Harris Fogel is an Associate Professor and Director/Curator of two photography galleries — the Sol Mednick Gallery and Gallery 1401 – at the University of the Arts. Previously he served as the Program Director and Coordinator of the Photography Program, and Chair of the Media Arts Department (Photo/Film/Animation).
He is a documentary and fine-art photographer with an extensive background in digital imaging, criticism, photojournalism, and photo history. His work utilizes various formats, including digital cameras, scanners, 8”x10” view cameras, 35mm, medium format, and digital video, with an emphasis on fine art printing. Some of Fogel’s projects include the nuclear-inspired Towards Trinity conceptual project based on the first test of the Atomic Bomb; photographs from the set of the TV series The Wonder Years; portraiture; a series on Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens; the large-format color project A Few American Cultures; artists books; and other digitally based work.
His research on the relationship between photography and the American Presidency has led to interviews with President Jimmy Carter, President Gerald R. Ford, and First Lady Betty Ford, and many other White House officials and photographers from numerous administrations.
Fogel maintains a substantial exhibition and lecture record and his work can be found in the collections of many museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The National Museum of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution, the International Center of Photography, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, France, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. His artist books are found in the library of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
He is host and executive producer of Mac Edition Radio (www.maceditionradio.com), an online resource for technology, photography, music, audio, and digital imaging. From 1996 to 2006, he was co-host and executive producer of the Philadelphia radio show PC Talk-Mac Edition on CBS Talk Radio. Fogel has written for art- and photo-related publications and projects, and has taught photo history for more than 20 years. In 2007 he was a Visiting American Expert for the U.S. Embassy, Warsaw, Poland; a University of Georgia Center for Humanities and Arts Visiting Artist, Athens, GA; and UCross Foundation Resident, UCross, WY. In 2012, he was named to the Fulbright Specialist roster. He visited Łódź, Poland, to participate in the 2012 annual International Fotofestiwal of Photography as one of the festival’s visiting experts. His trip was sponsored by U.S. Embassy in Warsaw. In fall 2014 he was invited to participate as a lecturer and portfolio reviewer at the Festival of Photography, held in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. His trip to the festival was sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Sofia, Bulgaria. In 2014 Fogel was asked to serve as a nominator for the PDN (Photo District News) 2015 Emerging Photographers issue of the magazine published in March 2015.
Fogel has directed, curated, and organized more than 200 photography exhibitions over the past 20 years. He served as curator/juror for the Texas Photographic Society’s “TPS 15” National Competition. He has been a portfolio reviewer for the FotoFest Meeting Place (Houston, TX); at Photo Lucida (Portland, OR); and at Society for Photographic Education (SPE) conferences. Fogel has directed the Sol Mednick Gallery since 1997, and he founded Gallery 1401 in 1999. The Sol Mednick Gallery was founded in 1978 by then-Department Chair Ray Metzker, and is named after the founder of the University of the Arts Photography Program, Sol Mednick. It is the only endowed gallery for the exhibition of contemporary photography in Philadelphia. The photography program at the University of the Arts, operates the galleries. In 2001, the Sol Mednick Gallery received the prestigious Photo Review Award for service to photography.
DOMINIQUE JAMES: How did you get started in photography?
HARRIS FOGEL: I started taking photos as a kid, around 6 or 7 years old. I remember (and still have) a photo I took at the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland with a Kodak Brownie; I tried to time the photos when the flashes went off in the ride, and some of those photos came out. Later at summer camp in Kings Canyon National Park, I used an SLR to photograph snakes. My cousin Jeff was a big influence — he was totally into photography, and in fact at 16 he was the youngest person to shoot for Sport magazine. He lived in Brooklyn, and when I was around 8 or 9 I learned how to develop and print in his little basement lab with an Omega B-22. So, I guess you could say some Dektol and D-76 got in my blood.
DJ: What kinds of pictures do you like to take?
