Don Harris (aka Digital Don on Flickr) is a Washington, D.C., based photographer whose work I came across on Flickr. You can immediately recognize his talent by viewing the various portraits and street scenes in his gallery. I felt such a talent should be acknowledged which is why I sought a spotlight interview with him.
JRP: Thank you Don for sharing some time and your thoughts with us.
Don Harris: It is a pleasure, and an honor to be featured in this spotlight.
JRP: Don being based in the nation’s capitol gives you a vast pallet of visuals and culture to pick from. How did you get your start in photography and did you have any formal training?
Don Harris: I’ve had a serious interest in photography since I was a teenager. Before that I’ve always been graphically oriented. As a kid I was always drawing, sketching, and imagining that I would pursue some form of graphic art later in life. Then I began to take notice of editorial photography in newspapers and especially pictorial magazines like Life and Look. I began to realize that I wanted to make images like those in the magazines.
So before I really knew what a photojournalist was I realized that I wanted to become one. It wasn’t until high school that I got my hands on my first 35mm camera. It was second hand, given to me by a neighbor who had no use for it. Once I figured out how to use it I became hooked.
I took a rudimentary elective course in 35mm photography in college, and continued to shoot as a hobby. I then pretended to be a press photographer, going out on self-assignments and later freelancing a bit. I managed to get a Press Pass for awhile which really gained me access to various newsworthy events. It gave me a taste for being a member of the Press Corps. The city of Washington,D.C., is a great venue for news photography. I immersed myself in it and became passionate about the craft.
JRP: Looking in your camera bag what would I find?
Don Harris: Well you might find on a rotating basis a Canon 30D or 5D dSLR. Various Canon lenses: 50mm, 10-22mm wide angle zoom, 17-55mm zoom, and a 70-200mm f2.8 zoom. A Ricoh GR Digital, and maybe an Olympus C-7070 point and shoot.
JRP: What software do you make use of in your work flow?
Don Harris: I am far from technically adept in the digital darkroom. I make use of the Mac version of Photoshop CS2 along with a few plug-ins (Lucisart, Noise Ninja, Photomatix). I’m learning through trial and error. Perhaps not as disciplined as I should be.
JRP: You are a people photographer and your gallery on Flickr gives a clear indication of this. What is it about the human condition that attracts you to photograph it?
Don Harris: I didn’t start out as a “people photographer”. I was, and still am to a great extent very shy among strangers. I’ve managed to overcome my fears with camera in hand when I approach and photograph people up close and personal. I’m always surprised when strangers on the street trust me to get into their personal space and photograph them. It takes time to make that personal connection and engage them but it’s worth it and essential.
It is hard for me to isolate what it is about the human condition that inspires me as a portrait photographer. I kind of think of myself as a throwback to the old WPA (Works Progress Administration) and FSA (Farm Security Administration) Photographers during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Back then some of the most iconic B&W images of the human condition at that time were recorded by such great photographers as Walker Evans and Gordon Parks. Both of whom I draw inspiration from.
As an African-American photographer I also feel a connection to James Van der Zee who was known for his studio work during the Harlem Renaissance. I am basically self taught and somewhat shy. His portraits of proud black folk always seemed to reveal a unique emotion. I strive for that in a much less formal manner. Some of my best people pics were quick and impromptu. They were taken at a particular bus stop that I consider my outdoor studio.
JRP: You seem to be able to confront many of your subjects eye to eye. This seems to open a venue of communication between you and them. How did you develop this technique and talent?
Don Harris: I am drawn to faces that have texture and character lines. Dense facial landscapes is what I like to call them. I like to get close enough to reveal the personality and soul within their eyes. The eyes tell a naked and unvarnished truth about a person. I try to capture that in my street portraits. I don’t know if I have a talent for that eye to eye connection. I suppose I’ve been fortunate to find a way to achieve a mutual comfort level but it doesn’t happen all the time.
JRP: Don which is more important to you, technique or vision?
Don Harris: Vision, for sure. In photography what makes an image memorable to me goes beyond mere technique. Its important to me as an editorial style photographer to have the vision to recognize a good photo before snapping the shutter. What happens in post processing is the icing on the cake. Some of the most memorable images can be technically flawed and yet brilliant at the same time. I know that I have a great deal to learn from a technical standpoint. I also know that you can’t teach vision, it’s instinctual.
I ran across a quote in the Washington Post about Photography. I have found it to be quite true and insightful: “Photography is a mystery that can never be resolved, only taken for granted. It hovers like a blur of ectoplasm between medium and message, science and aesthetics, art and evidence.”
JRP: What has been the best advice given to you so far by another photographer?
Don Harris: I’m not sure if I have been given any memorable advice other than to pay attention and keep shooting.
JRP: What advice would you offer a young photographer embarking on photographing events and people?
Don Harris: Since I still think of myself as a student of the medium, I would advise them to decide what style of photography and subject matter they are most passionate about. Then go about developing your skills. Hang out with and observe the Pros. Soak up knowledge from them. Ask questions, and never stop refining your craft.
As for photographing people, learn to be very patient and engaging with your subjects.
JRP: Don thanks again for sharing your photography and insights with us.
Don Harris: You’re quite welcome. This has been an honor and a pleasure.
JRP: To view more of Don Harris’ work please visit this link: http://flickr.com/photos/digital_don/