My photography has been evolving over the past 45 years. I create series of images, usually consisting of 6 to 12 photographs. The series are the results of exploring where I find myself. It is just me and my camera. My eye is looking for balance from the light, shapes and the mood of the surroundings. The style of my work is generated by the vision I have for each series. I am so “in-the-moment”, that often it is after the act of capturing the moments that I see what I captured. The next step is to develop the image and how best to present it in print form.
I knew photography would be a passion of mine the moment I stripped off the chemical backing of my first Polaroid Swinger print. Instantly photography captivated and took hold of my life at age 10. It wasn’t until I graduated high school in 1976 that I saved enough money to buy my first 35mm SLR film camera.
Aside from a basic B&W summer course I took at the Cleveland Institute of Art, I’m self-taught. In addition to studying any and all images I found in books, magazines and movies, I apprenticed to product, and wedding & portrait photographers. In 1984, I attended a workshop that Mark Tucker held at his Nashville studio.
Anyone from the 1960s and 70s knows, that it was B&W film that we used to capture photographs. B&W was far less expensive than Color, and you could develop and print it yourself. However, when I discovered Pete Turner’s mind-blowing color images, and Cibachrome’s saturated, knock out reds, color printing process, I want to learn color photography.
In 1984, I had the desire to be in a city known for its cutting-edge photography. My choices were; NYC, Chicago, or LA. My impression of NYC was that it was a B&W, Chicago was a big mid-west town, and LA was producing great color photography. I wanted to learn color so I headed for LA, besides LA was warm and all I had for transportation was a motorcycle.
When I woke up having arrived in LA the night before, I was exhausted from my motorcycle ride across the USA and was blown away by the size of LA. Feeling alone and way out of my comfort zone, and somewhat defeated wondering what have I done, I said to myself that I had to at least look in the want ads for a job.
There is was, “Wanted: B&W printer, will train for color,” By the end of the day and my first 24 hours in LA I had a job making Cibachrome photo-composites at Elmi Graphics in Hollywood for the movie and music industry. For the next 4 years I was in photographic heaven. I worked with and was trained by David Travis. Dave also printed for several known art photographers, like Elliott Porter, Paul Caponigro and others, and sometimes they would visit the lab. I got to meet Herb Ritz, Lucien Clergue, Greg Gorman, and other lesser known but equally talented photographers, but more importantly I got to print their images. Later, I would print for NYC based art photographer Jo Alison Feiler. In 1988, I was invited to donate an image to the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh, in Arles, France founded by Lucien Clergue’s spouse, Yolande.
After 4 years in LA, I turned 30 which had me looking at my life, and where I was in life. In addition, huge multi-million-dollar computers systems were taking over the photo-composite work. I saw the decline in composite work I did and knew my job was being replaced by a computer. I came to the conclusion that the LA life style did not fit me in the long run, and that I had pursued learning the photographic art as far as I could and was very satisfied. I love photography and wanted it to stay a natural expression of myself, not every day work. I left LA knowing that in 30 years, when the digital transformation of photography would be completed, that I could return to my first love of the camera and continue my photography in my retirement years. Today, retirement is nearing and I am working to rejoin the photographic community.
“My whole life has been as an observer, a visitor.”
You might like to read my blog posts”
2019 – Center for Photographic Art, Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA
2019 – Plymouth Center for the Arts, Plymouth MA
1989 – The Great Northern Corporate Center, Cleveland, Ohio
1983 – The Garden Center of Greater Cleveland, Cleveland, Ohio
1982 – Cleveland City Hall, Cleveland, Ohio
1981 – Kent State University, Kent, Ohio
1979 – New Organization for Visual Arts, Cleveland, Ohio
1988 – Foundation Vincent Van Gogh, Arles, France
The Gow School, South Wales, New York 2004
Ernst & Young, Cleveland, Ohio 1998
Parker Hannifin, Cleveland, Ohio 1998
Robert Reitman Collection, Cleveland, Ohio 1998
Claude Cahen Collection, Santa Monica, California 1987
Werntz Estate Collection, Pompano Beach, Florida 1986
The Mr. & Mrs. Kenneth Miller Collection, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 1986
On a more formal note, the following are two write-ups about my photography. The first is a biographical timeline that was written about my photography. This write-up is very old but it does an OK job outlining my history with photography. The second is by John Barnard, Creative Director at ClearScope, Inc at the time.
