Jessica Todd Harper on Beauty, Family, and Photography
Nov 7 2022
When everyone is carrying a camera in their pocket, what raises the act of taking pictures to the level of fine art photography? Jessica Todd Harper, the award-winning portrait photographer, says that it's equal parts mindset and technique--and lots of setting the stage to seize that perfect light. Listen as Harper speaks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about her desire to capture the complexity of life in a single image, why family relationships and home life are her chosen subjects, and the integral role beauty plays in her images, despite its diminished status in art today.
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Podcast Episode Highlights
Intro. [Recording date: May 5, 2022.]
Russ Roberts: Today is May 5th, 2022 and my guest is fine art photographer, Jessica Todd Harper. Before starting today's episode, you may want to visit her website, jessicatoddharper.com, and look at some of her fine art photographs.
I want to thank Plantronics for providing the Blackwire 5220 headset.
Jessica was a National Portrait Gallery Outwin Boochever 2016 Prize winner--probably butchered that name. Her work was included in the 2016 Taylor Wessing Portrait Competition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. And, her work will be featured in Kinship, which is a show due to run at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery from 2022 to 2024.
She has published three books of her photographs: Interior Exposure, The Home Stage, and her latest with the title, Here. In the introduction to that book, the painter Bo Bartlett writes about Jessica's work,
Her photographs often capture private moments, most of close family, seeming slices of life, which teeter in imbalance and team with the everyday chaos of life. There is something classically trained about her work, an awareness of the Great Masters of Vermeer-like formality.
I would add that Jessica's work has a luminous style that grabs you. Her pictures seem to glow with the intensity of family and connection, but sometimes also with disconnection, which is very appropriate for families. And we'll talk some about that I hope. Jessica, welcome to EconTalk.
Jessica Todd Harper: Thank you very much. I'm very honored to be here.
Russ Roberts: We're going to start with some of the basics of fine art photography, a world that most of us have no familiarity with. Every one of us in 2022 thinks we know something about photography. But, we're going to start with what's peculiar in particular about your world. And, then we'll go deeper into the art. And, I expect along the way, we're going to talk about family. What is fine art photography? What makes it different?
Jessica Todd Harper: Well, you're right in that everybody has a camera in their pocket these days. So, there's a ubiquity to family photography in that everybody photographs their family and everybody's a photographer. But, fine art photography seeks to be in the art category. So, not just for a casual pleasure or to make documents of family moments or copies of receipts, the way that we use our phones every day, but it seeks to be something that people might find in a museum like a painting or a sculpture.
Russ Roberts: Is it something that you hope has a timelessness to it, in that sense? Unlike my picture of my kid?
Jessica Todd Harper: Yes. I often think--one of my favorite artists is William Morris, who was part of the arts and crafts movement in England in the 19th century. He was fond of a Latin expression, ars longa, vita brevis, which means life is short, but art is forever.
And, I think that humanity leans toward a yearning for the eternal. And, when art works, it references that: It's relevant even 500 years later. It's moving to people who don't know the artist.
Russ Roberts: I have to ask you a personal question. Do you have a smartphone?
Jessica Todd Harper: Yes.
Russ Roberts: Do you take photos with it?
Jessica Todd Harper: I do. Yes. I do because I'm a mom and I'm an American and I use it for all kinds of practical purposes as well as just quick snapshots. But, I bring out my camera when I'm in the art mode. And in my mind, it's very clear whether I'm just taking snapshots for every day consumption or if I'm making something for art.
Russ Roberts: So, I take a lot of photographs with my phone. I used to use a mirrorless camera, and I take it somewhat seriously--not as seriously as you do, but I take it seriously. And, a lot of people think I'm a good photographer--or they're lying to me. It could be both. But they say nice things about my work. Words that you've heard: 'Wow, that's a great picture.'
What I don't tell them is that, for me, except for one little thing that we'll maybe talk about later, most of my art--the artfulness of my photography is a big denominator. I take in the digital world, take a lot of pictures. I think I'm pretty good at picking the good ones. Maybe. Maybe that's something of a skill.
But that's not your usual mode. You're not going to take hundreds and hundreds of pictures and hope you get a couple of keepers. Is that correct or not correct? A better way to say it is do you compose your pictures in advance or just hope something comes out good and then take it if it does?
Jessica Todd Harper: Yeah, that's a good question. Also, thinking more about what you asked before, perhaps a good analogy is a writer. A writer uses email all the time. Probably composes many, many emails or even texts every day. But, that's not necessarily what he's going to put into his novel. Right? So, as a photographer, I use imagery every day, but when I'm composing for fine art purposes, it's with a different mindset.
Yes. So, I try to be very precise. I don't take hundreds and hundreds of pictures. In part, I think it's because I grew up in the film era when that would've been very expensive and you had to train your eye to be very precise and careful. My early teachers were always emphasizing to compose the picture beforehand: Shoot full frame, which means you don't plan on cropping it afterward.
You had to be very precise because you only had, depending on what kind of camera you're using, the really good medium-format cameras, you had 12 shots to get it right. With that background, I don't shoot a ton. That said, the pictures that the public consumes are the best ones, and there are many bad ones that nobody sees. And so, there is that, also.
Russ Roberts: Again, even an amateur photographer learns that sometimes the light is only the way you want it to be for 30 seconds. You have a very short window to get a particular scene the way you might want. And, sometimes you miss it and nothing comes out, right?
Jessica Todd Harper: Yes. The preface should give an example. So, the cover of the book is a picture of me with my infant son. And, I noticed the light in my bedroom was really good at 2:30 in the afternoon in January. There's not a lot of light in the winter. I live outside of Philadelphia. So, I tried to kind of get together this picture and time for the light, but it was gone within 15 minutes.
And so, I knew that I had to plan for this picture to happen, which is fairly typical. And so, I looked at the weather forecast; I saw it was going to rain the next couple of days, but I was going to get ready.
And so, by the third day, I had my camera on a tripod, and I had the framing set up--so I knew what was going to be in the picture and what was not going to be in the picture. I was very cognizant about the edges, in particular. So, I remember removing some diaper trash bags and various debris that wasn't going to contribute to the picture in a positive way.
I also made sure to have the nursing schedule set so that he would be fed and awake during that 15 minutes. I made sure to wash my hair. I had the curtain set in just the right way, so that then when the moment came, I was ready and I was able to make maybe seven or eight exposures before he started fussing and the moment had passed.
That's another question you probably would have, is: I set the camera on a tripod with a timer.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I was going to ask you that.
Jessica Todd Harper: It's an automatic timer. Yeah, a lot of artists will use a remote. Right. I never got into that. So, I set the camera on a timer and I jump into the picture and I'm lucky when it works. And those are the only ones that the audience gets to see.
