Acey Harper : The body in all its forms

I first met Acey thanks to my own photo exhibit: he was picking up his prints at the photo lab across the street. This impressive photographer was introduced to me and I saw his extraordinary project. Acey is an incredibly sensitive and particularly humble man. He doesn’t sell you his project, he lets you appreciate it in peace.
I have to admit that before looking at his website, I was slightly skeptic because nude photography isn’t usually a discipline that touches me, and since Acey’s work dealt with contortionists, I thought it would fall somewhere into the category of “common” photography. When I discovered his work, however, I was stunned at the modernness of the images, as well as the homage to the body and its numerous possibilities. The tonality is perfectly balanced, as are his compositions. The power of his lines are often striking. He equally plays with light and shadows to underline the value of a modeled body so as to capture these acrobatic feats. I truly admire Acey’s work; he is someone who concentrates on what is essential – he works to achieve the perfect image.

Hi Acey, can you tell me about your background in photography?

I began in newspapers. In fact, I was a copy boy! That meant that I was an errand boy for the newsroom. I did whatever anyone needed. I got coffee, carried copy to the composing room or went into the photo department to request a photo for the next day’s paper. That is how I discovered photography! There were wonderful and great photographers at the newspaper and they were happy to show me how to use a camera, develop film or make a print. Most importantly, they would take me on assignments with them and let me shoot some photos. Afterward, they would critique my work. I gave up any other idea except to be a photographer.

Later, I became a staff photographer at a small newspaper in south Florida. I could not believe that I was being paid to make photographs! It was a dream job and I learned so much because I alternated between covering news events and working in the studio with lighting. The newspaper used a lot of color and I became very good at exposing transparency film. I won several awards for my work there and when the Parent company started a new national newspaper, they invited me to be on the first staff. That newspaper was USA Today. I traveled all over the United States covering major news and sporting events, making portraits of celebrities or average Americans.

I left newspapers and worked for magazines such as TIME, PEOPLE or FORTUNE. I traveled the world and met people such as Francis Ford Coppola, Bill Clinton, or Imelda Marcos. I covered politics, riots in Miami, war in Central America, or behind the scenes on movies or television shows. It was all interesting and exciting.

I also was a picture editor on books, researching and assigning other photographers to projects such as women in America or several Presidential Inaugurations. Being an editor taught me how to organize my own shoots and how others “see”. It is invaluable to look at all the images someone has made of a subject. You learn how they “see” and perceive. I broadened my own vision and perspective on the world.

In every case, because I was a photojournalist I was documenting the facts of people’s lives and the story around them. I dealt only in reality. I began to want to do something else. I needed to express from within myself.

How did you come up with the idea for this series of acrobats in unexpected environments?

I was working with a writer on the idea of being an acrobat. I began by making photographs of circus artists on a large gray backdrop lit by strobes. I was making some very technically perfect images. They were on the trapeze, jumping on trampolines or doing contortion on the floor. I used all my skills in lighting and composition. The photographs were pretty but uninspiring. They were not satisfying to me and I realized the images had no “soul” to them.

I knew I wanted to get away from the formality of these photographs and begin to see in a new way. I was motivated and inspired by the raw courage of young aerialists and contortionists who began each day with a search for new ways to move their bodies and express themselves. For them each day, each act, and every performance was an opportunity to create a renewed version of themselves. Like them I needed to find a fresh way to express myself. It was then that I reinvented my way of seeing.

One weekend I took one of my favorite trapeze artists to the countryside and photographed her hanging in a tree and stretching beside a pond. It was amazing! The photographs from that day were completely different: they evoked a mood, an energy, a magical feeling that set a new tone for my work, and started me on an unexpected journey of creative exploration.

I knew this was how I needed to continue my work. I felt I finally was seeing for the first time in my life! It was the idea of seeing the unexpected. She became part of the landscape and it became an extension of her. I realized I wanted to make photographs in the world, outside of the performance space and in the forests, deserts, beaches and cities.

I realized I was seeking a rhythm of juxtaposition. There are three important elements to creating these images – person, light and location. But, they each needed to compliment the other, to become a layer within the image, each perfectly juxtaposed over the other. So, it was not enough to have a person doing some incredible feat with their body, it had to be in a place, a location that echoes the movement or shape or energy of their body and finally, it had to have the emotion of that movement or shape embodied by the light. I wanted to have a sense of the unreal or ethereal and that often meant perfect light, even if it meant returning on another day to have that light. Each element had to emulate the rhythm of the other.

How exactly did you choose the locations? Did you have specific places in mind, or was it left up to chance?

