Naomi Harris and I go way back. Her series of Floridian Jewish grandmothers, which appeared as the cover story for the second issue of HEEB magazine during my senior year at Bard College in 2003, was single-handedly responsible for me approaching the magazine to shoot for them, and later serve as their photo editor and Creative Director.
Harris' sharp observational hilarity, documentary chops, and an informed "art photography" sensibility is rare and unforgettable. Her most recent project EUSA, which documents American-themed places in Europe and European-themed places in The United States has been keeping my attention since she began, both for its strange sense of humor and for its rich cultural commentary. So when FlakPhoto's Andy Adams messaged me on Facebook a couple weeks ago saying. "Do you know Naomi Harris' work? Have you seen her Kickstarter? You should write something about it for Humble," I jumped to attention. It's a project that demands to be a book, and there are only a few days left to support it. WHICH YOU CAN DO HERE
If this isn't enough of a hard sell, spend some time hearing from Naomi:
Interview by Jon Feinstein
Jon Feinstein: How did this project start?
Naomi Harris: It’s funny, so many of my projects are discovered while on other project. I discovered the Swingers when I lived in Miami while shooting Haddon Hall…and I discovered EUSA while in Georgia on my last shoot for America Swings. I was in the mountains of north Georgia and had time to kill before the party started so I asked the party organizers for suggestions of something to do. They recommended I go to a little town called Helen. There I discovered a tourist town too tiny to even warrant a traffic light. The buildings were covered in gingerbread giving this Appalachian mountain town the feel of being in the Alps. The restaurants served schnitzel and bratwurst and the gift shops sold cuckoo clocks and T-shirts with Confederate flags and “It’s a Southern Thing Y’all” emblazoned across their fronts.
Intrigued, I was curious to see whether any other places like Helen existed elsewhere in the United States. I drove back to my motel room and googled “Europe in America.” Frankenmuth, Michigan. Solvang, California. Orange City, Iowa. Leavenworth, Washington. I was onto something. So if this existed in the US did the same exist in Europe? I did some more research and discovered all sorts of wild west theme parks and American themed places in Europe and EUSA was born.
Feinstein: Are you still making photos for it?
Harris: It is indeed complete though I’m continuing to discover more locations…like someone just told me about a Swiss event in Sugar Creek, Ohio that looks amazing complete with a cheese eating contest. Maybe I’ll have to make a second volume...
Feinstein: That's funny! I've collaborated with a few other photographers who have dealt with race, artifice, cultural appropriation, etc over the years -- addressing similar subject matter as EUSA, but with a different angle and aesthetic. I'm thinking tangentially of Michael Bühler Rose's Constructing The Exotic, and more closely, Andrea Robbins and Max Becher's German Indians. Do you see this series having a conversation with theirs?
Harris: Not really. I actually became familiar with Andrea Robbins and Max Becher’s work a few years into the project and was like, "oh darn, am I going to be compared to them or worse accused of ripping them off" but I think our approach is very different. True we both seem to have this curiosity as to why there are these places on both sides of the pond, they seem to be much more interested in the spaces devoid of people rather than focusing on portraiture like I do. I do see a similarity in our way of thinking so it’s interesting to see the perspective of Europeans coming to the same subject matter as me, a North American.
Feinstein: You have an amazing sense of humor and it plays out in so many of your projects -- from the grandmas which blew me away over a decade ago when I was still in school, to your swingers project, and now this. Can you talk about the importance of humor in the subject matter you're driven to, and how you see and photograph it?
Harris: Why thank you. You know I don’t really go out necessarily looking for funny but somehow humour does rear itself in my photos. Maybe it’s because I don’t take myself, life or photography too seriously, or maybe it’s because I’m a Canadian and to be one you don’t have a choice but to be funny. But seriously, I think when I take a photo I’m trying to bring a sense of joy to people. Lord knows life is often too hard and there are so many photographers tackling the hard stories so I’ll stick to the quirky, weird ones.
Feinstein: Do you consider yourself to be a "documentary photographer?" Does it matter?
Harris: Ha, does anything matter? Sure, yeah I guess, but I’m soon to be leaving the documentary realm for *gasp* self portraiture and performance art. Because I want to be a real “artist.” And it’s really hard to make good documentary photos these days with everyone constantly on their cell phones, no one does anything anymore. I tip my hat off to street photographers like Michelle Groskopf, Daniel Arnold and Gus Powell for actually making street photographs on a daily basis that are riveting and inspiring.
