Interview: Gail Harvey

Looking is the Original Sin - Gail Harvey

Walking in to meet filmmaker and photographer Gail Harvey briefly feels like walking into a scene from her latest film, Looking is the Original Sin. The location where we are meeting, the Toronto Black & White print shop in the heart of Regent Park, makes several appearances in the film, and it’s also where Harvey has been working most of the day gathering, organizing, and putting the finishing touches on some of her favourite photographs both past and present) that will be hanging in the open gallery space at the Carlton Cinema during the film’s theatrical run.

Harvey, who has directed numerous television shows and films in Canada over the past several decades, also has a reputation of being one of the most hotly sought after still photographers and portrait artists in the world. A quick glimpse of some of her work hanging around the print shop (not all of which will make it to the exhibition) reveals shots of Tina Turner, Mick Jagger, a particularly dapper looking Christopher Reeve. A lot of the pictures are also just shots from everyday life, including shots of her daughter, actress Katie Boland, who plays the lead in her latest and most personal big screen effort to date.

Boland stars as the embittered and genuinely concerned daughter of a Diane Arbus-like photographer (played by veteran character actress Maria del Mar), whose recent pushing of artistic boundaries has worried her daughter greatly. It’s not an autobiographical story, despite Harvey directing her own offspring as someone else’s daughter, but rather an amalgamation of feelings and thoughts accumulated over her lifetime photographing celebrities and creating her own art.

We chatted with Harvey about being able to share such a personal project – both in terms of the film and the photography – with an audience, how she originally transitioned from taking pictures full time to directing, the influences on her film, the meaning behind what people can see in a photograph, and what it was like working with her daughter in a leading role.

Dork Shelf: It must be nice after all this time and throughout your career to finally be able to share with people a story that’s really close to your heart.

Gail Harvey: It is! It’s wild! Just the other night when I was watching the DCP to check it out before I went to the Carlton and again when I was waiting to go on Canada AM in between their breaks, all I could think was “This is something I shot in my living room all on my own.” So this is something new for me.

DS: And you’ve been around for a while, but this is the first time you’ve been working in a feature filmmaking climate where you could do something like this and still be able to show up on something like Canada AM. In the past, that never would have been a possibility.

Gail Harvey - F2GH: Never. Never would have happened. And to make the film is so much easier. I couldn’t even finance this film. Well, I mean, I didn’t even really try that hard to finance it, really, because I knew it was a personal story and film, but now with digital filmmaking it was so much easier. I mean, it wasn’t FREE to make the movie. (laughs) But Telefilm did come in with completion funding, and ACTRA let us do a co-op, which means the actors are co-owners of the film, but on top of that stuff it still costs money for post and everything. But to actually just be able to go out and shoot it is just amazing.

But now I want to do another one. (laughs) I was so exhausted by the end of it, but when I watched it again last night, I thought I had to do another one.

DS: I can imagine it’s pretty exciting after all the time you have been working in the industry to be coming back to have full control over something you have been working on rather than just partial control.

GH: It’s been really great for me lately. Between this and the web series I did earlier this year it’s been wonderful. Now, I don’t know how successful the film is going to be, but it’s certainly all been creatively gratifying.

DS: Well, I think just getting a movie of this size completed and out into the world means you’ve already been successful with it to some degree.

GH: (Laughs) That’s right! That’s true. The fact that it exists, and that even The Globe (and Mail) is reviewing it. Should I be worried? (laughs) A friend of mine said “Hey, even if they don’t like it, just the fact that they’re reviewing it is a good thing.”

DS: Was there ever a time recently where you ever wanted to get back to photography full time with all the new technology that’s available and all the different approaches that you can take now?

GH: You know, what? I never really left photography ever in my life. I really just stopped making it my bread winner. Because I was a pretty successful photographer for a while, but that kind of took away from it as an artform for me, you know? When you’re talking about what I was doing, which for a long time was still working in the film industry, that was a different thing for me to get into. When I first started I was exhibiting a lot, and I still do sometimes, and then I started working for other people. And when I started filmmaking, people got confused because I was working as a filmmaker and a director, and people would always say and argue that I couldn’t be both. And they were right. I couldn’t. So I had to stop doing photography, which was a big deal, because I actually was making a lot of money as a photographer. But I really wanted to direct, so I stopped and I just started taking pictures for myself again, which I thought was really cool.

