For centuries, human beings have been fascinated and intrigued by the cosmos, and ordinary people as well as scientists have spent countless hours looking up at the sky and speculating about the celestial bodies they see. Photographer Sharon Harper (MFA 1997 Photography, Video and Related Media) has, over the past 12 years, created images that examine the sky as a site for perceptions and images that we can see or are perceived through the camera, but are unable to be seen with the human eye. “I think I’ve been drawn to working this way,” Harper says, “because even though I was trained as a documentary photographer, when I got to SVA I became interested in how I could photograph against my training and expectations and what photography could show me that I didn’t know it could do. I was seeing things that happened through the camera or in the darkroom or in the process of photographing that I wasn’t able to see with my eye.”
When Harper began her photographic explorations, she was interested in the relationship between human beings and the natural world. “In photography there are always these things that happen that influence your images and are present in them that you didn’t plan for,” she says. “For me, that creates a perfect metaphor for our situation in the world. There’s always this back and forth influence, even though we can’t see it or name it, we’re always interacting with things in different ways that sometimes we are aware of and sometimes not.” So with long exposures of the night sky, the elements, heavenly bodies and with the natural motion of the earth, these areas became fertile grounds for Harper to explore. She is also interested in things that represent “deep time”—time beyond the human scale—which can often be found in her images.
Also helping Harper create new and interesting work of the same subject matter is her use of different types of equipment. “For each body of work I’ve done, I’ve picked up a different camera,” she says. “I’m always interested in the unknown and what I can’t know and what I am not sure I’ll find. So it really helps to have different tools to mix all that up and to shift my perspective and my understanding.” It is through this type of exploration that she finds some answers, but the process always uncovers new questions—questions that in turn lead to a new body of work.
“There’s a certain curiosity about the exploration part of an art project and the exploration and curiosity that drives a science inquiry,” says Harper. “It’s more that photography can be used through science to verify what we can see and what we can know, and yet photography can make images that are metaphors for what we don’t know.” It is by embracing both photography and science—and meshing the two together—that she is able to make images that resonate with an enigmatic allure and move beyond textbook images of the sky.
Another factor in both her photography and video work is the examination of time and what she calls “duration.” “This interest in time led me to the intersection of still and motion, and looking at duration,” she says. “There are certain things I was doing technically at the edge of what film could handle in terms of darkness, duration and overexposure.” She often likes to push herself to the edge of both still photography and video to see how the equipment she’s using will be able to deal with what she’s attempting to capture and to see what sorts of issues will arise because of the nature of her exploration.
It is in that very nature of exploring the world above us that has given Harper a never-ending well of subject matter. In her pursuit for answers, she has unlocked more questions for us to contemplate—the sky has never been so personal, yet so mysterious. We are fortunate that she was brave enough to look up and investigate.
Harper’s work has been exhibited in many solo and group exhibitions in the U.S. and abroad and is part of the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, and The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, among other institutions. A book highlighting her work, From Above and Below, with essays by Jimena Canales and Phillip Prodger, was released this fall by Radius Books. To view more of her work, visit www.sharonharper.org.