Monday, October 8, 2012

What Makes You Click? Photographer Acey Harper

Photographer Acey Harper in the New York City subway by Sandra Garcia.
By Al Diaz

This week, photographer Acey Harper is opening a solo exhibit in Paris, France of his work with acrobats at the Catherine and André Hug Gallery, (2 Rue de L'Echaudé/40 Rue de Sine). The exhibit of images, from his book, "Private Acts: The Acrobat Sublime", is a fantasy fulfilled.  Harper says, “Many people ask me how I got the book and exhibit. Besides hard work, the answer, quite simply, is that I changed the way I saw and photographed the world.”

Q. With all your collective experience, did the way you approached this subject, change how you preconceive an image? Do you see differently now?

A. Working on this project was so dramatic! I have changed my ways, transformed by unearthly visions: a trio of 25-year-old women, contortionists, bending their bodies into surreal shapes, each mimicking the other, in a silent, synchronized ballet of twisted beauty on the dry, cracked floor of a mile-high desert. I have witnessed two men pressing and balancing their bodies together, creating fulcrums of flesh and power between columns of stone. I stood, almost transfixed, under a pair of aerialists, hanging from the rafters of an abandoned nineteenth-century power plant, one bathed in angelic light pouring through the torn roof above, using all her strength and grace to hold the other in space. I know these visions were real: I photographed them, and they are in this book. As the old hymn says, “I once was blind, but now I see.” And I do see now. Differently. Working with acrobats, aerialists, and contortionists has changed me.

Q. Your background in photography started in photojournalism, tells us about your early experiences in Miami.

A. Al, like you, I learned at the University of Florida. The best classroom I ever had was working at the Independent Florida Alligator, My years and work as a photojournalist and later, a corporate photographer, began right there, took me to the paper in Ft. Myers, and then to Washington, DC for a few years before returning to live in work in Miami. Those were some of the most interesting years of my photojournalism career. Miami was (still, very much is) a great news town. Everything, news-wise, it seems, happened in Florida: Space Shuttle launches, Football Championships, Spring training and a new team called the Marlins. There was big, world-shaking news that often seemed to originate in Florida and usually, right in Miami. There was Mariel and 100,000 people came to Dade County in less than a month, all fleeing Cuba. There were violent riots when juries delivered controversial verdicts. There was music news, the Miami Sound Machine was teaching the world how to Conga and a kid named Vanilla Ice came to town with a back story that unraveled in weeks. I could not escape the drama of news in South Florida even when I tried to move away. The day before closing on my house in Coral Gables, Hurricane Andrew hit, taking five trees out of my yard, busting my roof and the sale of my house. 

Q. What inspired you to do this project?

A. Living just outside of San Francisco and shooting lots of Silicon Valley corporate assignments I felt uneasy, a malaise of creativity. I was not making photos that satisfied me. Then, I was approached to shoot portraits to accompany a book of essays about acrobats. Originally, I saw the acrobats as enticing subjects to photograph. But as I continued to work with them, I soon came to recognize them as partners and collaborators in creating unique images, which are part photography and part performance art. I worked with each acrobat to find his or her own personal stage. I sought a location or background that would complement the lines of their bodies and what they do, as well as conjure a feeling or an image. 

Q. Often, people are unwilling to spend a lot of time posing in front of a camera. Was it like that with any of these performing artists?

A. First, I let them know they had a say in what we were doing. It was collaboration. I sought their feedback and advice. 

Next, both acrobats and photographers are used to working hard and in hardship for our respective crafts, and for this project, we shared the difficulties of bringing our visions to life. Depending on the venue, we rose before dawn, or stood in frigid water, or climbed down jagged rocky crevasses together. We often spent hours rigging equipment in unfamiliar places, or working tricks and poses to get the image we sought. We risked the unwanted attention of gawkers, police, park guards, junkyard dogs, and even a horde of scorpions. As my cover subject, Lauren Herley said, “It’s all just right here, right now.”

Q. So tell us Acey, what makes you click?

A. I am humbled and inspired by what I learned in the process of exploring these acrobat dreams. Many of the performers have said that working on this project—both creating these photos and looking at them afterward—has led them to see themselves and their art in a whole new way. The same is true for me: after thirty years behind the lens as a professional photographer, I feel transformed by the experience of working with these exceptional muses; my vision and my imagination have been liberated, the photographs I am making have more meaning to me personally. Best of all, I am having the most fun of my life!

Q. What’s in the bag?

A. When I began to work on this project, I changed the way I saw and photographed. An important part of that process was changing the tools in my bag. I gave up using zooms, with the exception of the 70-200 2.8, and returned to using what are now called "prime" lenses.

