Harold Davis is a photographer and author. His photographs have been widely published, exhibited, and collected. Many of his fine art photography posters are well known. Harold’s images have won a Silver Award in the International Aperture Awards 2008 competition, and inclusion in the 2009 North American Nature Photography Association Expressions Showcase. The author of more than twenty books, Harold has written (and illustrated with his photographs) Digital Photography: Digital Field Guide (Wiley), The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite and the High Sierra (Countryman/W.W.Norton), 100 Views of the Golden Gate (Wilderness Press), and Practical Artistry: Light & Exposure for Digital Photographers (O’Reilly Digital Media). Harold gives frequent digital photography workshops, many under the auspices of the Point Reyes National Seashore Association.
“Inspiration is not a tame lion. You don’t know when you’re going to find it.”
When I go out on a creative shoot (not a commercial assignment), I understand perfectly well that there’s a difference between my initial idea goal and what may or may not happen. It’s a quest and I’m looking for something. What I have to do when I’m on the quest is be open enough to take tangents that are given to me. Every time I’ve said, “I’m too tired or too busy” to stop and photograph something that catches my eye, later on I regret it, and every time I stop, I don’t regret it. Part of the trick is having a plan but not sticking to it too hard.
I was taking a look at some of your photographs on your Flickr site and blog, and I’m really drawn to some of the textures and colors and moods that you capture. Can you talk about your creative process for photographing patterns?
Patterns really work when they have some boundaries. A solo pattern can be interesting and give the feeling of looking in on alternative world of something that people don’t normally think of such as light on a window shade, a shadow, or a close up of a feather. In terms of composition, what I look for is some kind of break in the pattern too like a blue feather close up with a hard white line going through it (the stem of the feather). Without that line it would be harder to tell what it is. I also like fooling with scale. People look at it and they’re not quite sure yet what scale it is. They’re pretty sure they’re looking at a macro close up like the feather, but that’s actually pretty close in look to a longer pattern that one might do of seats in a stadium or something like that. If you keep the viewer guessing—are they looking at something really close or something really far away. I also try to present related images in pairs: distant and close but with comparable kinds of patterns. It creates the tension that really helps with what one’s doing.
I understand you received an award for “Spirals” at Macworld. Congratulations! How was this image created and what’s the inspiration behind photographing staircases and shells?
My image, “Spirals”, is a photo composition, created from two photographs combined. The Macworld exhibition is a pretty prestigious deal. Their requirements for selection is that the person who creates the image is a digital artist and that it’s created on a Mac. There’s no real requirement that you start with a photograph. For this image, I sandwiched a photo of a nautilus shell with a photo of a fisheye wide angle capture of a pretty narrow stairwell, seamlessly integrating the two. I am really excited about the exhibit, the catalog, and all the things they’re going to do around it at Macworld.
One of the things that really interests me are spirals. Spirals are one of the basic forms of life: DNA spirals, the Fibonacci series of spirals represented by nautilus shells. If I could just photograph spirals for the rest of my life I’d be happy. I’m trying to figure out more ways to combine spirals: to flow forever, come from little to small, to show luminous light behind parts of the spiral, etc. They are one of nature’s most exciting forms.
What kind of mode do you go into—what does it feel like to be inside your creative inspired mind when photographing a concept or idea you are passionate about?
There are two different modes I can be in at any given time during my working process. I can be in a very analytical planning mode or a creative inspired free mode. Lately, I’ve been looking at some of M.C. Escher’s work for ideas. He did these great patterns and continuing stairways and things like that. Is this something I can take and geometrically reproduce in a photograph? In some cases, I will sit down and plot this stuff out using graphs and whatever tools I need and think about it very hard. There comes a moment when all the planning in the world doesn’t quite get you the right thing. Intuitive feelings have to be part of the process as well. One of those, I’m sure you’ve felt it, is when you see the image in the viewfinder or on the LCD screen and you say, Yes, I’ve got something here, wow." That’s not a planned moment or an analytic moment, that’s an “I got it!” moment. There’s also the other kind of moment where you say, “Ok, I need to go someplace and I need to do something but I don’t know what it is, I just have to improvise”. I love improvisation in photography and in processing photographs.