Russ Roberts: So, let's talk about mindset. You said, 'My mindset when I'm taking a photo like that is very different than when I'm say taking a quick snapshot on my phone.' Could you describe that? What's different about the mindset?
Jessica Todd Harper: Well, again, referencing that William Morris quote, I think there's something eternal, ideally, in a well-executed piece of art. And when I'm trying to create something of beauty that's going to last beyond me, I'm seeking to reference some of those eternal themes of what it is to be human. For me, I choose to work within the family--I use my own family, and several other families also feature in my latest book. So, over the last seven or eight years, you can see these families develop.
And, I think, in part, it's because I grew up in a family that was very interested in stories. My grandmother would tell stories of ancestors from five or six generations ago. My mother was a big storyteller, and my grandfather was a big storyteller. And I was always very interested in the way that narrative shaped the way that we perceived reality.
It's a easy entry point. I mean, back to The Odyssey and forward, humans love storytelling as a way to understand their own existence.
For me, relationships are particularly attractive. This became more interesting or more obvious to me during the pandemic when so many of those relationships were cut out and we weren't able to see so many people that--all of us were not able to see so many people that we really yearned to see. And not only individuals like elderly grandparents or parents that you were trying to stay away from, but just casual interactions in the grocery store or walking your kids to school and all those acquaintances that make up the fabric of life.
I found I was really reminded of--in Genesis, before Genesis 3, so, before the fall--in that story most people are familiar with: On the first day God created light. 'Let there be light,' is the first thing that God creates.
And, then He goes on so forth: He creates the animals, the plants, the sea, the sky, the heavens--everything. And everything God creates, He says afterward, 'And, it was good.' Right? And, the only thing that wasn't good in all of creation and that whole narrative is when, after He creates Adam, He says, 'It is not good for Adam to be alone.' And so, He creates Eve.
And I found myself thinking about that text a lot. It is not good for man to be alone.
And, during the pandemic, I think we really felt that acutely it wasn't good for us to be isolated, to be alone. In my work, I am really interested in those relationships that bind us and that we navigate through the course of our everyday lives, which is your family.
From the dawn of time, human beings have been living in families. How does that shape how we navigate our lives, how we see ourselves, how we construct meaning?
So, when I'm making pictures of my family, I'm trying to interface with those issues: How are we constructing meaning in an internal sense?
Russ Roberts: So, I think anybody who looks at your photographs for more than 30 seconds, sees a handful of them--and the more pages you turn, the more it becomes apparent--that one of the things that's distinctive about your work is the look in the eyes of the people you're photographing.
You take a lot of photographs of your sister. She has an incredible gaze--at least in your photographs. I don't know what she's like day to day. You have a very strong gaze. Your children have very strong gazes. And, to start with, when you--and 'strong' is not just the right word. It's a cliché: Eyes are the window to the soul. There's something both riveting and disarming and vulnerable about a lot of the gazes of your family members that you capture.
So, my first question is a little bit personal: When you jump into that frame as the mother of that infant that's on the cover of your new book, you've set up this--you've done a bunch of logistics. You've made sure this is--it's framed the right way you want, you've set the timer, you've cleared out the clutter, you've put some back in because it makes it look homier. You've got it the way you want--your child is there, your child is young, your child doesn't take instruction--but you're telling yourself something when you climb back into the frame, literally the bed frame as it turns out in this particular shot--other pictures, it's just the photograph's frame. What are you thinking as you prepare yourself for that shot? What's your head saying? What are you saying to yourself?
Jessica Todd Harper: I think there's something about motherhood that reminds you of man's ability to be--to experience the transcendent. Having a child is much bigger than yourself. It's awe-inspiring. And, when you're so close to the advent of that life--and so this is an infant baby--you're daily reminded of that miracle. But at the same time, you're dealing with lack of sleep and lots of diapers and crying. And in my case, other children who need you, too.
There's a lot of very mundane concerns. And so, isn't that what it is to be alive? Right?
So, ideally, we remember our eternal selves, our immortal selves, the part that can be much bigger than ourselves. But, we also are rooted in the quotidian. We have daily concerns that need attention. We can't just be thinking about beautiful, abstract thoughts all the time, or our children would starve.
So, there's this duality. I think it's--isn't it St. Augustine who talks about the City of God and the City of man--this idea that you have to navigate both.
And, so I think when I was making that picture, both of those themes are swirling around in my head. And I'm reaching out to this baby and there's a sense of the miraculous, but there's also--it's rooted in the real world and this is a real bedroom. It's not exactly a madonna-and-child picture. It's not completely perfect and idealized. It's a mother who is tired, and a baby who is living. His limbs are moving during that picture.
And, like children who are older, he can only take so much before the photo session is over. I'm also trying to be as precise and efficient as possible, which is something I've gotten much better at ever since I became a mother because you lose the veracity of the moment if you take too long. As any parent who's taken a child shopping for shoes or anything would know. You only have a limited time, and then they're done.
Russ Roberts: So, if you were taking a photograph of me with my child, would you ask me to think about those things? Did you deliberately think about those things? The way an actress would in a role, right? An actress or an actor tries to put their head in a certain place? Would you say that's what you're doing as you lay back down in that bed?
Jessica Todd Harper: Yes, there's definitely a degree of acting that's taking place because I'm trying to create a moment which couldn't have been just captured secretly, since I'm also the artist.
If I'm photographing you--so, sometimes people will see my work and they hire me to make pictures of their family that looks like the pictures I take of my family or the other families in my book.
And, so what I do in that case is I try to plan ahead as much as possible. If they're local, I visit their homes. I go through their closets. I look at their furniture. I ask them: When is the light good in your house? I'd say 90% of the time, people don't know when the light is good in their house. Even curators--even art world people who have hired me to take pictures of their family don't know. Which is fine. I mean, there are millions of things that go on every day in my life that I take pay no attention to at all. My husband will attest to that. I can't name any of the cars that our neighbors drive. I don't notice them. I could maybe say the color, but I don't know the make or year.
I'll have them take pictures with their smartphones and I'll say, 'Well, when you see light coming through the window, snap a picture and send it to me and make sure that the time is available so I know what time of day it is.' And so, we start guessing. And then, if they're local, I will go and visit during the time that I think is best and then I map out what furniture is going to be included, what outfits are going to be included, if I have to change anything on the walls--which I do sometimes. I remember one time doing a portrait commission of--this family were fine art collectors--and I went to go move something on the wall, and one of the household staff stopped me because it was a Picasso and she said I wasn't allowed to touch it.
Russ Roberts: It happens to me all the time.
Jessica Todd Harper: I try to be careful.
Russ Roberts: But, what about the gaze? What about the inner thoughts? What do you do?
