Harper Zee is a lovestruck Fine art photographer living in San Francisco. Originally a fine art painter based out of New York, Harper travelled cross-country to study photography in the city. I sat down with Harper in the Cole Valley Neighborhood to discuss her highly stylized photography and the ideas behind it.
How would you describe your style of photography?
Dreamy. That's my go-to word. Definitely ethereal and slightly surreal with vibrant colors and soft light.
Why practice photography over painting?
That's difficult to answer because I miss painting, it's something that I wish I made more time for. I'm recently graduated and working and I feel that a lot of my free time goes into up-keeping my personal photography so the time just isn't quite there for me to do that.
I worked an internship for a photographer while I was still in New York and studying fine art painting. I had done some photography before that but in this internship I learned a lot about what it takes to be able to support yourself as a working photographer and I kind of fell in love with that a little bit because that's something that you can't do the same way as a painter or a fine artist. So that was another leap of faith that I took; I just switched. That's kind of how I ended up with fine art photography, it wasn't so much a conscious decision as it was just the way the flow of my life went. I feel I was kind of guided into that direction and I went with it. I don't take one more seriously than the other, I think they both have their value.
How do you achieve this dreamy otherworldly, look?
The first answer to that is film. I could not do what I do working with digital. That was the biggest “aha!” moment I ever had as an artist. I worked digitally for a really long time and then I just decided to experiment and try color film. I remember the first roll I ever shot and scanning it in myself and seeing that first image come on the screen. I'll never forget that moment; it was just like, “this is it.
The second would be my post-production process. While I definitely respect photographers that get their images straight out of camera exactly the way they want, I think that post-production gives you the option to really make it yours so I am not the kind of photographer that's against editing. I think it comes directly from my experience as a painter and the fact that I see in color. At a young age, I learned to make forms out of color and I think that it affects how I see what I'm shooting. Hence, most of what I do is just color altering and editing. Post production is a key element to me because if I didn't have that process of altering my photographs they wouldn't read the same at all. when I'm done working on them, they feel like something that I've taken careful time to create.
Since there are so many variables with what you're doing, how do you know when you're done with an image?
Well, the thing is, artists are naturally never done. I think most feel that way. I still look at images that I've taken and was “done” working with and still think that I could have done this or that. But, I've definitely learned over the course of school to just make decisions and to not obsess or go too crazy about it. I can also now feel out when something's working and something isn’t. I have a lot of trash ideas that I thought were going to be great and weren't and I have other things that were unexpectedly great. You never know what's going to happen, especially with film.
Pink and purple seem to dominate your work. What’s the thought process behind color choice?
Well, I think my work has taken a very feminine feel. Especially with a lot of the pink, shooting with the soft light, and the subject matter as well. I think the things we shoot and the way we shoot are very revealing of our deeper selves. I think that a lot of times we are doing things that we aren't aware of and to me, that's one of the most fascinating things about art in general. So there was a lot underneath that I was doing that I was unaware of and then one day I realized that my work is really feminine looking and I wasn't really sure why that was, and sometimes I'm still not entirely sure but for whatever reason, that's what comes out and that’s what I like out of my work. I'm sure that there are things that I'm doing that are still subconscious and have yet to realize because it's an endless cycle of self-discovery. We're always learning about our voice and ourselves as artists. So things like color, which for me attribute to that feminine feel, aren’t something that are conscious decisions; they just end up being what comes out.
What role do you think color serves in photography?
In my opinion, color, even more so than light, can determine the feeling that you're getting and thus the message you're sending. If I shoot a landscape and I put a heavy pink cast over it, it really creates a certain emotion. If I were to take that same shot and put a heavy blue cast over it it would completely change the meaning of the image. To me, that's something that's amazing; that even if it's a slight adjustment it can change the message. It's really powerful and interesting to play with, it gives you a lot of control over your work and what your viewer is feeling while they're looking at it.
How do you think your photography would change if color suddenly became unavailable?
Wow. I don't know what I would do, I really don't. I've done black and white and I like it, and I love other people's black and white, but I don't know what I would do. It's the heaviest factor in my work, it's everything in my work. So I don’t know what I’d do, I think that I'd be very sad.
What artists do you find inspiring?
I like a lot of classic darkroom photographers like Ansel Adams or Minor White but I think most of my inspiration probably comes from abstract paintings, Fine art, and anything that's heavily color oriented. I definitely feel most connected to impressionism, and a lot of the stuff from the early 20th century, like dadaism and futurism, even though it doesn't quite relate to my work. One of the most interesting things that happened then was that art really moved conceptually. It changed into being art just for art and the rules kind of got thrown out the window. Duchamp’s Fountain is one of my favorite pieces, which is bizarre because, again, it has nothing to do with my work at all, but I love that piece because it's so heavily conceptual in a way that was so groundbreaking at the time. It really had nothing to do with how the urinal looked or anything, it was solely a concept. That was another pivotal moment in the art world where everything changed because of what he did. I think it opened up a lot of doors for art to cross more boundaries and it became a lot more interesting and free. I think that's what I appreciate the most about that time and why those are the periods that I feel most connected to.
