Joshua Allen Harris

Joshua Allen Harris is a 39-year-old New York–based visual artist and photographer. After studying graphic design and illustration, he worked for brands such as American Eagle and J.Crew as a men's wardrobe stylist. He became internet-famous with his Air Bear project in 2008, and he picked up a camera in 2012. Harris lives in Brooklyn with his wife Cameron.

Introduction

I was introduced to Joshua Allen Harris a few years ago by friend and photography enthusiast Bijan Sabet. I had admired Harris’ work on Instagram: His reductionist style of visual storytelling was something that spoke to me on a deep level.

Harris told me about a project he had been focused on: taking photos of Broadway, a street in Brooklyn. He wanted to chronicle the story of the street. He recently released his visual narrative essay in the form of three books: Tahoma, Belmont and Broadway.

As soon as they came out, I ordered the books and asked Harris to chat again, this time for pi.co. We ended up talking about his journey, the concepts behind the trilogy and the changing concept of photography, from art to language.

Om Malik: I only know you in the context of Instagram. That’s not a nice thing to say, because I skipped over your past life and let this square space define you. I don’t know anything about your journey. Tell me more about yourself.

Joshua Allen Harris: I grew up in Pittsburgh, and I studied graphic design and illustration at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. It was a two-year program. This was at the time when Photoshop 1.0 was out. It was the beginning of a lot of digital manipulation. I was also still doing a lot of illustration and a lot of painting for graphic design work. I fell in love with painting at that time.

Eventually I entered the School of Visual Arts here in Manhattan, and I dove into what it meant to be a fine artist, a narrative storyteller, and working with concepts and allegory. There I found one of my greater influences in mythology with The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell. Joseph Campbell allowed me to step into myth and the idea around following your bliss, the mystery and the involvement that might be on the other side of life. From that and from being an artist, that sort of sparked my imagination and my creativity.

In my senior year, I happened to create the Air Bear project. I was walking down the street, and a piece of trash flew up on a subway grate. I got interested in working with that wind. The subway train would exhaust wind up through the subway and onto the sidewalks through this grating system. I started to attach inflatable sculptures to them in the street. These gorilla sculptures became viral. It went all over the internet.

This was 2008, at the height of election season. Climate change was a topic. I made a polar bear out of recycled materials, which were trash bags, and was using renewable resources, which was the wind on the street. It also came to life, and when the wind ended it would fall down and show a death too.

People would come across them on the street and be extremely surprised, excited and elated. Fortunately, it got into the right hands and I got to show in Istanbul, Amsterdam. I traveled around with these sculptures for a few years.

In between I was working as a stylist for brands such as J.Crew, Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle, Aeropostale and Under Armour. That was supplementing my opportunities to grow as an artist. I had stopped painting and sculpting. I was sort of burned out, and I was focused on getting a good job in styling.

Om: Is that how you got into photography and Instagram?

Joshua: My friend showed me Instagram, and I started taking pictures with my iPhone 4. It took some time, and then I started to find myself. My earlier studies with graphic design helped me in composition. With painting it helped me craft my colors and post. With the ideas of myth and storytelling, I started to use the image to interject a narrative.

All of those things came together with the camera. I started with the Fuji X-T1, taking pics on the street and pics of my friends. I started going to photo walks and meeting photographers that I admired. One thing led to another, and I started to have a good support group and fellow artists to bounce ideas off of.

I was asked to join Tinker Street Collective, which is a social-driven, influence-type community, where we work for major brands creating content for social media. I got to work with amazing brands such as Levi’s, Google and Apple and start to hone my skills. I was shooting some commercial work, I was working as a stylist, and I needed my artistic outlet.

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Om: How did you go from Instagram and all the things you were doing to working on this new project?

Joshua: In 2014 I started working on a book project that later turned into Broadway. Broadway Street in Brooklyn is a stretch that gets through the heart of the borough. There is a train overpass. There are a lot of commuters, and each corner has a different feel to it and it was starting to gentrify. I was one of the gentrifiers who moved into the neighborhood.

I allowed myself to shoot between two stops and only those two stops and only on Broadway. I like to box myself in. With that pressure and that trust in life and in myself, something will pop, and there will be something crafted there. I put myself in those circumstances.

I learned to shoot film for a year, and I learned to shoot the Leica. I knew I wanted to shoot with a Leica because it has a stealth quality but it also has manual focus. A lot of my photography heroes shot on a Leica, they shot manual focus, and they are some of the best images ever taken. Some of those images shape the human condition, and those are the ones we remember. I knew if they could do it on that system that it was something I wanted to try too.

