Photographer Jessica Todd Harper ’97 explores how we negotiate our most intimate relationships.
Interview by Priya Ratneshwar
[Click on photos to see at full size]
Inspired during her teenage years by painters such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Mary Cassatt, photographer Jessica Todd Harper ’97 has since turned her lens on her own family to explore how people negotiate their most intimate relationships. Her newest book, forthcoming this fall from Damiani Editore, is chiefly about life with her children, twin sons and a daughter. She sat down with the Bulletin to give us a preview of some of these images and tell us the story behind their making.
Self Portrait with Christopher (Pregnant), 2007
“This is the very first picture I made for this book. We were trying to get ready to go out to dinner and meet friends, but I was tired all the time, and I was lying down. And then I thought, ‘The light here is really beautiful; let’s make a picture.’ I’m glad I did because I never made another one of this pregnancy.
“One of the things I love is just the stuff of everyday life in the background. The curtain is not straight. Those books are just kind of shoved over to the side. Visually they balance out the heads on the other side, but also you get a sense that people actually live there. Because life is messy.”
Harper’s first monograph, the award-winning Interior Exposure (Damiani Editore 2008), features photos of Harper, her husband Christopher Zafiriou, Hfd ’97, and assorted relatives and friends (including Mawrters), interacting during both formal occasions and everyday moments. Accolades for the book include selection by O, The Oprah Magazine and Photo District News as a top book recommendation and a first place Lucie Award.
Harper explains that she “makes pictures where nothing happens,” but which are charged by the interior lives of her subjects.
“Most of the time when we’re sitting around living our lives, we’re not highly animated, but yet our minds are very active,” she says. “My photos are more about what you’re thinking and how you relate to the people and spaces that surround you as you go about your day. It is important to me to show vulnerability and conflict, or even boredom or sadness, because there is truth in that.”
Few of Harper’s images are candid; rather she’ll pause or recreate real-life moments for the camera. More often than not it’s an environment, and especially its light, that inspires her photographs. Harper eschews using artificial light as much as possible—an aversion she shares with her mentor, the late Arnold Newman, considered the father of environmental portraiture.
“Arnold photographed people in the place where they lived or worked because that says a lot about them,” Harper says. “He also really encouraged using natural light, available light, because that’s how we see.”
Self Portrait with Marshall, 2008
“This photo is of one of the twins, maybe about eight weeks old then, and I’m in a nightgown in my parents’ house. It basically is a rip-off of what’s been composed a zillion times, the Virgin Mary and baby. Yet they’re usually not in a bathroom. So on the one hand, with the light coming from behind like that, this is about a miraculous, ethereal, very special moment. But on the other hand the moment is in the real world. It’s surrounded by cluttered bathrooms and fatigue.”
Newman influenced Harper in another critical way—by steering her toward Bryn Mawr.
“I took a workshop with Arnold when I was 18, and that was when I knew I had gotten into Bryn Mawr,” she recalls. “I was planning to go, but I was nervous about it because I was going into a very technical career, and a lot of people might choose a school where they’re going to learn all the latest gadgets. I remember asking him about that, and he just said, ‘In order to make anything interesting, you have to have interesting things going on in your brain. And the best way to have that happen is to have an educated brain. You can always learn technical skills later.’”
Harper was exposed to many of her artistic influences as an art history major at the College. She learned about Northern Renaissance painting with Art History Professor Christiane Hertel, and Hertel and Art History Professor Lisa Saltzman served as advisors on Harper’s senior thesis on photographer Sally Mann. Bryn Mawr was also the site of Harper’s inaugural show. Titled Change in Custom, it featured members of Harper’s customs group and captured the process of transitioning to college. The exhibition was the first student work to be displayed in the gallery then housed on the second floor of the Neuberger Centennial Campus Center.
Nicholas, Marshall, and Catherine, 2012
“The children are each doing their own thing, which is what children do. My son doesn’t want to be in the picture, and he’s grumpy, and my daughter is learning to walk.
“In our culture today, children are almost uniquely photographed smiling and in a very animated fashion. Even in my own holiday photos that I send out, everyone’s smiling. But those photos are meant to serve an agenda; they’re not about what a real family looks like. What you see less often are where the children are little people with interior worlds with thoughts that you might not know about, ever. That is a hard thing for a parent to come to terms with.”
“I went through the professional selection process just like any other outside artist,” Harper recalls. “I made a proposal to the gallery, and they let me have a show. It was a wonderful growing experience, too, because that’s a skill you need as an artist.”
