Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Conversation with Naomi Harris

Cover of America Swings by Naomi Harris

This week we bring you a photographer with a diverse array of projects. Naomi Harris is a documentary photographer as well as an editorial photographer. She has published a book titled, America Swings, with Taschen.

I first came across Naomi's work via a press release by Taschen about her book release. Intrigued with her series, America Swings, I felt it was necessary for viewers to see a selection of her editorial and documentary projects with her voice.

Norwood Young/Star of Bravo's "High Maintenance 90210"/Los Angeles, CA/June 2005/Shot for Marie Claire UK, © Naomi Harris
Vanessa Eating St.Hubert's Chicken/Montreal, Canada/September 2003/Shot for Toro Magazine, © Naomi Harris
Clare and Daughter Ronda at the Rascal House/Miami Beach, FL/March 2002/Shot for Heeb Magazine, © Naomi Harris

Nymphoto: Tell us a little about yourself?

Naomi Harris: I am the youngest child born to Jerry and Diane Harris in Toronto, May 1973. Although I got my green card in November 2006, I am devout Canadian, and you can see that by opening my fridge and seeing the forbidden contraband Bicks pickles I smuggle from north of the border. That and the fact that I love camping, SCTV and Gordon Lightfoot.

I wish I could have a cat but I travel too much. I don’t even have a house plant because that would die. I did have a rescue turtle for about a year but that was more out of guilt. I found him abandoned by my super in my lobby last winter but after a year I too abandoned him, but in the safety of a Petco.

I’m a girl not a woman. You know the type: never wears makeup, loves jeans and trainers, has a tendency to be vulgar and doesn’t eat like a bird. Food is my passion. And I don’t mean cooking, just the consuming part.

Dr. Albert Hoffman, 100 year old Inventor of LSD/With wife of 71 years, Anita/Switzerland/June 2006, © Naomi Harris
Evelyn at the Hairdressers/Haddon Hall Hotel/Miami Beach, FL/2000, © Naomi Harris

How did you discover photography?

NH: I wanted to be a doctor, but seeing as I flunked math I knew that this wasn’t the path to take. I decided to work on a portfolio to apply to art school as that had been the one constant in my life and I truly loved creating art. I was accepted to York University in Toronto and lived at home for the 4 years I studied my bachelor of Fine Arts. It wasn’t until I moved to New York at age 24 that I left home for the first time.

In university my major was printmaking but so much of my work was photo-based and I would appropriate other people’s photographs. I decided in my third year to take a basic photo class so I could make my own photos to use in my printmaking. On a trip to Europe that summer l I brought my camera along and upon seeing my contact sheets I decided that this was what turned me on. And the fact that I couldn’t really see myself making a career out of printmaking. I applied to the International Center of Photography for their Documentary program, and surprisingly I was accepted.

Marie and Sonja By Pool/Haddon Hall Hotel/Miami Beach, FL/2002, © Naomi Harris
Three Sisters at the Beach/ Haddon Hall Hotel/Miami Beach, FL 2000, © Naomi Harris

NP: Where do you find inspiration?

NH: I'm attracted to real people and the beauty in the everyday mundane. I tend to want to photograph people and as a curious individual who loves to ask nosey and personal questions I can get away with it if I'm actually photographing that person. Photography gives me the in to worlds I know nothing about and am not privy to. I'm lured in by the obscure and those that others don't find interesting at first glance. These are the people who I find most fascinating and seek inspiration from. I adore seeing what goes on behind closed doors and to be able to get access to really tough situations.

Broken Leg and Barbecue/Swingstock/Duxbury, MN/July 2004, © Naomi Harris

NP: How do your projects come about?

NH: My photography is certainly separate from my day-to-day life. I admire photographers who are able to shoot themselves and make dynamic pictures, if I was to turn the camera on myself I think people would get bored pretty quickly at seeing yet another photo of me watching Golden Girl reruns for the umpteenth time.