Jessica Todd Harper: So again, if I'm photographing somebody else's family, it's their family, not mine. Right? So, it's going to reflect who they are. By spending time with them, I watch them very carefully. Also, I'm in conversation with them constantly. I talk to them and I see what possibilities there are, and then I try to encourage certain directions.
Sometimes, you just have a very, very limited amount of time. One time, I was hired to photograph Sheryl Sandberg and I had about 10, 15 minutes in her home at 6:00 AM. That was the slot I was given.
Russ Roberts: That's tough.
Jessica Todd Harper: And, of course, I couldn't go there beforehand and think about her clothes, or her furniture, or any of that. So, I had an assistant and we had our lights; and we talked about what we imagined would be there and what we wanted to do.
The picture that actually run--I mean, she's a busy woman, right? So, the picture that actually ran for that, it was a story in a magazine. She's on her laptop actually, I believe emailing Mark Zuckerberg--because that's what she's doing at 6:00 in the morning. But, the way that the lines were with her fingers and the shape of the chair and the background, there was a synergy that worked. And so, you do the best with what you can. Every opportunity is a new challenge. It's a new problem to solve.
Russ Roberts: But, for someone like Sheryl Sandberg, or if you were to, say, do a portrait to me or someone else's family--we'll come to your own family in a minute--do you tell them to think about certain things in advance of the shutter opening and closing?
Jessica Todd Harper: No. People in general--now, someone like Sheryl Sandberg is probably very used to being photographed. So, not much is going to faze her. But most people aren't. If it's not my family--who is bored, tired of it by now--most people, most adults in particular, children can be a little more naive and easier to photograph because of that. But, most adults are worried about things like their hair, or do they look fat, or do they look old or too young, or--I don't know, whatever they're worried about. So, my job is to make them feel comfortable. It's akin to being a good hostess, a good leader. If you're confident and you set the tone that you know what you're doing and that they're in good hands and that they're safe, then they open up to you. And then you have to be ready.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I think what I would say--for me, I've done a bunch of portraits for fun, and I often ask people to think about serious things or important things I think that they know about. But, what you're saying, which I've seen, is that a lot of times if you don't do the host/comfortable thing with them, you get a photograph that, quote, "doesn't look like them." You look at it and you go, like, 'Well, that's not them.' That's what they think they're supposed to look like when someone takes their picture. And, that's not the same as what they look like, which is a very strange phenomenon.
Similarly, you can get people who don't photograph well. I wonder if it's because they're hiding. I don't know. But, I do think people hide. I think more open people, when you say, 'I'm going to take your picture'--as opposed to a candidate, which is a whole different thing. But, when you're taking someone's picture deliberately, some people are going to open their heart and soul and say, 'This is me, take a bit.' And, of course, there are other people who don't like to have their picture taken. And I think it's partly because they don't want to be seen. Even a bad photograph is somewhat eternal in today's world; and they'd rather not be seen. I don't know. What do you think?
Jessica Todd Harper: Yeah. I think there's some truth to that. In the same way that people don't like to be stared at. You have to create a very comfortable space for people to feel comfortable in that environment. Maybe that's a bit of a solipsism. You have to make them feel that you're taking care of them and that you won't use this opportunity in a bad way.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about photography generally. It's a funny art because I think a lot of people think, 'Well, photography, that's not an art. You didn't think of something, like a real artist. All you did was take a picture of what anybody could see.' What do you say to people like that?
Jessica Todd Harper: Sure. So, photography has struggled with those issues a little bit from its beginning. It was invented in 1839, both in France and England at the same time. The English gentleman who invented it was William Henry Fox Talbot. He was part of the aristocracy. When he presented his work, which he called Pencil of Nature, he was talking about it from a scientific point of view: Look at the utility of this invention. And he showed how photography could be used to inventory his glassware collection or to make a copy of some of his rare manuscripts.
And also, he did try out a genre scene, kind of like a Dutch painting of a broom against a door opening. He showed that it could be used to do that, too.
And so, then in France, Daguerre invented the daguerreotype, which is this kind of silvery unique image that perhaps people can--if they've ever seen a daguerreotype, you can only see the image if it's angled in a certain way. Otherwise it kind of looks like a mirror.
And it would be kept in, like, a little folding book. So, you would take it out and look at your loved one and then put it away again.
And, he was very savvy, commercially. Before that, he painted--he constructed really big dioramas--these scenes that people would pay money for to enter and see this really interesting scene that he painted. And so, he had a commercial mindset.
And so, I think photography from that moment has struggled always with people thinking, 'Oh, is it a science? Is it there for documenting things? or is it really commercial?' When you think of--I don't know--the cheesy wedding photographer or getting your portrait done at Sears; and like those cheesy 1970s and 1980s portrait sessions that people like to spoof.
So, it has always had a commercial and scientific utility to it.
But also, from the very beginning, artists saw it and experimented with it as an art form. And, by now, museums take it seriously. It's in major collections, and there's a lot of money in--into--collecting fine art photography.
But, for the layperson, I think there's still that mindset that if I can take a picture, then the hurdle is crossed. Whereas I know that I can't sculpt, like, Michelangelo and I certainly can't paint like Da Vinci. That's really obvious to me. But, I could take a picture. Right? I mean, I could take something, and it would be there. And maybe even a monkey if given enough opportunities with a camera could get a really beautiful picture--whereas a monkey is just never going to sculpt David. It's not going to happen. So, I think there is that hurdle.
And then also, in America in particular, in our education, we have 12 years devoted to how to interpret texts. We call it reading. Right?
So, children are instructed on how to decode, how to extract meaning from text. They're even given, hopefully, some training into how the author affects the way the text is constructed.
So, I remember in high school, we had a class where we subscribed to all the major publications, and we had to write essays about the slant of the author--what kind of political slant he had or what personal biases he had. And, that was a total revelation to me. As a 14-year-old, I didn't realize that anyone had any--I thought that anything I read in a magazine or a newspaper was, like, coming down from God and was fact.
And, so, I think most adults understand that writing is informed by the author, at least at some level. Right?
Photography is the same way. And, we don't have any art education. There's no art history in schools, in mainstream education. There is no careful instruction on how to read images and how to understand visual language.
And, so I think it's just a more alien concept for people to look at an image and think, 'Oh, well, the person who created it had a huge effect on what I'm seeing.' That, this is a construction, that it has a particular slant, that it has a particular agenda.'
Russ Roberts: But, I think that that's the narrowest part of, say, an artist or an author. Right? Let me try poetry. There's thousands of poems that you can't understand the first time and you learn to understand them through either practice or learning with a masterful teacher or reading essays about how poems are constructed to get a certain effect.
Is that true? I assume you're saying that's true of photography as well--that not just--I don't think about the author. I can't even, perhaps, understand what the author is saying--right?--in the case of a photograph. Because, as you have alluded to: I've seen a person laying in bed before with a kid. I know what that looks like, so here's another one.
