“The Screen Door,” Warren, Maine, 2013.
It’s no easy task to describe Cig Harvey’s photographs in a meaningful way. Words make their subjects seem ordinary and random: a child’s mouth with a loose baby tooth; a freshly picked collection of four-leaf clovers; a bowl of red cherries.
Yet other details vivify these simple things. Bright red string is wrapped around the tooth, as if in readiness to extract it; an ornamental silver platter has been placed on the grass to display the clover; diminutive cherry juice footprints circle the bowl of fruit.
These elements suggest stories and raise questions in a viewer’s mind. In the process, whether inhabited by people or not, Harvey’s photographs bring transcendence to the commonplace. That quality has led some to describe her work as surrealism, but it’s too subtle and too achingly familiar for that label. It is really more akin to literature’s magical realism.
“Along with the mystery, there’s an optimism and elation in the images that makes them accessible to people,” says Michael Mansfield, executive director and chief curator at Maine’s Ogunquit Museum of American Art, where Harvey’s work was on display in a one-person show through the end of October 2019.
Yet for Cig Harvey, art doesn’t simply imitate life. The two are inextricably connected. Her work may be the direct product of her own experience, but it isn’t a visual diary, as with so much contemporary photography; it’s an autobiography of feelings and impressions, not of facts and events.
As with a diary, though, Harvey’s subjects (if human) are drawn from friends and family, including her 8-year-old daughter, Scout. Likewise, the photographs gain much of their power and meaning from being seen together, in groups that don’t so much suggest a narrative as they do the rhythms of a family life in rural Maine and a continuing search for beauty in small things that might otherwise go unnoticed. Cig Harvey calls this finding the rare within the everyday.
Harvey herself organizes her work into groups that have taken the form of three published books—collections with such mystifying titles as You an Orchestra You a Bomb, Gardening at Night and You Look at Me Like an Emergency.
The projects’ themes are not preconceived, however. “I don’t set out at the beginning with a particular idea,” she explains. “It’s a make-see-listen process. I have date nights with my photographs. I put them all up on the wall, look at what I’ve made and try to see what direction the work is taking. This understanding influences the pictures I do from that point on. What the work is about slowly rises to the surface.”
Even then, Harvey’s ideas are big. In her own words, the book You an Orchestra You a Bomb “makes icons of the everyday and looks at life on the threshold between magic and disaster.” Gardening at Night, she says, “is an exploration of home, family, nature and time.”
Whatever the work’s direction, color and natural light remain central to it. “Light creates awe,” says Cig Harvey, whose photographs prove that soft illumination can make colors richer, contours more sculptural and textures more distinct. “And I’ve always been obsessed with color. My earliest memories revolve around it.”
Her photographs burst with it: Red pomegranate seeds on a roughhewn wooden table fairly drip from the red chair and red wall above them; a halved green apple is tucked into the belt of an apple-green gingham dress with its wearer cropped out of the frame; a luminously turquoise garden hose snakes into a riotously green, out-of-focus garden; gum-pink dentures soak in a jar against a nursery-pink wall. Such images appeal deeply to the senses. “Along with color and light, there’s even the sense of taste to some of them,” says Mansfield, whose show of the photographer’s work is titled “Eating Flowers: Sensations of Cig Harvey.”
Harvey’s attraction to Maine and the pastoral context of her work both owe something to the rich, rolling landscape where she grew up in Devonshire, England. It was there, at the age of 13, that she discovered the “alchemy” of photography in a community darkroom. Cig Harvey arrived in the Pine Tree State 20 years ago by way of Barcelona and Bermuda, initially to earn her MFA at Rockport’s Maine Media Workshops.
For eight of those early years, until the birth of her daughter, a full-time teaching job at the Art Institute of Boston kept her in the city on weekdays. On weekends, Harvey would escape back to Maine. She loves teaching as much as her students reportedly love her, and she still does it at far-flung workshops in Santa Fe, N.M., Los Angeles and Norway, as well as in Maine Media Workshops’ low-residency MFA program.
She has lightened her load, though, because she finds teaching full-time too all-consuming and exhausting for her to do her own work at the same time. Cig Harvey has also taken on editorial and illustration assignments, including shooting for publications such as New York and O magazines and creating covers for novels. (Harvey is herself an avid reader of writers, such as poet Anne Carson, memoirist/critic Maggie Nelson and magical realist Gabriel Garcia Marquez.)
Not surprisingly, given her strong sense of color and texture and the importance of clothing in her photographs, she has even garnered the attention of fashion houses Kate Spade and Ralph Lauren. “I’ve really enjoyed the collaborative aspect of it,” she says, “but I’m happiest when the work doesn’t have to sell anything other than itself.”
Given how much of Harvey’s fine-art work is “found,” or at least seems to be, it’s hard to imagine her working within the constraints of an ad campaign. That doesn’t mean there’s no planning or preparation to back up the happenstance on which her photographs depend. She might ask to meet a subject at a beach at dawn, when she knows fog will be rolling in, having told that person the idea she has in mind, and sometimes what to wear—perhaps from Harvey’s own collection of vintage dresses, which she herself often donned for the frequent self-portraits she made earlier in her career. At that point, she says, the work becomes “a collaboration, not a transaction.”
