Our art co-editor, Cynthia Close, recently had this exchange with Harry Wilson, Issue #14’s featured artist. Here’s what he had to say about his life as a photographer, his relationship to technology, and the importance of freedom of expression.
You have had a long productive life as a photographer. How and when did it all start?
I grew up in the mountains of central California, in an art-free zone. So I started subscribing to photography magazines when I was about 12 years old. Got hooked. In college and art school I studied art and photography. Never considered anything else.
You were a professor of art at Bakersfield College. Can you tell us something about your teaching methods and how teaching may have affected your own work?
I kept it simple. Seeing and expressing yourself is the important thing. I taught photography in an art department, so first I had to teach what art is and what photography as an art form is. Most people in our society have little understanding or appreciation of fine art, and even less of fine art photography. Most photographs are advertisements or snapshots, not art. So we would study the work of important photographers. Technique is the simplest part, learning to see and think as an artist is the most difficult and most important.
All the photographs you submitted to MSR were in black and white. Do you ever photograph in color and if not, why not?
I work only in black and white. I use film and darkroom and do my own processing and printing, that way I keep it simple and have the most control.
Photographers often seem to travel a lot. You have followed in that tradition. Can you tell us something about the places you photographed and where you would most like to return?
I have been to over 40 countries, many of them more than once. I keep going back to Europe and next year I plan to return to Cuba. I had some real adventures in Laos, traveling down the Mekong on a small cargo barge. And on the Theun River in a canoe made out of a B52 Bomber gas tank. In the process of bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which runs through Laos, US Bombers would also drop their empty gas tanks. This was decades after the Vietnam War and they were still finding these tanks. This saturation bombing from 1964-73 exceeded the entire tonnage dropped over Europe by all sides during WWII. This is just a reminder of how insane this dirty war was. And probably one of history’s biggest secrets.
Your work has spanned decades. You began when shooting traditionally in film and developing in a darkroom was the only option. How has the evolution of photo technology influenced your work?
Very little, I do like the ease of scanning and sending work. And having a website. However for me, ideas and a personal vision trump technology every time.
Is it possible to survive financially as a photographer in today’s climate?
It has never been easy to survive as an artist. That is one of the main reasons I chose to teach. Also, I have never been interested in making art for someone else. I want to be totally free to express myself. If I do a good job of that it may then have value to others.
What artists or photographers have inspired you?
As an artist you are influenced by most of art history whether you realize it or not. And in my case that would include photographic history as well. The artist/photographers, writers and activists who have had the most influence on me would be: Goya, John Cage, Magritte, Walker Evans, Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Robert Frank, Harry Callahan, Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus, Imogen Cunningham, Ralph Gibson, Danny Lyon, Josef Koudelka, Mary Ellen Mark, Sebastiao Salgado, Linda Connor, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Rosa Parks, Daniel Ellsberg, George Orwell, Gary Snyder, Jack Gilbert, Philip Levine, Rebecca Solnit, Paul Theroux, and Edward Snowden.
What has been your greatest success story to date?
The fact that I have survived as an art teacher until retirement in a society that does not value the arts or education. And of course the success of my students.
Is public feedback from the exhibition/publication of your work important to you?
Somewhat. It’s appreciated.
What direction do you see your work going in the future?
The important thing is not necessarily knowing where you are going, but the going itself. Most recently I have been doing some still lifes, but I think that this is just a momentary diversion.