Sometimes I found a particular location after searching sometimes for weeks or months. Other times, I simply stumbled on it while driving in a city or walking in the forest. But the important element to each was the sense of rhythm of a place. Did it speak to me visually? Was there a lyricism to the location? Why and how did I seek certain locations?

The process of creating each of these photos always began with a personal meeting with the artist. We would meet for a coffee and discuss their specific skills, act and apparatus and, most importantly, how they saw themselves as artists— what moods or characters they brought to their acrobatics onstage, and what images and emotions were in their dreams and private thoughts when practicing their art. I ask them what their own fantasy for a location might be. I then began to visualize them on a desert floor, hanging from trees or over water. For others, I saw the grittiness of a cityscape – a junkyard, bridge or the ironwork of a stately building.

As we developed our dialogue about what we wanted to capture in our shoot together, usually an idea for a location would organically emerge. It was important that whatever the concept—whether on a beach or desert, rigged from the rafters of an old winery or factory, or twisting on the pedestrian concourse of the Brooklyn Bridge—it felt right to me and to them. Often it was a place I’d seen that I was saving for the right subject—somewhere I had scouted or found by word of mouth, or even on Google Earth. Sometimes it was a fantasy the acrobat had for doing a trick in an unusual situation. Other times, I searched for a specific location and concept based on my conversation with the artist. I sought a location or environment that would conjure a feeling or emotion that matched the person I was photographing.

There were times I searched for ideas that were suggested by the location itself. Often, I would spend hours alone, roaming the streets of the city in a car, walking the woods of the coastal forests or high desert  just looking for a place that spoke to me. The location was important and this was time consuming. There were times it took a year from the first conversation with a subject until the right place was found and the photo was created. When it happened, it was sublime!

Other times though, it was chance. For example, I made a photograph of a woman on a railroad line that was not planned. The acrobat and I were searching for a hot springs in Black Rock Desert of Nevada We were miles from civilization and we stumbled across the railroad. She began to stretch across it and I knew it would be perfect. The railroad seemed to disappear into the sun which had just risen behind her. We made the photo in minutes with little thought or preparation. It is beautiful and one of my favorites.

How do you select your models? And how do your collaborations with them work?

At first, I approached people at the San Francisco Circus Center, a school for circus arts. I watched people train and invited interesting performers to pose. Later, after I had begun my work and made photographs with several people they began to recommend other artists to me or personally tell others to work with me. In either case, the next step was the discussion I described previously. We met and discussed how they felt about their art and what their ideas or fantasies were for the ultimate image that reflected their work and emotional approach. It was always important for us to become acquainted and to have a sense of each other. I wanted them to know they could trust me. I also wanted to feel a connection or bond with them; it was important. I do not like to work with people with whom I do not have a shared feeling of empathy and friendship.

Next, I often had a specific idea I wanted to try. Sometimes the idea was a success and I felt triumphant! Other times, the first idea failed or, after the artist had seen images in the back of my camera, we would devise new versions or ideas on the spot. Sometimes, the artists would make a suggestion that led to the successful image. I was never afraid to take those ideas and suggestions and try to make a photograph. It was always a collaboration. Both acrobats and photographers are used to working hard and in hardship for our respective art, and for “Private Acts”, we shared the difficulties of bringing our visions to life. Depending on the venue, we rose before dawn, stood in frigid water or climbed down jagged rocky crevasses together. We often spent hours rigging equipment in unfamiliar places, or working tricks and poses to get the image I sought.

I had rules and the first was that the acrobat was in charge. We could quit any time they wanted. They had to feel they would not be pushed or coerced into working in an unpleasant situation. Also, I emphasized safety at all times. I never wanted anyone to try something I asked if it was not safe.

There was a sense of collaboration and adventure to all the photographs. I am often asked how I received permission to photograph in some locations. I did not. We would sometimes rush in and the acrobat would climb up a wall or contort on a bridge as I quickly made my photograph and then we left, sometimes with security guards in pursuit. In fact, I would describe much of this project as a performance art captured on camera. The artists did these poses or quick acts one tim in the one place never to be replicated again. I made the image that was the complete summation of their short performance. Those images are my project.

Are the photo shoots complicated to organize? (I’m thinking of the metro, or public places)

Some are very complicated and others are surprisingly simple. The metro was actually simple. I timed the performance of the two women between the trains. At first, a crowd gathers on the platform, waiting for a train to arrive. We do nothing and wait with them. Then, with huge noise and whoosh of air, the train arrives. A big crowd pushes off and the people on the platform push on, then the train departs and for a few moments we are alone. The women quickly dropped their outer clothing and got into position. I photographed until a crowd began to build again or until the arrival of he next train. When we were done, we simply stepped onto the next train and left.