Jessica Todd Harper: Sure.
Russ Roberts: So, what's deeper--or a better way to say it, I guess, would be what's artistic about a great photograph that is not obvious to a person who hasn't been trained in these ideas?
Jessica Todd Harper: I think that's a really good analogy because I find that to be true with poetry all the time. I usually don't understand it on the first pass. And, the more I hear it and then if I talk about it with other people also and they help me to understand it, I get more out of it.
So, it would be really easy to say, 'Poetry is boring, I don't understand it.' Or, 'It's just a mass of words. Anyone can do it.'
But, the more practice I have in being familiar with reading poems, the better I understand them.
And, it's true of classical music, too. Right? Classical music is something maybe not everybody understands or knows about. Or jazz, or even hip hop--any genre that you're not familiar with at first might just sound boring. That's often the word that comes to mind, right?
Russ Roberts: Yep: 'I don't get it.' That would be the--
Jessica Todd Harper: Yeah: I don't get it, or it's not very complicated: There's not much there.
And, so, I find one of the reasons that I can work quickly or I have a sense of what I want to do when I'm making a photograph is because I've spent almost my whole life looking at pictures. My mother would drag my sister and I to art museums all throughout our childhood.
Sometimes it was fun and sometimes it was boring. Right? She would give us crayons or pastels, charcoal to copy the works in the museums. We lived not far from the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, which has a wonderful collection of 19th-century works, mostly Impressionists. And so, my childhood heroes were Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sergeant, Renoir. I loved that work. It was the late 1880s, early 1890s, too. So, there was a certain--I feel like the fashions were leaning towards Impressionism, anyway.
And, so that began very early. And then I was an art history major at Bryn Mawr, where I did my undergraduate work and looked at a lot more images then. And, as I just always think of Aristotle, who says, 'You are your habits.' Essentially. Right? And, so, that's why it's important what your education is or who your parents are, because you become what you do.
So, these images that I've been looking at for years and years and years are just lodged in my brain and they informed the way that I see things.
So, when I'm making a picture of somebody lying on a bed, I'm--in my head somewhere is probably, there's a Modigliani of a woman lying on a couch. There's Andrew Wyeth. There's lots of precedents for that. I'm not the first person to engage with that material. And so, it's in your mind and it informs the way that you see the world.
So, especially if I've had children and I've had to work much more quickly, I feel like that is--it's useful. That it's in my mind and that I have that at my fingertips.
Russ Roberts: Is there something--let's say in that cover photo that we've been talking about--is there something I wouldn't understand the first time I looked at it, maybe, if I'm not a skilled observer?
So, I'm not a skilled observer. Art wasn't part of my childhood. My daughter liked to draw and my wife and I decided we'd learn how to draw because she liked drawing. And so, we bought the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain at the suggestion of a colleague, and we started sketching. And we got better at drawing very quickly. I never got very good. My wife is much better than I am. But, what's amazing about it is, when you start drawing, you realize it's not that I don't know how to draw. I don't know how to look. I don't know how to see.
Jessica Todd Harper: Oh, yeah. Yeah--
Russ Roberts: Because you've studied art for so long--deliberately--in the study of art history and less deliberately when your mom was exposing you to all kinds of images--you see the world differently than I see it. And I assume you see that cover photo differently than I see it. What might you see that I don't see?
Jessica Todd Harper: I just brought it up on my phone so I could see it.
Russ Roberts: By the way, we'll try to put a picture up in the middle of this video for people who are watching it on YouTube. Those of you listening at home will have to go to the website and see it, if they can. [The bookcover pic is reproduced on the top of the webpage for this episode and also alongside the Transcript.] I don't know if it's on your website.
Jessica Todd Harper: I will put it up. In figuring out the cover image, the editors, the publisher, and I were trying to see what worked best with the title. So, the title is Here, and it references paying attention to what's right in front of you. It was something on my mind particularly during the pandemic, because all of our worlds became much smaller, and we were called to pay greater attention to what was right in front of us--which caused some people maybe to redo their kitchens or get a dog or a lot of the word--
Russ Roberts: The bird feeder--
Jessica Todd Harper: Eat a lot of food or just all the things that people did--
Russ Roberts: Baked more bread.
Jessica Todd Harper: Yeah. Baked more bread. We did that. But, I think this is a really common experience as a mother: I found that my attention was pretty much entirely on my family.
So, my kids were having to be homeschooled all of a sudden. My youngest at the time was in third grade and I found that, most of the time--well, our kids go to a supposedly screen-free school. So, navigating the pandemic was complicated, but for the younger kids, there was very limited time on the screen, still.
And so, I spent--and there weren't any play dates you could go to or other activities. And so, we spent a lot of time together, and we read. And, I remember thinking at the time that there was a sweetness to that, but also a sadness which permeated everything during the pandemic--that sense of being isolated. And, I think in this picture on the cover, there is a reference to that intensity of motherhood, of being with your child. There's an incredible sweetness to it and there's a tenderness in the way that these two figures are interacting with each other in this cover image.
But, there's also that the color palette--the kind of the cool light--there's, it references a kind of etherealness, but there's also a slight--I don't know if 'sadness' is maybe too powerful, but there's an intensity to their being alone there. There's nobody else in the picture, and that's often the way hours and hours are spent with mothers and new babies. There's a certain isolation there; and chosen. It's beautiful and wonderful, but there's also an incredible intensity compounded with lack of sleep and all those other emotions that are going on.
And so, there's a multiplicity of feelings going on at the same time in this picture.
There's also the way that the head of the figure, if your eye goes from the head down to the elbow and then across to the baby's head and then the baby's arm gestures back up again, it forms this triangle shape, which is a very classical compositional technique.
I certainly wasn't thinking of it at the time. Here I am on the fly just deconstructing this picture. But, I don't think it's an accident. That triangular composition is prevalent, especially from the Renaissance on.
There's also a star. So, if you follow the baby's hand, which is pointed upward, which kind of takes you to the mother's face, and then from there, your eye follows behind her to a star in the window. And I think a star in Western art references hope. And so, it's referencing all the possibilities of the future. A child is a symbol of hope. Right? There are so many things that a parent dreams of, for that child, and hopes for that child. Yet it's mysterious; it's unknown. So, that star is--it's very much in the background and it's blurry. It's not in focus. It's something that is just sketched out.
Let's see, what else? The backlight. So, the way that the figures are lit is something that I'm very fond of and use a lot. It's called backlighting. So, it's very complicated to expose correctly and that was one of the reasons that I adhered to film for so long, because film is able to expose very bright areas and very dark areas at the same time. And for a long time, digital photography couldn't do that. You had to choose one or the other. But, this is a digital SLR [Single-Lens Reflex] that's taking this picture.
