018. Neil Harman

Neil Harman, Tamera Grusin’s Whale in Evanston, Illinois, USA. 

A conversation with London-based artist Neil Harman. 


We first came across your practice through your ‘Whale Migration’ project. Can you tell us a bit about how this work developed?

They started out as doodles in a sketchbook; I didn’t really consider this to be a project at first. I had been reading Moby Dick and had not long finished my training as an art teacher so I was kind of thinking about how I could practice simple drawing techniques using ink, pencil, chalk, and charcoal. After a while, I realized that I was really enjoying the process of drawing, but still wasn’t thinking too much about the results that I got from this process. As time went on I got more ambitious and made a large scale whale drawing. Around this time a friend of mine offered to show the drawings in a group exhibition. There was something I liked about handing over a pile of work and letting someone else deal with how they should be presented.

After the show, the drawings came back and I felt there was something interesting about them in terms of their portability and how by presenting them in different places they seemed more complete. This gave me the idea to send them to friends and people that I knew who lived in various places around the world. I set up the blog and was really surprised when strangers began to request the drawings. The fact that the drawings are given away for free was also really important to me and I got a buzz out of folding them up and sending them away. Even though sometimes they get lost or damaged, I like the fact that they become quite vulnerable in the channels of the postal system.

Neil Harman, From the series ‘Waiting for Strangers’, 2012. 

A factor this project and your photographic work have in common is the participation of strangers. Is this something that particularly interests you?

The best part about the Whale project is that the strangers come to me. With my photography, it’s the other way around and I have to approach people; although it’s quite surprising how few people decline to be photographed. So yes, participation can be important, with my 'Waiting for Strangers' series I could never predict what photograph I would come back with even though I was familiar with the locations. It was about these two elements coming together to make a compelling image, the location, and the person.

The locations you photograph are anonymous yet familiar, in that they resemble the spaces we inhabit every day. Is it important to you that the viewer can form this quasi-personal connection to your work?

I try not to travel too far for my photographs, so I have shot in the town where I grew up or around London where I live now. If you are somewhere that is really familiar then you have to look very carefully and closely at what is around you. I think these spaces can indirectly tell us a lot about our current states of affairs and the photography is one way in which I can respond to my immediate environment. Hopefully, the viewer can make some connection to these places due to their familiarity whereas the photograph should also provide enough space for open-ended interpretations. Of course, the overlooked is a photographic trope in itself so I try to be aware of that as well.

Neil Harman, From the series ‘Waiting for Strangers’, 2012.

Your compositions have a very palpable sense of stillness to them. What do you think is revealed in these unique moments when ostensibly nothing is happening?

I find it difficult to pinpoint what these photographs reveal in their stillness. For me, it’s just what photography does best and I am continually fascinated by the way the camera organizes the visible world into two dimensions. The lack of movement or action or whatever just emphasizes this, in a way I want to try and allude to something that I can’t articulate and that is not necessarily present in the subject matter.

What is coming up for you next?

Books! With any luck this year I hope to self-publish the whale project and finish up this Garden City series that I have been working on and I also want to begin some new drawings – this is turning into my New Year resolution list.


For more information on Neil Harman’s work, visit http://www.neilharman.co.uk