Cover Artist Gallery: Grant Harder

An interview with the creator of The Walrus’s March 2010 covers
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SubjectA Tale of Two Cities” by Gary Stephen Ross
Artist ’s portfolioGrant Harder Photography

For Gary Ross’s written portrait of Vancouver, Bree Seeley, our picture editor, and I thought a matching photographic portrait would be best. It should however be a multifaceted view of the city, one that summed up as much as possible about the place. Bree suggested we talk to Grant Harder, a Vancouver-based photographer (and guest blogger on HeatherMortonArt buyer/blog); I doubt we could have made a better choice. Grant covered Vancouver from the Capilano River to Iona Beach, and gave us literally dozens of images to work with. He captured the moist, mossy feeling of the woods, the surprisingly big sunsets, and the clapboard-and-concrete urban environment. Although we ended up using eighteen images in the piece, it was still tough to edit the selection down to that number.

The cover compounded our problem of choosing an appropriate set of images. How to sum up a whole city in one shot? Postcard manufacturers attempt this every day, but the results — the sails of Canada Place, the orcas in the aquarium, the crab and dome of the Vancouver Museum — never feel like they say anything significant. (Of course, they’re not intended to: these images are simply a symbolic shorthand.) Even with Grant’s really good photographs, the question stayed with us.

We were pondering this difficulty in the editorial cover meeting we have for each issue when Stacey May Fowles, The Walrus’s director of circulation and marketing, came up with the brilliant idea of running four of Grant’s photos on four different covers. Because our covers are printed four at a time on a large sheet, executing the plan became a matter of ensuring that the magazines, once bound, were randomized before they were packed — meaning each newsstand would receive an even distribution of the options. (Many thanks to our printer, Dollco, for accomplishing this.)

The images we ultimately selected depict the old MacMillan-Blodell building (an Arthur Erikson classic), a hedge in Shaunessey (an emblem of Vancouver’s reserve), the setting sun over Point Grey, viewed from the pool at Stanley Park’s Second Beach (proof of Vancouver’s beauty), and a young couple on the Iona spit in Richmond (a portrait of the city’s vitality).

Brian Morgan: After you spoke with Bree, what were your initial thoughts about the story?

Grant Harder: I thought it would be a great opportunity to take a deep look at the city I live in. It’s a challenge to look at your own city with fresh eyes and to present it in an original way.

Brian Morgan: How did you approach the assignment?

Grant Harder: Bree was great with the direction she gave me. Without telling me exactly what she wanted photographed, I still felt I understood what we were going for. This allowed me a lot of creative freedom and gave me the opportunity to work at my best. For this particular job, I created a shot list of people, places, and things that I find interesting about Vancouver. I then tried to look at it from a visitor’s perspective, so as not to miss anything that I may have taken for granted. I also consulted with a few others to help create the list. I didn’t grow up in Vancouver, so I could draw from my earliest experiences of visiting the city.

Brian Morgan: In general terms, how do you create your work?

Grant Harder: My inspiration usually comes from people and life itself. I try to put myself in situations that allow for something interesting to happen. I look for honest moments that convey a feeling.

Brian Morgan: You shot this with film, right? Do you prefer to work this way?

Grant Harder: Yes, I shot this job on film, all with one camera and one fixed lens. Different tools work better in different situations. I don’t have anything against digital cameras and I wouldn’t say that analog is better than digital. I use both. For this assignment, it felt right to keep my equipment to the absolute minimum and just concentrate on making good images. I work differently when I’m not able to view the images as I take them: you have to trust yourself and be confident in what you choose to shoot. It’s hard to explain exactly why, but this series would have looked and felt completely different had I shot it digitally. These days I try to shoot both at the same time, which seems to work quite well.

Brian Morgan: During the process, we talked about shooting certain locations, but what was your inspiration for shooting locations like VCC or the Iona Spit? And are there other locations that you wished that you could have gotten to, given sufficient time?

Grant Harder: Both of the images you are referring to came about from my own personal experiences. The students, for example, I had seen in the past and thought the repetition of their uniforms would make an interesting photo. This assignment gave me a great reason to execute it. I have always been surprised at how few people have been out to Iona Park. It’s an amazing place. I had something completely different in mind than the portrait of the two people on the rocks. The opportunity came about by chance. They were the only other two people out on the spit. I guess just being there is the most important part of getting a photo. It goes back to what I was saying about putting myself in situations where an opportunity might present itself. As far as things I didn’t get to, I would have loved to of taken an image that represents the Vancouver beach scene. A busy day at Wreck or Kits beach could have been a nice addition. I was shooting in November, which isn’t exactly beach season in Vancouver.

Brian Morgan: Whose work has influenced you the most? And who or what has shaped your style?

Grant Harder: As far as the classics go, I absolutely love Stephen Shore and Richard Avedon. I think my style has been shaped by my life and experiences. I have made a lot more progress in my photography since I started trusting my intuition and making the images that I feel good about making and not trying to create something that I hope others will like. Style is definitely important to me, and I work hard at maintaining consistency. Those photographers that are able to shoot a variety of subject matter and keep their own look and feel throughout are inspiring to me.

Brian Morgan: What new thing or things did you come to understand about Vancouver after photographing so many of its public spaces for The Walrus? Did you have any assumptions about the city going into this that were challenged or changed?

Grant Harder: I felt like I was visiting Vancouver for the first time. It’s so easy to take your home city for granted. I get caught up in thinking that I need to go to some far-off land to create intriguing photos and have meaningful experiences. Really, all I had to do was dig a little deeper, and then the city was full of inspirational opportunities.

I feel like Vancouverites have a reputation for being a bit cold and unapproachable. This assignment forced me to interact with a lot of different people from all walks of life, and I’d have to say I found the exact opposite. There was a warmth and curiosity in most of the people I met. That makes me feel good about where I live and what I do.

Brian Morgan is the art director of The Walrus.

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