While I was putting the book together I got an opportunity to film at Belmont Park for seven days. All of a sudden I had a book. It felt like a wonderful companion to the Broadway book. At that point I had to complete the trilogy. I had an opportunity to go to Seattle. We hiked a lot of different mountains. This narrative thread shaped itself as the books were shaping themselves out of nowhere.

I started piecing them together over two years. Throughout all three books there’s a thread. You start on the streets of Broadway, and then you’re transformed and carried in the middle book from Belmont to Tahoma, where you end on the pinnacle of Washington State. It is this sort of transitional story that ends on a high note.

Om: I have been playing around with a film camera these days, and while my photos aren’t great, I like the slow pace of photo-making with film. There is something more spiritual about it.

Joshua: The advantage to shooting film is that you’re not reviewing every photo you take. As a result you have a more optimistic approach, and you’re anticipating doing well and getting back good photos. There’s something in that, that’s nice, where you might shoot a couple rolls of film a day, and you drop them off at the lab. Then there’s that picture in there that surprises you, and you’re like, “Oh, yeah. I remember that moment. Oh, I did get it right.” You can dissect the image and know what aperture you were at or maybe what shutter speed you were shooting at that time.

All of that sinks in at a gut level, and because the process of shooting is stretched out, there’s a certain amount of time that passes that injects itself into the photos and into your memory bank. Then, when you’re out shooting again, you can recall those wins and those losses.

It puts you in a certain mindset and vibration that allows for more surprise or happenstance. You might make a bunch of bad pictures, but that one that you make that’s great sometimes has a lot of power. There’s also a respect level amongst other photographers that you’re willing to make pictures on film still.

Whether there’s a nostalgic feeling to it or not, digital files over the years start to look dated, but a picture on film is going to hold up the rest of our lives.

Om: You’re right about the pictures embedding themselves in the memory bank. Film trains you to not take 20 pictures in a go and just take maybe 2 or 3. And to think before pressing the shutter. How did you start working with film photography?

Joshua: Initially it was the aesthetics of film. I found myself looking at photographs. You start to dissect photographs, and you look at them, and you wonder what’s going on in the picture. I started finding that I liked the dynamic range of film. Film captures more levels of shade and tone. They give the pictures more life.

I don’t know if this sounds crazy or not, but I like to make things harder on myself. I feel like there’s more of a reward in that. I like to play the long game. For me it was like, I’m going to take pictures the rest of my life. I’m in love with photography, and I’m in love with the process of making images. I knew that I needed to learn that skill set, because I felt that it was part of what it meant to be a photographer. The people that I admired were good with film too, and that’s why I started it.

I also wanted to build these projects, these photo essays. I wanted them to be more art pieces than anything. I felt that with film there’s a textural element that almost feels like clay, or like a painting.

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Om: It has become harder to be a professional photographer in today’s age. And if you’re a professional photographer, you have to work differently in order to stay relevant. Do you agree?

Joshua: The definition of photography is changing too and becoming more of a language: We’re attaching imagery to tweets or text messages, almost like a period at the end of a sentence. It’s enhancing our communication in a whole new way. The term “photographer” is changing.

Science and art have always been in this dance of demand and creativity. What does that new tool provide the artist? There’s always been that duality.

I like to make sure I have one foot in the past and know where the trend came from but also a foot in the present to predict where the trend is going. It is a balance. I like to be able to think that whatever the need of the picture is, that I have the specific tool and the wherewithal to gather it and grab it in a way that helps tell the viewer what it is I’m looking at and how I perceived it.

It is a fine line between these Instagram stars that are taking wonderful photos on the smartphone and high-end, fine art photographers and high-end commercial photographers who are using cutting-edge technology too. You have to be aware of all of them. One’s not more right than the other. They hopefully can inform your process from many different angles.

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Om: The challenge from my standpoint is that to many people, a photo is essentially a visual bookmark of a memory. I see people take a photograph of a coffee cup and I’m like, “This must be the 100th million coffee cup with the same latte heart in the middle.”

I think what they’re trying to do is document that they went to this place and checked off an item on their checklist. For the viewer, there is no emotional payload to a photo like that. But the person who took the photo is remembering their life through a set of random photos without any emotional attachment to them.

Joshua: That makes a lot of sense. You mark the moment. You underline the word in that sentence. I understand what you’re saying about it being this opportunity to hold on to some fleeting moment or to stake your claim that you were there.

It’s so nuanced and it’s so layered — what it means to make a picture for lots of different people. Somebody could take a picture of a coffee cup, and they could feel as if it was marking a place in time. They remember going to that coffee shop in San Francisco that day. Another person could take a picture of a coffee cup because they know it will get them Likes on Instagram, and they’re trying to build a brand. Another person could take a picture of a coffee cup because intrinsically it’s warm and comforting and maybe that day they’re feeling a little vulnerable, and the idea of sitting with a nice cup of coffee might be nurturing their spirit.

