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Interviews: Cig Harvey on You Look At Me Like An Emergency

You Look At Me Like An Emergency by Cig Harvey
photo-eye has been proud to exhibit Cig Harvey's work on the Photographer's Showcase for many years. In Harvey's most famous images, a lone woman fills the frame. Wearing a beautiful dress, the woman's face is often obscured, her form is juxtaposed with the objects or scene around her -- she stands on a buoy in the open ocean or poses with a halved green apple cinched in her belt. Harvey established her career with these evocative self-portraits but turned her camera to other models several years ago. Still, her work maintains its intimate storybook-like feel, as if existing in a realm of subtle magic between the personal and universal.

Considering the quantity of Harvey's photographic output, it would have been easy to make her first book a straightforward retrospective, but instead she has created a publication that exists as an independent work of art along side her photographic prints. You Look at me Like an Emergency from Schilt Publishing is an unusual photobook that combines ten years of her work with handwritten text from journal entries, forming a loose narrative about loss and love. It is personal and affecting, telling a memorable story in a unique way. Harvey was kind enough to discuss her work and the book with us, including how the narrative came together and the bold merging of text with her images.

from You Look At Me Like An Emergency by Cig Harvey
photo-eye:     Your images seem to be perched on the line between magical and poetic universality and deeply personal symbolic language. Can you discuss the push and pull between the personal and universal, using yourself as a subject and moving into using others as models?

Cig Harvey:     I’ve always been drawn to personal work in art, music and literature as a device to tap into the universal. My work reflects, either indirectly or directly, what I am concerned with at that time but it’s always the human spirit that fascinates me. I initially used myself as the subject when I was creating work about the past, but the pictures were never really specifically about me, rather the universal emotion I was trying to explore. A shift happened in 2005 when I started to make work about the present. I no longer needed to be in the images, I just needed to have my camera in hand and look at the world around me. I gravitate towards magical realism in photography. Trying to seek out an image that causes a visual jolt, it’s a form of escapism and creates a balance or edited mirror on reality. I search for locations, light, and weather that will isolate and provide a stage for the gaze or gesture of the subject. I’ve always been interested by what is timeless in a portrait. I photograph the people I am surrounded by, so that I can recognize the moment when I don’t know them; in that frame, our relationship is somehow compromised and the familiar becomes foreign.

from You Look At Me Like An Emergency by Cig Harvey
PE:     The book is a really interesting project, weaving together 10 years of your photographic work to create something altogether new -- a visual storybook of sorts. How did the concept of the book come about? What was the process of editing the images for the book like? Have you always considered your photography to be part of a lose narrative or was this a new way to contextualize your work?

CH:     As a self-professed literature junkie I do love a book with a true story line; a start, middle and end. This book, like all books it seems, was a true labor of love, taking over four years to structure. The process was simultaneously exhilarating and grueling as it went through many versions to become the book that finally got printed. I did at one time create an edit that highlighted only the later work but it felt like I was doing a disservice to the creative process itself. Like most artists, you think you are making your best work currently, but where would we be without early albums and first novels? It’s no different in the visual arts. For me, there’s an important innocence and rawness in some of the earlier self-portrait work that sets a stage for the later portrait and environmental work. One grew from another and the whole concept of the book of Emergency is about growth and change. So, in a sense the narrative storyline made itself by trying to stay true to a pivotal ten years of discovery. Emergency documents a path towards finding a sense of self worth and home – an archetypal quest in its most basic definition.

 from You Look At Me Like An Emergency by Cig Harvey
PE:     The pretty, idiosyncratic handwriting in the book is almost itself a character within the story, coming and going, sometimes giving context, sometimes setting a tone, firmly placing the narrative in personal context. I'm curious about how you feel the text affects the images and changes the reader's relationship to your work. Why did you choose to add text and what do you feel are the advantages or detractions of using it?

CH:     The text is an extremely important element of Emergency. It brings another dimension, which in combination with the images, hopefully adds up to more than the sum of its parts. In an early version, the book was laid out with regular Helvetica font but it just didn’t work. It felt too formal. The content of the written work was often so direct and specific that a conventional presentation of the text seemed disconnected from the photographs. I am always exploring a question, an idea or a concern, but my imagery can become shrouded by the formal elements of beauty: light, form, and color. The text adds a certain gravitas, which often times is much truer to the reality. I worked with an incredible designer, Deb Wood, and she managed to bring together both elements together in a harmonious way.

from You Look At Me Like An Emergency by Cig Harvey
PE:     What are you working on next? Are there any more book projects in the near future?

CH:     So I‘m hard at work on my next project, Gardening At Night, which hopefully will be a book some day, I guess it will be ready in 10 years if Emergency is anything to go by. It’s a metaphorical exploration into the wonder and fear I’ve experienced by becoming a new parent and putting down roots in the delicious state of Maine. It’s interesting how, now that I am more grounded, my images are darker than ever. I guess it comes back to the balance/mirror thing. Photography is amazing. I have been utterly in love with it since the age of 13, and yet somehow this medium is always new to me. I’m incredibly grateful that this is how I spend my days.

Pre-order a signed copy of You Look At Me Like An Emergency

Read George Slade's review of the book here
Cig Harvey's portfolios on the Photographer's Showcase can be found here