And I also--I took multiple exposures that I could sew together in Photoshop afterwards, so that you can get that detail in the highlight areas. So if you look at the window, there's a kind of mushy gray/blue/yellow from the curtains and from the window panes. So, that information would be lost in a straight shot. That exposes the face correctly. That would be all white.
But, I felt like it was really important to have that softness there and that backdrop that envelopes the figures. If it were just bright white, your eye would go right to the bright white part and it would miss the figures, which are the most important aspects of the picture.
But, that backlight is worth it because it helps contribute to this feeling of etherealness. And, I think we get that in the Western tradition from the use of the halo. So in Medieval art, figures--holy figures--if you're meant to pay attention because this is an important moment, this is an important figure, the painter would let you know by putting a golden--literally pounding sheets of gold into the canvas--around the head. And then you start--in the early Renaissance, it would turn to just a very slim little line.
And then, they did away with halos altogether. But not always with backlight. Backlight is still used. Tintoretto uses it, Rubens--this kind of drama that happens when you light a figure that way. It makes your eye drawn to that figure to pay attention. Something important is happening there.
And so, in this picture, I'm referencing that there's something very important happening here. This fundamental eternal moment between a mother and a child is holy, in a way. It's fundamental to all of us. We all originate in a moment like this, most of the time. So the lighting is important in that respect, too.
Russ Roberts: Bravo. That was awesome. Every once in a while on a museum tour, I buy the tour, or I download the tour, or I put my phone over the image that lets me pull up some description by the curator of this.
I'm always struck by how bad those are for me, the casual student of art. They might be good for a serious person, although often I wonder if there's just some noise going on there. But, I think understood what you were saying there, and I really appreciate that. I'd like to go--
Jessica Todd Harper: I hope so. I hope I made some sense.
Russ Roberts: No, it was fabulous.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk a little bit more about your family's appearances in your pictures. And, then I want to move to family in the abstract, which you've already started to talk about, and what you're trying to do with your art in terms of representing a family.
But, first, let me just make an observation. Again, for people who haven't seen many of your photos, it doesn't look like they're posed. And I assume they are posed in certain ways. You tell your children to stand in certain places. Many of them, by the way, have multiple children or multiple children with multiple adults. Some of them are two people like you just described, but many of them are a number of children, some of whom I assume are cousins or friends.
They're usually not smiling. They're usually not looking at each other or at the camera. Sometimes it might be one person looking at the camera, which is a great trick, which forces you--it draws your eye to them. How do you set those up? What do you tell them to do? And do they play along? What did they think of this?
Jessica Todd Harper: So, there's a range. There are a few pictures in the book that are completely un-orchestrated. And, there's a birthday party image, for instance, where I just made the picture and I didn't tell anyone to do anything. But, it focuses in on this one girl who is kind of looking elsewhere and has her mind on something else. There are a number of other little girls who are also--their attention is located somewhere outside the frame. And so, that is a theme that has always interested me: the sense of being together, but alone. So, this is a birthday party: It's a festive event. These children are all gathered together. They're in close proximity with each other, but at the end of the day, we're all alone with our own thoughts. We're creatures of our minds. And, even children are, as well.
That's not something that is usually thought of when photographing children. And that's one of the reasons I eschew[?] the smile. Because, kids are trained to smile for the camera, and it's a very public way of engaging the viewer. There are a few smiles in this book. I decided to experiment with that. But they're really hard to pull off because--because smiling is often less intimate. Maybe that's the best way of putting it.
So, it's not that it's forbidden. It's just difficult to pull off artistically.
And, yes: often there is one child or one adult who is engaging the viewer's gaze. And many did that beautifully. Holbein did that. There's a lot of precedent for that in art history. And, what it does is it kind of arrests the viewer. You're startled into thinking, 'Oh, I'm part of this.' There's an intimacy in having the figure look at you that makes you pay attention.
And so, sometimes in a picture, there'll be a lot going on compositionally. It could be just that there's a mass of objects happening or there are people moving around in the background, but there's this quiet, intimate relationship happening between the viewer and one figure in the frame, which is intriguing.
I'm thinking Vermeer is another good example of there'll be a domestic scene and one of the figures is just looking out at you. And, you feel drawn in and you feel this sense of intimacy, which as human beings we respond to.
Russ Roberts: You're also kind of, as Vermeer exposed--I hadn't really thought about this, but when you have that gaze amidst all the other things that are going on, it doesn't just draw you in: it calls you. It says--it doesn't make any sense, but it says, 'I'm looking at you.'
And, you suddenly, as the viewer, even though you know this is a photograph, consciously, and they're not looking at you--they're not in the room, just a photograph--you suddenly feel a bit exposed. You feel a bit vulnerable. And it opens you, if it's done--if the gaze is effective, it opens you up just like the subject of the photo is opened up to you.
I always think--when you talk about smiles, I always tell people when I take their picture not to smile. I always try to take a picture of them not smiling.
A friend of mine who's a very, very good portrait photographer. He taught me this trick: first one serious. The great thing about it is that it usually causes people to laugh. And, you get a great candid laugh, or a smile, which, if you say, 'I'm going to take your picture,' and they do the picture smile--you said something like it lacks intimacy. It's a mask. Our smiles are often masks. They're the way that we present ourselves to the outside world. We think we're doing it consciously because we don't want to be observed. We throw it up onto the screen of our face for others to look at because we don't want them to see our real face. And, it could be we're sad and we want to hide that, so we smile and we don't feel it. It could be, I don't want to be observed in my vulnerability so I put the smile on so that you'll see not my real face. And of course, it's Pagliacci: it's the clown with the broken heart who has a painted smile on, is even the more heartbreaking example.
I often talk about my dad. My dad, I think most people thought he was a jovial man. He smiled a lot. He really was more of a private man. His smile was not because he was jovial: it was his way of hiding from the world. He was a very introspective person, which no one, very few people knew because he was always so happy and smiling. And, it was more complicated than that.
Russ Roberts: But, anyway, I want to talk--this is your third book of photographs. You've been taking photographs of your family now for a long time. We see them get older. We see them growing up, we see their interaction with you and their father and their siblings as they get older. Is there a plan there? Are you always going to be taking pictures of your kids or are you going to move on to something else?
Jessica Todd Harper: Yeah, so I think because I referenced earlier that, when I was a teenager, that my heroes were Mary Cassatt and Renoir. These are artists that painted their families. Mary Cassatt, in particular, painted her own family a lot. And, Renoir was very interested in human interactions and that kind of electricity between figures. Whereas, some of the other impressionists are more dealing with the ennui of modern life. Renoir never goes there.
