Bushwick, Brooklyn, New York
Henry Hargreaves has placed an old MacIntosh computer on a pedestal in front of me and is about to set it on fire. After positioning it in just the right way, he begins, and the paper label on a floppy disc (remember those?) sticking out of the machine's front begins to glow orange. But it's not enough - he wants a little more action, perhaps a little more danger, and, most importantly since he is a photographer, a better image.
After studying film and American Studies during college in his native New Zealand, Henry was discovered by a modeling agent while traveling and work as a high fashion model for a number of years before settling on taking photographs (he volunteered that a quick search through Google will offer his old modeling shots and embarrassing YouTube videos). His work is now defined by a playfulness (see his 3DD project and book - fun fact: his high school has a copy it keeps under lock and key in the Special Permission section), ingenuity (see his Deep Fried Gadgets series), and social commentary (see his No Seconds series that Reuters recently did a video on) that we at Artsicle love. While in his airy double-height studio in Bushwick, I spoke with Henry about his journey to photography, his inspiration, and what's next.
Can you tell me about what we're about to see?
I was approached by the Art Director’s Club, which was the first ad organization in the world and is now a guild to which all the agencies belong. They're trendsetters and curators and support ADC Young Guns, which kind of anoints what's next in that world. A director there saw my Deep Fried Gadgets series, and told me that he loved my imagery and wanted me to create some stuff for ADC's redesign.
The first thing I did was a series with butter – playing around with it, writing with, it melting it. What we're doing today is for their new website: we're going to create the "Coming Soon" sign. I always think this sign is an eternal industry joke because everyone's new website is coming soon, but it's never coming in a hurry, so I decided to do a play on time. I got one of the first MacIntoshes, which predate the internet. My initial idea for the image was to have that old-school MS-DOS font flashing and saying "New Website Coming Soon" over a flaming computer. So we’re going to set things on fire, we’re going to melt the computer, and hopefully we’re going to hopefully a bit of lighter fluid on it to create an animated GIF with flames going around.
Also, just to be clear to all the Apple purists out there, the computer doesn’t work so I’m not destroying a real antique.
How did you become a photographer?
I started as a model and did that for three years full time. As I was doing that, I was always frustrated about not having any control over my destiny or my career because of the idea of “the right look at the right time.” I envied the photographers: they were the ones making the calls and being creative; I thought, “How do I go about doing that?” When I was in Tokyo, I bought an old camera with lenses and just started shooting the other models, slowly putting a book together and testing other models and I got jobs from that. What was your first real job? When I stopped modeling full time and moved to New York, I started bar tending to keep my head above the water financially. The regulars who would come to the bar hired me for my first real paid jobs. One of them worked at Christie’s, so she used to get me to and shoot all the auction pictures. My first fashion job of any significance was when I did the cover of Anthem Magazine. I shot St. Vincent who has now blown up to become quite a musician.
What were your first jobs like?
Though I came from a fashion background, I was trying to push that, but a lot of the jobs I started to get were more still life – especially the paying ones. I did work for auctions houses, magazines, early e-commerce sites who were asking for stills, and they were paying. During that, I slowly found I enjoyed the process of being by myself as opposed being with a whole team and compromising with what was in my mind and what I wanted to do. This made me start to concentrate on still life instead of fashion. What about working by yourself attracted you? What I liked about still life was I could have an idea in my head and make that particular vision happen – “I don’t want to see this, I want to see this in this way” – and did problem solving in my head with light. With the fashion stuff, I would have these grandiose ideas that would be hard to articulate, especially for a guy – what kind of makeup I was looking for, what kind of hair, what kind of clothes. It’s like, “Okay, I trust you with what you’re doing, let’s just make her look as hot as you can, and I’ll take some photos!” I think at the end of the day you really have to care about fashion and have your own aesthetic that you’re trying to push to succeed in that field. As it happened, I was really enjoying all this other stuff and I got really lucky: I got asked to become a full-time staff photographer at New York Magazine. There was portraiture, fashion, a bit of everything, and it was great – I got great credits. At the same time, though, I was frustrated that no one was coming to my website: I thought when I started working for the magazine that I was going to have an explosion and the job would drive all this traffic but it wasn’t. My big realization was when I did a silly little shoot during the Williamsburg snowstorm a couple years ago: I took Star Wars characters out and dropped them in the snow, kind of like Empire Strikes Back on Planet Hoth. This series went viral – I got like 30,000 hits to my site the next day. This made me think I should try to do more interesting content like that – things I would like to see – instead of waiting for something plum to fall in my lap.
What was your next move?
