Min-Jong Yang, Writer / Feature Assistant Editor
Kyu-Shik Shin, Photographer
In the spotlight is thirty-six year old photographer Nathan Harger, who is receiving much attention as the latest addition from the New York art world. We had a chance to sit down with the artist behind the very distinct images featuring clean and sophisticated intuition.
Nathan Harger was born in the midwestern region of the United States, in Cleveland, Ohio, then moved to New York City. Harger’s use of monotone creates a sense of peace of mind, and his depiction of industrial sites and vacant lots are done without ruining the cityscape. He is a true city man. Capturing the city through a viewfinder, the city’s depiction is like a nude image, as Harger exposes the raw curves and textures of the subject. The white background portraying negative space complicates depth perception, making it seem infinite. The black spaces mark the positive space, and formats the outlines and flattens the space. Harger’s drawings look a lot like graphs, and the black and white photography is a signature of this young artist. Harger first caught eyes through his first exhibition in 2009 at a famous New York gallery, and since then has been following the footsteps of the masters of modern photography such as Irving Penn and Walker Evans. He was featured in American photography magazine, PDN, as one of the “30 New and Emerging Photographers to Watch” and is constantly winning awards in the industry’s top art competitions, gaining recognition from all over the world. Nathan Harger’s work was originally not about the city, and he often used natural colors to depict a playful image of the future. This has drastically changed, and his current work does not betray any emotion at all -- no warmth, no chill, no fondness, no distaste. There is only pure contrasting lines, and the visual impact lies solely in the graphic simplicity. The city sheds its clothes for his camera, and he points out the beauty of the margin, similar to Mukhwa ink painting. His images are like x-rays of the bones of the city.
When did you develop your distinct signature style?
I gradually started thinking more like an abstract artist rather than a photographer. The industrialization of the world is a very important subject in my work. People live in cities filled with amazing architectural aesthetics, but they often overlook these things. It is very unfortunate that these wonderful aesthetics are lost from our sight. I started focusing on this subject when I was very young, and the style first developed in my drawings. As I gained more interest in photography, the signature style started showing in my photographs as well.
I heard that Cleveland is famous for its manufacturing industry. Did growing up in that area affect your work?
Of course. It definitely had an impact. During my childhood, my family and I were surrounded by manufacturing companies. This might be the reason why I am more attracted to the elements of cityscapes than natural landscapes.
Is there a special technique you use to create your signature geometric feel in your images?
In regards to my work, my motto is “abstinence”. My work has a very restrained vibe, which is a result of my adjusting the image until it looks just right. Sometimes I have an image in my head, and the camera photographs it just the way I want it to. In those cases, there is not much preparation. I like to emphasize the heavy contrast between black and white. I feel that an image has a better flavor in monochrome.
What do you think of black and white photography’s tendency to trick the viewer in a distinct way?
To me, the attractive quality of black and white photography is that I am able to focus on what I want to highlight, and delete elements of the image that I want to eliminate. I do feature color in some of my work, but the colors are limited to blues, grays, and black. I like the simplicity of black and white.
Is your work a “cutback” of color? It is even difficult to find gray tones in your work.
This is true. I mainly use gray tones very rarely in my work. I limit the use of tonal representation to skirt the boundary between reality and abstraction. You could say that the gray tones push a higher sense of reality.
Perhaps this is why your work looks more like illustrations than photographs. It looks like you do a lot of digital retouching.
I mainly use photoshop to retouch my images. I try to maximize the quality of the original shot that I take with my camera. In this way, working time for editing and retouching can be shortened. The conditions can sometimes prove difficult to take the perfect shot, so it is inevitable that I end up retouching my images.
I don’t think retouching is necessarily a bad thing. I think the final product and the result of the image is the most important.
I totally agree. The mid-process results don’t trouble me. The final product is what’s most important. The technology today has enabled me to envision so many possibilities with my work. I can create the image I want through various tools, and that’s a blessing. Artistic methods change as technology advances.
As an artist, you must always have dilemmas and thoughts about the direction of your work. Have you thought about trying a new style and leaving your signature style behind?
My style will never change. This is how my eyes represent the world. I do however have thoughts of trying new genres in the future. I’d like to try videography, or a more organic medium.
The view points that you shoot from seem like difficult positions to access, and the settings appear to be unavailable to the public. It must have been difficult to gain access to your vantage points.
This is very true. As I mentioned earlier, one of the biggest difficulties in the working process is to find the perfect setting. Sometimes, the view point that I choose doesn’t work out the way I want it to. I usually take photographs very quickly, and I don’t have time to set up my camera on a tripod and take photographs at a leisurely. I take however many photographs as I can, and work on the image afterwards. It’s always been very difficult to get permission to enter those types of places. I take the shot and leave so quickly... Almost like a crook.
Have you ever been chased by security, or even arrested?
Almost every time. It feels strange when no one tries to chase me out. I got used to the opposition, and as a result the resistance feels more familiar to me. I think the local police got involved almost every single time I tried to break in to a property for a photograph. They’re usually much more understanding after I explain to them that I’m a photographer, and show them some of my work. Lately, I make sure to pack my portfolio and press articles in my car to explain what I’m doing. Even though it’s a lot of trouble to go through, it is worth it because I am determined to take the photographs that I want to take.
Tell us an interesting story about your work experience.
The story behind the work Untitled (Aluminum Siding), Staten Island, NY 2010, is an interesting one. I ended up taking that photograph by destiny. One day, while I was behind the wheel, I drove the wrong direction and I ended up in front of this building. I’ve found locations by wandering a few times, and when this happens I really feel like the image was looking for me.
And an example of a very difficult image?
Untitled (Holding Patterns), Brooklyn, NY 2008. I had an image in my head that I wanted to capture, but the photograph itself didn’t turn out the way I had imagined it. I tried taking a video of it, taking the photograph in black and white, I tried a variety of different methods and it wasn’t quite right. I was so hung up on this image, and I kept thinking to myself, “I need to take this photograph just right!” I wanted so badly to represent my vision through the photograph, and I spent a lot of time stressed out about it.
Since you like repetitive patterns of the city, do you think Korea is an interesting subject matter?
Yes. That is precisely why I came to Korea. Korea is the first country I visited in Asia. I’ve always wanted to see the cityscape in person, and not just on the internet and TV. I have about a week left of my trip, and I think I can get a lot of inspiration during my stay. I’m very excited at what I’ll see, and what will happen.