Cig Harvey

The photographs and artist books of Cig Harvey, MFA, have been widely exhibited and remain in the permanent collections of major museums and collections, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas; the Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine; and the International Museum of Photography and Film at the George Eastman House, Rochester, New York. Cig’s devotion to visual storytelling has lead to innovative international campaigns and features with New York Magazine, Harper's Bazaar Japan, Kate Spade, and Bloomingdales.   

Do you try to elicit a certain emotion from most of your photographs?

It depends. The way I work is very story-based, so the idea comes first. It’s a way of trying to make the unseen seen, and get it into a photograph. The work is conceptually driven. I think about these things, then I’m drawn to respond. That’s the way I work. What I’m interested in is this idea of what is unknowable, what is a portrait and when does it transcend a picture of that person?


You once said that you make photographs, among other things, to create beauty out of pain. Would you expand on that a bit?

 That is the classical idea: beauty out of pain, order out of chaos. Trying to figure out art and photography as if it’s this big bucket you pour in all your ideas in. For me, having a photograph at the end of it — which is inherently beautiful — is a really great way to live. So, 'beauty out of pain' sounds very dramatic, but it’s more about trying to use photography as a way to make sense of the world, to slow down the world, to look at ideas in a visual form . . . You start with a question, you end with a picture.


What is the most painful moment you have ever explored in a photograph?

That’s a tough question. Some of these photographs [in 'You Look At Me Like An Emergency'] are about my best friend’s betrayal, my grandmother dying. My niece was born without oxygen for thirty minutes and I made pictures about it. Sometimes, the visual work is . . . very beautiful, because of color and light, but what’s really going on in the images is coming from a dark place. I have definitely made work about fear, but not terror or violence because it has not been a part of what’s going on around me. I also use photography to remind me that the world is amazing, so, even though some of these pictures might be about something difficult, I am inherently an optimist and a romantic.


You started as a photojournalist but gave it up because you wanted to have control over your subjects. Are you now trying to get back into the other direction?

Oh, that’s not entirely true. I mean, my first love was photojournalism, but I never really found my feet with it. It became a much stronger statement when I looked at my own life. But I never say never. I’m in photography for life. I’ve felt very lucky to have this outlet . . . I absolutely would go in a photojournalistic direction again, if the right story presented itself.


What is the difference between capturing the moment and creating the moment? Well, I think that it has to do with construction. You're constructing the image, and hopefully it doesn’t feel forced at all, but it’s worth finding it. If you're out there in the world, and it appears before you — both can be powerful forces. Both can be laden with metaphor and symbols and story and ideas. It’s just a different way of working.


Would you say the protagonist in many of your photos is economically secure, but emotionally distraught? Are the feelings of the middle class often overlooked and dismissed in art?

That’s a great question! I'm going to have to think about that. I think that art and life is difficult sometimes, and, well, I don’t think “distraught”. [But] I like that idea! I’ve never considered the work being that way, but I am middle class, so, that would be really interesting to look back at the work and think of it in that way  —  how [the middle class] isn’t represented in art. That’s very interesting!


It’s usually either poor people or rich people.

Yes, my answer is yes! I think that’s very astute . . . my life is very ordinary, and the concerns the middle class has . . . they do recognize their own troubles and hopes in it. Maybe it is a voice! I am very much middle class, so, I like that idea! I’m going to think about that more tonight [Laughs].


Where is this world you are creating in your photographs?

 I now see — since you’ve said that — [the middle class] is what I’m showing. I’ve never looked at my pictures in that way. I think what I’m trying to show is that — at its most simple level  — this is the life I’m living: which is in New England, which is in Maine, which is surrounded by a family life and this community. So, I think I’m just trying to be honest to my own experience. It’s not that I’m trying to intentionally show a bigger world. But sometimes, you shine the light on the micro, and it shows something much bigger.


In an interview in PhotoEye you said: “I gravitate towards magical realism in photography” Do you also seek this out in literature?

Yes, 100 percent! That’s my absolute favorite genre! 100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Midnight’s Children by Salmund Rushdie.The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy is one of my favorite books. But it has to be based in reality. It’s not interesting if it is just a fantasy. I believe that life flows over. It has to have some foot in reality, then I’m hooked.


Have you started to write?

I’m writing on the photographs. I've always written alongside making pictures, that’s how I have had access to all I’ve been thinking about. This idea of getting the subconscious down . . .  I think that the written work is sometimes much more direct than the photograph. The photograph gets shrouded in color, beauty, and light.


Should all photos have a story behind them? What if a photo is just beautiful but means nothing?

Then it's a postcard. I think that is the role of art: it can be beautiful and have meaning. The role of art can be beautiful, but it also needs to have something more. Otherwise it’s just a postcard. Photographs do need content and form. I mean, beauty is form, right? But if it’s only form, then it is an empty experience. Form and content: why not strive for both?


You once said: “I was making pictures of things rather than about things, so really it was just this empty experience”. Can you speak to this idea, and what it means for an emerging photographer?

 Well, it comes back to this idea of “space” — the conceptual. Asking questions, as opposed to how something looks. This idea of making postcards: you’re making a picture of this thing, you’re not thinking about why is this scene so inspiring, or provocative. It’s about art being an exchange of ideas. What are the ideas behind the work? You’re trying to get beyond the surface of something.



What was the biggest challenge for you when you first started doing commercial and fashion shoots?

I loved it for the same reasons I love teaching: I liked the atmosphere. Fine art is very inward, thinking, and solitary. Whereas, for me, the experience of working alongside a creative team is fun! Thinking and brainstorming as a group to make the strongest images possible is my idea of a good day.


Did you have to unlearn anything, being a fine art photographer?

 No, it’s the same ideas. You're taking your idea, you're never really photographing the clothes. The clothes are just sort of incidental, in a sense, even though that’s what you are trying to sell . . . it’s just the idea of what you’re trying to sell, right? It’s the same idea when I work on a book cover, I’ll read the book and think: what is the essential idea here? What are the emotions you are trying to portray? It’s the same methodology, but with commercial work, I present that to the creative team and hopefully they like my ideas.


Can a fashion photograph be a piece of art? Why is there a separation between fashion photography and fine art photography?

I think it depends on the image. There's a lot of bad fashion photography out there . . . I’ve taught across the board: fine art, fashion, and editorial. Sometimes, in our end-of-the-year review, someone would say “Oh, that’s very fashion-y!” And I was like: “Do you mean shit? Is that what you’re saying?” I think I get it, because there is so much bad work used in a commercial fashion, but when it’s done well, I think it’s amazing, I think it’s exactly the same thing. It’s about fine art. It’s about good images. I would say the same thing with documentary and photojournalism as well.


When I say the word “fashion”, what comes to mind? That fashion photography doesn't exist. It is the idea of using photography as a way to promote a lifestyle. More and more, it’s not about the clothes, it’s about the ideas behind the lifestyle behind it.


Images Courtesy of Cig Harvey

Interview Text Written by Kyria Abrahams & Andrea Blanch 




Mickalene Thomas