By that point stylists were starting to contact me. What was interesting about my early series, like the Bacon Alphabet or the No Seconds series, was that when I did them, I didn’t really attract that much attention until later on, when I would be interviewed about something else but would mention those series and suddenly open up a whole new audience. When No Seconds came out it got a bit of interest but it was about six months ago when a really influential Tumblr blog posted it. It was re-blogged about 85,000 times; on Imgur, it was viewed more than 2 million times even though it was a year after I’d done either of those. I learned that you don’t know when the right moment will be for something to gain attention. So – my next move – I started doing series like those and steadily started to get commercial assignments from people who were reading about me on the blog. For example, someone from the Village Voice read about the Zen of Yoda series and then asked me to shoot a cover for them. And I like when I do portfolio pieces and they get commercial attention to do other things. The other thing that happened was I started getting a lot of work from Gilt Groupe and Ralph Lauren for their e-commerce. Though that work is kind of mindless – 35 bags on a white background – it was good for getting more educational experience. I was self-taught, and I could go into these studios and see other photographer’s step ups that were not the fashion set ups I was familiar with so I started to use what I learned through observation on my own projects.
Can you think of one set up in particular instance that this happened?
Frontal versus overhead light. In fashion, the light set ups are from the front because of scale – lower ceilings. When I was doing still life, I used frontal lighting and it ended up being a pain in Photoshop. The simple realization of using overhead lighting really made my life easier.
When you say problem solving with light, what do you mean?
In still life sets ups, when I want to do something moody and I have a an object such as a piece of jewelry, I’ll have an image in my head of what I want the finished product to be like. Then I lay the stuff out, take a shot ,and it doesn’t look good. So problem solving with light is about moving the lights in and out and using flags, and my work became about that instead of all the variables I would have if I were shooting a model.
Where does your inspiration come from?
A lot of my ideas come from what’s stimulating (which is not that profound ) – the things around me are what get me thinking. One of the big things I do religiously is get on my Google reader and things that are in the news will capture my attention. No Seconds came about when there was talk of abolishing the last meal for death row inmates in Texas in the news. There’s not too many photographers who I follow closely –
I don’t want my ideas to be the same: I try to preserve my own unique perspective. I’d rather look at graphic designers and other things that are out there for ideas or a really interesting Tumblr or a Pinterest page – a housewife who makes crazy food for her kids may be more interesting than high-end photography. My use of food comes from my background in restaurants. I’ve always used that as a way to keep my head above the water, a skill to take anywhere – I worked in London at a restaurant before modeling, here in New York when I was done with modeling, and now I’m actually a partner in two restaurants here. Shooting food came with that. I always felt that regular food photography – which often falls under the category of food sex: "let’s make the food look like something you’d want to have sex with" – is so done and it’s nice to look at but not memorable. There’s so much that can be done that wasn’t and isn’t being done. I started playing around with food and tried to see it in a different way: I think food is something with which we can have different interactions. I started to see the supermarket at my art supply store – there’s so much scope within that genre.
When I look at your work, I sometimes don’t realize that it’s food at first – is that a conscious thing?
It’s a bit of a challenge as to how you present your stuff, but one of the traps is 99% of people are going to see things at 600 pixels instead of blown up on a wall and they won’t look closer. It's one of the fears of the internet - people don't realize the medium. So what do you do to make them realize what your work is - do you do behind the scenes? I don’t want to do that too much on the website, but when anyone asks me on the blog I will try to show them. I also, though, am a little conscious of my folio not becoming “Henry, the guy who plays with food all the time.” I would rather be “Henry, who does cool visuals and they are often done with food.” For example, I wanted to revisit a fashion thing, so I shot jewelry with a scanner instead of a camera to mix up what I have going on.
Can you talk about the Subway series that's available on Artsicle?
I come from New Zealand where we have no subway system. My first time on the subway was when I was 21 and in London, and Milan and New York were after. I loved how the system maps were primary colors and were composed of mesmerizing, beautiful patterns. I wanted to take the map back to its most basic element, the colors, and that made sense because many people who live in those cities don’t even need the stops but rather intuitively know the patterns – the maps have become such iconic images. My next thought was, what do I make the map out of? I think the ribbon was the first one I did did and then I decided to make them out of different things – spaghetti, pipe cleaners, M & Ms. I chose cities - London, Paris, New York - because they were cities that I visited and knew and remembered in my head. The shape of the map really mattered: for example, Moscow is circular – the circular line was built in Stalin’s time. It’s beautiful and there are chandeliers in the stations, but the rest of the lines were built later and are depressing and communist. I also did one of Beijing that I am not using –it’s actually not a beautiful map. Beijing's map was so structured and square whereas New York and London were swirling and serpentine. That probably says something about the state of the city – the map becomes a metaphor for the people there.