I also think of myself as a post-film photographer. So much of my work is concerned with what happens after it leaves the camera and as I process it. When I shoot I tend to look for things that work well in processing and a fair amount of the commercial work I do has been involved with manipulating digital effects as opposed to just the straight camera stuff. I really enjoy working in Photoshop a lot. While I would never want to give up being behind the camera, I get a real kick out of sitting for hours after hours trying to get the processing of an image exactly right with my headphones on listening to music. The difference between 90% right and 100% right when you post-process an image is huge.
You need to come into digital photography informed by both ends: by both the photographic and the digital. The idea that you can take a lousy picture and fix it in Photoshop is a terrible idea for me. Take the best picture possible in the camera. If you want to go from there and tweak it in Photoshop, such as change reality or play with perception or colors, that’s great. This idea that it makes sense to be sloppy about photographic practice and to not “understand the basics of light and exposure” is kind of silly. It makes a lot more work for people aside from anything else.
You do multiple types of photography. Which type do you market the most and/or is the most successful in terms of $$. Also, what type of photography would you do all day long every day if you could?
I love a lot of different kinds of photography and what I’m obsessed with at a given moment does seem to change—I don’t seem to have a whole lot of control about that. There was a period of about six months where I couldn’t really get totally excited about anything except for macro water drop photos. I don’t feel that way now. My current obsession is night photography.
I like assignments because they tend to make me do things I wouldn’t have thought to do otherwise. Most of my commercial work comes out of my personal work. The commercial work I do tends to go on to become my personal work. There’s a good interplay there for me. If you look at the history of photography, it’s not uncommon to find people who are sort of straddling a line—whose personal work does end up being commercial in the sense that they get paid for it. Also, some of the most money I’ve ever made for photography is from fine art posters, which are both artsy and decorative.
New York Skyline with World Trade Towers
What is your background with photography? You used to do a lot of commercial photography in NY and then you moved out to CA?
In New York, I did commercial photography work, as well as my own photographic and artistic pursuits. I also had some exciting assignments: I flew in a helicopter over the World Trade Towers back when they existed, I did magazine stories on the Love Canal environmental disaster. I like to think of my photography career as my Photo 1.0 and Photo 2.0 careers.
At a certain point, I started working as a technology consultant programmer. I was writing books that had to do with software and my wife and I lived on the upper west side of Manhattan. We decided we were doing work that could be done anywhere, hence our move to a farm on a hillside in VT. After the first major snowstorm there we said why are we here? The first Internet boom was happening out on the west coast in Silicon Valley and I got a big software company to move us out to CA. I started doing corporate jobs as an Internet Executive, while still writing books.
After awhile, I took a pause from the job and was writing technology books more or less full time. In 2004, Wiley asked me to write a book about Digital Photography. The only thing I was photographing at that point was my kids with a point and shoot. I went out and got a digital SLR and I got totally hooked. Partly why I’m able to be as technically accomplished as I am with digital photography is that I do have a software background, which is part of how I approach photography.
You have a really strong technical background both in film and in software. What has changed about the way you conceptualize images from switching from film to digital? How do you keep both sides of your brain (analytical and creative) engaged?
You need to look at a digital image shot in a RAW format conceptually differently than you would look at a film image. As Ansel Adams said regarding his prints, he said, “The negative is the score and the print is the performance”. In much the same way, with a digital RAW image, the RAW file is the score and what you do with it is the performance. That’s an analogy, not literally true. When I look at an image with my digital camera, I’m looking at potentialities. I know what I can do with it and I need to shoot in specific ways for it.
Dawn Chorus Poppy on White
For example, I’ve had a fair amount of success with these very transparent floral images and to achieve these specific results, I have to do the following:
light the image in a particular way
use both high-key lighting and backlighting behind the flower,
I have to do a digital exposure with the histogram off to the right side—I want to overexpose those images
post-process for transparency
On the other hand, I also have to let go and say, “Ok, I know the craft”—both the photographic and the software craft. Since I have this in my bones almost subconsciously, I can then just play. This letting go, and sense of play and being open to inspiration is part of what makes it happen, what makes it fun, what makes it flow.