MMost of our lives are not as dramatic as life in novels or movies. Some situations have that kind of excitement but most of our days pass by in moments every day. I seek to elevate these things into something greater, something that connects us to a greater sense of meaning in our lives.
The children in this photo are three of my four children. Taken in 2017 in the hall of our home at Merrion Station, outside of Philadelphia. I keep my camera and tripod under the sofa in the living room so they are always available. It was the day after Easter. The children had just come home from school and were reading in the hall. What I love is that these three individuals are busy in their own worlds. As parents, when we photograph children, we tend to have them line up, have them look at the camera and smile. Here, it’s not about them being cute or being part of a family. It is about them in their own space and in their minds.
A kid reading a book seems to be oblivious to taking a picture. The person who studies the map is very involved in it. The way my daughter raises her head to the side and looks curiously–it’s as if she’s studying the viewer, rather than being taught by the viewer. There is a sense of individuality that I find interesting.
I was drawn to the light. One of my first mentors was the American photographer Arnold Newman. When I look at this, I think of his words about using light and the environment available to show people’s lives. I also love the way children’s great-grandparents are bracketed because family is the foundation on which we build our identities. This is a local image: the images help emphasize this theme.
I try to keep my children’s photography to a minimum. If you take out the camera all the time, they will get upset. These photos are not meant to be pictorial: My kids know I’m there but I try to work quickly and precisely, so they don’t feel like they’re ‘on’.
I do advertising work sometimes and these scenes are arranged perfectly. This is not this. I like the duct tape you can see on the back of the eggs glued to the door window, the piece of tape that hangs from the floral arrangement, how bright blue my son’s socks are. It’s all “wrong,” but keep the moment honest, it makes you feel like this is a real home space.
I grew up looking at paintings. My mother loved taking my sister and I to galleries and museums. I have always been drawn to Northern European artists: van Eyck, Vermeer and Holbein. When I studied art history, I expected to mostly look at images like Michelangelo’s great Italian drama. But when you look at images of Northern Europe, you realize that everything happens beneath the surface of these serene images, and that environment is important in describing the narrative. I wanted to be an artist. But they didn’t have room for me in the school drawing class, so I accidentally entered the photography class. And soon I fell in love with the medium.
I got a message that day from a woman who spent time looking at my pictures. She said they made her cry and gave her a sense of hope and beauty about our relationships with the people closest to us. Perhaps there is a sense of truth in my work that resonates with people. This is what art does: it makes sense of our lives. Through my work, I hope to understand everyday life, the parts of our lives that we don’t necessarily pay attention to are the parts that actually matter. At the end of our lives, we will look back.
Biography of Jessica Todd Harper
Boy: Albany, New York, 1975
trainee: Art History at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania; Photography at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), New York.
Effects: Arnold Neumann, Johannes Vermeer, Hans Holbein, Carl Larsson.
high point: “I recently had an exhibition at Le Center Claude Cahun, Nantes, France. My sister and I took our daughters and new baby to the slots. It was very special.”
low point: “As a student at Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris, I fell off the metro stairs, tore ligaments in my ankle and had to rest for six weeks in a studio apartment.”
Most important tip: “Work with what you are most curious about because that will translate to the viewer.”