Photographer Peter Harris on going digital
Handsomely framed wide-format prints from far-flung travels appoint the office of photographer Peter Harris, whose day job as Studio Research Associate for UCSC’s Digital Arts allows him to ply his expertise with computerized imagery and über-tweaked digital printing. A huge color Epson printer, banks of specialized ink cartridges and oversized rolls of printer paper surround Harris’ tidy computer-topped desks.
“I used to be a Leica rangefinder man,” confesses the sartorially eccentric Harris, who favors bespoke shirts and black suspenders. An unlit cigar is always nearby. “But the Panasonic DMC GH-1 changeable lens camera and its 14-28mm zoom lens changed all that,” he says, beaming. “Now my hand can reach inside the scene I’m shooting,” he says dramatically of the camera’s articulated viewfinder. This equipment allows Harris to pursue his recent passion for unobtrusive street and location photography, transmuted through an eye educated at both Cal Arts and the Rhode Island School of Design. The body of work he’s amassed in the past three decades is as intellectually witty and theoretically probing as it is visually engaging, i.e. cool to look at.
“I try to document what I see, what makes it special,” he says.
Originally from Providence, Rhode Island, Harris arrived here by way of Syracuse University. “We moved to Santa Cruz in 1988 when my wife Karen got the job in the Lit department,” Harris says. “In 2000 I began as digital support for UCSC’s new electronic arts program. Around 2006 it became apparent that analog photography was becoming a thing of the romantic past. Now my role has become more of a digital imaging specialist.”
A trained cellist, Harris has been hanging around photography most of his life. But a trip to China and Thailand, on a grant from Syracuse University, clarified his interests. “I did a lot of shooting around European colonial architecture on an island in China,” he recalls. The hodgepodge of building styles clustered into this 19th century Euro-ghetto stoked his love of architecture. He admits that collecting every National Geographic printed since 1909 helped trigger his interest in ancient monuments. A complete convert to digital photography, Harris says he “loves the precision and control. You can see it immediately and isolate areas so clearly. What once took 30 hours to complete I can now do in an hour,” he says.
And it’s much cheaper, he notes, eyes rolling in mock relief. “Shooting situations are much more fluid,” he says. “It changes the way I shoot. The articulated viewfinder is very powerful. It’s much less intrusive.”
A current project called “Incidents of Travel” is based on 19th century travel books. “I’m very interested in applying 19th century display approach to what I’m doing now,” he says. Another series, a 12-plate book with essay entitled “Meta-Tourism: is viewable on therealpeterharris.com.
“After my second extended trip to Europe I became fascinated with transit hubs—airports, museums, train stations, and archaeological sites.” London, Amsterdam, Istanbul, Berlin, Rome, Budapest—the usual suspects—served themselves up for his lens. Harris himself isn’t sure just how to understand some of his most recent work, but he insists that curating around core ideas is key. “All the photographs have been taken,” he laments. He’s serious. There really are no new photographic images. “The only thing that saves you as a photographer today is being able to isolate a group of them and wrap them in a narrative,” Harris says. “That allows you to isolate your work from all the rest of the crap.”
But he still hunts for haunting images. “You look and look and look, and have to jump out and get the shot. I stay ready. And as I get older I’m more focused,” he says. We both laugh at the pun. What next? “Well, I’ve promised myself that this summer I’m going to sit down and edit several decades of work,” he moans. “I need to locate the good stuff. Sort them, print them, write about them.” And then? “And then return to Turkey,” he says, grinning with relish. We while away another hour looking through his portfolios on the northern light of Holland and California vernacular architecture. “I’m not shooting for other people, I’m shooting for me.”
PHOTO: Peter Harris says he can do in an hour with digital photography what once took 30. CHIP SCHEUER