Others were more complicated. For example, when I worked with Morgaine Rosenthal to photograph her as she hung by her mouth from the hoist on the back of a 1957 Chevy truck it was almost a comedy! We had the truck and a location on a farm that was perfect. But, the truck was heavy and the fields were very wet, Thus, the truck could not climb the small hills to get into place. The wheels kept slipping or getting stuck in mud. So, we commandeered one of the farm’s tractors to pull the truck up the hill and into the perfect place. Then the tractor ran out of fuel! Then we got another tractor, hooked the truck to it, and this time we got it into place. But, it was late afternoon and when I shot the first few frames, the light was not what I wanted. We left the truck in place, went to the cabin we were using as our base and I cooked dinner for everyone. The next morning we returned, set up my ladder which we had to tie to the ground, Morgaine went up and my crew of three people pulled her ladder away, hid behind the truck and I made photographs of Morgaine. The light was exquisite and I knew I finally had the image I had imagined in my mind for the preceding six months.

Here is the other fact about that shoot and it is true of several of them – it was not the first time I had tried to photograph her doing this trick. I had tried two other locations in the preceding months but the photo did not work. It did not have the feeling I wanted or the clean separation of this woman hanging by her mouth while wearing nothing at all. In the pasture, her pale skin contrasted nicely with the dark gray tones of the grass that rolled up in the hill behind her. It was perfect, the small woman, seeming vulnerable but really the culmination of all her strength and determination incongruously hanging by her mouth from a machine built in Detroit in the 1957.

Another time, I photographed three women hanging upside down from the front of the Opera House in San Francisco. I had been contemplating these giant iron lamps that were part of the building’s facade for many months. Finally I knew what I wanted to do-get three women to hang from them in the early morning light. It was all very quick. We arrived before daylight. One of the women experimented with poses on one of the lamps. When I saw the shape I liked, I said, ok, lets go. They dropped their clothes, ran for their spots, climbed the wall and hung by their feet. I knew I would only get one chance once they were up there. Indeed, within two minutes a security guard came out and looked up to his right. He was shocked to see this woman hanging there. Then he looked to his left and saw the exact same woman (they were twin sisters!). His reaction was delayed but then he began to yell and chase them as they quickly came off the wall. He could not catch them or me and we were in my car and we were out of there within moments. It was a simple, quick shoot with little planning but perfect execution.

That was the fun and the core of many of these shoots. They were one-time performances, unique and never to be repeated. I directed and produced this performance and then captured it on camera. Then, we are gone never to return.

Do you think you’ll continue this series or do you have a new direction/idea you’d like to explore?

Yes! How can I not continue this work? It has become my passion. Although, I also am working on a classical nude series – this is the core of what I do!

There are so many people with whom I would like to work and who have expressed interest in working with me. There are so many places where I want to create images. Thus, there is so much inspiration and need to express myself working in this manner.

So when I return to France this fall it will be for two reasons. I have two exhibits of my work one in November, during Paris Photo and the other at my gallery, Galerie Catherine et André Hug in December and January. Afterward, I will be remain in Paris to continue work on a series I began last year with circus artists. My new direction therefore is with circus artists in France and Europe. I am very excited about this.

Will you continue to work exclusively in black and white, or do you sometimes think about working in color? Why this choice?

No, I have no intention of doing this work in color. For me black and white is the only way I could do this work. The irony is that at one time I was known for my color work. it was all I did. I also was known as a photographer who could light an image -this was necessary in the day of color transparency film at low ASA or ISO speeds.

When I began to do this project I wanted to strip away all artifice of bright color, lighting, or even extra photoshop work. Instead I returned to the basics. When I first learned photography I shot only black and white film and learned to expose with available light. It was about creating an image that compelled the viewer with composition, content and, most importantly, emotion. I love the emotion of black and white. When I would discover a location or imagine an image I always did it thinking of the light at a particular time of day, whether it  be contrasty or soft, foggy and cloudy, or sunny. I imagined the texture of the light on the location and the people I would be photographing. I thought of the color of their skin and how it would contrast with grass, trees, rocks, or sand.

I feel color can be distracting about the content and form of the image. Most importantly, I feel the emotional connection is greater in black and white.

You published a collection on this series. How did the photographic community react to it?

It has been overwhelming and the most humbling experience. There are people who I have admired for years, since before I became a professional photographer, who have given me the most inspiring, positive feedback and reaction. Besides expressing appreciation or complimenting my work, they have encouraged me to continue. But, I would so anyway. I am compelled by the rhythm of juxtaposition and I feel it every day. I am compelled by the emotion of place and person. That is why I will be working in France.


Acey Harper’s website

Interview by AB