Interview with David Harth: Artist with a Long View

I found out about David Harth’s Every Person Project via Facebook from a friend who participated in it. I decided I, too, needed to be a part of it, so I contact him and of course Harth was on board with my participation. As you read the interview, you will understand why.

How did the idea for the work come to you? Was there a Eureka moment when you said, “I know! I’ll do a photobooth project?”

It wasn’t a Eureka moment.

In early 2012 I was witnessing photographs uploaded to Facebook that had filters to make the photos look old (think Hipstamtic, Instagram, etc.). This made me think of traditional photographs before digital photography was introduced. It made me think of photography and processes that did not use filters. It made me think of photo booths. I took self-portraits in such booths as a kid growing up. So I thought it would be a good idea, for a project, to take photo booth portraits with all my friends. Just for a project as well as an archival record of people in my life.  I realized some of my friends are not on Facebook and some of my Facebook friends are not friends in the traditional sense. I quickly came to the conclusion that I needed to take a portrait with every person I know and every person I don’t know.

 David-Licata-and-David-HarthWhy photobooths? Wouldn’t it be easier to just do selfies with your iPhone?

This suggestion makes my stomach turn. While I appreciate, adore and love iphoneography, this is not what it’s about. I love the commitment to the object and the moment in time. With digital photography and camera phones, photographs can be deleted immediately or retaken immediately. With the photo booth, if one is unhappy with the print, they must physically destroy an object. I like the commitment to this object. An object that both of us invested time to produce. The time it took and moments shared it took to produce it. Intimate moments, not in terms of intimacy in the loving sense, but just the small quarters, time, and exchange between people. It’s an experience that one does not forget.

You have another project, the Holy Bible Project, which is time based and has a cut off date, but the Every Person Project is different. Why did you decide you’d do this project until you are no longer on this earthly plane?

Quite simply, the project is every person I know and every person I don’t know, that is over 7 billion people. That’s going to take a lot of time. More time that I have in my lifetime. I figured this could go as long as I am able to take photographs and could continue — as long as someone named David Harth is in the photo booth. (I already took a portrait with someone named David Harth). The Holy Bible Project, the moment it began, I just decided to do it for 20 years. Why not 10? Why not 25? I couldn’t tell you.

What are your plans and hopes for the project while you’re alive, and beyond?

The immediate plan was only the website. Which has photographs and little texts about each person. As the project continues, I’ve had encouragement to do exhibits or books. I did a huge outdoor installation with ArtBridge which is still up in Dumbo, Brooklyn. I think for now, I’ll let the project progress naturally. As what happens with my work a lot, I discover the direction of work based upon the public’s participation. After all, look at my burger project “I ate a burger with Harth.”

Has anything surprised you about the project?  Has it led to any insights about time, aging, photography?

Well, in terms of aging, I think it will be very interesting to see myself age. I’ll be the only continuous constant. Already you can see photos of me with a full beard and hair and no beard and completely bald. In time, I’ll age into an old man with wrinkles that my Opa would have been proud of. Insights? I just learned that strangers like to be a part of something. I find it fascinating that strangers are willing to take a photo booth portrait with me. I’m very grateful for that. Since doing this I’ve also developed new friendships that I would not have ever had the chance to create. Not the mention the amazing, eye-opening, intelligent, creative and wonderful conversations I’ve been having. It’s also a great excuse to see an old friend that you’ve haven’t seen in 10+ years.

I encourage you to check out the links to Harth’s projects and if you’re in New York City, participate in the Every Person Project. I enjoyed meeting Harth and taking the photo. I like the idea that I’m a small part of this massive project, a little speck of paint in a giant mural.

Interested in reading more interviews? Check out the Interviews page.

Bitter? Who Me?

I think often of something Jill Tarter, ex-Director, Center for SETI  Research, said when I asked her about working on a project she might not see “completed” in her lifetime:

I’m not going to be bitter and disappointed in my old age. I’m going to celebrate the fact that I was lucky enough to be part of getting something started that has the potential of having a profound impact….

