Written by Lloyd Wise
Edited by Nisha Chittal
Diagram by Gil Andrei Fontimayor
The work of English-born, New York-based photographer Simon Harsent spans the genres of portraiture, fine art, photojournalism, and elaborate commercial shoots—but it wasn’t always this way. When he began his career, Harsent specialized in photographing still life, shooting exclusively from within his studio on a 4 x 5 camera. But one day he met a sports photographer who inspired him to grab his old 35mm, leave his tripod at home, and get out into the field. Harsent attributes this meeting not only to expanding his repertoire, but also with helping him approach his subjects inside the studio with a greater inventiveness and flexibility. “I love to grab a camera and jump in the car and go off driving,” remarks Harsent. His portfolio proves it: whether the photograph be part of a glossy commercial campaign, a moonlight-drenched seascape, or a gritty documentary shot of street kids, Harsent’s photographs possess an energy that has made him a name in the industry.
Our featured image was shot for a Levis campaign. We are inside a mine, and before us is a beautiful model who has just swung a giant pick-axe. In the background a man is straining to push an almost-overflowing mine cart. The composition is tight and triangular, with de-saturated colors and delicate lighting. And with a closer glance we find that this duo is mining not for silver or gold, but distressed denim: the mine cart is filled with designer jeans and above the man’s head more are embedded in the rock.
For this “very, very complicated shoot,” the set took more than a day to create, with fake rocks to place and a track and mine cart to build—all while using special care as the cave was part of a national park. Given that the track couldn’t be moved, Harsent was under additional pressure to pick an angle before the shoot had formally begun. The subterranean cave had to be lit artificially, and Harsent chose to do so with several Profoto heads attached to battery powered Profoto 7B packs—two heads behind the camera bounced off of white boards, and two closer to the foreground with Magnum reflectors (one behind the girl with a half CTB gel and one behind the cart). Harsent also added two bare heads equipped with full CTB gels. He sculpted the light with cookies and cutters while running a smoke machine to suggest dust. The exposure was f/13 at 1/6th of a second on the 100 ISO setting of a Leaf digital back. He used a 50mm lens. Retouching, which he did himself, was kept to a minimum. With a few deft Photoshop maneuvers the color was adjusted, and some cosmetic work had to be done on the talent.
Though Harsent enjoys the intimacy of the one-on-one portrait shoot (his dream is to shoot each player in the Chelsea football team for an Adidas campaign), he finds a different kind of pleasure in staging elaborate commercial shoots like this one. “Something like the Levis was fantastic” he says, “because you’re more like a director of a big production than you are a photographer.” Appropriately, the location had been used for the original television classic “Batman.”
Harsent spoke with our Editor Zack Seckler about his personal and professional work:
TFS: How did you get started as a photographer?
Harsent: I grew up in England and went to Australia when I was 21. That’s when I started freelancing. I started primarily as a still life shooter. I’ve worked with a lot of photographers who spend 15 hours a day polishing the fucking subject instead of facing it and shooting it, and it drove me crazy. There’s no spontaneity. We’d shoot one hundred sheets of film with the camera locked up on the same tripod with different variations of light. To me it was staged. Even when I’m doing commercial work, you’ve got 70 different parameters you have to work with, and so many different things you have to fulfill. I try to get into a stage where there is a certain amount of realism about it. It’s sort of a forced, faked photojournalism…There’ve been a few people I’ve met in my life who have inspired me and helped me along the way. One guy in particular, he used to shoot sports for a newspaper. Meeting him, seeing how he approached his work, just having that freedom, getting the camera off the tripod really meant so much to me. It opened so many different doors. As did moving into digital, I used to shoot primarily in black and white. With the invention of computers and everything, I came out of the dark room. I kind of do in Photoshop what I used to do in the dark room for black and white. I see it as a way of playing around. One of the things that I consider a failure is when I’m looking at a shot and I can visualize all the C stands and all the cutters. You know when you look at your own work and you can remember the day? I try to take that and create something outside it that then re-news excitement about the shot. I also don’t really do smiles very often. It’s not because I’m fucking manic depressive or anything like that, I just feel it’s a little forced, or manufactured and that’s exactly what I’m trying to get away from. Even though we are working in the realm of advertising and we are manufacturing things, I’m trying to make it look as if it isn’t. Meeting the guy who is a sports photographer gave me the push to get me out of the studio and get the camera off the tripod – a really more edgy gig.