DS: There’s something interesting in the film that you touch upon, which is what it takes to actually be a photographer. You start with the Diane Arbus connection right off the top, but I think a lot of photographers, writers, painters, and other creative types can have a real understanding of these kinds of people who work best at night. Was there ever a time early in your career as a photographer where you would act like the characters in your film and go out all night just to shoot photos?

GH: Oh, yeah. Sure. Often, actually. I did that a lot. And in a connection to the film that is pretty close to my own experience, I would go out and shoot drag queens a lot. There was something about that pure performance and putting on a show. It reminded me of being in church when I was a kid and you were branded while doing a show for them. They are such really cool and amazing people. I would do that a lot.

I was also a part of an agency in New York that Diane Arbus’ daughter would be around. And I always wondered what it was like for her to be around that sort of scene. And what ultimately happened with Diane in her life was what really stuck with me while making this film and I wondered what it much have been like for her daughter. As a photographer you take pictures of everything, so to be around someone who documented (that much) would have to be strange to some degree.

And my grandmother in Newfoundland was a photographer – and I still have her images and they’re amaing – and she would always take pictures of funerals. There’s a picture she took where someone had twin babies that died, and there was this mother with these dead twin babies in her arms. There were some chilling photos, but they were great.

And when it comes to my own kids, I have cupboards full of negatives that they can go through and see what I’ve seen, so it’s great to be able to share those kinds of things. Those are all things that triggered these thoughts for the film a long time ago, and it’s interesting to think about that connection to family now, because at the time when I first started piecing it all together I never knew Katie was ultimately going to be an actor. So now it’s the perfect time to do something like this. And it also gives me a chance to share all the photos of here that I have taken.

DS: I think for a lot of people when they look at a well done photograph – not even of themselves, necessarily – but it can trigger an emotional response that’s tied into one’s personal memories better than any other art form. Great images can trigger memories even for people who weren’t there for the picture. Or it can also bring the artist back to the time when it was taken and remind them of a larger story behind a shot that an outsider wouldn’t necessarily know or understand.

GH: Right, because photography as an art is all about capturing life. And now with everybody being able to be famous and take pictures of everything in their life and post them on their Facebook page.

DS: Is it strange for you for people to infer a deeper artistic meaning from some shots that you have taken when you know more or less what was happening in a given moment that you have captured in one of your photos?

GH: I don’t really know if that’s true, especially with a lot of my older work. Now, you can look at what you have the second you have it. When you had to develop the film, there would always be surprises. When I shoot, I always shoot from instinct. I often say when I direct, I don’t just shoot the scene; I tend to fell the scene. With pictures it’s the same thing, particularly if I’m just out and wandering around. (pulls out a print of a man in a park feeding birds that will be a part of the exhibit) This is a great example. I took a picture of this guy feeding the birds, and if you look at it now, it looks like he was conducting the birds. I didn’t know at the time that it was going to look like that. So you can remember where you were, and what happened ,and what the temperature was like, and all of that, but the emotional sense of the picture is often sometimes more than you could imagine or feel yourself.

It was kind of the same when I was doing portraits. I think you can kind of over-think things, and I try not to do that. It’s just instinctive, and I think the best actors and musicians work in the same way. If you can’t get to those emotional and instinctive levels, you can’t do your best work as an actor or as a director. You have to be organized and you have to know exactly what you are doing when you are on a set, but often you don’t use what you have figured out. You kind of just pull it all together based on what feels right.

DS: There’s something interesting about always going back to actors, musicians, and drag queens as subjects, because there’s a duality there that’s quite fascinating. If you are capturing them in a moment that’s being staged or when they are in the middle of performance, there’s a kind of magnetism to them when they are on top of things. But quite often if you catch them after a performance or before one, there’s a really human element that lots of people don’t get to see that’s arguably just as poetic. Do you ever think twice sometimes that you might be getting at something people might not want the world at large to see?

