A few weeks ago we caught up with Volume 4 featured photographer Owen Harvey about his photographic practice and ideas on the current state of photography. With an impressive collection of work and being nominated and winning several awards fresh out of university in 2013 from the Magnum Photos & IdeasTap Award to being part of the Royal Photographic Society Touring exhibition in 2014, Harvey is not only a talented photographer but a key and poignant figure amongst young photographers.
HR: Hey Owen lets kick things off with talking a little bit about a project you’re currently working on. Your Skinhead project is littered with nods to fashion photography and 1980’s British Sub culture type of imagery, what lured you to the subject matter?
OH: Initially I was asked to shoot ‘The Skinhead Reunion’ for the Fred Perry Subcultured website. I had a lot of fun over that weekend and made some friends within the scene whom I keep in contact with. I saw it as a natural step from my ‘Mod UK’ work. The images are a different set of young adults, although they both look to the past for their influence through music, style and attitudes. They have a lot of passion for what they are involved in, which is exciting for me.
HR: There must have been clear obstacles to over come within this project. People sometimes attach a level of negativity towards skinheads, how did you go about avoiding typical photography cliché’s and doing something with a little bit more soul to it?
OH: I didn’t over think it. Perhaps naively, I expect individuals to understand the history of sub culture they are viewing. Yes, there is a level of negativity projected on this subculture due to racists adopting the look (of course the media has highlighted this). I didn’t actively avoid photographic clichés though as I didn’t feel I needed to. I liked the idea of showing a group of young adults, who may come from different backgrounds, but have a common theme connecting them. In this case, a love of style, music and sense of belonging within their group, I wanted to concentrate on the positives.
HR: That’s interesting. Sometimes I think photographers run the risk of dumbing down their audience, thinking they are not as intelligent at reading images as the photography community. Clearly you’ve ignored that within your work. Do you think some photographers need to place more faith and trust into their audience?
OH: I think that really depends on the project and is also a personal choice by each photographer. I think most of the projects that I’ve shown so far, have been quite self-explanatory, so no need to over explain them. I’m working on two projects at the moment which are both about mental health issues, and also still about growing up. Naturally the work is more complex in nature, so perhaps when they are ready they will need to be presented in a different way than previous projects, whether that be with explanatory text or audio ect. Or perhaps, they are again left with more ambiguity and the viewer takes what they want from them.
HR: You make work that taps into various styles connects to various audiences. How important would you say it is now to speak to the audience beyond the photographic community?
OH: I think that its very important for the work to have life outside a small network of photographers. If the work connects to a wider audience (in the case of Mod UK and Skins, that is an audience interest in style, British heritage and music) then that can only be a good thing. Its outreach is larger that way. The projects connect with people who have different interests and hopefully encourage people to take time to view a photographic project, who perhaps wouldn’t usually be interested in doing so.
HR: I’ve always looked at your Mod UK work and the projects and commissions that follow to be a sort of hybrid projects. They seem to take the most interesting elements from various themes and genres of photography and throw them together. As a viewer it’s far more interesting to look at. Do you think this is where photographers are actively pushing the medium, rather than sticking to just straight up documentary or landscape photography?
OH: So far the projects I have put out there have been photographically quite to the point. The subject is multi layered though, for example subculture can be about music, history, style, politics and about status and identity. If you are saying that images skip between fashion imagery and documentary imagery for example, I’d say that’s due to the subjects influence. I make decisions to play on this photographically, for example it was an important decision to keep the images of mod culture timeless, so they look like they could be made in the early 60’s. Photographically it then reflects the ideology of the subject. I guess sin a lot of ways that also just about having fun and keeping the images visually interesting, which for this subject is the most important thing. In regards to where other photographers are going with mixing it up, there seems to be a lot of collaboration at the moment and cross over of genres and that can only be a good and refreshing thing.