Harper’s methods produce tableau-like scenes that preserve the veracity of candid photos. The result, writes Francine Prose in her review of Interior Exposure for O, The Oprah Magazine, is photos that “seem distanced and intimate, posed and spontaneous, revealing and mysterious.” Prose concludes, “Regardless of how different our households are from Jessica Todd Harper’s, her haunting pictures remind us how much and how little we understand about the people we know and love best.”
The forthcoming book picks up where Interior Exposure concludes, with Harper’s first pregnancy in 2007. She is tentatively thinking of calling it The Home Stage, a double entendre that references the homebound lifestyle necessitated by young children as well as the idea that home is the stage on which children first learn how to live.
Christopher with Nicholas and Elephant Lovie, 2009
“I took a lot of pictures of my husband and the children. Historically, there have been many artists and photographers who photograph their wives, first as a muse and then maybe with the children. However, you don’t often see these very intimate pictures of fathers and children, so I thought that was something interesting to explore.
“Our son was sucking on a lovie and looks very safe and very content. Yet my husband looks so intense. This picture really emphasizes muscles and bigness and the angles of the couch and the look of his sharp eyebrow. It’s almost like the child is in this dangerous, powerful world, and yet he’s in a very safe, cradled space.”
Photographing children, Harper explains, adds an additional level of complexity to shoots.
“With this new body of work, I am a lot more deliberate,” she says. “It used to be that I could sit back and wait for the muse to strike me. Now it’s more like, I have to hire a babysitter on Tuesday morning from 8 a.m. to noon, and I am going to make a picture. It requires a lot of patience and discipline to keep going and also wait for the picture. And sometimes it just isn’t going to happen, and I have to be at peace with that.”
Sophia and Barbara, 2012
“These are friends, and the mother is just taking her daughter out of the bath. It feels like a Mary Cassatt painting, and one of the things Cassatt did so well is portray very domestic and intimate interior scenes.
“I told the mother as she was lifting her daughter up, ‘Don’t do it too fast; just pause.’ And it worked. I love that you can see the mother’s face just a little bit in the background, so you know she’s there, but it’s really about the child, her openness, just kind of checking me out. And there’s something about her face that is so interesting—perhaps it’s because she’s German—and so it makes me look twice.”
Marshall with Christopher and Grandpa (Rocking Horse), 2010
“My husband and one of my sons and my paternal grandfather are in this photo. This was very difficult to make technically because the lighting was so complicated, but that’s partly what I was drawn to.
“You’re looking at the lines that connect these individuals, and they’re lit up to command even more attention. The father is leaning forward, and the child is leaning back, and yet he’s very engaged. There are a lot of metaphors that can be made about the relationship between a parent and a child. It’s very intimate, yet there is also the tension of free will.”
Nicholas with Marshall and Christopher (Picnic), 2012
“My husband is wrestling with the boys. They are all so connected physically, and yet my son is in his own little moment here. And I love the juxtaposition of the kewpie doll cuteness of the children in the background.”
Becky and Marshall, 2008
“My younger sister is holding one of my twins at my parents’ house in Allentown. You feel like you’re catching them in between moments.
“The light in that particular spot is quite lovely, and one of the things I like about this image is that my sister’s face is slightly blurred. The focus is really on this child, and he’s looking at the viewer in this very adult-like way, even though he’s a small child. Again, you can’t help but think about all of the Madonna and Baby Jesus photos that you look at as an art history major because Baby Jesus is the one child who is not often portrayed as childlike.”
Abby Sees Hugh in the Front Hall, 2013
“My husband [left] and a friend are having some kind of dialogue, but also two of the children, the friend’s children, are having some kind of relationship. My daughter, Catherine, who’s involved in her own little project, is oblivious to everyone else.
“The space here plays a central role in the composition, so I put a strobe light around the corner that fired every time I took a picture. That way I could still get the flames in the background, but the children wouldn’t be just a giant blur.
“I like how this picture reminds me of “Las Meninas”, a portrait Velázquez did of the princesses of Spain. I learned about it at Bryn Mawr in Art of the Spanish-Speaking World with [Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Professor in the Humanities] Gridley McKim-Smith, who recently passed away. I wasn’t thinking of it when I took the photo, but because I took that class it was stored in my head. The images that you look at and that you spend time with affect how you see the world.”
Self Portrait with Marshall (Boat), 2010
“I’m in a canoe in the Poconos with one of the twins, and my mother was in the boat as well. I could not have set up a tripod and then danced across the canoe, so I told my mother what to do. You can’t see my face, but I’m saying, ‘Now, photograph now.’
“I like this because the body language shows intimacy but the heads show privacy. The mother is her own person. And my son is in this very safe, secure environment, and yet he’s really in his own world.”
Photography care of Rick Wester Fine Art, New York, NY