You’re influenced by art that's very conceptual. In what ways is your work conceptual?
Concepts are such a difficult layer to add into your work. I have found for myself, and I've seen a couple of other people find it as well, that I'm an intuitive shooter, which means that I don't really know what I'm doing at first until I'm there and I'm feeling whatever it is that I’m doing. While I don't do super heavy conceptual work, my concepts are all emotional and the feelings that my work evokes.
I think what's interesting about photography is that, at the core of it, there’s something that everyone shares. So it’s objective and subjective at the same time. In my work, I'm trying to show you something that both of us feel/have felt, and I'm showing it to you in my own way. As far as I'm aware, that's kind of the main point.
Is photography romantic to you?
Definitely. Romantic is another keyword for me. I romanticize what I do and I only shoot the things that I love like nature and landscapes and I think that I project that feeling on to my work.
How is photography like dream weaving?
Creating. It's all about kind of what I talked about earlier in regards to post-production, you can create and do whatever you want. That's the way I would compare what I do to weaving a dream.
What I find interesting is that you deal with a lot of human subjects like intimacy, romance, and the deeper self yet there aren't a lot of people in your work. Why does your vision of these very human themes not include the human form?
Two reasons. One, I think that we're a lot more connected to the landscape than we think we are. I think that, in a lot of ways, nature and landscape is us. The other reason is that I find it interesting, and more of a challenge, to create those human emotions without any people. I think it's easier to take a picture of someone crying to represent sadness or take a picture of two people kissing and say, this is love but it's a lot more difficult to craft that in something that isn't typically associated with that emotion.I find that fascinating because it gives the idea of intimacy its own life separate from a person. So, in a way, it's almost like creating a soul for that idea.
“I have freed myself from the sticky medium of paint and I'm working directly with light itself” - Man Ray. any thoughts on that?
I definitely feel that way with film. that’s one of the things that draws me the most to film now that I'm so familiar with it. I do feel that you're really much more connected to the actual light, especially in comparison to digital. With digital the light gets broken up into a thousand pixels and basically reconstructed right a digital file, with film you're literally imprinting the light through a chemical process and your end product is really the actual light that you saw at that moment. Knowing that, I feel so much more connected to light and to the moment that I'm shooting.
“Daguerreotype (photography) will take the place of painting” - Gustave Flaubert
I think that has proven true throughout history; functionality wise for sure. The more available photography became, which is another thing that kind of changed around - a little earlier but around the early 20th century, the less painting became a function and the more it became just an art. So, in some ways, that's historically true but I don't think that painting will never not have a place. You know, I think people will always do it, but the meaning of it has definitely changed.
What is it like to be an artist in this city?
I think that San Francisco is one of the most unique places in the world. There's a lot of inspiration to be found here. For me, specifically, it's great because there's so much nature just within. Sometimes I'll just suddenly find myself in wilderness and can't believe that I'm in a city. I think that San Francisco also attracts all different kinds of unique people which is really inspiring to me as well. I think the drawbacks would definitely be just how expensive it is and the fact that you pay to live in this city for sure. It really hard for art because as rent goes up, we of course don't make much money so it makes it harder and harder for artists to be here. I’ve had a lot of friends who left for smaller more affordable cities, which is sad. I think San Francisco is losing that creative crowd. I've seen it happen in the last six years that I’ve been here.
Can you describe a moment where the city left you in awe?
That would be another “aha” moment I had. not art-wise but life-wise. I actually moved here without ever coming here beforehand. I had a feeling I would like it, but obviously I didn't know. I ended up taking a train from the East Coast here and going across the country and seeing the country and photographing it. That in itself created a journey of coming here and it shifted the way I felt about it. The train got in and Emeryville and my student housing was in San Francisco so I got in a cab to take me across the bridge. I remember seeing that view of the cityscape from the Bay Bridge for the first time and just thinking “It's so beautiful. I can't believe I'm here.” That was a really wonderful moment because, in a way, I already felt accomplished even if I hadn't really done anything, but there was something really fulfilling about that moment, it just felt so wonderful, and there was so much excitement, so much awe.
What's in store for the future?
I'm definitely in that post-grad period where I'm working and I'm trying to shoot. School forces you to be constantly shooting and when you suddenly don't have that anymore it drops off and I've done fairly well at keeping it up, not as much as I would like to butI still am and I don't want to lose that momentum. I think what helps is the fact that I do love the Bay Area so much and that I do still feel so inspired.I still get that feeling that I got when I first got here and that keeps me shooting and I don't ever want to be that person that gets overwhelmed with work and stops. So my main focus is to just keep that feeling, keep feeling inspired and keep feeling the love that I feel for the Bay Area. And, hopefully, people are interested in my work and will want to see it but if not I'm still fulfilled either way.