Feinstein: I love their work! And I'd consider it "art photography" as well as street/ documentary. Blurred lines in the best possible way. I think it's interesting to look at your work within the context of "right now" American/ global politics, and 'identity politics.' What's your take on this?
Harris: it’s funny, the book has been delayed for a few different reasons and there’s an email conversation between Dutch artist and curator Erik Kessels and Los Angeles Times arts and culture critic Carolina Miranda that was penned in April 2015 and reading it over now it’s a little eerie to be reading something that hints at Hillary Clinton being the forerunner and Donald Trump was still a big joke. Brexit hadn’t happened yet and all in all we were living in idyllic times.
So much has changed since then. So yes, while these are people mainly out for a good time or to celebrate their heritage and culture, in light of a certain group celebrating their “white heritage” the work does take on a certain weird and perhaps uncomfortable meaning.
Feinstein: You began making this work in 2008 -- do you think your angle/ approach has changed as the political spectrum has changed?
Harris: Not really. I think these events are pretty fun and fluffy and we can try to bring in our own political or societal take on it but at the end of the day these are people that just want to gorge on brats and have a good time.
Feinstein: The color palette has a nostalgic, almost vernacular color palette, which intrigues the hell out of me because I know it's not an Instagram filter. I think it's incredibly effective. Can you talk about this?
Harris: Film is not dead. So yeah, I shot this on film which I think lends to the colour palette especially since we are so familiar with extremely saturated, bold Technicolor images that are the product of digital photography. When I began the project I wanted to use my Mamiya C330 twin-lens camera mainly to use a more traditional analog camera as digital was starting to take over the helm but also because I had never used it before. Funny enough my desire to be old-timey was quashed as Instagram came into popularity while shooting this and now everyone makes square images!
Feinstein: Tell me a bit about the designer you're working with.
Harris: The marvelous Dutch designer Teun van der Heijden. I met him eons ago when he came to Photo Fest in Houston with book publisher Maarten Schilt and they weren’t official reviewers but set up a little table in another room and were open to meeting people who had spare time. I loved that…the go-getter nature of these two. And then years later, upon the recommendation of a few of my friends who had taken his book design master class along with his wife Sandra and Ying Ang in New York I took it as well. You know he has a photographic memory? I don’t mean he has a good memory but a true photographic memory. Like when we were editing in the workshop he remembered the order of the 200 some odd images I had put down. This with 12 students in total all showing him work. Eerie. And he’s very much about the editing process which I think is really important for a designer to be part of.
I think yes, it’s important for the photographer to have a clear sense of what images they want to include and perhaps an idea of an order but the designer can bring an entirely new language to it by having their own input on the edit and sequence. I think it’s really important for this process to be a collaboration and not one person dictating the structure.
Feinstein: I love the videos you've been making to help promote the campaign. What's the response been so far?
Harris: Thanks! The making of these videos were quite fun and a lot of really hard work. From writing the script to running around to half a dozen costume shops and lining everything up. Thankfully I had the support of a really bang on team up in Toronto (producer Sabrina deLuca of Leo Burnett, DP Arash Moallemi, hair and makeup person Tori Bradbrook and editor extraordinaire Daniel Shapiro, take a bow!) To me it was important to be fun and funny (yep, there I go again) and not take it all too seriously. So many people are all like “this is my grand opus, the culmination of my life’s work” blah blah blah. I was just really jazzed about getting to wear costumes and to use a green screen! Hope people don’t think I’m too weird.
But to be honest, when looking at my stats on Kickstarter I’m surprised to see that the average view has been 50% I mean really people, if you don’t watch it through to the end you miss the bloopers and credits, my ode to Cannonball run one of the greatest movies ever made (love you Burt Reynolds!)
Feinstein: Why Kickstarter/ why now?
Why not? But seriously, in this day and age of the book publisher’s business model of the artist needing to bring money to the table I feel Kickstarter is a good option for many of us. Essentially the book is being offered as a pre-sale, but this support makes the publishing possible for the artist. Some might think it’s gauche to ask for money this way, that if you don’t have the funds to have your book made than maybe you shouldn’t do it but I raise this point, the money being asked for is to produce the book. Lord knows how many thousands of dollars have been spent producing the work in the first place. At this point in time it’s a sure thing so if you like the work why not be a patron of the arts and help an artist out.