Harper's Bazaar Korea

The Contradictions and Aesthetics of Black and White

Oct 01, 2013

By Yoon Hye Jung, Editor

Photographer Nathan Harger captures the industrial elements that characterize America’s renaissance. His dramatic black and white photography distorts reality into grid-like forms and creates a new aesthetic dimension to the images. Rusty buildings that are usually disregarded are now works of art.

It is very clear that I like Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work. It is very raw and traditional, and his abstinent style of photography altered the commentary made by modern photography. There was no room for experimentation during Bresson’s time. Bresson represented and reproduced reality just as the Impressionists represented and reproduced their view of reality. Photographer Aaron Siskend emerged onto the scene in the abstract style, and other abstract photographers joined the Mondrian-influenced team of artists and they received constant criticism for their work. They gained much influence from the work of Ray Metzker, Margaret Bourke-White, and Harry Callahan. Irving Penn, before his work in fashion photography, was known for pushing the limits of still life in his photographs.

Born in 1976, the young artist Nathan Harger inherited the DNA of Siskend and continues to expand the limits of photography. Harger is not interested in beautiful subjects for his photographs. There are no human figures or natural landscapes. They are buildings built solely for industrial profits. Cranes, telephone lines, bridges, factories, tanks, power plants, etc. are the most fundamental elements of his work.

Viewers should celebrate Nathan Harger’s work not because he is highly reviewed by some of the world’s leading art critics, but because he takes forgotten elements and turns them into art. He depicts inanimate objects with energy, and that is his greatest achievement in his artwork.

Looking at your work, I wondered what kind of image would have emerged if you shot photos of Korea instead of America. Could you describe your work process for us?
It is always different, but I usually travel to mainly western Pennsylvania’s Bethlehem and areas similar to the city’s history of industrialization. I actually don’t decide in advance what it is that I want to capture. I just walk around certain kinds of cityscapes until I find an area with sophisticated lines and geometric shapes. I often travel to New Jersey, especially the areas in which blue-collar workers live, like Elizabeth. I’d like to always visit areas that look like Cleveland.
Your subjects are not just tanks, freeways, cranes, telephone lines, planes, bridges, and factories, but all of the world industry’s moving factors. These are the subjects of your work, and such facilities are often devalued. What prompted you to use these subjects as the focus of your work?
I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland was America’s center of industrialization of the 20th century. The subject in my work is the landscape that has been created by today’s society. It is also the landscape that surrounded me in my childhood, and it undoubtedly had a huge impact on me. Since I started taking photographs as a student, I without hesitation took photographs of things that sparked my interest. In the process of doing that, I started to understand not just my personal style but how the infrastructure in which I live in has formed a cultural understanding. The most pivotal moment in my life was deciding to move to New York in 2006. I wanted to see if the vibe was different in New York and Cleveland.

“Honestly, it might be easier to take a negative position on the industrialization of America. I am reminding viewers of our negative and positive history, and it can be a key to understanding our future.”

Your work seems more like graphic design and abstract art than photography. Rather than ‘representing’ reality, your work seems to ‘reconstruct’ reality. Somehow, the medium of photography as we understand it to be is still recognized in your work.
Actually, the photographic method I use is something I am continuing to explore. My photography goes back and forth between abstraction and reality. Thankfully, today’s new technology allows me to advance my skills and play with my photographs more than previous photographers were able to.

The details are lost in your work, leaving it with just the form. Maybe this is a result of the high contrast of black and white. Forms that were not visible are drawn out to the foreground. Is there a special reason that you format your images this way?
The high contrast is a result of my work process in which I remove the excess untidiness from the images. I show my viewers a formal and minimal image, and I struggle to create simplicity. I guess you could say it is an effort to intensely access the essence.