Tomorrow, the SETI Institute may fold up its tent and go away because we can’t find the funding to keep it going, but it’s also enormously satisfying and there’s something about the opportunity, the privilege to work on a scientific question that everyone can relate to. That’s it. You can’t say anything else other than it is a privilege to be able to spend a career doing that.

Even though I have the memory her saying this to me directly, and have her saying this captured for posterity, it’s still easy slip into the role of the bitter aging artist. The work can be slow and tedious and it seems never to go right. And will it ever be done? And why aren’t people returning phone calls? And why has the computer decide not to open the damned file? And why does everyone  on Facebook have such a fabulous, successful yummy life? And what’s the point of making a movie anyway when people are just going to watch 58 seconds of it on their iPhones and then stop to text friends and check email and go on Facebook and read The Onion headlines and never return to your film again? Why ef’ing bother? Nobody cares. What’s the point?

Yes, it’s easy go down this road.

Which is why on the days I have to work on MY work, I drink my coffee out of one of three mugs. These mugs have magical powers; they can (sometimes) keep the bitterness at bay.

There’s this one, purchased during my first artist residency (Centrum Creative Arts and Education in Port Towsend, WA). I walked to the nearby Port Townsend Marine  Science Center and bought this mug because of the curious octopus.  I left a favorite red mug I had brought there and this came back home with me.

Port Townsend Marine Science Center mug

There’s this one, which was a gift from an estranged friend. I’ve always loved the paper cups with this design. But more than that, the words resonate: “We are happy to serve you.” It is important for me to remember that I am serving the film and whatever else I happen to be making, that those things are bigger than me.

We are happy to serve you  

And then there’s this one, purchased when I was a fellow at the MacDowell Colony. I save this one for days when I am way on the low and bitter side of the spectrum. It bolsters my ego a little to remember that some folks thought highly enough of my work to let me in their club. But also this mug reminds me of one specific moment.

MacDowell Colony mug

I was in my rustic studio editing. I had set up my work area so that when I sat at the computer I looked at a wall with my notes on it and positioned a moveable wall to block any chance of gazing out of the window while I was at my desk. One could gaze out those windows for hours if you weren’t careful.

I took a break and made a cup of coffee. My guitar sat in an armchair, stories and a dictionary consumed another desk, a book of Flannery O’Connor letters rested on the nightstand. I looked out the window and down the tree-lined dirt road. It started snowing and suddenly I felt blessed. Blessed to be where I was at that moment (MacDowell makes it easy to feel this way), but also blessed to be able to do what I do. What a privilege to be given time and space, and not just at residencies, but in my life, to do these things. To read, to play music, to write, to work on a film with amazing people about amazing people. I was profoundly happy that moment and I said out loud to myself, “Remember this. Remember this. Take this with you to the grave.”

It seems there’s a big difference  between someone, even someone you greatly admire, explaining to you why you’re privileged and apprehending it first hand. And I can’t always summon that feeling, but I can remember that I had it, that I understood with all of my being what a privilege it is to be able to spend a life doing this. Sometimes all I need is a mug, sometimes  that’s enough.

Do you have a mug, pen, notebook, article of clothing, etc. that has special powers? I’d love to hear about it, or see it. Leave a comment or send a photo. Really, I mean it!

A Life’s Work’s New Direction

While I was at VCCA, I had an inkling that I might take A Life’s Work in a new direction. While at Ucross, I had a radical rethink of the film. Here’s where I’m going with it.

I hope you like our new direction.


Photographer Barbara Bosworth – Interview

When I was at the MacDowell Colony in 2010, I met a fine photographer, Matthew Connors. When I told him about the people in A Life’s Work, he asked if I knew the work one of his colleagues at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Barbara Bosworth. I didn’t. But Bosworth had been to MacDowell, and her book of photographs, Trees: National Champions (MIT Press; Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, 2005) was in their library. I checked it out and was blown away by its beauty. I wished I had had this book as a reference before I shot a single tree for A Life’s Work. It only took three years, but I finally asked Connors to introduce me to Bosworth. She responded to my request for an interview enthusiastically, and agreed to share some photographs that do not appear in the book. It is my great great pleasure to share with you her words and images.

