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Toby Harvard Will Light Up Your Feed

The strength of a photograph lies in its ability to tell a powerful and authentic story that resonates with all who see it. Whether that be as simple as a portrait of a woman staring blankly into the distance, or a shot of a cityscape covered in a thick layer of fog, it is undeniable that London-based photographer and screenwriter Toby Harvard’s images reveal a deeper truth that provide context and a narrative. When the message of a photograph is too overbearing or obvious, the opposite effect is the result. But Harvard’s images do not suffer from this pitfall, though the underlying stories he tells are at times jarring. The beauty of his photography lies in that very intangible and hard to reach gray area where imagery and storytelling intersect. Thus, Harvard offers enough detail in an image to develop a story, however, not too much so as to tell us exactly how we should feel.

Ironically, through the use of strong color and loud, abundant neon light, Harvard has truly mastered the art of subtle photography that successfully occupies the “gray area.” His unique use of colored light highlights his subject, while simultaneously providing an interesting contrast with the photograph’s background. It is this technique that creates a dreamy, slightly haunting atmospheric tension between the setting and the subject of the image. Harvard’s striking photos initially leave viewers awestruck, but then trigger an emotional response that permits us to build a personal narrative around the subject.

He consistently works with 35mm film and often uses simple point-and-shoot cameras, which give his work a casual, more relatable feel. But it is ultimately his background in screenwriting that plays the most instrumental role in his storytelling abilities, which clearly transfer to his photographs with ease.

What came first your love for photography or screenwriting?

They probably developed at the same time. I think just growing up and being interested in films (maybe watching too many films). I’ve been quite intrigued by cinematography and wanting to take pictures. And because I didn’t have a film camera, the next best thing was a still camera. I was trying to recreate what I was watching in film and stills, and then my dad got a video camera that I started tinkering around with. I’d make little short films of my friends, and we would have to come up with lines of dialogue. So, I ended up writing these little scripts for my films and then I shot them myself. I think that’s sort of the genesis of all of it– a lot of sort of boring afternoons with my video camera.

How does screenwriting influence your photographs and their ability to convey a story?

I feel like photos and screenwriting represent very different sides to my character. The stuff I write is kind of masculine. I write a lot of stuff about men behaving badly, and fathers and sons. What I write is quite aggressive, violent and confrontational and I suppose it’s exploring quite macho, masculine ideas whereas, I think the photography side is very feminine and reserved. There’s a delicateness to it that’s completely at odds with what I write. I think some people find it strange that I could write such grotesque situations, but then take these very ethereal, soft, sweet pictures. It’s nice to have an outlook on these two sides of myself.

Yeah, it’s like complete opposite sides of the spectrum.

Right, exactly. It’s nice to be able to channel these different energies in different directions if that makes sense.

How does your creative process differ mentally with screenwriting compared to photography?

With both of them, what they have in common is I don’t tend to overthink them. I think with all art, you kind of lose the fun when you start to overanalyze what you’re doing. With writing, there’s a certain amount of structural, word-plotting that needs to be done. Once all of that is in place, it’s very instinctive. You could write quite quickly and let the characters reveal themselves to you.

With photos, I don’t really plan what I’m going to shoot. I’m just drawn to certain things, styles and images. It’s never a conscious process; it’s all almost on autopilot to an extent.

Your understanding of light is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, yet you’ve mentioned in the past that you’re not necessarily a technical photographer.

That’s so kind, thank you. I think with light I actually don’t know what I’m doing. It’s almost experimental. I know what I respond to. I shot enough photos now to know what is going to register on a camera and what’s not. A lot of that is trial and error I suppose– so a lot of it is experience.

How would you classify yourself as a photographer?

I go through various phases. At first, I started out doing a lot of street photography, which I think really fascinated me for the years. And then, I started doing more portraits where people would pose for me and I would experiment with light. I’m still in the midst of that, but I’ve been feeling like it’s time to try other styles that I haven’t really done before.

How does color and light play into your vision and how you seek to tell a story through an image?

With portraits it’s all about getting a certain tone across to your subject. I’m pretty clear about what kind of expressions I find interesting. I like portraits where you don’t really know what the person’s emotion is– where it’s not clear. I don’t like pictures of people smiling, but then, I don’t like pictures of people trying to look dramatic. There’s a kind of natural disposition. It’s capturing the moment where your subject feels vulnerable and it’s not staged and there’s a reality to their expressions, and that’s when you know to take a picture. I’ve shot with people where the photos just came out looking like stills from a soap opera. They try to ham it up a bit to look dramatic or to look like they’re telegraphing an emotion and I’m not interested in that. It feels fake to me.

I think it’s because your style of portraiture is mysterious and doesn’t reveal all the details up front that I feel so connected to your images. It leaves me pondering about both who the subject is and the story behind the image, and it allows me to create the story myself.

Yeah exactly, and I think that’s where starting out with street photography and trying to get pictures of people unaware without them realizing I was taking their picture really gave me a decent sense of what someone should look like when their mask is off.

Why do you think people connect so deeply to that aspect of your photographs?

I don’t know, I don’t know. I think we’re bombarded with so many images of people looking very content and putting on smiles. There are so many pictures on Instagram of pretty people with big white teeth, smiling and looking like they’re loving every minute of it and it’s so cringe. It’s kind of embarrassing and just so fake. I think people like to see something a bit more subdued and relatable.

Do you express yourself better through words or imagery?

I express a certain side of myself much better through writing. I don’t think any of my pictures convey my sense of humor or the more impish, juvenile side of myself. I think that I could easily express that in writing, that comes very easily to me. Whereas, I don’t think in writing I could say what I could say with a photograph as powerfully, as directly. I’d love to write a really dramatic, haunting film that felt like one of my photos, but I haven’t done that yet.

What are some projects that you are currently working on?

Me and my friend Jim (Hosking) just finished a show for Adult Swim (Tropical Cop Tales). Then I have a film with Elijah Wood coming out sometime this year called Come to Daddy. Again, very masculine, very violent. It’s about the perils of the modern man. Then, I’m working on a couple of other writing projects that are in the very early stages.

As far as photos go, I just got a new camera so I’m going to try to take more pictures.

Oh cool– what kind of camera is it?

I’m not telling you. [Laughs]

It’s an old Nikon that I’ve never used. I just love getting new cameras, and lenses. Even the tiniest variation in your lens gives you such a different result in the picture. I want to take pictures that are a little closer, fill shot, breaking up the face a bit. I think this camera is going to be really good for that.

You often ask these outrageous poll questions on Instagram that are nearly impossible to answer. For example, “a new app can tell you, with absolute accuracy, the precise time and date of your death. Do you use it?” How did you get into doing this? Has it offered any further insight into your fans and the type of person that follows your work?

It’s very interesting seeing how emotional people get about some of those questions. I think people get quite shocked having to contemplate being in situations that they’ll hopefully never have to be in. What’s strange is I’ve always done that. I’ve always asked my friends these strange moral conundrums. Like would you do this for 1 million pounds? So, it just makes sense, why not bring everyone else into it?

Ideally, where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

It would be nice to broaden my horizons. Start writing a different kind of project, start taking different kinds of pictures and experimenting. I think it’s easy to get into a comfort zone artistically. When you get positive feedback for some of the things you’re doing, it makes you less likely to try something completely different. So, I think it’s good to always have an eye on other things to try or other avenues to explore. I just hope to keep trying new things and see where that takes me, really.

Images courtesy of Toby Harvard

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