They are bookmarks in time, but they also represent the emotional state that you’re in when you’re taking it. There’s this wonderful book that I read by Larry Fink, and he beautifully explains how not only are you taking a picture forward but you’re taking a picture backward too.

The image is revealing something about the photographer as much as it’s revealing what object or idea is being captured. If you’re aware of reading the photograph in both ways, you can start to get a feel for more of, not only the image but of the person who was taking the picture and maybe where they were or what they were trying to share and how they might be lying in the image also.

Om: How do you stand out from the crowd in this new world?

Joshua: It’s hard when you work diligently at crafting something that you feel is different from the norm that might influence your community in a different way than the everyday coffee cup. When you see these tons of images of selfies or coffee cups or food, I think it can drain your creative juices, because you’re wondering what it is that everyone’s seeing in these images and why it is that everyone’s taking them.

Those things can pull you down, or they can inspire you. They can define you as an artist. I remember early on in shooting pictures around New York, we were all shooting the Brooklyn Bridge or Central Park. I would take a picture that might have shared a new perspective. Maybe it was over in a specific corner, against a wall or something like that. I would get a certain amount of Likes, but somebody who was higher on the Instagram food chain than me would go out and take the same shot and get more Likes. They never had to reference that they got the idea from me.

I remember feeling so burned, like, “How could you steal my property and claim it for yourself? That’s exactly where I put my camera and I took that exact photo and nobody else had taken it like that before, and now you’re taking credit for it and getting more praise than I did.” It upset me, but that moment in itself defined me as an artist. I said, “You know what? That’s not their fault. That’s just the game.” That’s the situation we’re in, and if I decide to share my photos for free on this platform, then that’s going to be part of the requirement of doing that.

From that point on, I thought, “I need to make images that can’t be copied. I need to make images that are specifically mine.” And that’s where the idea of being a street photographer and a documentarian photographer came into my mindset.

You can’t recreate the moment that I just captured, and there was something in pushing off the coffee cup, selfie image to define who I was. Sometimes you need something that burns you a little bit to push you in the direction that’s more you.

Om: That was the next question I was going to ask you. I have this concept called data Darwinism that I use to look at our world. We started out quantifying products, then services, then people. And more recently people offering those services, like how things happen on Uber and Airbnb. We start to lose the humanity in doing so, and when you think about the economy of Instagram, it starts to etch away at the idea of creativity a little bit. I think it makes that whole notion of data Darwinism apply to creativity also.

I hate to be the guy who brings this up, but Netflix is essentially using data and the viewing patterns of millions of people to figure out what shows they should make and bring to the market. I don’t blame them for doing that, but suddenly the idea of creativity is defined by the Likes and views.

Joshua: Instagram has a specific aesthetic, and there are certain pictures that do well on a two-inch-by-two-inch iPhone screen. I got so extremely nervous one day that I unplugged my Instagram for a month, and I didn’t look at any photographs on there.

I ordered a bunch of photo books from Magnum, Alex Webb, David Alan Harvey and Larry Fink, and I got The Americans by Robert Frank. I started to educate myself as a historian of photography. That feeling allowed me to gain a new perspective on why I wanted to make pictures and what pictures I wanted to make and how I wanted to have my own voice amongst all of those greats.

I opened my Instagram a month later. I unfollowed a bunch of people, and I started trying to follow people that were making a different type of image, actually sharing images that they made on DSLR or on film.

There was this real pushback in the early years of the Instagram community to post iPhone-only pictures. I remember this one specific day when I posted a picture from my DSLR and lots of people were like, “I can’t believe it. I thought you were iPhone only.” I lost a bunch of followers. I gained some other people. There was this debate about what it meant to share on that platform.

I think I’ve always had that nervous, anxious feeling when too many people are doing one thing. I want to run in the other direction. Sometimes when I see a lot of people doing one thing, I know that I don’t want to do that either. Though it’s harder, I’d rather fail trying to find a new direction than be following somebody else’s.

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Om: I think people want to conform. But why have we made technology that can lead to so much creativity and yet we aren’t willing to be different?

I also unfollow a lot of people now that it’s become so commercial: everyone I see posting photos that are sponsored by so-and-so. Really? I signed up to see your story. I understand people need to pay their bills, but would they have made that picture if they were not being paid to go someplace? I don’t know. Meanwhile I started following you because you told stories.

How did the photos from Broadway, Belmont and Tahoma become worthy of a book treatment in your mind?