I did painting and drawing from the time I was really little. I always wanted to grow up and be an artist. And, when I was 15, my parents sent me to this college art program in the summertime. You could take painting and do figure drawing, and that was my plan. And, when I got there, there was no room in the painting class for some reason.
And so, they put me in the photography class, kind of by accident. And, I was really upset because I didn't consider photography art. I was going to be a painter. I absolutely fell in love with it instantly. I didn't know anything about photography, and I loved it. If I did figure drawing in the morning--figure drawing is when you draw from the model. So, it's been this way since the Renaissance. You have a nude figure, and everybody is around and you draw from it. And, sometimes there's a skeleton next to the nude figure so that you see where the bones are located under the flesh and you're trying to get everything right.
So, I did that in the morning, and then I did photography in the afternoon and that's all I wanted to do then, from that point on. I've been photographing my family since I was a teenager.
And, I decided to go to college. I guess I'm a big believer in the liberal arts tradition. So, I wanted to get a liberal arts degree at a good liberal arts school. I went to Bryn Mawr. I majored in art history and always with the plan that I would learn the technical things afterward in grad school. So, I went to RIT, Rochester Institute of Technology, which had a ton of money poured into it from various corporations in upstate New York. So that, at that time, which is right, the advent of digital technology, it just had every single toy under the sun. And I could learn about all of that.
And, I thought that would be useful in terms of getting a job, too, because most likely schools would be interested in teachers who could teach this new technology. But I also learned 19th-century processes. Actually, my first job at Swarthmore College was to teach 19th-century photographic processes. So, you never know what comes in to be useful.
And so, I kept on photographing my family all during that time. So, my first book was published before I had kids. It actually came out within a couple months of when my first children were born. I started out with twins, so I had my first children. That works with my grandparents and my parents, my aunt--aunt and uncle--my husband and myself: so, a lot of pictures of our early marriage. And some of my friends and their children. There are a couple pictures of children that appear in that book.
And then, the next book is called The Home Stage. It's a double entendre. It's referencing that stage in life when you're anchored to the home, and also when the home is a stage on which children learn to live. It's a way that they're socialized. So, I had three kids in three years. So, I was very much anchored to children and the home. And so, I made this book about that.
And, then now, this third one is still dealing with the same cast of characters. At this point in the second book, one of my grandparents, there's a picture of him on his deathbed. In this latest book in here, there's a picture of my grandmother within 24 hours of her dying, and my children are standing at her bed. So, there are these incredible life passages that are happening, not just births of children, but the end of life is referenced, too.
There are also--in my work, there's a lot of inclusion of photographs of people from the past and paintings of people from the past. So, the past is always referenced. My father is an oncologist and my mother helps start hospice in upstate New York. And, my dinner table growing up was--we talked about death and dying all the time. It was just part of life.
So, I think that that cycle of life and the sense that we're here briefly, but what we leave behind can have an impact is something that informs the work. What I see, ideally, is that I'll be a very old lady one day with this really long story of these characters and--like a Tolstoy novel, or there are a lot of authors who write these really long narratives of intergenerational stories. That's what I want one day. And so, these books are thought of as kind of installments along that path.
The first three books, they're all the same publisher, the same designer; they can sit on your bookshelf nicely all together. They're the same size. I hope to keep on working on that because while it's nice, it's very nice when people appreciate it in my lifetime and I can connect with strangers who feel really moved by the work. That's an incredible blessing.
My final goal is really to have this meaningful body of work for people for long after I'm gone. That's what I would like. One can hope.
Russ Roberts: I want to read a quote from the essay that you wrote for your second book, Home Stage, which--I quoted part of this in my book, Wild Problems. It captures a number of things. But, one of the things that it captures is what EconTalk guest L.A. Paul, the philosopher, wrote about when she talks about the Vampire Problem: that, there are things you do in life--and I wrote about this in my book--that change you in ways that change what you care about. Not just change the circumstances of your day-to-day life, but they change how you experience day-to-day life, is how I would describe it.
Here's what you write. You say,
The Home Stage came from the overwhelming sense that when we became parents, Chris and I had entered into an alternate and strange world, a world entirely predicated by our children. I wondered what exactly I had cared about so much before I had them. Time moved differently, too, as one grandmother described it, "The days are long, but the years are short." Older people cooed over my children in the grocery store showing me I was doing a good job, smiling wistfully at my babies. Once as I was very pregnant with my third child and my twin toddlers were having a double tantrum of not being led into the lobster tank with the lobsters at the fish counter, a gray haired woman touched my arm and without irony said, "Honey, this is the best stage of your life."
End of quote.
Now, first I want to mention, I think that attitude is very unfashionable these days. Quote: "a world predicated entirely by our children." Entirely predicated by our children. Children are, like, for some in some cultural ways, I think in 2022--this is too strong, but I'm exaggerating for effect: They're accessories. They're just part of our life, the way we have a hobby like golf, or crossword puzzles, or whatever it is. They're just something fun. It gives us all kinds of feelings--mostly good, some not so good. Maybe mostly not so good in certain circumstances. I say in my new book that as a parent, the number of bad days can easily outnumber the number of good days. So, you really don't want to use--I think most of us wouldn't use majority rule for deciding whether to have a child. That's not a utilitarian calculus. But many would suggest it should be.
But, I'm curious whether you agree that this is the best stage of your life. Was that woman right and what does that mean for your art?
Jessica Todd Harper: Actually, New York magazine ran a cover story that coincided with a book by Jennifer Senior called All Joy and No Fun. And, it used my photographs to illustrate the story. Her point is--she describes this story of coming home from work and being really excited to see her toddler. And, he kind of explodes into a tantrum upon seeing her and the place is a mess.
And, I think that, before I had children, I remember visiting friends with children and thinking, 'This is a lot of work.'
Russ Roberts: Yeah, it is.
Jessica Todd Harper: And, that's mostly what I saw. And, I thought, 'Huh. Well, it's kind of fun being able to go out, travel, do restaurants, wear high heeled shoes, wear anything that doesn't have to be washed because gosh, my friend is covered in spit-up all the time.' It didn't look like fun and I don't think I got it.
Russ Roberts: It isn't fun.
Jessica Todd Harper: Yeah--
Russ Roberts: But, some of it is. Some of it is, but most of it's not. A lot of it's not, anyway.
Jessica Todd Harper: But, I think that having children is a lot like getting married. If you look at it in a purely utilitarian, opportunity-set mind frame, you might say, 'Hmmm. If you get married, you're only limited to this one person. That must be a kind of enslavement. That must be something that weighs you down.'
In fact, I think what many people will tell you who are married is that it's the ultimate liberation. That's not something that you necessarily understand without having experienced it. And, I think that, also, in the same way that being married helps you to be your best self, because you have this witness all the time--so if you're just crabby and impossible, it's hard to kind of do that with a partner. They kind of call you to be your better self.
