Bold, riotous and absurdly talented, Texas-based photographer Harper Smith gets candid in an exclusive interview.
I’ve been following Harper Smith’s work for awhile now…so you could say I was pretty excited to learn that she would be shooting our newest Intimately E-book, Wild Heart. I had heard a few things about her prior to the shoot — mainly that she was “super cool and lived on a farm.” But other than that intel, I was flying blind.
Her images are some of my favorite in fashion. She captures such raw beauty, both in subject and surrounding elements, that you can’t help but look closer. I find myself studying her images as if to discover another level of thought I had not seen in previous glances. Her photos tell a story – each gritty detail, slight facial expression or bend in body plays an integral part in the tale.
Harper grew up in the heartland, and cites those Midwest landscapes as some of her biggest inspirations. You can see, almost feel, that beautiful simplicity in her photos, whether she’s photographing at her farm in Texas or in a Mongolian desert. She has a way of capturing mood and emotion, grit and grime, authenticity and realism, magic and beauty.
Upon first meeting Harper, I was surprised to learn that she was more wild than I had imagined. (I have no idea why or how I conjured up the idea that she would be reserved… I guess it’s just one of those weird things all we humans do.) But, anyway, back to it… Harper demands a room. She’s one of those women that, upon entering a space, everyone turns to see. She is confident. She’s smart and quick-witted. She knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to ask for it. She has vision. She has ideas. She has skill. Her ambition is inspiring.
You grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa — how has that shaped who you are today?
I was there (in Iowa) long enough to really have it stick with me. I love the simplicity of the landscape in Iowa. Golden fields… grey-blue skies… and a rustic white farmhouse. That is my happy place. Those kinds of visuals are my #1 inspiration. I moved out of LA and back onto a ranch (in Texas) a year ago… I needed it in my life again.
What kind of kid were you? Do you have a favorite childhood memory?
I was ADD. Still am. So all of my memories are a little confused from way back when… however… one that I love is when my Mama, a fine artist, painted a portrait of me when I was eight years old. I remember her sitting me down in a field and showing me how to pose in this white wicker chair. I don’t know what it was about that but it really stuck with me. And to see the way she recreated me on a canvas was so inspiring. Through that passage of time she chose to make my face read a certain way… the position of my hands, etc. She made me look calm and serene. Even at that age I felt incredibly inspired by her.
That’s so beautiful! So when did you first figure out you had a love for this thing called photography? What drew you in?
I love people-watching. Always have. I am not scared to approach anyone. I always had a creative edge because of my mother, but knew I wasn’t good at being alone and not talking. Haha! So photography seemed to fit the bill.
How would you describe your photography style? How has is it changed over the years?
I like a beautiful disaster. I am inspired by the cinematic themes (I didn’t marry a director for nothin!) …and I love unconventional beauty. Dirt, dust, and ruin get me to the core.
Do you remember your very first photo shoot? How did it go?!
Holy sh*t. Yes. Haha! It was in high school. I shot this beautiful girl from Africa. She was gifted in the art of ceramics (my mother was her teacher), so we decided to cover her face with clay. I shot her on black seamless… I remember the way the crappy tungsten light sources were heating up the studio and the clay was dripping off of her face. I learned, then, the beauty of happy accidents… and keeping things a little off-kilter sometimes helps you create your best photographs.
Ha! You should break those photos out sometime! Fast forward to now: your images contain such beautiful emotion — how do you capture such a strong mood?
That’s tough. I think my photos are a reflection on my relationships of those I’m photographing. I am very specific about certain things (the connection between subject and camera) but try and keep the other elements like lighting (that feels unnatural or forced) low-key. I think it creates a more natural mood for the viewer.
Who are some of your favorite photographers?
Nan Goldin / Mikael Janssen / Mary Ellen Mark
Do you have a favorite photo shoot thus far?
I don’t really have a favorite. The shoot that set the pace for my career was “Long Black Veil” – which so happens to be the very first shoot I ever did with Free People’s own Coryn Madley. She’s my little elven-fairy-muse-stylist-genius.
You live on a farm in Texas now with your hubby — what does a typical day off look like for you?
A lot of horse sh*t, pig sh*t, goat sh*t and then some more sh*t. Haha! I usually wake up at 8am. Feed the farm. Fix a leak. Get the goats out of whatever trouble they have gotten themselves into (literally it’s a daily chore), edit some photography [mandatory statement], swim (it’s hotter than hell here right now), ride my horse, cook dinner, then curl up with my cowboy on our back porch and listen to the cicada and frog orchestra.
That’s a beautiful life right there! What do you love most about Texas?
Every. Single. Thing. (And queso blanco)!
What does your ideal evening consist of?
80 degrees… BBQing in the backyard… drinking wine with friends… and maybe a little two-step.
What would the soundtrack to your life be?
Real talk = circus music.
Fake talk = Crazy Heart Soundtrack.
What advice would you give to photographers just starting out?
Hold onto your hats. Have fun. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Be patient. Take chances. And people will tell you there are rules… don’t listen.
What’s next up for you? Any projects you’re looking forward to?
Project: “I’m having a baby.” I cant wait to get inspired all over again with the new love and perspective my little cowboy will bring.
Amazing! Congratulations to you both!
Ok, here we go… rapid fire:
Where are you right now?
In my sweatpants and my husband’s yellow Mickey Mouse tee shirt from 1972 (it’s 2pm) sitting on my kitchen counter. Don’t judge me. They are nice sweatpants… and my belly is taking them over.
If you could have dinner with anyone in the world, who would it be?
Most embarrassing article of clothing in your closet?
My pink thong from 8th grade that reads “kitty” in red cursive.
If you weren’t a photographer, what would you be?
If you could shoot any person, alive or dead, who would it be?
What’s playing on your stereo right now?
And finally, what does “being free” mean to you?
Feeling pure happiness and peace in a moment.
Harper, thank you so much! You are an absolute pleasure!
The black and white photos were taken by Harper, on her farm in Texas.
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