Photomontage, championed in the 1920s by artists like Hannah Höch and Raoul Haussman, is alive and well and living in the works of Harley Weir (minus the extreme political imagery, of course). The 24-year-old, London-born, Berlin-based photographer takes cut and paste literally, unafraid of making her alterations and layerings obvious in her works. Texture defines her style: in addition to collage, Weir also hand-draws effects onto her photos, revisiting the tactile potential of the photograph at a time when it is often measured in pixels and megabytes.
Don’t let her youth fool you: Weir is a smart and talented photographer, and has already had a very successful career, shooting for publications like AnOther Magazine, Citizen K, Australian Vogue, and Dazed and Confused, and for clients like Stella McCartney and Topshop. And, as she admits below, despite the difficulties of being a young woman in an industry dominated by older men, her youth and gender have allowed her to get away with a lot of things that many photographers can’t.
In the following interview, Weir discusses the industry’s gender politics (for both models and photographers), how the internet helped her career, and whether or not surrealism is endemic to fashion photography.
How does texture play into your photographs differently from lighting and color? How do you add texture and design to your photos? Is the process done by hand on film, or digitally?
Both actually. I like to do it on the actual film itself. You might as well make the most of all the things you can do with film, seeing as you can’t do it in digital. I use loads of different processes. Sometimes I get the images printed, which is another thing that never seems to happen to digital images. I mean I do really like digital images, too, but I feel like, because you can touch [film, it] forces me to play with it, cut it up, scratch it. With a digital file you can still do that by going through the process of printing it out and making it into an object, working on it like that. I don’t really see why people don’t do more of it. Time. That’s probably why.
What do you think adding that texture to film does for your style and body of work?
I’d say maybe it’s just one of those things people look at and think Harley probably did that. It’s just my stamp.
Those tactile photographic effects (smearing, scratching) existed from the beginning of photography, right when it emerged as an art form. Do you have any influences from that time period from which you draw inspiration?
Well, I’ve always liked old postcards, when they’d color them in and tint them before they had color. Obviously, there are so many other photographers that work with collage. I grew up loving Peter Beard’s work. Naked girls and animals, what more could you want? And I was always really into [collage]. I studied fine arts, so I started off doing more collage painting and things like that.
There’s this one photo of yours—it’s this photomontage of Dempsey Stewart, and it’s the black and white one of the male carrying her. It’s so brilliant.
It was meant to be kind of like she was a Cinderella-type, spoiled child. Didn’t really come across there, though.
You started shooting at a very young age. Has it been hard to assert yourself as a young photographer?
Oh, definitely. Some people look at me and they think, “Uh. I don’t think I trust you.”
Oh really? I’ve heard other photographers say this. That sometimes people wouldn’t take you as seriously. How do you deal with that?
I think every year that I get older, I get better and stronger about it, because when you’re younger, things upset you. You don’t mean them to, but you’re quite vulnerable. It probably annoyed me at the time a lot more, but now I don’t think about it. Usually when I arrive to the shoot, someone will be like, “Oh are you Harley’s assistant? And I’m like, No, no, no. It’s me. That happens often. But I’d say it gives me more of an edge. I get to be a little bit more friendly with the models. Instead of me being an older guy and the model is kind bit freaked out. I’m very non-threatening.
You create a level of comfort.
I’ve been to shoots before at which I’ve been completely undermined because of my age. I’m a woman too; that doesn’t help. Especially if you’re abroad with lots of foreign male assistants that think you’re a moron.
I’ve never thought of it from the photographer’s perspective. To me, the photographer has all the power.
For you, being a young woman, I never thought of you also being in a vulnerable position.
Yeah. Sometimes I come away from shoots thinking, [that was] horrible. But it’s 50/50, because honestly, there are so many things I can get away with as a woman that I couldn’t if I were a man.
I can ask things that I think, if I was a male photographer, people would think, “Oh. You’re a pervert.”
The power is different from an older guy.
Starting so young, how do you feel the Internet affected the trajectory of your career?
Without it, there would be no career. The internet was completely my portal into photography. I think that is the case with pretty much everyone these days. I started off posting my pictures on the internet. Someone liked them, some other people started liking them, and it sort of bubbled away like that. The internet has been very good for me.
Who are the young red-headed boys who recur throughout your work?
My mum is an art teacher, and I sometimes go to her class. I’m like, Mum, can you ask that boy’s mum if I can take a picture of him. Please? A bit creepy. See, if I were a male photographer, I probably wouldn’t get away with that.
There’s a sense of the ethereal in your work, but at the same time your models are very natural and do not wear much makeup. How much do you think a photo should try to represent the real, or should it create something that is surreal?
This is something that I’m always fighting with. I really don’t like contrived images, but my images are so contrived. It’s difficult to do ‘real’ photography. Let me think about this. I always want more. I love real photography, and that’s what I like to look at, but when it’s my own picture I’m like, “I need more! I need to put this here and I need to have the lights like this. And I need that. I need fireworks!” I go a bit over the top, if you know what I mean. I love the real, but I like the mixing of the real but with a massive show element. If I can.
Do you feel that is endemic to fashion photography?
Yeah. That’s definitely why I’m suited to fashion photography, because I just can’t help but do all these silly things. Yeah, and as the budgets get bigger, I feel, this might get out of hand. Really, though, I do like natural images. It’s just so much more satisfying [to capture a moment]. But it’s difficult to do that all the time. Especially when you’re working in photography, you don’t have so much time to do that.
Also, when you have to showcase clothes.
Yeah. I love people, and unfortunately the only way to make any money out of being an ogler of people is to put hideous things on them and sell them.
Do you ever conflict with stylists?
I probably shouldn’t say.
So you’ve been working with moving images and film. What do you feel like you can achieve in film that you can’t get through your photos?
At the moment, I’ve only been doing moving images. I do everything in short snippets, so it’s like you’re looking at the photograph really quickly, but they’re moving, which gives it a completely different element. I always remember that quote by I think Roland Barthes. He said “Photography is death, and film is life.”
How do you go about casting models?
A lot of the time, with fashion anyways, I don’t have a lot of power over casting. I always like to choose weird models, but it’s not just on me. I also like anyone that looks like they’re from a Renaissance painting.
Do you shoot men more than you shoot women?
It’s probably about the same. I probably have more of a following for my male pictures. They were maybe somewhat sexually charged, and I know a lot of gay men were always interested in that. In fact, a lot of people thought I was a gay man for quite a while, because I’ve got a unisex name. In fact, at one shoot, the editor of a magazine came by and said, “Oh my god! You’re a woman! I thought you’d be a sexy man.” And I thought, I see why I got this job.
How would you define the difference in shooting men versus shooting women?
[With men] there’s slightly more scope to do something that hasn’t already been done. They’ve always been interesting in fashion, but this kind of dressing a man up, basically like he’s a woman. Maybe there’s a little less pressure in male fashion photography.
If you could capture one abstract idea or emotion, what would it be?
I just want to move someone. It doesn’t really matter what emotion it is really—whether someone’s disgusted, or it reminds them of love or anything like that. Any emotion, I would be very happy. It’s so difficult to move people.
Whose portrait would you love to take?
Egon Schiele. His face is like a cubist painting. He looks like his paintings. He’s got amazing hands. He would be an amazing model.