Portrait of an Artist: Sharon C. Harper

“I don’t record," says photographer Sharon C. Harper in a firm voice. “I don’t have a composition. I have an idea.”

Harper, an associate professor in the Harvard VES department, is an accomplished artist in her own right. Her pieces feature in prominent permanent collections such as those of the MOMA, The New York Public Library, and the Whitney Museum of Modern Art. From bright lines upon a dark sky showing the slow peregrinations of stars over several days to blurred images of nature, her works are always a dynamic attempt to circumvent old clichés of the medium: instead of proverbially “capturing a moment in time,” Harper prefers to document changes between moments and to seek out and amplify human perceptions of the unseen. Her work is often all about photography itself—the interaction of the camera with the nature it records.

The Harvard Crimson: Have you ever been interested in working with media other than photography and video? Why and how did you decide to go into these?

Sharon C. Harper: I started photography when I was 17, and I was interested in creative writing at the time, but I’ve never been interested in any other medium. One of the things I will say about photography is oftentimes I’m making images that have visual similarities to video, silkscreen, painting, [and] drawing, so I’ll try to incorporate different visual language into photography.

THC: Which artists, thinkers, or theorists are you most in dialogue with when you create?

SCH: I think surprisingly I’ve been really inspired by sculpture and dance. You know the visceral and kinetic response you can get through sculpture and through dance? I think you can also get that in photography, and it’s interesting for me to think about ways to incorporate that. Kinetic connection to work is really important to me.

THC: How did you get involved in the theme of cosmic bodies, which features in a lot of your work?

SCH: I was looking for a way to photograph that contained [an] element of transformation. And when I photographed during the day, I found that the subject matter was too descriptive; the daylight was too descriptive in the photos I was taking. It was too descriptive of reality...when you’re dealing with darkness, you’re up against the technical limits of photography. Subject-wise, in the darkness there’s this element of surprise. First I was working with moonlight, but then I’d be at a point where I’d just point my camera at the moon...trying to create some relationship with something so far from us. And yet we all talk so much about the influence of the moon on us. So there’s this cultural understanding that we have a connection, but it’s not a connection that’s explored that often.

THC: Can you give us an example of the technical conventions you play with in a recent work of yours?

SCH: In [my] video, “Landshift,” I’m playing with ideas of our ability to pin down space, place, and time in one moment. It’s constantly shifting, and it’s also collaged, so that there is no single place, space, or even single perspective. Oftentimes people want to know how my work is made or pin something down, but I’m far less interested in the mechanics of how it’s made than the questions that it asks or the ways of seeing that it poses, the questions it opens up.

THC: How do your philosophies of photography inform or shape the other workings of your personal life? How do the questions you play with when you do your artwork carry over into other aspects of your life, or other hobbies you have?

SCH: I’m trying to use the camera to show me something I don’t know, to work from the unknown into the known, or to generate the known from the unknown…. One of the very real ways that translates into my life is I like to travel. I like situations that renew my perspectives and show me things I haven’t seen and reawaken all my senses.

THC: You speak a lot about the phenomenology of inhabiting the environment and passing through it, and it seems there’s a subjectivity of an implied human presence as you do it. Do you think your art will ever feature people in it?

SCH: Well it has, it has in the past. There’s this series on my website, called “walkabout,” with a figure walking through the landscape…. From that point onward, it’s the human consciousness…the kinetic connection between moving through a landscape and changes in your state of mind. [My] figures drop away, but you know, it’s all about your interiority; it’s all about individuals and subjectivity. So the individual’s there, but just invisible.