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Where did the idea for a book about trees come from?

I grew up surrounded by a forest. My “playground.” I have always loved being around trees.

I learned of the National Register of Big Trees in 1990 and immediately set out to photograph the trees on the list. After 14 years, a book felt right.

Dwarf chinkapin oak_KS_Bosworth

What’s the most difficult thing about photographing trees? The most enjoyable thing?

The most difficult aspect: getting to the trees.
The most enjoyable aspect: getting to the trees.

Chokecherry_AZ champion_Bosworth

Many of the photographs suggest the presence of people — a bike, a telephone pole, buildings, fences (there seem to be a lot of fences around champion trees), but there are very few people in them. Why?

To me, this work is as much about the American landscape as about trees. These trees are in our backyards, along our highways, next to parking lots. The human presence is important in telling the story of the American landscape. I am interested in that presence.

In addition, including recognizable human artifacts in the scene provides a sense of scale. We can read the size of the tree by its proximity to a car, or a bicycle or a fence.

Can you tell me about why you made some of the artistic choices you did (black-and-white, the use of triptych and diptych, horizontal instead of vertical orientation)?

Cucumbertree magnolia_OH champion_Bosworth

In a black-and-white photograph the world is pared down to forms in tones of grey, not distracted by that red sign or blue house or orange fence. I wanted these photographs to simply be about the tree and its environs. At times, in a color photograph, a red sign takes on greater importance than a brown tree. In these photographs, I want us to be aware of the sign, the house and the fence, but not to let the colors dictate their importance in the scene.

Plus, I like black-and-white photography’s reference to history.

I use multi-panel images as a way to show how the tree is in its surrounding landscape. It’s not just about the tree. It’s everything around it, as well.

While these photographs are of the largest tree of each species, this work, for me, has never been about size. Not all these “champions” are large. A champion Pussy willow is not the same size as a champion Red oak.

By choosing to photograph a vertical subject in a horizontal format, it keeps the emphasis on the landscape.

There are 70 plates in the book. I wonder how many photos you actually took and what the editing process was like?

The 70 images in the book are edited from several hundred. Many friends helped me with the editing and sequencing. MIT Press was wonderful to work with. Their insight and guidance was instrumental in shaping the book.

And, because the trees are ever changing, I continue to photograph these trees.

Hollyleaf buckthorn_AZ champion_Bosworth

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Barbara Bosworth is a photographer whose large-format images explore both overt and subtle relationships between humans and the rest of the natural world. Whether chronicling the efforts of hunters or bird banders or evoking the seasonal changes that transform mountains and meadows, Bosworth’s caring attention to the world around her results in images that similarly inspire viewers to look closely.

Bosworth’s work has been widely exhibited, notably in recent retrospectives at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Phoenix Art Museum in Arizona. Her publications include Trees: National Champions (MIT Press; Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, 2005) and Chasing the Light (Nightwood Press, 2002).

I’ve conducted  many interviews for this blog and elsewhere. See the entire list here.

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What’s A Life’s Work about? It’s a documentary about people engaged in projects they won’t see completed in their lifetimes. You can find out more on this page.

We recently ran a crowdfunding campaign and raised enough to pay an animator and license half of the archival footage the film requires. We need just a bit more to pay for licensing the other half of the archival footage, sound mixing, color correction, E&O insurance and a bunch of smaller things. When that’s done, the film is done! It’s really very VERY close!

So here’s how you can help get this film out to the world. It’s very simple: click the button…

Donate Now!

