David Alan Harvey’s artist talk on the main stage at LOOK3 in Charlottesville on Saturday included several surprises: a peek at some of Harvey’s precocious early work, images from his latest project (called Beach Games, an exploration in black and white of beach sports culture in Rio), his insistence (against much evidence to the contrary) that he doesn’t consider himself a color photographer or an extrovert–and a heartwarming guest appearance by a long-lost subject from a project he shot when he was 22.
The project, which Harvey shot in 1966 using his savings, focuses on the life of an African-American family named Liggins. They lived in a Norfolk, Virginia ghetto, a few miles from where Harvey grew up in a white, middle-class suburb. Harvey has resurrected the project after 48 years, and re-published the work as a book titled Tell It Like It Is. He also mounted the project as part of his “No Filter” exhibition at LOOK3 this year.
“The profits are going back to the Liggins family, and to a scholarship fund that I’m setting up for minority photographers,” he announced at the Paramount Theater, where he appeared on stage to talk about his work and career with Kathy Ryan, Director of Photography at The New York Times Magazine and co-curator of this year’s LOOK3 festival.
Explaining the genesis of the 1966 project, Harvey said, “I wanted to do some good, I felt a little guilty being a white, middle-class kid in Virginia Beach, to tell you the truth…We were going to sell [books] for $2 to raise money for food and clothing for the disadvantaged of Norfolk. And the Liggins family, bless them, allowed me into their lives.”
Ryan asked Harvey to elaborate on what he was trying to say with the project.
“The only black people that I knew were maids, and I knew something was wrong with that,” he said. “I left my hedonistic lifestyle at the beach. You know there’s a hedonistic side to me, but there’s also a good [side]–the devil and the angel, and I come from a family where we try to look toward the angel, the good side. We were trying to do something good.” [Harvey worked on the project with a friend, Charles Hofheimer, who found the Liggins family through his connections with the local Boys & Girls Club].
At that point, Harvey invited Lois Liggins onstage. She was one of the family’s seven children, and she was six years old when Harvey photographed her family. Harvey had lost contact with the family after he went to graduate school at the University of Missouri. But late last year, with the help of The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, he was able to locate her.
“I knew I couldn’t publish this book if I didn’t find the family,” he said.
Ryan asked Liggins what her recollections of the project were.
“My mom really embraced David,” Liggins recounted. “We treated him as part of the family. He slept over quite a few nights on our sofa. One of the things that I remember was that David would take us to the corner store and buy us treats….He just fit in.”
She elaborated later in the conversation: “I remember David very well. I didn’t remember his face, but I remember his presence, and all the pictures he took. He invaded our lives. In the bathroom, washing our hands, we had a very tall window, [and] he was up there, taking pictures. Homework, school, playtime: Whatever we were involved in, David was there.”
Liggins also noted that it “wasn’t the norm” to have a young white man “in the ghetto part of town. He even went to the hang-outs, where all the young black men were hanging out, and he was accepted, because if Mama was there, nobody was going to challenge David.”
Liggins asked Harvey what prompted him to re-issue the book.
“I had more opportunity than you did. Absolutely. That was the whole point,” he replied. “Charlie and I both hoped that by doing this in the first place, we would be able to give something back. The pay back, pay forward kind of thing. But I wasn’t really able to get it [the book] out there.”
Nearly five decades later, Harvey said, it was a “miracle” he still had the negatives. With intent to re-issue the book, he had them scanned, and tracked down the family. “I felt now I had the opportunity to do something significant: pay back, pay forward, [which was] the original intent, but actually make it happen this time.”
Hofheimer, who was in the audience, asked Liggins what her reaction to the original book was.
“To be quite honest, it was embarrassing, as a kid,” she said. “In our young age, we didn’t appreciate the book at that time. Mama…re-introduced us to that book when we became adults, and we really did appreciate it. And [we were] proud, what we had been part of.”
Before Liggins joined them on stage, Harvey and Ryan talked about other aspects of his career. An indefatigable photographer, Harvey began producing work for National Geographic in 1973. He has published several books, notably about Cuba, the Spanish and African cultural migrations to the Americas, hip hop culture, and his groundbreaking work of fictional documentary titled Based on a True Story. Harvey’s work has also been exhibited in Corcoran Gallery of Art, Museum of Modern art and other museums. A member of Magnum, he founded Burn magazine, and continues to mentor young photographers.
Ryan opened her conversation with Harvey by reading photographer (and The New York Times Magazine photography columnist) Teju Cole’s description of Harvey as not only a “ferocious technician,” but a photographer with a consistent and unsentimental eye for human emotion, and a sense of color that “is among the boldest and most viscerally affecting in the game.”
A slideshow of Harvey’s work began with an image from a story he shot for his grandparents when he was 14, about a Sunday drive his family took. In its composition, layering, and storytelling, the image foretold Harvey’s talent. “I first tried to be Henri [Cartier-Bresson]. That’s who I wanted to be when I grew up,” he told the audience.
In his mid to late 20s, Harvey got a grant from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and began experimenting with color. That led to his long relationship with National Geographic, he said, reiterating his long-standing career advice to the audience: “You’ve got to go off and show people what you can do with no funding whatsoever. Which I still do also.”
Harvey says he long ago left his Cartier-Bresson aspirations behind. “I had to break away, I went into color, and then I did what was an incredible sin for those guys [Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank], which is to photograph people you know,” Harvey said, explaining that he’s an introvert and that “going up to strangers to photograph them is a nightmare for me.” That came as a surprise to many who know Harvey as one of the most sociable photographers in the business. “I would say 90 percent of the pictures I take, I’ve made friends with the [subjects] somehow,” he said.
His award-winning book Based on a True Story marked what Harvey described as a liberating break from the strict documentary narrative he’d confined himself to throughout his career. The book, published in 2012, was noted for its groundbreaking layout (it was designed by his son, Bryan Harvey). It featured images of muses and models Harvey knew in Rio.
“Nan Goldin and Sophia Coppola are my mentors on that, and I don’t know either one of them,” Harvey said. “Nan photographed whoever was hanging around her apartment, and I wasn’t supposed to do that. When I left National Geographic, on good terms, and joined Magnum, I just started looking at things a little bit differently. And now I don’t feel associated with anybody, not National Geographic, not Magnum. I love both groups, but I’m back to where I was when I was a kid. I survived adulthood. So yeah, I’m having a lot of fun, and being able to work independently.”
Harvey also surprised Ryan and the audience with his response to her questions about his remarkable eye for color. “I’ve always looked at color as an incredible struggle, and I still think of myself as a black and white photographer. When people describe me as a color photographer, I’m a little surprised,” he said.
His generation of photographers, he continued, learned to shoot color with transparency film. “So you had to be right on [with exposure]. I’m very glad I was trained as a classical black-and-white photographer. My color pictures are the result of Ansel Adams’ zone system. Really, I’m a zone system guy. My digital files don’t need any work [in Photoshop] either. I kind of have to get it right in the camera. I can’t help it.” He also said he’s shot both formats interchangeably on the same project–grabbing rolls of film randomly without knowing whether he was shooting in color or black and white.
Harvey said his vision as a photographer was shaped in part by the trauma of a childhood illness that kept him in isolation for three months when he was six years old. “It took me a long time to get over that [psychologically].” he said. “Everybody’s got childhood trauma, but gratitude is one of the things I came out with. And my pictures tend to be joyful because I was glad to be out of there.”
Asked by Ryan what he is seeking as a photographer, he said, “I know for sure that when I’m photographing, I’m not thinking at all. I’m in the zone. It’s an incredible experience. And it probably is the thing that keeps me going more than anything.”
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