HF: I don’t limit myself to any style or format. But, if I had to rank my work, mostly portraiture, documentary, landscape, and conceptually based. I’ve worked with digital since its inception, which was both good and bad; good to be on the ground floor of the new technology, and bad since so many early digital images are little more than tiny pixelated, really useless image artifacts, that would have still been usable even if I had shot them on film instead.
DJ: Who or what would you consider as influential to your photography?
HF: I think that Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Minor White, and Jackson Pollock were all early influences. But what really made a difference to me was seeing an installation by James Turrell and another by Robert Irwin while I was in high school. It absolutely floored me. I had no clue what I was seeing or what it meant. If that was art, then I figured out I had no idea what “art” was, it certainly wasn’t limited to what I thought it was, the paintings and sculpture I’d grown up with, especially since my mom painted, so art was in our home. I was lucky and had an amazing teacher in college. I went to Humboldt State University, and that teacher’s name was Tom Knight. Very traditional, B&W work mostly, but incredibly sincere, heartfelt images. Although he was very well-versed in current contemporary and conceptual work, the humanity in his work always moved and grounded me. One thing Tom taught me and others was to be self-aware of being respectful and not condescending toward our subjects. Manuel Alvarez Bravo once told him that he was one of the only photographers he knew who photographed religion honestly and directly, not in a condescending manner.
Lastly, during my time at HSU, I met the critic A.D. Coleman, as well as collector Sam Wagstaff. Sam was very supportive of me while I was in graduate school, as well as John Coplans who was one of my graduate advisors; they both helped me sequence and select work for my graduate thesis show at NYU. But Coleman had the longest impact. First he was intellectually fearless, he didn’t bow to authority in the least, and secondly, he is absolutely brilliant, one of photography’s best minds. Lastly, he doesn’t cut anyone any slack in terms of work, criticism, and observation, myself included. Look at what he has done in exploring the myth of Robert Capa’s D-Day shots, supposedly ruined by an over anxious lab tech. That story is ingrained in every text, history, and story on the planet, yet as he helped to discover, it doesn’t add up.
So, his ongoing intellectual engagement and passion are true inspirations. His book Light Readings is an important a book in the history of photography in the medium’s literature. And the lack of “art speak” in it should be a model for other writers. Laurence Weschler’s biography of Robert Irwin, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, which I first read not long after it came out in the New Yorker on the advice of my wife Nancy, really put into place most of the contradictions about art that I couldn’t put my finger on. I just love that book. Music has also been integral to everything I’ve ever done, and I’m open to just about any genre you can throw at me, but around the same time that I discovered Turrell and Irwin, I was listening to Steve Reich and Phillip Glass, and their music kind of mirrored the visual questions I was trying to solve. The notion that the note itself wasn't primary, but the collision of tones and overtones seemed to describe that strange thing about photography, when despite the subject, something else happens, something primal, divorced from more surface and easily grasped concerns. I mean, what separates a Jackson Pollock painting from a drop cloth? Hell if I know, but there it is, just look at a Pollock for proof.
DJ: What’s your favorite camera and lens?
I think my old Rollieflex with its Xenar lens is still an amazing camera; small, quiet, non-threatening, but sharp, and natural in your hands. I have a Leica M2, with a 35mm Summicron, that I’ve traveled the world with, even buried it in the snow in a cache on Denali, and came back days later and it was perfect. I did a lot of work with my Fuji 690 SW, gorgeous large negatives, a few of us call them our “Texas Leicas.” Lastly as long as I have film, my 8x10 Deardorff with a Fuji 250mm lens that I bought from Ken Hansen in NY when I lived there in the 80s is going strong. Digitally I’ve been shooting with just about every platform, but for the past several years I’ve been using a Ricoh GR, which has changed my life; small, fits in a pocket, point-and-shoot size and look, native DNG, but with a killer fast and sharp wide-angle lens. I rarely need anything else, certainly not for normal shooting. Not having a choice of lenses is really freeing. Nothing like a prime! It’s the digital equivalent of my M2 and a wide-angle.
