an image they could never visualize. If you can succeed to put that image onto a piece of paper and can look at it and wonder how that was made or what it is, then maybe you have accomplished something. I like to take an ordinary subject and transform it into something entirely different. Perhaps a new way of seeing a railroad engine or a railroad car. The pinhole image lets you do that in a kind of abstract way.

Dublin: There's an element of seeing things differently.

Harvan: Mysterious, in a way. I think that's what it is. A certain amount of mystery creeps into the image and that is what you try to show, something that you can't do conventionally. If you're working commercially, with a certain client, you can't do this. They would want to show their machinery to their best advantage, nice and clean and sharp. Then that's what you have to give them, but fortunately I don't have to do that (laughs).

Dublin: So you can express your understanding, or your vision of it, not someone else's vision.

Harvan: If I want to go overboard and let my imagination go, I can; it is all up to me. Documentary photography has to be made realistically. You just let your eye guide you to what you want to record. Not only your eye, but your own heart, how you feel about the subject. I think you have to understand your subject no matter what you photograph in order to make a successful image. I had to know the coal miners, for instance, not only when I was taking their pictures, but also when I listened to them, when they talked or kidded around with each other, constantly learning and taking it all in. I had to be part of them before I could photograph them properly.

Dublin: What you're expressing is not just what you see at that moment, but you're expressing all that you know about the world they are a part of, and their lives that lead up to that point when you document it.

Harvan: There was a lot of times when I wouldn't have the camera, and they'd be talking, and I would say to myself, "That's something I should be photographing now." But, you can't constantly keep using your camera. You've got to stop every now and then and sit back and just listen and observe. And then, put it in your memory bank, and perhaps exploit this memory later on should it come back to you and you could use it for vital elements of a photograph. It is like the memory you store when you take a picture inside of a coal mine. It's dark and cold, a couple of miners working at the breast, perhaps drilling. This is the image you make on the negative. Then you process the negative and print it; your memory that will tell you how the print should look, how it should be printed. This is how you saw it, and this is the way the print should look. That's why I believe a photographer should actually do his own printing. I can't visualize or imagine another person doing my printing. There is a lot of big name photographers, some like Cartier-Bresson, who never printed his own photographs. He always had someone make his prints and he's one of the most famous photographers in the world. It works for him but I couldn't do that. I could never give a printer enough information to print one of my negatives made inside a coal mine and have it look like the actual scene as I saw it, print the way I actually visualized and felt when I pressed the shutter.

Dublin: So your work as a photographer is not done when you snap the shot.

Harvan: Yes, and it's what you retain in your mind when you were taking the picture. There are certain aspects that you will think about when you are printing. You remember to inject a feeling on paper because this is the way it looked and felt to you. For instance, you take a picture on a foggy day; you could manipulate it so that it can almost look like it was made on a bright day. But, you don't want to do that. If it's a foggy day, that's the way you remember it and you want to print it as such, soft, with all the ingredients of fog and mist.

Dublin: There's obviously this wonderful fit between the choice you made coming back from the service in 1947 and the world that that's opened up to you and the way that you can continue now a little bit more than 50 years later to reflect on what that has made possible for you, and the growth and the continuing change. You probably wouldn't have imagined when you came back that you would have been able to do this life, this way.

Harvan:
Quote from Harvan.
Oh goodness, no. It's a continuing process, it's still going on. I'm going to be 77 pretty soon and I hope I can do it for quite a bit longer. But I don't want to repeat on what I have done. I don't like to keep printing coal mining pictures, but people keep asking for them, so I have to reprint them every now and then. But I do go into different types of photography. That's why I went into manipulating the polaroids. It was so different from anything I have done in the past. I remember when I wrote a letter back to Bill Johnston, editor of Camera Technique, and I said, "That's what's great about photography." On one hand I am able to make stark black and white photographs of coal miners, but also, I could make pictures in color on polaroid film of a beautiful tree in the fall, a building, or a bowl of fruit. And that is what makes photography so interesting. It is one of the most important means of expression we've had. Photography has allowed us to see how people looked during the Civil War, more so than a painting would reveal. And it's fairly new, 150 years old, not very old, really.

Dublin: It's really changing so much, or it has so much potential for change in all this.

Harvan: Sure. We say it's one hundred fifty years old. I've been in it for 50, one-third of the time it has been in existence. That gives you an idea of how new it is.

Dublin: So you're a part of that art form.

Final 
                Retrospective.
Final Retrospective
Harvan: Yes, and I've learned it all myself and I think that has a lot to do with it, too, that I was able to do all by myself. I never worked with anybody and whatever I have accomplished, it has been through my own efforts. I imagine a lot of what talent you have is given to you. Everyone is given an amount. I guess some more than others. There are other people who have perhaps almost the same make up I have, maybe they are just missing one little ingredient, maybe the vision is not as intense, or the desire. I'm nothing special or unique. I'm just fortunate that I was able to do a particular thing for a long period of time and enjoyed it. 

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