You photograph locations in both New York and New Jersey. Some of the photographs don’t look like they were taken in New York. What inspires you in the city?
If you take for example, “Untitled (Holding Patterns)” there is a similar work because the grid pattern inspires me very directly. If you visit Manhattan you’ll understand, but the entire city is set up as a grid. When I first got to New York, I noticed that all the buildings look alike and line the streets on both sides like a maze. Thanks to the three boroughs that surround Manhattan and nearby airports, you can always see airplanes flying above. Witnessing airplanes flying overhead regardless of where I am in the city is a reoccurring theme in my work. The airplanes represent ongoing global economic and industrialization as well as the flow of people.

In works like ‘Untitled(Overpass)’ , why did you organize the photographs into a grid?
The lattice structures can be seen as a vivid answer to living in such a large city. The traffic system, bridges, buildings, can all be understood as clear patterns. There is no sense of time or location, just the patterns themselves. Living in the city makes you very aware of the seemingly consistent grid-like patterns as if it was habitual. However, upon a closer look, you find there are eccentricities amongst the patterns. In order to draw a specific experience from a grid-like pattern, I emphasize the passing of time, pattern of life, and people following routines. A city with heavy tourism has a dynamic experience and action, so you can anticipate large variations within the grid.

The industrial revolution that led to America’s renaissance is remembered for the construction of countless buildings, and the opportunities that it gave for prospective job seekers. Is your work a way to remember those who worked to create those structures?
Yes. The 20th century was solely dependent on industrialization and the city life was defined by it. I felt like I was able to witness the rise and decline of the industrial economy. The decline of the U.S. industrial economy is referred to as the ‘rust belt’, and my family and friends experienced this decline directly. It is not easy to capture the emotion in my photography, but the infrastructure of the experience and history of the locations are always evident in my work.

I am always filled with wonder when I think about the work process of the photographer as he fills his camera with images of otherwise uninteresting subjects.
I can remember every image, location, time, and feel of every photograph I have ever taken. When creating a project, it is very important for the image to include all components of the industrial culture. Honestly, it might be easier to take a negative position on the industrialization of America. I am reminding viewers of our negative and positive history, and it can be like a key to understanding our future.

You are able to turn very average, uninteresting objects into very aesthetically pleasing images. I believe this to be your way of extending the boundaries of photography.
It’s not just me. Other artists seek locations that their peers would not look, and they are able to find beauty in them. I used to find new locations as a kid growing up. I have memories of sites that I discovered like factories, and forests.

Your work reminds me of Aaron Siskend. Simple, seemingly uninteresting subjects are given such high visual aesthetics. Your work is very abstract, but based on a real, thorough history. It is in this way that I feel that you two are alike.
I respect Aaron Siskend very much, and I regard him as one of the most distinguished photographers. Each object’s presence has a close relationship with another, and his photographs show that. Old walls, shrunken paint, and close-up shots are a great, but the depiction of the levitating human body in black and white in his work ‘The Joy and Fear of Levitation’ is a photograph I especially appreciate. I also appreciate Ray Metzker’s manipulation of two images combined together to create a sense of experimentation.

Photographer Sam Abell once said, “My best works were taken mostly unconsciously, and understanding the meaning of the material takes effort and skill.” I was wondering if this quote could be applied to you. Upon first glance, because the subjects are not beautiful, it is even more important to understand the meaning of the image.
My thoughts are a bit different. Do my photographs look like they were unconsciously shot? None of my works were completed unconsciously. My work emphasizes form and lines, and the moment I come across a scene with the right lines the work is developed. Sometimes there are the surprise shots, but even those were pre-imagined in my heart. For example, ‘Aluminum Sliding’ was an image I had been looking for many years.

If an artist engages the work in conversation with the world, then what is it that you want to say through your work?
I don’t believe my work necessarily as a story to tell from a particular point of view. I try not to portray the industrial landscape in a positive or negative image, and have it be self-evident. What I want is for the viewers to understand the industrialization from their own experiences because interpretation of the work can be subjective. I would be happy if viewers can see that even an industry driven by profit can have the potential to be art.

Nathan Harger’s first Korean exhibition is from September 9th until October 10th at Gallery K.O.N.G.