HR: I’m a big fan of your Mod UK project, it has a beat to it and the photographs feel lively and full of guts. I remember seeing you work on the edit during your final year at University, what has it been like going back and shooting for the project again?
OH: I loved the whole process of that project. I fully embedded myself in to something that I realised meant so much to the people involved. With their passion for what they were involved in and my excitement for capturing it, I felt it really came together. I could (and will) happily photograph that scene for years to come. I never really had a break from shooting it, so I didn’t come back to it as such. All I can say really, is that its been great and rewarding (at times) when viewing contact sheets.
HR: I’m glad you’re continuing with the project. To me it’s a body of work that has timeless qualities to it, which is a reflection of how you decided to shoot the project. These images don’t look like they were made in the 21st century. There are no real clues in terms of time, there’s nobody gazing into their smart phone to help the audience identify when these pictures were taken. What are your hopes for what people will think about this work say, 30 years down the line?
OH: Yes, I’m glad that timeless quality is obvious. Funnily enough I’ve been thinking a lot about the archival quality of work quite a lot recently. Images I may not of taken half a year ago, I’ve now been more encouraged to make, in hope they are interesting for different reasons in 30 years time. I get a lot of excitement from a lot of the photographers work I admire now, I love the sense of longevity within it, it doesn’t just talk about the story but also unintentionally the progress of technology and changing of the times. I really couldn’t say about what people would say about the Mod UK work in 30 years time, it may well be just be in a box under my bed.
HR: Is there a level of confidence to be felt whilst you work on the Mod UK project? Given its gone down really well with a music and photography audience alike.
OH: I’m confident in the process of how I make the work and of course happy its gone down well, I’m not sure yet about its final outcome though. For now, it’s working as a great tool to gain commercial work, which at this point I’m interested and excited by.
HR: What is it in particular that excites and interests you about commercial work?
OH: I treat commercial work exactly the same as I would a personal project, I want the work to be able to sit next to one another and there be no real clear indication which one was made for myself and which one was made for someone else. I enjoy the whole process of collaboration as well, from coming up with or working with an existing idea and delivering something I’m pleased with.
HR: You work for Metro Imaging and you freelance, I can imagine working on your own projects can sometimes be a welcome break as well as a bit of a juggling act?
OH: I’m very lucky that Metro Imaging are very supportive, they are a great company to work for. I enjoy being involved with both sides of photography, both in production and my own practise. In regards to juggling the two, my projects mostly been shot over a long period, so it doesn’t seem to interfere. At the current time it’s the right balance.
HR: You mentioned earlier about focusing on the positives. What is the one of the most positive things coming out of contemporary photography at the moment?
OH: Photography is more accessible to a wider audience now, of course due to the digital age. I think that is stopping art from being exclusive and also enables a larger variety of artists to have a voice that is easily distributed. I like the idea that I can make something, finish and have it up the next day for people to view if I wanted to.
HR: In the UK alone there are hundreds of photography graduates each year, what would say has been a key skill or attitude since graduating to be doing what your doing?
OH: I try to get on with what I want to do, which is taking photos. I think a lot about photography and I enjoy working at it, to try to be as good as the photographers I admire.
HR: So who is on your list of photographers that you admire or have shaped the way you want to work?
OH: Currently, Danny Lyon, Roget Ballen, Ken Grant, Terry O’ Neil and without knowing it for a long time, Ethan Russell.
HR: You’ve been a graduate for two years now and you’ve been prolific in terms of how busy you are and how often you engage people with your work on social media. I always ask this as it’s great to hear different photographers take, but what is one main piece of advice you can give young photographers just starting out? Either graduated or wanting to get into freelance work?
OH: I don’t think I’m in place yet to give sound advice, as it’s a constant learning curve. All I’d say is work and do what makes you happy.
Owen Harvey is currently taking over The Photographers Gallery Instagram account, where he will be sharing some of his images from past projects as well as a taste of something new. You can see more of Owen’s work over on his website : www.owen-harvey.com