While David Alan Harvey’s photographs ring true, his personal life is one of legend. Some believe that he was the inspiration for the fictional character Robert Kincaid, a National Geographic photographer in The Bridges of Madison County. Whether he’s the role model, Harvey’s latest photo book (based on a true story), set in Rio de Janeiro, only deepens the mystery.
Born in San Francisco in 1944 and raised in Virginia, Harvey has never been one to rest on his laurels. After years of success shooting for National Geographic, he thought he needed a good kick in the derrière, so he applied for and was accepted into the prestigious Magnum photo agency in 1996. As he has said in the past, "Evolution and revolution are my keywords for living the photographic life." The latest application of his seemingly boundless energy and his desire to support his fellow photojournalists is the online and in-print journal BURN.
DPP: What’s the idea behind BURN Magazine?
David Alan Harvey: BURN is actually three things. It started as an online magazine featuring emerging photographers. We’ve built up a very loyal audience, so we now also have an in-print magazine printed in Italy. Eighty percent is emerging photographers and 20 percent of the content is from established photographers like James Nachtwey and Roger Ballen. BURN features a wide variety of photography, from Paolo Pellegrin’s Arab Spring series to Irina Werning’s series where she re-creates photographs by taking grownups and copying an image of them when they were kids, then displaying the two side by side. We realized that when we were putting the magazine issues together, which retails at $45, that we were really making collectible books. So this led to part two of BURN. We’re going full-scale into custom and special-edition book publishing. We published Anton Kusters’ Yakuza collector’s edition and that sold out. I just got back from the photo festival in Arles, and all the Magnum photographers wanted to jump on this. It’s cool, and they have complete control. There’s no page limit. When you’re done with the story, you’re done. So there’s BURN Magazine, BURN Books, and then the third part, BURN University, our workshop program.
DPP: Teaching has always been an integral part of your career. What’s the setup for this newest effort?
Harvey: BURN University will have a selection process for the students to be able to attend the workshops. You have to have something already going on to get in. We want to make it like a university in that sense. We’ll have one at Art Basel in Miami. All the BURN projects are interconnected.
DPP: How did you "discover the Internet" as a venue not only for your images, but also as an opportunity to interface with the public?
Harvey: There was a guy who came into the Magnum office during one of our meetings to discuss online audiences. That’s the last thing that I ever thought about. I wasn’t the kind of guy who went online to look at blogs or anything, but he started describing what it took to build an audience. I had never thought about building an audience. I didn’t even know that I had an audience. National Geographic and my books were out there with my pictures, but I actually had no idea who the people were that were looking at my photos. They were faceless to me. He said, "Well, you need this, this, this and this…," and I started thinking, I actually have all that stuff. I knew I had an international fan club because in spite of very minimal promotion, my workshops were always filled up, and I had students from all over the place—Korea, France, Spain, Brazil. So I started a blog called "Road Trips," and it was immediately successful. Within a few days, I had a thousand followers. I realized I did have an audience out there that had been filtered by Geographic or the book publisher. Now I’m interfacing with my audience.
DPP: How did the title BURN come about?
Harvey: We were looking at all sorts of photo-oriented words, and one of the readers of my "Road Trips" blog sent in three words, and one of them was "burn." As soon as I saw "burn," I said, "That’s it!" It has an edge to it. You can turn it into a photo word because we dodge and burn in the darkroom, in the digital world you burn a CD, but mainly we liked the word. It’s like burning passion or burning down the house. It’s a passionate word, and it’s a dangerous word.
DPP: Your books, including Divided Soul (Phaidon) and Cuba: Island at a Crossroad (National Geographic), and most recently, (based on a true story), published by BURN Books, show an unwavering fascination with the Latin world, with Spain, Portugal and Latin America being your favorite stomping grounds. They all explore the blending and battles of indigenous and European cultures. How did your attraction to these areas develop?
