MISSBISH Photography Workshop | Alex Harper
Alex Harper is an unconventional photographer who takes pride in knowing how to break the rules. Taking her knowledge of film and ability to create wonderful sets - Harper always pushes out quality content. Read her interview below to learn about how she got started, what sparks her creativity and what it's like being a female in the photography industry.
Photographer: Alex Harper
When and why did photography become important to you?
I’ve been taking photos for the last ten years but there was a two year gap in there where I didn’t pick up a camera much at all, so I sort of have two answers to this question. I first fell in love with photography my sophomore year of high school where I learned to develop my own film, which was such an incredible way to learn this art form. It made photography so personal and intimate, being in the darkroom. This is when it became important to me as a creative outlet.
After I graduated high school and moved to Los Angeles, I went to college to pursue a degree in acting which left little time for another creative passion. This is where I let photography take a backseat for a while as I worked hard developing another passion. About two years after I moved to LA, my boyfriend encouraged me to pick up the camera again and shoot something. I ended up posting a few of those photos on Facebook and was pretty quickly flooded with messages from my fellow actors asking me to take their headshots. This is when it became important to me as a way to earn a living.
Being able to ebb and flow between an art form where I am in front of the camera and one where I am behind has been invaluable in giving me an appreciation for both crafts.
Tell us about your style of photography. How did you develop this style?
I’d say my style of photography is always evolving but centered around the same thing, people. I’m always finding new ways to showcase the person I’m photographing but the one constant is that there is another human being on the other end of my lens. I’ve never been excited by landscape photography, perhaps because I’m not particularly outdoorsy (and by “not particularly” I mean “absolutely not at all”) and still life photography has never intrigued me. I think this is because I’m really excited by people. I hope that doesn’t sound cheesy but it’s true. I grew up in Wisconsin where everyone around me had a pretty similar story & background so I feel incredibly lucky to be around so many people whose life and story is vastly different than mine. Every time I photograph someone, I hope I’m doing their story justice.
Your "About Me" on your portfolio website is very welcoming and personal - inviting the viewer in. Does this translate into your method of keeping your clients comfortable?
First of all, thank you. I’d like to thank Junie B. Jones, David Sedaris, Mindy Kaling and my English Comp. teacher, whose name I can’t remember, for teaching me how to write in my own voice. I’ve always liked to hear my own voice (ask my mom, she’ll tell you it’s true) so when I learned you could translate that onto a page, I was off to the races. That’s probably more than you wanted from this question but here I am. I hope that translates into making the person I’m photographing feel comfortable! I try to be as much of myself on set so they feel like they can do that as well.
As a female in the photography industry, tell us about the journey of building up your name and reputation to get hired by the likes of Vogue, PAPER Magazine, and more.
This question is difficult to answer because I feel like I’m still working hard to build my name and reputation. That being said, I also feel like it’s really true what people say about letting your reputation proceed you. I’d like to think that has helped me a lot. I work really hard in every situation I’m in and get a lot of work based on word of mouth. Additionally, a lot of situations are about getting a foot in the door. I shot Met Gala coverage with Instagram in May 2017 and that same time the following year, was contacted by Vogue off the recommendation of Instagram.
Name 5 people, places or things that inspire you.
1. My mom, who can literally create something out of nothing and never fails to make anyone she’s talking to feel like the most important person in the room. She also sends the best inspirational memes on IG.
2. That feeling after I wake up early and workout. Once I do that, you can’t tell me shit; I’m unstoppable.
3. Nat King Cole’s Christmas album, this is applicable at anytime of year. If I’m having a hard day, that album is the perfect antidote. (Honorable mention: “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays” by *NSYNC has the same effect).
4. Seeing the incredible work my peers are creating, whether that be photos, music or movies. I’m inspired by creativity in general.
5. Is it cheesy to say my boyfriend? I hope not, because it’s true. He has a really cool way of looking at the world and can frame any situation into a positive one. I aspire to be more like that and watching him is the best master class. Additionally, he is the best hype man.
