Introducing Alex Harding

Alex Harding is a painter turned photographer who uses the camera to develop a greater understanding of light as a thing.  Based out of Connecticut, this Mass Art graduate spends his days teaching classes at the University of Hartford and assisting at the Yale University Art Gallery.  Read to learn why he switched from painting to photography and about his obsession with light.



 

 

How did you get started?

I was never inclined toward art, but as a kid I always liked Vincent Van Gogh. It wasn’t until my junior and senior year of high school that I discovered, through a few terrific teachers, I enjoyed art and started drawing and painting.

 

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I was not a very good student in high school. I didn’t think I would go to college until I fell in love with art. I went to the Massachusetts College of Art and Design where I was a painting major in my undergraduate program. I was taking photography courses on the side but not taking it seriously until about a month from graduation when when I started making photographs in the series called Painted Light. They were the first pieces I had made that I was really satisfied with. That’s when I discovered I would continue to make photographs.

Are you related to any other creatives?

No, but I always grew up with art in the house. My father worked at the museum at Brandice University where he developed an affinity for art. He instilled that in me. We always went to museums when I was a kid. I wasn’t particularly interested in it, but art was always around.

Why did you decide to go to graduate school?

I took a lot of time off between my undergraduate and graduate programs.  I was a bartender for a time–I thought it would be a good way to work a few days a week and have time off to work in my studio. It never worked out that way.

It was a friend I met through bar-tending who asked if I ever considered teaching. It was something I always wanted to do but never considered seriously. Within a week I was teaching drawing classes. As a result, I got back in the studio, started being around other artists and talking about art. It got things flowing again.

I realized I enjoyed teaching and, along with making more photographs, decided it’s what I should be doing. I met my wife about that time. I was making a lot of major life changes and that’s when I decided that I wanted to go back to school and spend my time making photographs.

I like a picture that’s a bit of a puzzle, that, when you walk away from it, you discover something new about your surroundings.

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Can you describe your work?

I’m interested in the camera as a tool of visual perception, how it records a specific way of seeing and the experience of what seeing a photograph is. I try to create a conflict within a picture that results in a discovery about the world. I like a picture that’s a bit of a puzzle, that, when you walk away from it, you discover something new about your surroundings. I want my photographs to be a surprise, to show something around you everyday you don’t notice and when you finally notice it, you see it differently.

Why did you change from painting to photography?

It happened in my last year of my undergraduate program. I had been working on these giant 5′ x 8′ red paintings for six months. During that time, I was taking a 20” x 24” Polaroid class. Mass Art was the only school that offered it as a class and I thought it would be a great opportunity. The Polaroids, which became Painted Light, were much more successful than the paintings and I really enjoyed the process. I decided that I should stick with it.

How did you make the photos in Painted Light?

I went to Home Depot and bought a fluorescent light fixture which I turned into a giant light box. I was looking at the work of Robert Irwin and James Turrell and was interested in light as a thing. I bought some color filters and some colored paper and layered them on top of the light fixture. I was trying to photograph color and simple color relationships.

Drops-screen2 cropped

Do you shoot film?

Not anymore. Recently, I switched to a Hasselblad digital. For the last 10 years I have been shooting 4 x 5 and 8 x 10. I love the pictures the 8 x 10 made, but it’s not a very fast tool. Light is a very fast thing. There were certain pictures I couldn’t make as a result.

 

How do you find subject matter?

I do a lot of drawing in preparation to make a photograph. If I see something that would make a good photograph, I think about it for a couple of months and try to recreate it. I made a picture of the iridescent patterns of an oil spill, the kind of thing you would see after a rain storm or on an overcast day on the road or in a parking lot. They are beautiful. I’ve never seen a good photograph of that. One day, I drove around with my 8 x 10 in the back of my car trying to find one. I never found one that I thought looked good, so I decided to make my own. I went to Wal-Mart and bought a quart of motor oil and a gallon of water and made one right there in the parking lot.

Oil spill

When I first saw Visible Light, I didn’t notice the captions and wasn’t able to figure out what you were photographing. The photo of foil especially captivated me.

I have that photo printed very large in my studio. From a distance it looks abstract, like a painting. Many of the photos from that series are abstract—as are ideas about light. There are conflicting theories as to what light is: a wave, a particle, etc. So I tried to photograph that as well. Salt, sand, things like that. It’s fun being a grown man playing with glitter in the basement!

How are you making prints?

I’m printing digitally. I’ve made some work in the darkroom to see how it worked. I was more satisfied with digital prints. Digital printers have come a long way. Its more archival and durable, so much more sharper than in the darkroom. I have an Epson 4800 at home and make most of my prints that way. There are a few print houses that I work with if I need to make something larger for a show. Occasionally, I’ll make a photo that’s designed to be big. I’ve made 40” x 50” of Oil Spill. I like that size, but not for all photos. Most of the time, I’m satisfied with 16” x 20”.

How has your process changed over time?

I used to shoot a lot and whittle an idea down. Now, maybe as a function of being older and having time constraints, I do a lot of drawing and make lists of things to photograph. I sit on an idea for a while. If there’s a picture I want to make, then I do some research and find similar pictures.

Eventually, I try it out on a small scale in the studio to see if it works. After doing a series of drawings, I actually make the image. It usually takes a couple of sessions to get it right. Most of the photographs on my website are the result of several sessions of trying to get the same thing to happen.