Harvey: It’s one of those things that kind of happened by accident before it became on purpose. I’ve got Scotch/Irish blood, no Latin blood in me whatsoever. I had done three stories for National Geographic in my own state of Virginia. The editor walked in one day and said, "We need to get you on a foreign assignment." I was ready to roll. I wanted to see the world. He suggested, "How about the Mayans?" I was so eager to go I didn’t want to tell him that I didn’t really know what the Mayan culture was. I just knew they were a tribe "down there" somewhere. I didn’t know the difference between them and the Aztecs and the Incas. But I said, "I love the Mayans!" I went home and got every book on the Mayan culture I could get my hands on. This was before the Internet. I studied the archeology and the culture. Then I went down there with a 4×5 Linhof for photographing the pyramids and a 35mm camera for photographing the people and their culture, and I learned to speak Spanish. I didn’t tell the editor that I didn’t speak Spanish, and I didn’t know that the Geographic had an expense account for interpreters. I worked with the archeologists there, as well, so I became a pretty good student of the culture. I became fascinated with Central America and all the indigenous tribes of the Americas. By that time, I had a pretty severe hatred for the Spanish in an abstract sort of way because all I could see was the death and destruction they had caused. Then I started thinking that the only way to turn this into something larger was to go to the source. I had to go meet these conquistadores. So I started traveling to Iberia.
DPP: Your expanding knowledge allowed you to get deeper into the subject. Depth in a photograph comes from knowledge.
Harvey: I got involved with not only Spain, Portugal and Latin America, but West Africa, as well, because the Spanish and Portuguese transported slaves to Brazil and other parts of the Americas from there.
DPP: What was the catalyst for (based on a true story)?
Harvey: Me wanting to do Rio was nothing unusual. I’ve done stories in and out of Rio for the last 15 years, including for the October 2012 issue of National Geographic. I already had Divided Soul. I already had Cuba. I already had those kinds of books. I wanted to do something different, not only layout-wise, but also I wanted to come out of the closet in terms of putting my personal life in the book. There’s a little bit of Nan Goldin, Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzo journalism in there. If you look at the background for (based on a true story), it’s Rio. If you’re a photographer, you’ll know damn well that to get the shots of the guys with the guns and the drugs, you have to spend weeks with them. The wealthy people in the book also took weeks of work. You don’t get to them easily, either. The superbad cops with the guns, they’re in there. They take weeks also. So there are weeks and weeks of documentary photography in the book, yet that’s the background. In other words, that’s the stage. There’s one woman that’s kind of a muse that runs through the whole story, and there are other characters. I’ve always been a literary guy. I grew up with Mark Twain, Hemingway, James Joyce, T.E. Lawrence.
DPP: Yet the book has no text.
Harvey: It’s meant to be read for its visual literacy. The story is told in pictures. I want people to read it a few times to figure out what’s going on— like reading Huckleberry Finn one way, then reading it another way. You can see it as two guys going down a river on a raft or read in the metaphors. I used a lot of literary devices in the making of the photo book. In the back there’s a map with the images, so if you take it apart, you can put it back together. The book is hand-assembled and has string and beads. It’s an unbound book. It’s interactive. One of my sons, Bryan, designed it. There are only 600 copies. Then there’s a very limited series that comes in a collector’s box with inlaid tiles and includes a print. Everything we do at BURN is done with the idea of creating art objects.
I shot the Rio book with a Leica M9, a Panasonic GF1 and some with an iPhone. I can’t make 64×44-inch collector’s prints with the iPhone, but there are a couple of spreads in the Rio book in which you would be hard-pressed to tell me which ones were shot with the iPhone and which were shot with the M9 because of the size of the book and the lighting situation where I used the iPhone.
DPP: In what situation would you pick up the iPhone instead of one of the other cameras?
Harvey: Something really casual where I didn’t want to be intrusive. I’m not using any of the iPhone apps, not filtering the images or anything. I just shoot them straight.
DPP: What are some suggestions for emerging photographers?
Harvey: I was supported by the big magazines in the early days of my career, but developing smaller audiences online is the way to go these days. There’s not the support out there from the big magazines anymore. Also, developing projects that really add up to something and not waiting for someone to give you an assignment. I did that when I started out with a self-assigned project on a family living in the ghetto and made a book Tell It Like It Is. Just having a good picture doesn’t do anything. It’s what you produce with the photos. You have to be more than a photographer. You have to have the mind of a publisher or a multimedia person and a little bit of the mind of a businessperson or have someone around you who does. Also, too many students stop short when they’re shooting. They’re onto something and they stop and think they’ve got it. Work the situation ad nauseam until you’re completely exhausted. What stops a lot of people is that they run out of energy.