Artist Interview - Kip Harris
The roots of your At Work series go way back!
Working has always been something I enjoyed. From my first real job on an asphalt crew at sixteen through to managing a large architectural design group, I found work to be that which defined me. I remember being advised by older construction workers that, while I was a hard worker, I should stay in school and “do some-thing.” I found they were far more profoundly dedicated to craft and honest labor than my fellow Ivy League students, who tended to look for the easy way to do something.
Growing up in southeastern Idaho in the 1950s, you learned how to work early. There was a “spud harvest vacation” from school for two weeks each fall. School children would work in the fields helping harvest potatoes, often leaving home at dawn and returning at dusk. I remember “digging spuds” starting when I was nine or ten years old. We were paid seven cents a sack.
I worked a variety of jobs: as warehouse stocker, map reader, janitor, paperback manager of a book store, construction worker, sports store clerk, and speechwriter for a US Congressional candidate. After grad school at the University of Chicago and three years teaching at a private school in the Sierras, I went back to school at the University of Utah. The lights were on all night in the
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architecture building. I figured that if people were willing to spend that much time working on something, it must have some magic.
Regardless of language or location, your images show a clear engagement with each of your subjects. How do you do that?
When people are in their own workplaces, they are most at ease with themselves. They do not need “to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” I try to stand and watch a little before photographing to convey my appreciation for the worker’s skill and engagement. A man’s work is his life and should be respected. It also gives me a chance to have eye contact and that makes all the difference. Where it is not possible to ask permission to shoot, I try to capture what each worker might wish to say about himself.
There is a Taoist phrase: “wei wu wei,” which has been translated a number of ways, but the one I like best is “doing, not doing.” When one has become a complete master of an action, he no longer has to think about how to perform the act but has become the act himself. I look for this mastery and hope to record it.
I feel it is important to convey to the subject that I have respect for both his work and his space. I approach slowly with a very small camera that is hand held. I only use available light. I have found that a very soft voice works wonders. Being able to show the adjacent workers the image on the LCD screen sometimes encour-ages them to want to be photographed. They also know when you’ve captured the real thing and may suggest you do it again. They are great editors.
How did the photography thing start for you?
I had always assumed that walking around with a camera made you simply look for things to photograph—to look at the world through “Kodachrome eyes.” After completing an emotionally