… and enter the amount you want to contribute (as little as $5, as much as $50,000) and the other specifics. That’s it. No login or registration required. Your contribution does not line my pocket; because the film is fiscally sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts, all money given this way is overseen by them and is guaranteed to go toward the completion of this film. Being fiscally sponsored also means that your contribution is tax-deductible. So why not do it? The amount doesn’t matter as much as the fact that you’re helping to bring a work of art into the world. And that, I think, is really exciting!

Questions? Email me at d a v i d ( aT } b l o o d o r a n g e f i l m s {d o t] c o m[/color-box]

Mike Disfarmer and A Life’s Work

I recently had a conversation with one of my fellow artists here at Ucross about studio portrait photography and this led to Mike Disfarmer. It reminded me of this post and the great comment left by one of his subjects’ ancestors, so I thought I’d repost it. And re: the last paragraph, I’m still grappling.

I was looking through Disfarmer, Heber Springs Portraits, 1939-1946, a gorgeous book of Mike Disfarmer’s photographs. The following paragraph from the essay by Julia Scully struck me.

Detail of a portrait by Mike Disfarmer.
Detail of a portrait by Mike Disfarmer.

What distinguishes this product of a seemingly ordinary Main Street portrait studio from that of others on every Main Street in the United States? In seeking an answer, we must consider the character of his subjects, the time in which they were recorded, and the photographer’s artistry.

This set me thinking: is there something that distinguishes A Life’s Work from other documentaries? The character of its subjects  (unique) and the time in which they are recorded (now–there is no better time) are distinctive. But what about the filmmakers’ artistry?

Modesty prevents me from blowing my own horn, but I will say this: somehow I manage to inveigle cinematographers and editors of the highest artistic caliber to work on A Life’s Work. I like to think it’s the subject matter of the film that hits home–all artists want to create something that outlasts them. When the darkest clouds are hovering over the film, I think of my talented colleagues and their  belief in the project and then more often than not those clouds disperse.

But about the Disfarmer photos! I feel like there’s something else going on between Mike Disfarmer and his portraits and me and A Life’s Work, but I can’t quite articulate it. Check out his photographs  and if you can make a connection, let me know.

A Present for You – More Classical Guitar Music!

VCCA silo

When I was at VCCA I made a couple of recordings of me playing some classical guitar music, one in the field on a beautiful summer-like day (listen to it here) and another in the silo. Its circular shape and glazed clay walls make this space reverb-a-licious.

vcca silo guitar


My guitar in the VCCA silo.

It was not a beautiful summer-like day when I recorded in the silo. It was a cold, winter-like day, and the silo, though obviously swanky, is not heated. So, I was cold, and my fingers were cold. But it had to be so, because when those beautiful summer-like days happened, so too did the wasps, who swarmed in the silo on those days and a few afterwards. (To know how I feel about wasps, click here.)

But after a few winter-like days, they died, and wasp corpses, hundreds of them, carpeted the concrete floor and made a crunchy sound when you stepped on them. Not surprisingly, I didn’t mind this sound too much. I didn’t record it, though. But I did record this, me playing Bach’s Prelude, BWV 999, originally composed for lute.

I hope you enjoy it.

Want more classical guitar music? Click here.

Endings, Happy and Otherwise

When I was at VCCA in October, I screened the A Life’s Work sample for my fellow residents. I introduce the sample as I always do, with a few caveats, including  the big one: the ending is not the real ending. A couple of days after the screening, one of the residents and I spoke about the film, and one of the things he said was, “That is not your ending.”

It wasn’t that he forgot my caveat, it was that he knew my tacked on ending wasn’t even in the ballpark of a real ending. Which is something I knew when we put it together, but had, up until that conversation, forgotten. He’s right, it is SO not the ending.

All of this has me thinking about endings a lot lately. And it made me recall this post from April 2011 about endings. Hope you enjoy it.