DJ: Any other particular piece of photo gear that you feel is essential or like using?
HF: I love a meter with a flat diffuser; my favorite is a Minolta Flash Meter IVF. And a tough tripod, the less knobs the better! But for all my love of cameras I’m actually a minimalist photographer; I really want to deal with perception and interaction, not technique or gear. So I keep it pretty simple in use. And I’ve always been in love with available light, so not a heavy flash user.
DJ: How do you edit and enhance your pictures before showing them? What is your post-production process like?
HF: I’m a heavy Lightroom user, since its initial beta version. I use a wonderful NEC Wide-Gamut display with SpectraVision software and hardware calibration, so have a consistent color space, and of course, a Wacom Intuous tablet. And when I print, it’s on Innova paper, and typically with Epson or Canon printers. In terms of Digital Asset Management, Peter Krogh is my hero, and I love the apps that Marc Rochkind writes and sells for very little money.
DJ: How do you share your pictures and to whom?
HF: I have continually exhibited work, and I’m included in some wonderful collections, but for the past 25 plus years I’ve gradually shifted my energies to serving in a curatorial role, and engaging in historical research, so pushing my own work has not been a primary motive. I do share images on social media, and I’m totally engaged in creating images on a daily basis, just not in hustling my own work; instead I advocate for others. That being said, it’s still amazing when a print works the way I want it to.
Since my initial beginnings in photo were basically photojournalism, the typical yearbook photography; sports, concerts, and events for local newspapers, and I still shift into documentary mode almost immediately when shooting. Just in the blood —once a shooter always a shooter. I volunteer my efforts for organizations like SPE (Society for Photographic Education) where I make lots of conference photos; UArts has used my images for years, and I volunteer for a variety of folks and organization from sports to religious groups. And I constantly photograph my family and friends.
I’m involved in a Sisyphus-type effort to scan my work that’s never been printed, and I love designing and printing Blurb books. There are friends and colleagues whose opinions I trust and continually learn from and show work to, but in the end I’ve always made images for myself, and the people I love because those are the ones whose opinions I value most.
A few years ago when I was on sabbatical I borrowed a Phase One digital camera from the school, and shot with it. I’d been shooting in the Eastern Sierra, along with my 8x10, and my boys went to the YMCA Surf Camp near San Diego, and when we went to pick them up, they have this cool place to eat that is feet away from the ocean. And on each table there were these little Rubbermaid condiment holders, with ketchup, hot sauce, etc., in them, and they were all a bit different, and the ocean light was streaming in, making the plastic just glow, and I thought that they summed up so many things, the summer, the ocean, Southern California, my childhood, camp, looking forward to eating with your friends, and it was the first time a digital camera was able to capture that texture of light, that essence that I had only been able capture on sheet film, so it was a revelation, and I photographed every place setting I could.
What I love about those images is the understated way the camera’s large sensor dealt with light, it wasn’t the hyped up energy that smaller digital cameras seemed to give me, instead it had the quality of large format film. So, a totally minimalist project, and one I felt really good about. I’ve never trusted art with a capital “A” so perhaps a bit of Eggleston and Big Star influence pouring out a bit to keep things on the DL aesthetically. I’m also a founding member of the Atomic Photographers Guild, founded by Robert Del Tredici, and we are always working on and mounting shows, we just had one in Hiroshima, Japan, in early October. And increasingly I’ve been asked to write essays for monographs and statements for exhibitions.
DJ: How do you store or archive your pictures?
HF: Complicated question. I’m a serious storage geek, and on my website www.macedtionradio.com we often produce articles that cover storage, so I try to stay on top of storage trends, issues, and advances. But, for the most part I rely on a RAID powered by some seriously good Seagate Enterprise level drives, with SoftRaid 5 for creating and managing the internal RAID in an older MacPro. I also have NAS devices, one for backup, and another for offsite backup. Both are Seagate NAS Pro devices, and very solid. The LaCie OS on them is refined and powerful, yet pretty simple to set up and deploy. And I break the internal 3-drive SoftRaid mirror with a removable drive that I keep offsite, and on a regular basis reintroduce to update the mirror. Everything is either RAID 1 or RAID 5. I’ve been burned by stripes so I avoid them except for speed and transient storage. And lots of portable drives, and I thank God for old optical storage, as they have saved my skin many times.