Reflection in Mylar

Light is a hard thing to predict and control. If I execute an idea one day, I may not be able to replicate it on another.

Do you consider yourself an artist or a photographer?

I think I’m an artist. “Photographer” has a more technical feel to the term. I think artist fits better. Photography is what I’ve been working with for the last 15 years. There are times when I want to make sculpture. I’ve made some small work that I haven’t really put out there. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to painting, but you never know.

How do your photographs reflect who you are?

Salt

I try to find beautiful moments in life. I photograph those parts of life that remain special or significant. I’m drawn to light and the emotional connection that we have to it. I’m deeply affected by light. I always feel down during periods of low light. I wanted to photograph light to figure it out.

 

 

What makes a good photograph?

A good photograph immediately grabs your attention so that you can’t look away. It stays with you and you think about it for a long time after you see it.

When I was 18 I went to London with my parents to the Tate gallery. I remember seeing the Mark Rothko Chapel, a room with a collection of his paintings. I didn’t know anything about Mark Rothko, but I remember walking into this room and being struck by what I saw—these big abstract pieces. I’m not really sure what I felt, but it was a very strong sensation. I hope people walk away from my work with that feeling.

When you’re shooting things and you’re not being surprised anymore, then it’s over and you need to move on to something else.

How do you know when a series is finished?

People often ask why I don’t continue to make a certain kind of picture. There’s a moment when the sense of discovery is lost and anything else you do will feel repetitive. For me, photography is about a sense of discovery, seeing something and being surprised. When you’re shooting things and you’re not being surprised anymore, then it’s over and you need to move on to something else.

What are you working on now?

I’m still working on the Visible Light series. My wife and I just bought a house, and I still haven’t quite figured out how to get the light to do what I want. But I have some experiments set up and I’m shooting some tin foil. I’d really like to get a nice picture of my wife’s hair. I’ve shot that over and over again, but I haven’t quite got it.

Six suns

 

Photography delivers moments of discovery that teach you about the world.

What do you like best about being an artist what do you find most challenging?

Photography delivers moments of discovery that teach you about the world. Its great when you have an idea in your mind and it turns into a great photograph. Its great when you see it on the wall months later and it still does something. That’s what you’re aiming for.

Its frustrating when you try something over and over and it won’t work out technically or emotionally. There’s a picture of salt that I’ve photographed 15 times. It got to a point where I thought it worked pretty well, but every time I photographed it it didn’t do anything for me.

 

Two Mirrors-CC

I released the shutter and hoped the camera saw what I saw. It was this great moment that I remember to this day

Can you tell me about a memorable moment while making a photograph?

One of the most memorable moments happened while I was making my favorite picture, Light Reflecting off of Two Mirrors. That picture was a total surprise. I blacked out all the windows in my kitchen and slowly allowed a single beam of light in. I used a fog machine to make it more visible. I was able to make it bounce off two mirrors. It wasn’t something I planned, it was something I saw and was totally astounded by. It made this wonderful shape.

Light moves so quickly and I had the 8 x 10 set up. I only had 30-60 seconds to make the picture, which isn’t enough time with an 8 x 10. But I released the shutter and hoped the camera saw what I saw.

You’ve had work shown in several galleries and published in several publications. What advice would you give to artists to make that happen?

I’m always trying to make that happen. It never stops being difficult to put your work out there. It’s going to get rejected and its going to get rejected a lot. Sadly, that’s the way it is. Its not personal, it just might not work for that place. You have to keep putting it out there and show your work to people who you think will be interested in it.

Not everybody fits in every space and they’re only going to be interested if you fulfill some kind of need for them. You need to find someone that’s going to be a good fit and who shares the same interests as you. Those are going to be the kind of people you want to work with.

How did you get your first show outside of school?

Sometimes it just happens. There was a competition at the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University. I submitted a couple of pictures and got in the show. One of the guys who worked there was about to start a gallery and asked me if I wanted to be a part of it. I didn’t really do much, but If I hadn’t applied to that show nothing would have happened.

Where do you see your work in 5-10 years?

I show in a lot of places on the East Coast. I would like to show my work in more places. I don’t have as much time as I did when I was in grad school to be making stuff, so I would like to make more work. In 5-10 years I would like to see myself making more work than I am now.

The Sun, Shining Through Trees

You need to promote things on a face to face basis. Go to openings, talk to people, hand out business cards. If you make a personal connection, people will actually check out your website.

How do you promote your work?

The website is a good tool. Every photographer needs a website. I teach a class at the University of Hartford and include a component on how to make a quick website. It needs to be a repository for your work, but you need to promote things on a face to face basis. Go to openings, talk to people, hand out business cards. If you make a personal connection, people will actually check out your website. You’re also more likely to find a gallery that’s good fit for your work. Otherwise, you’re cold calling places and you don’t know what they’re looking for and they don’t know what you’re sending.

It’s worth making a lot of mistakes, because when you get it right it feels so much better.

What advice do you have for budding artists?

Water Glasses

 

You’re going to fail a lot, in making your work and getting it out there. It’s worth making a lot of mistakes, because when you get it right it feels so much better. It’s trial and error. The more you try, the less errors you make.

 

What do you wish you had known when you first started?

I wish I had known how many years it takes. I don’t think it would have discouraged me, but it takes a long time to get anywhere.



 See more of Alex’s work and follow him on the web!



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