Instead I photograph things I want to learn more about and hopefully no one else has already explored. Like when I moved into the Haddon Hall Hotel in Miami Beach it was because when growing up I had a relationship with only my paternal grandmother and that was strained as she was a depressive woman. These last remaining seniors of Miami Beach became my surrogate grandparents and I their granddaughter.

Thanksgiving Dinner/Big Lake, MN/November 2004, © Naomi Harris

My America Swings project came about while living in Miami. I used to go to the nude beach but didn’t know at first that a good proportion of these nudists were also swingers. One Sunday night, shortly before I moved away from Miami in 2002, I was invited by a fellow beach goer to be his “date” and go to a swing club (single men are not allowed to attend). He knew I was a photographer and thought I would find the scene interesting. It was in a strip mall in a very commercial part of town. Non-descript, downright seedy from the outside, but inside there was a dance floor and a large buffet complete with a chef in white with a big chef’s hat carving roast beef and serving scalloped potatoes. We stuffed ourselves and then 20 minutes later went to the back room where all the sex was going on. You were not permitted to enter the back dressed; you had to change into a towel. As a nudist I was fine with that, as a young lady I felt like a piece of sirloin.

Super Bowl Party/Des Moines, IA/February 2005, © Naomi Harris

We went in the group sex room, which was more or less a row of about six mismatched beds pushed together. This was the first time I had ever seen anyone having sex in person. We stayed and watched for a couple of hours but neither of us did anything. That was the understanding; I was his guest but he had no expectations of me whatsoever. When we left I knew I had to start photographing this, because no one would believe me when I told stories of what I’d seen, like the woman at 3:00 in the morning picking food from the breakfast buffet stark naked but for heels. And I wasn’t aware of anyone who had really photographed this before.

All American Pool Party/Club CB's/Vista, CA/July 2007, © Naomi Harris

NP: Explain why you chose to make the America Swings section of your website password-protected.

It was more out of necessity than choice. I had been assigned a couple of jobs where at the last minute I was pulled off it when the powers that be got skiddish of the fact that I shoot nudity. I always thought it would be wise to show this work because a: doesn’t this show my ability to get into any situation and make people comfortable, and b: because I’m darn proud of all my hard work.

In the end I guess it is wiser to not be offensive and allow people to contact me for the password. Incidentally, if anyone reading this wants to look at this section of the website I’ll give you a hint. The password begins with the letter L, ends with the letter E and spells IFESTYL in the middle. It’s also another word used to describe swinging.

Penis Mobile/Swingstock/Duxbury, MN/July 2007, © Naomi Harris

NP: What’s next?

NH: Such a time of change! Was planning on moving to LA in the fall but just found out that I’m teaching a class at ICP in the fall (nude photography, of course) which I’m really excited about. I’ve been wanting to teach for a long time, so instead I’m sticking around NY for a little longer. Relocating to a quieter neighborhood though so purging for the move has been all encompassing.

I would love to get the Haddon Hall work published as I started the project 10 years ago in December 1999. It’s a project I hold very dear to me but put on hold during the 6 years it took to shoot and produce the swingers book.

I’m currently trying to make my first documentary film. I still love photography but often feel we are missing out by not hearing the conversations going on in these photos.

I’m also working on a new photo project called EUSA where I’m photographing American themed places in Europe and European themed places in America. I like how we interpret the others culture in such a kitschy manner. Like so many Europeans conjure thoughts of Cowboys and Indians when they think of America and we picture all Europeans in lederhosen carrying beer steins and eating brauts. The photos are more about the landscape of these places which is a big change for me.

Sleep Apnea/Swingstock/Duxbury, MN/July 2004, © Naomi Harris
Cherry Pitt/Duncanville, TX/February 2008, © Naomi Harris

To view more of Naomi's work, please head to Naomi's America Swings monograph is currently available in collector editions at Taschen.

1 comment:

J. Nicely said...

Naomi you rule! Come to LA soon for a visit.