Christian Harkness is a photographer and printmaker working in the Gulf island community of Cedar Key, Florida. He photographs the men and women of the often overlooked commercial fishing and clamming industry there, and creates cyanotypes, zines, and books of his work. He has taught photography at the Florida State University at Tallahassee and in Florence, Italy.
How did your interest in your medium begin and how did you arrive at your current style?
Since I am 'older than dirt' my interest and exposure to photography really started with the photos in magazines, first publications like Bild and Stern and then Life and Look.
How do you feel about the relationship of an artist to their city or surroundings?
I led off my first post on Southern Glossary with this quote from Bruce Davidson: "Too much of photography is 'shoot and leave.'" So for me it is extremely important that I feel connected to my surroundings and that through this feeling of connectedness my work is anchored and expresses that sentiment. Much of the work I posted on Southern Glossary spans a continuum of twenty or thirty years and was made within a few miles of my house. This is true for my documentary as well as fine art portfolios (though I hate that term).
How do you choose your subjects?
When it comes to people, I like to work with those with whom I am comfortable and who are interested in being participants in my work. I am incredibly introverted and have no desire to push myself on anybody. Now, I will nudge them, repeatedly if necessary, if I think they are receptive to working with me. Subjects such as landscapes or still lives need to speak to my prevailing mood at the moment.
Who have been some of your biggest influences or your best teachers?
Since my "ways of seeing" go back to the days of Look and Life magazines, W. Eugene Smith's and David Douglas Duncan's work is forever seared in my mind. I have always been a fan of the The Family of Man and have never understood the snide criticism of that exhibition and the hostility expressed towards curator Edward Steichen. A little more recently the work of Deborah Turbeville and especially her Studio St. Petersburg have greatly influenced my way of looking at and treating photography. It was through her work that I received "permission" to care more about the content and "atmosphere" of a photograph than worry about the formal aspects of exposure and printing.
I discovered Masao Yamamoto's work just as I was deep into lith printing and realizing that my little pieces of torn enlarging paper test prints were much more expressive and interesting than my finished prints. Josephine Sacabo's work really grabs me. I ran across it when I started becoming interested in Polymer Photogravure, which I still have not mastered.
To me three giants of photography whose work I consider the epitome of southern photography are William Christenberry, Sally Mann, and Keith Carter. I was a Cadet at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, VA, when Sally Mann's father was a doctor there and she a child. Later I did graduate work at Lamar University in Beaumont, TX, unfortunately missing Keith Carter by a few years.
Do you have a creative or artistic peer group in your area that you're a part of?
Now that I am temporarily in Tallahassee, I no longer have an artistic peer group. In Cedar Key I had organized a group of artists called The Twelve Artists @ Cedar Key. There never were quite twelve of us, but we organized some magnificent exhibits at Cedar Key's historic Island Hotel, put up new work every quarter, and met regularly but very informally to discuss our work in progress. We also watched things like Art21 videos and mounted road trips to ArtBasel/Miami Beach. Unfortunately the group slowly dissolved, but I think that is pretty much the natural order of things.
Where do you go to draw inspiration?
I think most of the time I will see something in print, online, at a museum, or in the street that will get my creative juices moving, and then I try and figure out how to photographically deal with that, persuading friends and acquaintances to work with me, and, most importantly, bring their ideas and concepts to our work so that it becomes collaborative.
Are there any aspects of the Southern aesthetic that you embrace or ones you consciously avoid?
Even now with my postings on SG I am discovering that there seems to be a real and, to me, disappointing perception of what southern photography and aesthetics are or should be. For my taste, there is too much of a fondness for and repetition of southern clichés. I really don't embrace or reject any of it for my own work, but try and make sure that what and how I photograph truly represents the way I feel about what I am photographing, and if that results in a cliché, so be it.
In my photography I am interested in what is in front of me and how I feel about it, and how I want to present that feeling to the viewer. I see myself as photographing in the South, but not necessarily about the South, or I should say I have no interest in photographing the South in a manner that represents some outside, mythical, or ill-informed concept of the South.
Do you feel creatively satisfied?
Because we are temporarily in Tallahassee and away from Cedar Key I do become creatively frustrated and chide myself for not having worked out a creatively satisfying relationship with my environment. I do "escape" back to our place in Cedar Key as much as I can and continue the work I have going on there. On the other hand, it is good to have the luxury of standing apart from my work a bit and reflecting on it and working with it in other ways.
Tell me about a recent, current, or upcoming project or exhibition.
I am deeply involved in photographing the crew of the Clam Boogie, a large bird-dog operated by Keyshore AcquaFarms. I have known several of the crew members since they were in high school and greatly admire their incredible work ethic and intelligence. I also continue to photograph at the Cedar Key Oyster & Clam Company which is run by my friend Jeanine Beckham. I have photographed her for a period of almost 30 years, and her son and son in-law are crew members on the Clam Boogie, and work at AquaFarms.
Also I am going through current work to put together some more of the Japanese stab bound books I have been producing over the last couple of years.
The last significant exhibit in which I participated was in 2014 when the Smithsonian Institute in conjunction with the Cedar Key Arts Center mounted a group exhibit titled The Way We Worked.