No Limits
The Reality Of Black And White

Most people know about photographing children from their level, but Harris took this photo of the granddaughter of a former teacher from an even lower angle. "I didn't want to take just a baby picture." (Minolta X-700, 28mm lens, Tri-X 400.)
Photos © 1999, Judah S. Harris, All Rights Reserved

Judah S. Harris tells this story about one of his photos: "I had just bought a new Bogen tripod, and I went out in the Olympic National Forest area in Washington to photograph with it. I left my rented car down on the road. I wanted to photograph nature, and I certainly didn't want the car in the picture. But as I was heading away from the car, I turned around." What he saw was a picture waiting only for the taking, and the resulting dramatic black and white photograph was not only an artistic success but also a commercial one. It's been used as a book cover (with a little manipulation, Harris' rented car became a trooper's cruiser) and in a gatefold magazine advertisement (where, with the application of a bit of digital magic, the rental's place was taken by a BMW).

"It's something I always do, turn around while I'm walking," Harris says. "I think it's a good idea for all photographers--don't just explore different angles, but turn completely around."

And when he turns around, it's likely he'll find something of interest to photograph. In fact, it's the range of his subject matter that's often the first thing a viewer notices about Harris' work. Where most photographers tend to choose an interest--landscapes, interiors, children, architecture, or even the broader range of, say, nature or travel photography--Harris' photographs are, literally and figuratively, all over the place. "I photograph things that appeal to me and that interest me," he says. As an example of just how wide-ranging his interests are, there's this from our conversation: "Arizona tea makes these wonderful bottles, and I peel off the wrapper and cleanup the adhesive and suddenly I've got something I can work with and interpret in my own way."

Taken in Harris' room at an old New Jersey hotel. "I woke up and saw it--the sun coming across the pillows just that way. I wanted something that seemed simple but with a story to it: who sleeps here?" Later it became the cover of the Random House book, "Falling," John Taylor's memoir of his marriage and divorce. (Minolta X-700, 70-210mm zoom, Panatomic-X ISO 32 film--"discontinued, but I had some in the freezer.")

"In my own way" is the key. If scope of subject matter isn't the first thing you notice about Harris' photos, then vision is. As a photojournalist, fine art and commercial photographer, Harris' curiosity and creativity combine with opportunity to produce images that are perhaps as much about him as they are about the subjects he chooses to photograph.

"I photograph life," Harris says. "Now, I realize that's a pretty general statement, but I'm very much fascinated by people, by places, by the drama of life. My work is about realism."

An observer might not entirely agree with that. Certainly what he photographs exists in life--the car and the woods were there, just so--but his compositional choices, arrangements, angles, and use of light and shadow put a creator's stamp on everything. Harris' photographs are far from record shots; it might be said that the reality in his photographs is his reality.

And, in fact, Harris believes that one of the reasons people find both commercial and artistic interest in his photographs is their reaction to the personal perspective portrayed in the work.

"I believe I have a heightened sensitivity to people and my surroundings," he says, "which I'm sure I was born with and which also develops over time. So when I'm walking around and exploring with the camera, things start to happen or I facilitate them inside the frame. I would have to credit serendipity for a lot of things, but someone who's a good photographer increases the chances of accidents or serendipity happening by being aware, being attuned to situations."

Harris had been photographing in an Istanbul street when he peeked inside an old apartment building. "I saw the staircase and went inside, then came back with my tripod. I went to all the floors looking for interesting angles." (Minolta X-700, 28mm lens, T-Max 100.)

Another reason a person might question Harris' statement that his work is about reality is the fact that for much of his work, he chooses black and white film. Artistic, yes, but real? After all, we see the real world in color.

But Harris maintains that black and white is perfect for the reality of what he chooses to photograph. "A lot of my work is about the human drama, about people, about interactions between people, about the shapes around us. It isn't about what color jacket someone is wearing or whether the grass is really green. It's about gesture, expression; about the shapes of things..."

He stops just short of saying that in most cases and for most subjects, he simply finds black and white more dramatic. "I'm implying that in terms of the human drama, if we see black and white, it stops us for a moment. We look at it differently." In a sense, then, black and white says, "Pay attention."

Harris has shot black and white in 35mm, medium format, and panorama. He has also photographed with a Holga, which is essentially a souvenir (if not a toy) camera. "It's a more modern-day Diana," Harris says, "with a plastic lens, two fixed f/stops--f/8 or f/11--and a 1/100 sec shutter speed."

"I kept moving around to put the tree in just the right place," Harris says. "I didn't want it touching a building." The photo was subsequently used to illustrate an article on the Op-Ed page of "The New York Times." (Holga camera, T-Max 100.)

Harris markets his photographs for editorial illustrations, book covers, advertisements, and stock; he also sells them as fine art. Commerce, however, was not the original intent. "Initially photography was a hobby, an avocation," he says. "Then, in 1990, I put together a portfolio and started knocking on doors. There was no thought that I need a profession, so I'll be a photographer. The goal was to be true to my photographic vision and then see if I could find an audience receptive to it.

"I think it's good to be attuned to what the commercial needs are. I keep in mind that this or that might make a good photograph for the cover of a book, but what I most want to do is to keep photographing things that are of interest to me."

And what's of interest to him has done very well in the marketplace. For a year and a half he's been aggressively marketing his work for book covers. "I have 78 Art Directors at publishing houses on a list, and a few times a year I sent them laser copies of my images to remind them of me and my work. As they come up with titles and see what they're about, they can look through my photos and see if anything fits." Recently five of his images were used on a series of softcover reprints of Elmore Leonard novels.

"A photographer has to put enough into a picture to engage the viewer, so the longer the viewer looks, the more he gets," Harris says. For this image, taken downtown in New York City, Harris kept moving to center the lamppost over the water tower; then he got a plane going by. (Holga camera, T-Max 100.)

Harris' 35mm camera is a Minolta X-700, which is likely to be fitted with his favorite lens--a 28mm--and loaded with either Tri-X 400 or T-Max 100. Computer manipulation is not out of the question for the future. "I want to learn more about Photoshop," he says. "As a realist I don't want to go around changing a lot of things, but the other reality is that I can take these tools and use them in my own philosophy. I can be a realist and want to document real life and still go ahead and contrive something with Photoshop that might still allow me to be true to my realism."

If there's one thing Judah S. Harris is not interested in, it's putting any limits on himself or his work. "The tools don't make people artists, but an artist can create with a number of tools."

Harris left his car down the road, wanting to photograph only nature. Then he turned around. "Luckily, I'd rented a white car." (Minolta X-700, 28mm lens, T-Max 100.)

Early morning regulars at the Montross Pharmacy, Winterset, Iowa. On assignment, Harris went to Madison County "in search of the pictures that Robert Kincaid might have taken today...Although "The Bridges of Madison County" is only a story, the locale is real [and] I wanted to capture a sense of the place and the people." (Minolta X-700, 28mm lens, T-Max 3200.)