“Something’s going to be different and who knows what I’ll see.”
W ith the consistent connectivity of the twenty-first century, the Internet acts as the eye on the world. Through the click of a mouse we see myriad cultures and a diversity of people. We witness pain, happiness, grief, violence, justice, and injustice. Though we may be sitting in a cubicle a thousand miles away from the origin of an image, the connection is personal when considering that someone took that photograph. The scene on your monitor unfolded before a person who captured it on a camera or phone as it was actually happening.
For Memphis photographer Jamie Harmon, his art is a most personal medium. He likes to get to know a subject, he says. The image is about the individual. This fascination with people is apparent in his portraits, which are mainly taken from close range. If you look closely, you can see the reflection of light in a subject’s eyes, the beginning of a smile across her lips. It’s an intimate signature, as much a product of happenstance as of any artistic vision.
“Early on I could only afford one lens,” says Harmon as he lounges on one of several vintage vinyl sofas in his studio on Cleveland in the orbit of the mammoth Sears distribution building currently being rehabbed. “I got a wide-angle, so I had to be close and it forced me to push the boundaries of personal space in a very congenial way.”
To illustrate, he tells the story of a long-haired kid, shirtless and with a scar across his chest who posed for Jamie’s camera. He didn’t know the young man, but would come to over the following year. “I have another picture of him and it is so obvious that a year later he knows me,” he says. “The first picture is kind of blank, the next picture is totally different, he was working with me.”
As kids, our parents dressed us in uncomfortable clothes pulled from the closet for the special occasion of sitting in a nondescript studio at Sears or Olan Mills to have our portraits taken. Mom, dad, little sister, brother, all with smiles that were also pulled out only on special occasions. Amurica, as Harmon’s studio is known , is a throwback to that — it’s a portrait studio, it’s within shouting distance of an old Sears — but Jamie imbues those staid old portraits with a funkiness and his unique vision; the individuality of each family is captured through his shutter. His home base in the Crosstown neighborhood is a large and eclectic room filled with kitschy props and banners, music, spotlights, strobe lights, and a disco ball. Backdrops of lightning bolts and stars and stripes are painted directly on the walls.
“It’s an alternative,” he says, “it’s part of the job that pays the rent, but it’s fun.”
But you don’t need to visit that studio to find yourself on a page in Harmon’s portfolio. He’ll bring the magic to you. You may have seen around town the repurposed Airstream trailer donned with lights inside and out, and a red-white-and-blue “Amurica” sign affixed to the side. This is a traveling studio, Harmon’s wandering wonder of whimsy. Inside you’ll find more props — oversized sunglasses, hats, animal heads, baby dolls, and magic wands — and you’ll find fun by the wagonload. Private parties, public functions, and office gatherings are all ripe for photos and Harmon is there to capture — and distort — it all.
The camper, though, with all its camp and charisma, has a far more personal and cathartic origin. In 2010, Harmon’s wife, Danielle, died of cancer. As a form of closure, he photographed and catalogued her artwork, and put on a retrospective in Valdosta, Georgia, where she’d been an art teacher at Valdosta State University before they moved back to Memphis to be closer to his parents and for medical care.
“When I took the show down … it was a great closure of one avenue,” he says. “Then I bought this old trailer just to have something to do and create a space to take a photograph. My son, who was 11, helped me do it, and he had some ideas about what to put up inside of it, so we worked together on it for about a month and I would take pictures of it as we went along.”
He took the finished product to his birthday party at Tad Pierson’s downtown base of operations for American Dream Safari tours. Harmon wanted to get pictures of all of his friends, a way to remember the good times. “After that night, everyone was saying, ‘You’ve got to rent this out.’ So I worked on that over the next year and it just kind of developed into what it is now.”
H armon’s interest in photography was born of curiosity and loneliness. Born in Greenville, Mississippi, he moved often with his family. “We moved every year of my life until I started high school,” he says. “My father started working for Kroger as a sacker and worked his way up in the system.” The addresses changed as the titles improved — produce manager, Forrest City, Arkansas; co-manager, Clarksdale, Mississippi. “We moved so much, I didn’t make a lot of deep-rooted friends.”
Instead of friends, Harmon became infatuated with objects and places. Wherever they moved, it seemed, he found himself on the periphery of a wooded area with ditches and trees that held a young boy’s interests. He’d take his camera — a rangefinder brought back from Germany by an aunt — and take pictures of his forts and the landscape of his home, using the timer to take selfies before selfies were cool. That camera was one of the few items not to succumb to Harmon’s curiosity. “I didn’t want to take it apart but it had a timer on it and I could tell it had some kind of gear that you pulled and it made a [mechanical] sound, so I could tell there was a clockwork in it and I really wanted to take it apart.”
Harmon is tall and lanky, and with his friendly manner and ease of conversation it’s difficult to imagine him ever short on friends. He sports a bushy beard and wears a straw porkpie to cover the gleaming baldness of his head. He looks like a man from the mountains, living a life in the wilderness with an old soul, and a penchant for collecting oddities and memorabilia from childhood and far beyond. “I still have the [rangefinder] camera, I don’t have much else. I basically ran through stuff my whole life; all my cars are old, mainly Volkswagens. I would have one for six months, then sell it and get another one. I’ve probably had 40 Volkswagens from the time I was 15. I learned to drive when I was in third grade in Tupelo and that was a ’76 MG. My dad just said, ‘You’re driving on this gravel road.’”