And so, it's good for you, in a way, to be married because it counters against your selfish impulses, which--look, that's probably the most strong impulse of man is we want what we want. We want to think about ourselves and our own needs.
And yet, if we are left to our own devices to think about our own needs and ourselves, we tend to become miserable. So, it's--society over the years, in its wisdom, has constructed a lot of institutions which check those impulses. Marriage, I would say being one of them. It helps you to be less selfish.
And parenthood just continues in that same vein. Your children don't fundamentally care if you are happy. They don't really care if you get what you want. And, they may or may not thank you for all of the work that you put into it. So, it's not really about being praised or getting your immediate needs gratified. It forces you to think about somebody else's needs first. And I believe, fundamentally, that makes you happier. It contributes to human flourishing, maybe is the best word. Not necessarily happy, but allows you to be at your highest capacity as a human being.
Not for all people, but for most people, I think it's not an accident that society has organized families, because we're best in that environment.
That's not something I understood before I got married or before I had children. In retrospect, I wish I had started having children sooner. I kind of saw it as this, I don't know--like, 'Everyone has kids, so I guess I'll have some but it's going to be a lot of work. I don't want to have too many.' But, now I've decided to have four and I think it's really great. So, you change. Your perspective changes.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Most of that could have been the introduction of my book. You know, I say happiness is overrated.
But I like that--'All joy, no fun,' is a good way of saying that a lot of things that are not necessarily fun or that make us happy in a day-to-day sense--a lot of those things that don't make us happy, give us joy, give us meaning, give us a sense of a life well lived. But, it's not for everyone. Family doesn't do that for everyone--
Jessica Todd Harper: No, definitely not--
Russ Roberts: There are many parts of child raising and child rearing and child-caring that are not just not fun but heartbreaking.
But, I will say--you say that talking about gratitude and that experience of having a child--one of my children, he and his wife are pregnant with a child. And, I told a friend about it and he said, 'Oh, they're coming over to your side.'
And, first I thought, 'What?' You know, I'd expected him to say, 'Oh, you're going to be a grandfather.' Which is a really weird word to use, right? For me. This will be our--if all goes well and by the time this episode airs, that child, God-willing, will be in the world. But, I thought he was going to say, 'Oh, congratulation. You're going to be a grandparent.' Or, 'It will be interesting to be a grandparent.'
But, what he was observing was that the child that becomes a parent becomes very wise, very, very quickly, because they learn something that they cannot learn otherwise, which is that--and, I remember when we had our first child, it's like, 'Oh my gosh, my parents, they did so much for me. I can't believe--'. It's not like I didn't think about it as much as they did. I'd never thought about it for a second.
You know, I was just talking to my mom and she mentioned how hard it was when I went off to college. I think I said to her when she told me that, I said, 'I can imagine.' But, I couldn't imagine it then. And, not only could I not imagine it, again, it's not like I thought, 'Wow, I wonder if my mom's having a hard time now that I'm off at college.'
I didn't think about it for one sec. Not one second. There were [?] hard times for me; most of the time, not. It was great. Because I loved school, and I loved college, and I loved my friends, and it was wonderful.
I gave zero time to what my mom was going through. Or my dad.
And, so my son is coming over to my side. I think it's an amazing part of--again, I think it's just part of the human experience to--whether child raising, having a child or being a parent is a good idea or not. One of the things it does is it educates you. It teaches you something about what your parents experienced that you cannot really otherwise tap into.
I've got to quote of a friend of mine--this didn't get into the book, unfortunately, into my book--but his father told him, "Until you get married and have children, you're an idiot." And, there's some truth to that. You learn a lot of things when you get married and have children. There are costs--maybe, again, I'm not going to say it's for everybody--but it's pretty amazing.
Jessica Todd Harper: Yeah, that's been my experience. And, you're right, it isn't for everyone. I think there's a reason that so many people do it; but, not everyone is called to do it. That's why it's good to have diversity in society. But, for me, it's helped make me less selfish.
Russ Roberts: One of the things that you could say--one could say--about your work is that it's beautiful. You're a good-looking family, you know[?], in the most superficial sense. But, it's not just that. It's not just, 'Oh boy, she has photogenic children.' You make them look--all the things we talked about in the creation of your work and the example you gave earlier of the way you use the light, the way you use the angles of the arm and the face, the way you use back-lighting, the way you take advantage of natural light that comes through a window--they create beauty. And, in art today, beauty is really out of fashion. Art is supposed to be shocking. It's supposed to unnerve you. And, your work does sometimes, I don't mean to suggest that it's just beautiful.
But, beauty itself is rare today in many ways, I think, in the art world. It's rare in every world. It's rare in the world. And, one of the things I treasure about your work is that it captures some beauty--happens to be the family, but sometimes it's the snow outside your house or the way the light slants through the window. There are plenty of things that are beautiful besides human beings. Do you ever have an urge to make a uglier picture? What are you trying to do with that, with the beauty thing?
Jessica Todd Harper: So, that's a great question. And, beauty is definitely a thorny subject today. But, what's interesting about the history of beauty in art is that this isn't the first time that there's been a tension between valuing things that are beautiful and valuing other concerns of justice or truth or what is good.
Two of good examples that people might be familiar with is Savonarola, who was a very firebrand preacher in Italy in the late 15th century, was very concerned about everyone's beautiful objects they had in their homes and in the churches. He was concerned that all of this beauty would distract people from caring about the poor, caring about God, caring about justice, about what was right.
And so, his solution was to take all of these beautiful objects and make a big giant bonfire. And, we know it as the bonfire of the vanities. This was a way to get people to stop being distracted by beauty and think more about what was good and what was true.
Another example is the Sistine Chapel. Most people would consider that one of the wonders of civilization--worth preserving, a masterpiece, an object of great beauty. But, it's complicated. It always is. Right? So, the Catholic Church financed many of it's incredible works of art through various practices that many people had critiques of--most notably Martin Luther.
So, the Sistine Chapel is done in the beginning of the 1500s. Martin Luther is around 1517. When Charles V sacks Rome a few years after that, there's a lot of German soldiers; and they use the Sistine Chapel as a stable. It's offensive to the modern ear: 'How could you use the Sistine Chapel as a stable?' But, they didn't think very kindly on the Catholic Church, the sale of indulgences, etc., the way that art was paid for, the way it was created.
And so, you see in the Reformation this emphasis on holy spaces: churches were meant to not have any ornament. They were supposed to be very simple. Because, to create beautiful things requires a concentration of wealth and entanglements of power, lots of issues that were worthy of criticism.