People seriously underestimate the importance of Write Once, Read-Many (WORM) storage devices and media. I use the cloud as well, but I’m pretty cranky about it. I have a very dim view of the assumptions most folks make about storage, formats, and longevity. Digital data is so incredibly fragile. And no one really knows the lifespan of SSD storage. There are predictive models, but until 20 years go by and you plug in a drive, as far as I’m concerned all bets are off. There is a reason so many smart folks are writing digital images back to film, making prints, and more. It’s always a good idea to hedge your bets. The Library of Congress recommendation is to migrate your data on a regular basis to new media, formats, and Operating Systems, but few who do this actually ever test their files, they just transfer and assume they are fine. Really a bad idea! I mean do you know anyone, anyone at all who has actually verified that their backed-up files will actually open? Almost no one does that. Certainly I’ve never met a photographer who did.
DJ: What do you think of today’s state of photography?
HF: Amazing, overwhelming, and contradictory. It seems that much of the work consists of personal documentary projects, which is great since documentary is one of photography’s noblest pursuits. Coupled with the fine-art photo market’s thirst for the latest trend, and the 30-second attention span we’ve gained from looking at work on the Internet, photography is in an interesting place. I love the ability to create a photo book on demand; I think that is possibly the most important movement in photography, even more so than the net. Most of the content on the Internet at any given time will vanish on a daily basis, while print is human readable, not machine readable, so I think being able to work with the printed book form is an incredible opportunity. Portfolio reviews like FotoFest or PhotoLucida are great, and the community and support they offer is extraordinary. Like a good whiskey, you can overdo them, but they can be really fantastic, exhausting, and exhilarating at the same time. Events like the national or regional SPE conferences, which can be great fun, are a bargain to boot.
One thing that I’ve experienced over the past years is that some young photographers view photography as a pathway to celebrity. Granted there has always been glitz and glamour for certain types of photographers, such as fashion, but behind every well-known fashion shooter is usually an extraordinarily competent individual, capable of making consistently strong images on an almost daily basis. If they become famous, that's great, but at the core of their fame is talent and hard work. My thinking is that if celebrity is an end goal, there are easier career choices than photography.
DJ: What is that one all-important lesson you’ve learned when it comes to photography?
HF: My dogma is that I have no dogma. I’m very open to all sorts of work, and try hard to keep an open mind. As a curator I want work I can trust, that speaks of something beyond technique or is purely idea-driven, but something you can hold inside of you. Think of music you can’t remove after hearing it. The same holds true for great images. Sincerity in work is far more important than some costume you put on. Not holding onto dogma is one of the most important lessons photography has taught me.
DJ: What is the best piece of advice you’ve received and can share with others?
HF: Tom Petty wrote a wonderful line from the song Crawling Back to You, from the album Wildflowers that goes, “Sure as night will follow day, most of the things I worry about never happen anyway, so I go crawling back to you.” It’s probably the best advice.
I think we all walk a fine line between believing and doing what you want and feel is right for yourself, versus being a good citizen and respectful to others. Sometimes you have to be selfish and carry through for you, damn the repercussions, other times you need to submerge yourself, your ego, and your insecurities and be part of a larger collective and discourse. So getting rid of your dogma is key. One the reasons I’ve been interested in exhibiting work by others is that at some point in your life you realize that you don’t need to be the center of attention, and if you crave that attention or titles it’s a sign of insecurity, and it really does get in the way of more serious pursuits and understanding.
Notes: All photographs on this page by Harris Fogel are used with permission. Copyright © 2016. All rights reserved. For the complete set of interviews and photographs of all the amazing photographers featured on this blog’s exclusive Q&A, please click here.