The nomadic Harmons finally settled into Bartlett and Jamie attended Bartlett High School where his fascination with photography thrived. “We had a printmaking class at Bartlett and I took it for my last two years,” he says. “They had a stat camera and a darkroom, and the darkroom was safe and quiet, people couldn’t just walk in there. So I made sure I was the one who knew the darkroom because I could be in there and a teacher couldn’t even mess with me. Then I had a darkroom in my bedroom in high school.”
He graduated in 1988 and immediately moved downtown to Talbot Heirs on Second Street before it was turned into a boutique hotel. He studied at Memphis College of Art though he never finished. Shortly after leaving MCA, Harmon convinced a friend they should both sell everything they owned, buy a 1972 Volkswagen camper, and drive to Nova Scotia by way of the Ozarks. The trip took two months, the pair living in that camper and Jamie’s camera at the ready. “I always had the camera and I photographed it all; the camera is always with me,” he says. “There’ve been too many times when I left the house without a camera and then something happened in my life.”
He went back to school several times over, making stops at West Texas A&M, Amarillo College, University of Memphis, Shelby State Community College, and Valdosta State University. “I had several teachers talk to me about my photography and working with me, and someone mentioned there was a magazine called Visible Anthropology . The two words just sounded good together and kind of made sense of a lot of what I was doing at the time. It also dawned on me that every time I left the house I was going to a job I may not want to go to and that once I get there I’m trapped, so between here and the job I’m going to take a different route or I’m going to go slower or I’m going to ride a bike or I’m going to walk; something’s going to be different and who knows what I’ll see. I’m always on a scavenger hunt but I don’t know what I’m looking for.”
Harmon would eventually return to Memphis and a job held seasonally, every summer, for 22 years — photographing tourists as they came off the riverboats downtown. “I’d work June, July, and August. I have to say, that was a huge influence on me because we were using manual cameras, everything was film, taking thousands of pictures of people manually, processing it by hand, printing it on an old 1981 French 1-hour photo machine. So the camera just became an extension [of me]. Shooting thousands of pictures a week kind of honed that technical skill. I just picked it up, I knew what the room should be metered at, and I just did it. Plus there were a lot of characters down there.”
Harmon’s earliest photos in the forests of his youth, the trip to Canada and back, and the riverboat gig were all taken with film; thousands upon thousands of negatives, many of which he still has. A holdout on the digital age, he had a darkroom in his house until 2007, still processing, still printing his own photos. “I finally made the transfer to digital when I realized the technology had caught up where the full-frame digital sensor cameras were just as good as the negative, or looked close enough. I switched because no one knew that I was still printing film. When I tried to be in the art world, everybody just said, ‘Who did your printing? Is this a digital print?’ I was like, ‘No, I labored over this.’ So, after a few years of that I got to the point where nobody cares, nobody knows. It’s about the image and not about the process or print to a lot of people, so I’ve kind of embraced [digital] more in the last four years.”
And in those digital images the color pops. They’ve become quickly iconic through Harmon’s near-obsessive use of social media, and they are instantly recognizable. There is movement in his photos, whether he’s onstage with a local band, photographing the musicians and the audience, or whether in his studio with a single model. Blurred just around the edges, it is left up to the viewer to determine where to look, what detail to focus on. Just as a writer, Jamie has a voice, and that voice comes through loud and clear in reds, whites, and blues. Informed more by his surroundings than any specific photographer, there is still, no doubt, a comparison to be made with another Memphis artist. “I preferred my influences to be subliminal,” he says, “but I saw the tricycle picture of [William] Eggleston and thought, ‘Someone else took a picture I would’ve taken if I’d been alive then.’ I was influenced by Eggleston without even knowing it.”
His muse now is his family. He and wife Leah have three children between them — Gus, 15; Emmaline, 9; and Hopper, 6. Harmon has strung café lights down his driveway between his blue Midtown home and a neighbor’s green one, and uses them as a backdrop to photograph his family. It’s a makeshift studio susceptible to the changes of the seasons. There, you might see Gus with his face painted green or Hopper wearing the cartoonish head of a rabbit and oversized, rubber hands on his own. Leah is the creator of the storytelling event Spillit held at Crosstown Arts, and the affection between husband and wife, and parents and children, beams through the lens and from the monitor of this eye into the world.
It’s something they’ve grown used to, daddy with a camera. The family is creative and collaborative, full of projects and costumes and whims that become reality through a hammer, saw, and camera. Harmon’s photos evoke the playfulness of a child, apropos for a body of work that began with the curiosity and explorations of a boy. “Amurica is a playground for kids,” he says.
“It’s normal to them.”
About this series Memphis has played muse over the years to artists across the spectrum, from the music of Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Al Green, and the collective at Stax Records, to the prose of Peter Taylor, Shelby Foote, and John Grisham. But what about visually? The look of Memphis has been described equally as gritty, dirty, active, eerie, beautiful, and captivating. I n our ongoing series, titled “The Mind’s Eye,” Memphis magazine takes a closer look at some of this city’s most prominent photographers, a few homegrown, many transplanted, but all drawn in by that grittiness, that activity, that beauty. Is there something special about the look of Memphis? We’ll ask each and, along the way, learn what makes these photographers tick, what got them started on their professional paths, and what it is that keeps them looking around every corner and down every alley. We’ll turn the camera on the cameramen, as it were, capturing their portraits and seeing what develops. At the same time, we will be showcasing each photographer’s own remarkable work. Hopefully, that will speak for itself. — Richard J. Alley