TFS: How do you like doing commercial assignments?
Harsent: I like the collaboration that commercial work brings; working with talented people on a common goal is a lot of fun. I guess the hardest thing about shooting commercially is if the collaboration doesn’t work and I don’t get the result I want, that can be frustrating. The difference between commercial work and personal work is that with commercial work there are so many different factors it’s easy to be dismissive if the result isn’t quite what I would have liked, as there are other people involved it’s not one hundred percent mine. But if I shoot something for myself and no one likes it, I’m to blame and no one else. To me, there is a sort of kind of sadistic intrigue with that feeling, and putting yourself in a position where you are that vulnerable as an artist. I like the feeling, but I’m very scared of it.
TFS: How is it shooting in the US versus in Europe?
Harsent: For commercial work here in the States people just want to book you for exactly what you do, what’s on your website. It’s almost as if they have to see it in your portfolio first. That is just how it is structured here in the States, and in Europe they tend to look at the overall body of work and see what the emotional feeling is amongst that body of work. That really frustrates me about some of the commercial clients in the States.
TFS: Do you frequently shoot with a tripod?
Harsent: Not very often these days. The thing is I started out as a still life shooter and I still do it, I enjoy being in the studio. I enjoy playing around with all the toys in the studio, you know, all the toys and gadgets that photographers like. I’m at my happiest on a portrait shoot on location though. Something like the Levis was fantastic because you’re more like a director of a big production than you are a photographer. Then I like those really quiet moments when it’s just really one on one with the subject. I do a lot of portrait shoots for myself. A lot of that is just for myself and the sitter. It’s whatever comes out at the moment. Portraiture is my favorite subject of the moment.
TFS: On your website there are a lot of landscapes incorporating human elements in them, tell me about that body of work.
Harsent: These days, one of the greatest things that has happened to me is digital, it’s just completely re-inventing my excitement. I can walk around now and I don’t have to carry shit loads of gear. I’ve got my Canon 1DS – Mark II- I have that, a couple of zoom lenses, and a tripod, and I can just walk around and shoot things how I see it. But landscapes, I’m very into isolation. That’s why I do a lot of singular portraits. If you notice in the landscapes, there is a lot of isolation, there is a lot of barrenness.
TFS: What is it about barrenness that appeals to you?
Harsent: There’s a French expression which describes the work, it translates to: “between the dog and the wolf.” It describes dusk. It’s when the domestic dog goes home and the wolf comes out at night. I lived in Australia for 11 years and I still travel there very frequently now because my son lives there. It dawned on me that there is so much beauty in nature, but the man-made sculptures that we’ve created for ourselves are often scarier than our perception of what nature could be. So it’s kind of like getting lost in the woods with the wolves. It’s kind of an irony, a stereotype that the domestic dog isn’t as comforting as we’d like to think he is. A lot of the darkest nooks and crannies can be found in man-made sculptures. So that’s why you’ll see a lot of abandoned walkways, barren stuff. You might see the nature man in me as well, so there might be a shot of trees, or there might be a stone structure or foot path or even just a stone pillar. It’s kind of an interruption on nature. The whole kind of dusk-night thing, that kind of very eerie, not really knowing quite what’s there, it’s the danger, and also the beauty of it as well. There are so many different contrasts on that. That’s pretty much what they’re about. I’m also a complete insomniac, so it’s a good time for me to go out and shoot.
TFS: Do you prefer to light your subjects artificially or do you prefer to shoot with ambient light?
Harsent: Lighting for me is always determined by the final image. Nine times out of ten I have a really good idea of what I want the final image to be, or thereabouts. Then depending on what I have to deal with, I’d probably use a lot of natural light and maybe just use artificial fill light in some places. I don’t want to have to work the light too much, I want the light to do the work, if you know what I mean. Sometimes I shoot with keno flos, sometimes I use flash, sometimes I use tungsten. I used to use a lot of tungsten early on in my career. I used to really enjoy it because I could see what the light was doing. Flash for me was very difficult to get a good grip on. To me hot light is so much easier. I’ll look at something and have a rough idea about what it is I want to achieve. Then I’ll say, what’s going to best help me achieve this? More often then not I might go into a scenario and I’ll just see what the ambient light is doing, and see where I need to do from there.