DL: 12/18/12


Long before the first “Will you finish it in your lifetime” joke was hurled at me, before the first day of shooting, before the first meeting with Paolo Soleri, I recognized a dilemma: How do you end a film that doesn’t have an ending? There is no election/video game event/spelling bee/etc. with a clear winner and loser. No character in the film comes to a greater understanding of his or her past/present/future or his or her parents/children/secret family.

So, how will it end? Not sure. And though this question may seem particularly thorny in the case of A Life’s Work, I take comfort knowing even more traditional narratives have similar quandaries.

Take, for example, the classic 70s noir, Chinatown. Apparently, there was a dispute between Robert Towne (the writer ) and Roman Polanski (the director) over how to end the film. Here’s Jack Nicholson’s take on the Chinatown ending and the Chinatown almost-ending.

I believe I was out of town for most of the discussions. At the time though, I did think it was more daring to have a neat ending where the villain is punished. I’m glad Roman’s point of view prevailed, but that was more what was happening at the time. That was the “no happy endings period” at that time. At the time, Robert’s [happier ending] felt more unusual. But I’m glad Roman prevailed. As he says, “If you wrap everything up, the audience forgets it before they’re at dinner. If you leave them up in the air, you have a chance that they’ll talk about it for a few minutes.”

I know this much: I would like people to talk about A Life’s Work for a few minutes after seeing it.

Imperfect Life, Perfect Record of Life

I met Karen Ramos, a most excellent singer-songwriter, at Blue Mountain Center in 2010. We played music for each other. I happen to know two songs, Girl from Ipanema and Moon River, and they worked for her so I played guitar and she sang and we entertained the other residents a few times. We killed ‘em, but they were an easy audience.

When Karen asked me to accompany her at a fundraiser, I was flattered, and more than a little nervous. We rehearsed. I knew Girl from Ipanema like the back of my hand — I’ve been playing it for more than 30 years now. But Moon River was another story. We rehearsed some more. I practiced the song a lot.


The night of the fundraiser, in the middle of Girl from Ipanema, I became wrapped up in Karen’s spectacular voice and I lost it in the middle of the song. I had to stop and I apologized profusely. We finished the song. The crowd of friends and supporters were very forgiving and applauded. We then nailed Moon River. People came up to me afterwards and told me how much they enjoyed our songs. I believe they were sincere.


vcca silo imperfect guitar
My imperfect guitar in the VCCA silo.

Yesterday, I was in the VCCA silo. There’s tremendous reverb in the space because of its circular shape and glazed clay walls, so I brought the guitar and my portable recorder in there and played a few things. And I played them over and over because I wanted them to be perfect, and it occurred to me how when we see or hear something live, we don’t expect perfection, but when we watch something that’s been filmed or taped, or listen to a recording, we expect perfection. (Artists strive for perfection during live performances, but that’s another story.)

Suddenly, it seemed especially strange to me that when it comes to documentaries, which are supposed to be documenting real life in all its messiness, we expect perfection. Yes, you’ll see documentaries with some blips in them, but more often than not, these are intentionally included to give a sense of “reality.”

Do we go to live performances to experience the surprise of  the “imperfect,” and here I mean a deviation from the recorded version? And why do we expect perfect recorded versions?

Help me out here, people. I know many of you will have interesting things to say on this topic.

 More classical guitar music coming soon. In the meantime, you can access the music files on the blog by clicking here.


Off to VCCA

I’m off to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I’ve been there twice before and it’s always been good to me.

Why am I going this time? To write. I’ve been working on the film all summer  and need a break. So I’ll spend the next three weeks working on the writing.

But I am also going because Jeff Stein told me to go.


VCCA - the view from my windowIn September, I learned that Jeff Stein, AIA, president of the Cosanti Foundation, was coming to NYC in the fall and I was excited to interview him in front of the camera. But then the residency at VCCA came up. Jeff and I were coordinating dates and I was worried we’d miss each other. Finally, after a number of email exchanges, we worked it out and he signed off with:

“Get thee to Virginia, sir.”

How can I defy such an order? So, to Virginia I go.