What is most important to you when it comes to capturing the "perfect" image?
I am a huge advocate of knowing the rules so you can break them. Take time to learn the fundamentals of a camera and then, once you know all that, say “f*ck it” and do your thing. I truly believe that anyone can create an incredible image but being able to create them over and over again takes creativity as well as knowledge.
Your work highlights the beauty and rawness of film photography. Why do you choose to shoot in film?
Again, thank you! Like I mentioned before, film is really how I started in photography but once I realized how expensive it was (or rather, how broke I was) and how immediate digital is, I transitioned pretty seamlessly into digital and continued on that wave until about 2-3 years ago. At that point, I was really feeling burnt out on photography and definitely wasn’t as in love with it as I had been in the past. My parents sent me my grandpa’s old 35mm film camera and it was love at first roll. Now, I pretty much only shoot film, mostly medium format. I fell in love with the way it challenged my knowledge of photography and pushed me to know the settings in my bones. It slowed me down; instead of shooting 500 photos and selecting 10, it pushed me to be specific in what I was shooting so that each shot was a winner. Every time I drop off a roll to be developed, it feels like Christmas. I can’t wait to see what is waiting for me.
What is your editing process like?
Simple. Step one: selecting the perfect background noise. I usually put on a true-crime documentary or a Fresh Air podcast with my girl, Terry Gross (she doesn’t know we’re friends yet but she will). Step two: edit until my eyes hurt.
In all seriousness, I try and keep the editing to a minimum and not stray away from the original image that was created in-camera. I’ll do a small amount of retouching and playing with the colors, usually making the image a little warmer, and sometimes cropping the image if there is a c-stand in the shot. But that’s typically it. Again, with film, it has slowed me down so much that each shot I take is purposeful and specific which makes the editing process simple.
Tell us your favorite thing about what you do.
I think it’s so cool that I get to meet really talented people and create something with them. I’ve had the honor to photograph people who I look up to and to be in the same space as them working on a common goal never gets old. Also, being able to turn a normal Thursday afternoon into an art project is so much more fun than working in an office. Not many people get to shoot an album cover under water for work so I’m endlessly thankful I get to spend my life that way.
Do you have advice for people, specifically women, who want to move up in this industry and have their work recognized?
One thing I can say with confidence is that consistency is key. Just like anything else, the more you do something, the better you get at it; don’t let too much time pass between each time you pick up the camera. Ask your male peers how much they’re charging and being paid. I found out the hard way I was being underpaid on a job my male equivalent was getting paid 2.5x as much for.
But ultimately, if I could only tell you one thing, it would be to fucking believe in what you have to offer. This is still something I’m working on, so as I say it to you, I say it to myself as well. Your creativity is important and valuable and is being recognized, whether you see it or not. The day will come when you do get an opportunity, so when it does, make the most of it! Show up on time and ready to do great work! I believe in you.
What does MISSBISH mean to you?
Believing that I’m that bish and so are the women around me. AND that her shine doesn’t take away from mine. That one is hard but once you conquer that, life is so good.
Who is your main MISSBISH? Tell us who she is and why she inspires you.
Here comes my eternal shout out to my other half, Rachel Maria Sanderson. I first, middle and last-named her because everyone needs to know who she is. She is my rock and the reason why I believe the Spice Girls got it right when they said “If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends.” I am so thankful for her unending friendship and don’t know how I’ll be able to write how much she inspires me. For one, she’s a high school teacher now, so there is a special place in Heaven for her. But she also knows how to make me feel so loved and seen. She knows my intelligence and doesn’t roll her eyes when I can’t place all 50 states. She respects me for who I am and doesn’t expect me to be someone I’m not. She somehow always knows when I need a pick-me-up text even from three time zones away. She can quote every part of Peyton Manning’s SNL episode with me. She’s patient and kind and one day I will write a book called, “Why Everyone Needs a Rachel Sanderson.”