And so, I think this is something in the history of Western art that we've always struggled with, that there's this tension: If you want to think about the trifecta of beauty, truth, and goodness, which I refer to in my artist statement in this book, this is what I'm trying to reference in my work.
And it's--those three things are thought of over the centuries many times by many thinkers as a way of transcending our earthly existence, as a way of getting in touch with what is eternal. When Kant talks about the sublime experience, and you can access this through nature--and that's particularly thought of in the 19th century, late 18th century--that you can know about eternal things like God and goodness through nature or through beautiful music or art. But, in that search, there's always these questions of the more practical and more earthly.
Another good example I love is--this, a story. So, one of these foundational texts of our heritage comes from the New Testament when Mary comes to Jesus and uses a really expensive bottle of perfume and washes his feet with her hair. And, Judas, who is in charge of the money, kind of looks at this in disgust, in this, like, 'Hello, what are we doing here? We could have sold that perfume and used all that money to feed the poor. What a waste. That's just so stupid.'
And, I think that any modern mind can be sympathetic to that comment. I think we've all thought things like that at times. What is the utility of resources? How do you use those resources?
Of course, in that story, Judas is the bad guy and Jesus is the good guy. So, we know which way this is going. And, Jesus rebukes him and says that what Mary has done is of more importance at the moment, than anything else that could be done. And, that that act is an act of beauty. It's informing the reader about what God values.
And, I think that in looking at our--or looking at the meaning in life--the best way to know about what is good and what is true is actually to get sorted[?] what is beautiful. Because if you know what is beautiful, then you can define what is good and true.
If you think of the Soviet Union, everybody is fed, everybody is housed. But it's not an environment of human flourishing. We can take care of material needs in this world--at times. Often, it's just a big mess. But, we can take care of our material needs; but it's not enough, somehow, for human flourishing--for what we really need as human beings.
And so, in art these days, I think particularly because we're at this postmodern moment where people can't agree on what is beautiful, then the value in art becomes what is most good, what is most true. And in this context, it's often viewed in a framework of what is just, what is best for society, and for advancing issues of justice, of goodness, of what I believe to be good for society, for this country.
And when you look at art with that lens--is this advancing justice, is it advancing goodness for what I believe to be good and to be true?--you have a much more limited availability in terms of what is of value, what is of justice. Sorry, not justice. What is of value? What is beautiful?
Because, there is so much art that is really nourishing and inspiring, which would fail under that metric. How do you look at a Klimt painting or a Vermeer and say, 'Well, how does this advance issues of how to construct a society in a better way?' It doesn't, really. They're just beautiful.
And I feel like for human flourishing to really occur, there has to be room to take that risk: to take the risk of making art for art's sake--as early 20th century artists would talk about it--to make art for beauty's sake, and risk that it might offend someone, like Judas being offended.
It might not be interesting to people. It might not grab their attention, But it's worth--I would say--worth the risk to try to create images that are objects, even if you want to extend that to other forms of media that are beautiful, just for beauty's sake.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Jessica Todd Harper. Jessica, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Jessica Todd Harper: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
Nov 8 2022 at 6:32am
Russ Roberts generally tries to bring out the good in those he interviews. He studies and knows their work well and promotes it. Here he speaks with the photographer Jessica Todd Harper whose family-centered work has a kind of Beauty and Grace. Todd Harper is also articulate in explaining the sources of her way of looking at and doing photography. Roberts and Todd- Harper also have an interesting discussion on the meaning and value of parenthood. They do not however enter into the sociological discussion related to the drastic decline in the US birthrate. Todd Harper aims to create a body of work which will endure down the generations. As someone who knows very little of Photography I enjoyed this brief introduction to the subject.
Nov 8 2022 at 1:33pm
Let me start by saying photography is a skill, which one can improve, and which produces results that are enjoyed subjectively. So, in that regard, it is similar to composing music, writing a novel, or painting a picture. However… Photography differs in that the final product is less about ‘creation’ than it is about ‘capturing’. I thought of the following example to illustrate the difference:
Imagine you pick 100 random people, give them all the latest iPhone, and instruct them all to take 100 beautiful pictures. Let’s say you also allow Jessica Todd Harper to submit 100 pictures into this pool. I guarantee you, if you ask anyone off the street to look through the 10.1k pictures, and pick which ones are the most beautiful, those submitted by Jessica Todd Parker would not be overly represented among the top pictures in any significant way. However, if you take 100 random people, and give them a pallette with a brush and paint, or a piano and a music ledger, or a pen and a writing prompt; the laypersons’ results would pale in comparison to those submitted by a professional painter, songwriter, or author.
I do NOT think commercial/general appeal is necessarily a prerequisite of beautiful art, but I do think the correlation implies a fundamental truth about the difficulty of mastering each skillset; if your creative works require an advanced art degree to appreciate, so that the average person can’t distinguish your efforts from those of laypersons, then what you are really engaged in is a bourgeoisie hobby, not a ‘creative’ endeavour.
Nov 8 2022 at 10:47pm
This may be my top episode of the year. I am really enjoying this cycle of interviewing people about their work. Shalom is right that Russ brings out the good in people, and when they are open to it he gives them the opportunity to talk about the things that really matter to them. I think Jessica Todd Harper and Russ share many similarities, a deep curiosity in their subjects and a desire for the eternal.
Nov 9 2022 at 11:54am
I thoroughly enjoyed this episode. What a spectacular young woman and mother. Russ continues to get amazing guests.
Nov 16 2022 at 6:42am
Her comments about leaving for college and setting thoughts of her parents aside brought to mind a book just published by a friend of mine, Deanna Dikeman, “Leaving and Waving”. A review here. https://flashbak.com/leaving-and-waving-an-artists-moving-tribute-to-leaving-the-people-you-love-425586/
In just a few pages, Deanna captures the essence of parting from one’s parents in both a temporal and spiritual sense. I have several copies and enjoy giving it to friends as it reopens lost recollections of, for most, what was a loving relationship.
Nov 20 2022 at 1:40am
This was a lovely episode, especially when the conversation turned to parenthood. Jessica lays out a brutal truth when she says, “Your children don’t fundamentally care if you are happy. They don’t really care if you get what you want. And, they may or may not thank you for all of the work that you put into it.” For me, it was really only towards the end of my parents’ lives and after their deaths that I felt immense gratitude and love towards them.
Thank you Russ for talking about your experiences as a spouse and parent and bringing on guests who also speak insightfully about these vital relationships.
Nov 21 2022 at 7:45am
Best interview of the year. There’s Munger, but he’s on a different plane and doesn’t count… But here we have a guest who has thought deeply about her art and can answer questions not just from her own perspective, but by referencing historical developments and characters. It’s almost a perfect exchange. She listened carefully to the questions and answered them in ways that illuminated and educated. She is as artistic and clear as one of her luminous photographs.
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