GH: Well, one of your goals as a photographer dealing with these types of people is that you have to make them feel comfortable and relaxed. But what you are getting at was kind of the big thing with Diane Arbus. That happens, and we have a little of that in the movie because I think we needed to have a little bit of a statement in there about celebrity photography because I did it for so long. I never worked like how you see in the film because I always had access to people, and I would always try to make them feel comfortable so they would be more giving and open

Certainly when I was working as a photojournalist, there were definitely times that I would be with someone famous, often a politician, and I would just know that this was an off the record time, and I wouldn’t use it. I had a lot of things when I was working with United Press that I wouldn’t give to the wire service because I just knew there had to be a balance. When you’re a journalist, I think it’s on you to tell the story, but I don’t believe in taking advantage of someone when you’re close to them as a journalist because you still want to get access to them. Especially when it’s a politician or something.

But, I mean, now there are ways to have your picture taken and not even know it was taken, and that’s a little creepy, but some people have actually found ways to make it work to their advantage. If you’re a celebrity nowadays, everything you tend to work on is often available on the internet. For example, Joseph Arthur is a musician and a great friend of mine who has a few songs in the film, he said that every show he does on the internet, so if he goes out and he has a bad night, everyone can go out there and see it. I’ve never seen him to a bad show, but I remember having an interesting talk with him about it. He said “Yeah, I’m kinda screwed because you can’t actually sell your music anymore, but look at how open the world is.” It’s a whole world of artists where you can see the other artists. It’s like what Marshall McLuhan was talking about. You could look at your work and everyone else’s work, and that’s an incredible time to be in.

DS: What’s it like making a film that’s so personal to you with your daughter in the leading role?

GH: Well, the Helene character isn’t me. It certainly isn’t autobiographical, but she does contain a lot of the ideas and things that I think about photography, and I guess she should since I wrote the darn thing. (laughs) But I have known Maria for a long time now. She was actually only about three or four years older than Katie is now when I first cast her in a film. She’s fantastic, and she and Katie had actually played mother and daughter before. They were together on a fantastic show that was on HBO Canada called Terminal City that was shooting out in Victoria, and they lived together in a house for that. Maria has known Katie since she was born, practically. So they already had a relationship.

I never looked at that character as me, but as a conglomeration of a lot of different photographers that I have known. Me, for sure. There’s a bit more of me in Katie’s character, in a lot of ways. There’s a scene where she goes up to a stranger’s house and asks if she could go in and take photos, and I used to do that all the time.

DS: Was there ever a thought that you could have gotten to the same point that Helene gets to.

GH: No, because Helene is definitely mentally ill. I do know mental illness, and I had a friend who committed suicide that the film is dedicated to, and there’s a bit of her in that character, as well. She had a daughter that was 19, as well. I talked to her one time after she tried to kill herself and I asked her what she was doing and thinking, and she honestly thought that her daughter was going to be better off without her. That’s a concept that’s in the film. When Helene says that she would just drag her daughter down was an important line in the movie for me because that’s almost exactly what my friend said to me.

DS: It’s kind of neat that you’ll actually be able to have an exhibit in the same place where your film is screening all week. Is it gratifying to be able to share some old work and some new work alongside your latest film all at the same time?

GH: It’s really cool! There’s definitely some new work and some old work, and it’s not necessarily summing my life up until now. Sort of, in a way, but I do have a lot of other projects in my head right now that I want to work on. But it really is great to have a lot of the photos that are in the movie being exhibited, as well as a lot of the older celebrity stuff and some stuff that I have shot since the movie, it’s so incredible. I don’t think it’s had time to hit me yet, because it has been a lot of work and we’re still pulling it all together, as you can see, but it’s been amazing. I’m really grateful, and I wouldn’t say I am surprised that it’s happening because I have always dreamed of it as something that would eventually happen. I was never sure, but when I made the movie, I just wanted to shoot the movie and to be able to use my photography in it. I wanted to take stock of my photography and what I could do with it and make a statement of how time passes in relationship to photography that I think makes it all the more powerful.

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