Sometimes adding a prop—a mirror, a red balloon, the wings of a white witch moth—allows Cig Harvey to explore her subjects thoroughly, a task made easier by her increasing use of digital cameras, currently a mirrorless, medium-format digital Fuji GFX 50R. (Her images are usually cropped to a square format.)
With minimal coaching, she often lets her subjects move freely through a scene while she herself moves in relation to them. “I might shoot them from 2 inches away, then 100 yards away,” she says. While there is almost always a human presence in the images, often it’s a mere suggestion—a hand, a distant silhouette, the back of someone’s head.
An element of accident is essential to the results. “The best pictures are often the ones that surprise you,” Harvey says. Robert Klein, whose eponymous Boston gallery has hosted several one-person shows of Harvey’s work, thinks this characterization understates the photographer’s talent.
“They say that chance favors the prepared mind,” he observes. “The seemingly casual quality of her work belies the thousands of hours spent taking and looking at pictures that didn’t make the cut.”
Harvey acknowledges that failure is an instructive part of the creative process. “You learn from what doesn’t work,” she says. “But I just keep at it and wait to be witness to when everything comes together—color, light, the moment. If you know exactly how a picture is going to turn out before you’ve made it, then I think you’ve missed out on the beauty of being an artist.”
Despite the work’s source in everyday life, big events have influenced its character and direction. “Becoming a mother made me a stronger photographer,” says Harvey, who is married to filmmaker Doug Stradley. “It gave me a better understanding of love but also of fear. Love and fear are powerful ingredients for a photograph.”
Harvey’s daughter, Scout—the focus of both those emotions—has been a frequent subject, as have her niece and the young daughters of friends. Even the adults in Harvey’s pictures are mostly female, and the work feels as if it could only have been made by a woman. Another big event that had a defining effect on Harvey’s photography was a serious 2015 car accident, which left her unable to speak for several months. “It was really traumatic,” she recalls. “After that, when I put pictures up on a wall, they seemed to exist on this precipice between heaven and hell. I realized not only that I was making work in response to the accident but also that my work is about the fragility of life.”
Harvey’s creative process has always included writing. “I’ll make breakfast, walk my dog, come back and do some writing,” she says. “I try to write every day, and I think the writing helps me focus the work.”
Harvey’s three monographs (plus her handmade, limited-edition artist’s books) all incorporate her writing, which takes a sort of prose-poem, stream-of-consciousness form. She says the writing consists largely of “notations on the everyday,” though some of it is based on memories. She gives special attention to its presentation in the books, including type treatment and overall design, sometimes combining a particular font with cursive.
Her Ogunquit show gives full play to the writing; letterpress and hand-lettered text is framed just like the photographs. “It’s the first time in my work’s presentation that words have been elevated to the same level,” she explains. “It reflects the fact that the writing has become just as important to me as the images.” The exhibition even features phrases and words (“Suck/Smell/Stare/Scratch/Sigh” in vivid blue) that Cig Harvey has had rendered in neon by a local artisan.
“I’ve always felt that Cig’s work wasn’t limited to a single medium or purely photographic,” says curator Mansfield. “I wanted to represent her whole creative practice rather than a single vein.” Mansfield took a cue from the narrative density of Harvey’s books, mounting the show so that framed pieces literally abut one another. Additionally, he alternates the works of text and photos in the exhibition.
Among the 72 pieces in the show are examples of Harvey’s “motion” images, all matted so that they fit right in with the conventional prints, albeit in deeper frames to accommodate the high-resolution LCD panels on which they’re displayed. A hasty viewer might not even notice that anything is moving in them because they are essentially photographs animated only by a subtle, looping detail, an effect created by combining stills with video in post-production.
In one piece, large snowflakes fall on Harvey’s bundled-up daughter, who is perched unmoving on a rocking horse; in another, petals descend from a tree in front of a young woman standing utterly still with her face to the sun, eyes closed; in a third, fireflies and other insects swirl around a girl posed on a brushy hillside holding a small wooden birdhouse. The movement itself seems to be in slow motion. “They’re kind of a meditative experience,” says Harvey gallerist Klein. “They force viewers to be patient and wait.” Says Cig Harvey, “The motion pieces extend time, and time is a photographer’s currency.”
As if to animate her work even further, Harvey’s latest undertaking has brought her into the world of performance. Creators of a new staging of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok’s expressionist opera Bluebeard’s Castle took notice of her work at New York’s annual AIPAD show, asking her to serve as the production’s visual director in order to make it more “contemporary,” according to Harvey.
A co-production of the Atlanta and Austin opera companies, the piece will premiere in late 2021. The story, based on a centuries-old French folktale, explores the castle labyrinth of a mythical and violent nobleman through the eyes of his new bride; it has a dark-to-light emotional range that seems perfectly suited to Harvey’s vision. “It’s going to push my work to a whole new level,” says the photographer. “Not only will there be projections of still images but also motion pieces and possibly holograms.”
Yet Cig Harvey sees the opportunity as part of a natural continuum—an extension of the “creative life,” as she calls it. Given the intimate emotional scale of her images, the transfer of the photographer’s artistic sensibility to the ambitions of theater will be interesting to see. So will the relocation of her pictures to an imaginary past from their palpably rural, present-day American setting—from Down Maine, as Yankee old-timers used to say.
“The work is pretty recognizable as being born of the earth here,” says Ogunquit’s Mansfield. “As an artist, a mother, and a person, Cig has found something in Maine that’s important to her.”