You remember, Al, when we were first shooting film, we carried two or three bodies with a fixed lens on each. Usually, in those days, we all used Nikon and it was a 24 mm, 85 mm and 180mm. 

Zoom Lenses are really great and suited for fast changing situations in photojournalism. Since I want the sharpest image I can get, I use the 35 1.4, 50 1.4, 85 1.8 and put them on two Canon 5D Mark ll bodies. I love those lenses particularly since i am shooting only available light. They are the sharpest, even at low wide-open apertures, which is how I often use them. 

I do not carry a flash and depend on the light meter in the camera bodies.  So, this is my kit:

Two Canon 5D Mark ll (Plan to move to 5D Mark lll)
Canon EF 35mm f1.4
Tripod Leitz Tiltall (had this one since the 70's)
Gitzo monopod (had this one since the 80's)
Really Right Stuff Quick Release mounting plates on Tripod and Monopod and matching Base Plates under each camera and under 70-200 zoom
Extra Canon battery for cameras
Canon Battery Charger
Microfiber lens cloth

Essay One By Acey Harper
She hangs by one hand in what they call a meat hook, an inelegant description of  a beautiful shape, which she does seemingly without thought or care, as you or I would lean against the post below, except that she has climbed that post and using nothing but the lines of her body, expresses with her strength and flexibility, creating twelve divine seconds of perfect form. 

The location is mundane, a street corner on a Sunday morning, not yet 7 AM. Her apparatus is the crosswalk signal. Even at this hour, cars gather, waiting for the stoplight change. When it does she ascends to her platform, an iron support bar. She is not noticed until I have walked into the protected crosswalk, quickly placed tripod and camera, begun my work. It is then that people look, usually from cars passing or the occasional pedestrian. They are baffled at her appearance.

"How do you, " many people ask, "get permission?"

I do not. The soul of these images is the sense of danger or the unexpected. Sometimes the danger is in what they are physically doing, other times it is in the place they are doing it. Usually, it is the two, together. I like that feeling, both within the photo and while creating it. The artist hangs from the light at a crosswalk. I have twelve seconds to get into street, set up tripod and make my image. 

It is a creation of artistry by her, the capturing of it by me, in that short time frame. I am looking for the essence of her as an artist. I am searching for the one moment that encapulates everything she is does. 

Thus, we create, make a photo and run. She did this twice, was on the street less than five minutes, and we were done. The onlookers had barely begun their convergence. We leave the baffled behind.

Essay Two by Acey Harper
She is floating, really. 

It is only a moment but, she is suspended for that briefest instant on the edge of rising, before the falling has begun, his arms having thrown her not carelessly, but easily, into the air above. She has surrendered completely to her body's movement, rising in an elegant, self-made arc that seems to signify an out of body experience, except that she is inhabiting that body more intensely, ten feet over the concrete with no wires, no net and no fear, than most of us do our own while simply walking the sidewalk.

He has a two-part job, give her flight and then save her from injury on her inevitable return downward. But, it is more than that, It is done with panache, so to speak. He is a man who does not just throw a woman heavenward, he gives her the opportunity to make thin air her personal arena, He raises her to the sky and she keeps going, he lets his arms drop, as if to fall into the same revery we are feellng, no longer a part of the theater they can create anywhere - even an alley on a day so cold, tiny snowflakes fell, melting as soon as they touched skin or concrete - but becoming, himself, another observer, distracted by the beauty of her flight. He is not, of course, because it is controlled in miniscule bits of timing between them, he has done this with her so many times he can affect an air of, "What the hell, a woman, floating over my head," his arms and his face portraying a surprise that is false. What is real is this: he will never let her fall, never has, never will. She knows this. 

The moment of floating is over, she reverses and falls rapidly, his arms come up to catch her, even more rapidly, yet done so smoothly, there is barely a sound of the catch. Hardly working, except that he is.

I am captivated by it but do not forget my role as I do what I am there to do, make the photo that says, "Look! Here she is, at the very brink, all control ceded to faith in her partner, herself and her art."

None betrays her.
_______________________________ Private Acts: Take the Journey from Private Acts on Vimeo.
[Private Acts] THE ACROBAT SUBLIME BTS Miguel & Angelo from Private Acts on Vimeo.
[Private Acts] Anna&Sara from Private Acts on Vimeo.
[Private Acts] THE ACROBAT SUBLIME BTS Morgaine Rosenthal from Private Acts on Vimeo.
[Private Acts] THE ACROBAT SUBLIME BTS Lauren Herley from Private Acts on Vimeo.