TFS: Tell me more about your personal work.
Harsent: I normally start out with an idea and that might come from going to the theater, or reading a book, or seeing a movie, that triggers something. Or it might be some kind of political statement or social statement or something. To me photography has to create a romance, I guess. And to me that’s what art should be. It should first be a beautiful image and then the context should add an extension which corresponds to the meaning of the work. My work is so moody at the moment, it’s borderline commercial/personal for commercial clients. I had an email this morning about a portrait job for 30 portraits and they’re like, ‘can you show us some stuff that’s a little bit brighter and got people smiling?’ I get that all the time. Advertising is all about making people feel better. It’s all about being inspirational. I get to shoot a lot of medical ads where people look ill. There is a serious side to certain campaigns as well. Most of the fashion stuff which you know, someone like Nigel Perry does real well, doing this celebrity, sort of kind of moody black and white, does very, very well. There’s definitely a market for it, but the majority of the market is in happy, feel good lifestyle imagery. It’s the nature of what advertising is. I think it’s always going to be like that. To sell someone something you have to make it inspirational. You have to make it something they need to make their life better. If you got someone who is incredibly moody and looks pissed off, or whatever, it’s not necessarily going to sell.
TFS: Do you struggle with trying to get assignments that allow you to reflect that moody quality?
Harsent: I’m sure I missed out on a lot of stuff. But the thing is, I just don’t do that, and I’m not good at it. It’s kind of like me deciding I’m going to shoot lifestyle stuff on a beach. I just couldn’t do that. All I’m going to do is not fulfill my potential. That’s the hardest thing about being a professional photographer – just doing what you do and doing it well. That’s the only way you’re going to be successful and have an edge over anyone else, is if you just do what you do. If they start replicating everyone’s style, okay, I can do a bit of this and I can do a bit of that, but it’s never really one hundred percent you. I always say to my assistants, the only thing that defines you from anyone else – we can all learn the techniques, we can all learn Photoshop, we can all buy digital cameras – but the only thing that determines one photographer from another is the composition of who they are. That’s the thumbprint of each photographer. My father’s a poet, and he said to me very early on when I started my career in photography, he said, ‘ah yes, photography: big tits in color it’s pornography, small tits in black and white, it’s art.’ That’s how I feel about smiles: high color and smiles it’s pornography, sulky black and white it’s art.
TFS: Has your style always been moody? Has it evolved, and if so, how?
Harsent: For someone who is actually as social as I am, it’s actually quite solitary. I think it’s always been that way as far as when I started off as a still life shooter. I think a lot of these still life photographers are kind of like these hermits who hide away and studios and stuff. I feel like I’ve kind of snuck out of the studio. I love to grab a camera and jump in the car and go off driving. Sometimes I’ll plan out a trip, or I’ll try to tag on a couple of days at the end of a shoot if I’m in a foreign country. My goal is to make people feel something. If I could shoot one photograph that some kid somewhere looks at and says, I want to be a photographer, then I’ve done what I set out to do.
TFS: Are you working on a solo exhibit?
Harsent: I’ve actually got three projects that I exhibit through a gallery in Australia. I have yet to find a gallery here that I’ve got a relationship with. I finished soft moon which is still yet to be exhibited but is on the web site. I’ve got two other projects as well in the making, one which is just starting and another one which is starting next month.
TFS: Do you have one ideal assignment that you would love to get?
Harsent: Photograph the Chelsea football team. Yes, moody portraits of all the players from the Chelsea football team. I’m a massive Chelsea fan. It’s funny because they just sort of got newfound success. I’ve been supporting them since I was a kid and they never won anything. 1997 was the first time we won a Cup in 26 years. Prior to that I was five years old when we won and I don’t even remember it, now we’ve got this massive success. Yes that would be my ideal job, photographing the Chelsea football team for Adidas.
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