Joshua: I wanted to shoot Belmont as a story before Broadway. I was attracted to the idea of these beautiful light, powerful horses and these gambling stockmen. There was a real dichotomy there: I was intrigued by the person who went to the track every day. There was a desperate mentality. I felt so protective of the horses that are being mistreated and worked in such a way and bred in such a way, whose life is dangerous. They felt like slaves to this human ugliness of gambling, this addictive quality that I could relate to with my own addictions. We’re willing to let it happen, whether it’s the life of this beautiful horse or our addictive qualities. Relating them back to my own addictions. I felt there was something on display there.

I cornered myself again. It took me a good year to learn how to stand with the camera. Learn how to zone-focus quickly and learn how to see certain images unfolding. To watch people moving in and out of my frame and to time things. Broadway was such a big learning experience that it was almost like a boot camp. I went out seven different days, and I came back and said, “I’ve got enough of a story here.” I surprised myself: I thought I was going to have to shoot it for a month.

My good friend called me, and he said, “Hey, the people at Belmont Park just reached out to me about coming behind the scenes and taking pictures for them, but I can’t do it. I know you’re working on the project. Would you want to?”

The day that I got to go to Belmont was gorgeous, and the light was wonderful. It was an October day. I shot everything else in July. October light in New York City is my favorite. It’s warm and crisp, and the shadows go blue. It’s great for black-and-white photography. It was one of those special, serendipitous moments. I got close with the jockeys and got to go back with some of the horses.

It elevated the book to the next level. At that point, it was floating in this, “Oh, I’m not sure if I have it. Yeah, I think I do,” space to, “Oh my God, I can’t wait to share these pictures.” I put them all together; I had more than enough.

I had Broadway and Belmont, and I thought, “Well, that’s great. I’m ready to launch these.” My friends and I decided to do this camping trip in Seattle. I packed 25 rolls of film. We spent four days. I don’t shoot much landscape work, because I’m in New York a lot. I got out there, and my eyes were wiped clean.

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Om: What was different about shooting in Belmont?

Joshua: I felt fresh. I felt at home with my friends, and I had a real security about being with them. An adventurous spirit and exploratory. I knew I had all that film in my bag. I didn’t want to go home with anything unexposed, and I gave myself permission to shoot like crazy.

Each morning and each afternoon, we were blessed with such great light and great fellowship that the images just came together. When I got back, I realized I shot 25 rolls of film. I was like, “Man, I might have enough here to complete this narrative.”

Om: How do you think the books relate to one another?

Joshua: The story told itself. I go from the streets of Broadway to the peaks of Washington State. From one side of the country to the other. Here’s unbridled nature, and it felt healing and restorative for me when I was there. It felt like we’d reached a certain pinnacle by climbing the mountain.

I put those pictures together, and those are intimate and different from the other two books, but it felt like that myth that we talked about. It felt like that journey, and I felt like I was photographing my process and it ended up becoming these great stories.

You know when you try to rush stuff in life, and it pushes back, and it’s not working the way you envisioned it? You have to release the process and trust in life. Trust there are other things that play behind the scenes that you might not know about. I did that, and as they started to develop, all of a sudden I had this longer narrative.

I had planned to make one book and then these other two fell in my lap, and I’m glad they did because it does feel like a complete story. Now I’m ready to shoot that next story.

Om: A lot of people like me want to experiment with film and photography. Do you have any advice?

Joshua: I like to play the long game. It gives me space to explore. I don’t like to think I have to solve any problem quickly. I think when you put those pressures on yourself, then you look for either a quick out or quick safety, ideas that make you feel comfortable. Or you’re trying to problem-solve quickly, and you’re failing and you’re getting self-critical. All of those things dissolve the creative vibrations.

For me it’s about, Did I take a better picture today? Did I learn something today? Did that bad picture inform me on how to make my next picture?

My second piece of advice would be, gather a group of like-minded people so you can critique openly and feel safe in a creative environment. If you can find a group of friends who are critical because they care about your work and they care about you as an individual, that’s huge, because we’re all used to hearing, “Awesome photo, great job, love it” on Instagram. That can cloud your development.

The third thing is, look at the masters. Find out what it is about the photographer you love, what it is you love about their work, and dissect images. Sometimes I trace an image that I like, so I see why it is those shapes were in that frame in those specific orders.

You’ve got to go back and see what today was built on. Mix that up with a bunch of friends who are doing the same thing and give yourself the time to explore and give yourself the space to fail and learn from those mistakes.

Don’t even see them necessarily as mistakes. See them as another correcting point to who you are as an artist. Trust yourself. Have fun. Take your time. Get people around you that love to talk about photographs, and look at things that inspire you. Those things will keep you going and sustain you.

Credits: Photos of Joshua Allen Harris, including the cover photo, by Bijan Sabet. Photos of Broadway and Belmont courtesy of Joshua Allen Harris.