James S. Harper is recognized and appreciated as an innovator of landscape photography. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1957, Harper became interested in photography at the age of 10 with his first Polaroid picture. It wasn’t until Harper graduated from high school, in 1976, that he bought his first 35mm camera.
In the summer of 1978 Harper, focusing on photography, attended the Cleveland Institute of Art. At the end of that summer, Harper’s photography was accepted to the Third Annual New Organization for Visual Arts (NOVA) Open Photography Show in Cleveland. The photograph submitted was a composite of two images taken that summer of the times he shared with his brother, at an air show and riding motorcycles through the country outside Cleveland. Out of 254 submissions, Harper had one of the 24 prints that were accepted.
From 1979 to 1984 Harper pursued his self-taught education of photography by attending another summer at the Cleveland Institute of Art, working four years at a retail camera shop, and assisted many professional photographers. He has also received instructions from renowned photographers such as Ansel Adams, Pete Turner, and Robert Farber. Harper is very appreciative to have had the opportunity to learn from all those who have taught him valuable lessons.
In 1981, in a one-man show, Harper exhibited his black and white photographs at Kent State University in Ohio. The photographs were taken on a winter excursion to Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The show was entitled “Winter – An Ending, A Beginning.”
In 1982, Harper participated in Cleveland’s “Portrait Of An All-American City” a contest sponsored by NOVA. His photograph of the Revco Marathon runners cresting the arch of a famous Cleveland bridge (the Detroit-Superior) was displayed at the Cleveland City Hall.
In 1983, Harper was a part of a three-person show at The Garden Center of Greater Cleveland.
From 1984 to 1988, Harper lived and worked in Hollywood, California. There he learned color photography by working in a graphics lab producing composites for the movie and music industry. He gained valuable hands-on experience with state-of-the-art printing techniques, not to mention viewing thousands of images taken by some of the best photographers in Hollywood. Harper believes that “knowing many darkroom techniques is as important as knowing how to take a picture in order to fully express the emotions you feel when the image is captured.” Before leaving Los Angeles, and after many requests Harper donated an image to the Foundation Vincent Van Gogh, Arles, France. In 1989, Harper temporarily put his photography on hold to complete his college degree.
An Ominous Period :
1992 through the beginning of 1995 were exceptionally difficult years for Harper. In December 1991, he graduated in the depths of a recession. For the next three years Harper struggled to continue his photographic artistry without being threatened by insensitive commercial photography.
In 1995 advancements in technologies brought Harper to a new forte. He began his virtual photography gallery on the Internet early in 1995. Harper saw a great opportunity to show his work and to tackle the big question of “do I stay pure to photographic processes or do I use digital imaging to really get the image I captured.” Preferring to print his own work, Harper went digital. He can “pre-print” the image by adjusting the color and contrast of the image on the computer before the actual printing at a lab. For Harper the computer has become a substitute for the graphics lab he worked at in Los Angeles.
Written by: John Barnard, Creative Director at ClearScope, Inc. © 2002
For more than 25 years, James S. Harper has been involved in photography. From the days when he photographed the lush, rustic landscapes in his home state of Ohio to his more recent work in Colorado, James’s use of color, composition and light has enabled him to successfully capture the essence of the moment in a variety of surroundings. Through his unique use of compelling visual imagery and creative darkroom techniques, Jim produces some very moving results.
Using techniques derived from his early experimentation in “pin hole” photography, James pushes the film’s limits to gain contrast and graininess, which produces a delightful softening effect. This soft organic style draws the viewer’s eye effortlessly into his work, creating a sense of calm that is strangely reminiscent of the great works of master impressionist painters Van Gogh or Monet. It’s not surprising that in the 1980’s, after spending a considerable amount of time working as a darkroom technician with some very well known photographers in California, Mr. Harper was asked to donate a photograph to the Vincent Van Gogh Foundation in Arles, France. During the mid-1990’s, corporations such as Ernst & Young and Parker-Hannifin purchased several of James’s photographs to display in their offices. In 2002 he donated framed prints to be auctioned locally on PBS television.
From the friendly confines of his home in Denver to the majestic Rocky Mountain backdrop outside his door, James S Harper’s photographic work is a constantly evolving study of light and form that must be seen to be fully appreciated.