David Alan Harvey is one of the living legends in street photography. He is a member of the prestigious Magnum Photos agency, and also quite active in the contemporary photography world– featuring emerging photographers through burn magazine while teaching courses all around the world.
Close to 70 years old, he is still prolific in his photography–he travels constantly and takes photographs everyday. He still retains the passion for photography as he had as a 12 year old boy.
Why I love the work of David Alan Harvey
When I made the switch to shooting street photography in color, David Alan Harvey was one of my main inspirations– including Alex Webb, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld, and Constantine Manos. He’s traveled all across the world– doing most of his major work in South America. The colors he has captured through his street photography there is exquisite. He creates many layers in his images, and brings out the emotion of situations through the light and colors of a place.
If you are a street photographer who is serious about working in color, you should definitely get to know him and his work.
David Alan Harvey’s background
Based on the research that I’ve done on David Alan Harvey, he started photography at a young age– and his first project was simply documenting his own family. His first photo book were black and white photos of his family and their main events in life.
His next book and first published body of work was “Tell it like it is”
in which he moved in with a poor African-American family in a ghetto in Virginia. Over a summer, he stayed with them, lived with them, went to school with the children, and documented their lives. He had aspirations to make social change through his work– and even sold copies of his book to raise money for the local African-American church in the community.
Skipping ahead– he started to do work with National Geographic and has done over 30 main stories for them. He also joined Magnum– which catapulted him forward in his photographic story.
He’s published many strong bodies of work– most famously his “Divided Soul” book which documents over 20 years of photographs all around the world. He has also recently published a book on 2 years of living in Rio De Janeiro– titled “Based on a true story.” He is also currently working on a project in Dubai, and also on another book on families.
I wanted to write this article to share some insights I’ve learned through David Alan Harvey in street photography.
1. Focus on having good ideas
One of the things I’ve learned that was crucial from David Alan Harvey is the importance of “having something to say.” I sat on a few of his talks at Gulf Photo Plus 2014 in Dubai, and he told about the technical aspects of photography aren’t important. You can teach technical settings to anybody. But what makes a great photographer is if he/she has something important to say through his/her work.
In an interview, David Alan Harvey shares the importance of having good ideas as a photographer:
“The key for photographers today is that they must be idea people. Concept people. It is no longer any advantage to have technical skills. Today one needs idea skills, to really have something to say, either journalistically or artistically. I see photography as a language far, far from dead. In my opinion, just being born.”
Furthermore, he stresses the importance of having “visual literacy”
knowing the work of the masters and what makes a great image:
“I look for visual literacy in a body of work. The makers must be visually literate and the audience must be visually literate as well. Seeking this happy medium of literacy from creator to audience is a full time preoccupation that will never end. However, the pursuit of this ideal is in and of itself an art.
When I started photography, I spent far too much time researching cameras, lenses, and the best technical settings to use when shooting street photography. I wasn’t satisfied with my images– and I felt it was my equipment or technical skills that were holding me back.
However over time I realized the problem was that I was stuck in being a “social media photographer.” Meaning, the purpose of my photography was only to get a lot of “Favorites” or “Likes” on social media. I didn’t have anything to say as a photographer. I just tried to make a lot of strong single images, to please my audience on social media.
I soon discovered that a better way to discover my voice as a photographer was to focus on projects. Therefore over the last 2-3 years I’ve focused on longer-term projects, in which I have something to say through my photography. I try to make sociological statements such as through my “Suits” project– which challenges the notion that wealth brings happiness to one’s life. I’ve also spent less time uploading images to social media– to focus on my projects.
David Alan Harvey gives practical advice– to find something to say through a project you work on. One prerequisite he has is that a photographer must be “visually literate.” Meaning, you need to spend time studying the masters, the classic street photography books, and even artists outside of photography. Painting, drawings, and art history are crucial aspects of a photographer’s education.
2. Study the classics
Expanding on the previous point, to become a great photographer– we need to study the classics. You can’t become a great painter without studying Leonardo Davinci, Michaelangelo, and Raphael. You can’t become a great musician without studying Mozart, Beethoven, and Vivaldi. You can’t become a great photographer without knowing the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andre Kertesz, and the masters who have come before us.
David Alan Harvey is a big advocate of social media in photography– but also warns us that photographers who only know Flickr can never aspire to become great artists. He stresses the importance of studying the classics in photography:
“The tech side has progressed. Technically photography has moved us forward in the sense that photography is now available to all. This has unfortunately led to a decrease in real photography education. In my generation the only way we could get into photography was by studying the classics so to speak. We only saw the work of the masters. Now a young photographer can come into photography through a Flickr group or something similar and go for a long time without ever really getting a handle on the basics in terms of who did what and when.”
Harvey pushes forward by sharing the importance of having “reference points” in photography
the caliber of work done before us that we can compare ourselves to:
“They can miss the reference points totally. They do not reject the reference points once they know about them, but they are not necessarily part of their lexicon.”
While David Alan Harvey encourages interaction online– he warns us to be careful in terms of the images we consume:
“So, we have gone forward and backward at the same time. However, and more to the point of your question, because of the plethora of online activity, a photographer can assimilate all. But, they must pick and choose wisely. Editors and curators I think are often frustrated that many young photographers, without these reference points, have no idea where their work stands in the big picture: the historical context of their work.“
I don’t think we should always compare ourselves to the work of photographers who have come before us. But at the same time, we need a reference point in terms of where our work sits in historical context of photography.
I think that the more great work we look at– the more we can inspire to create great work. If you only look at generic street photographs on Flickr, you can only aspire to make generic street photography. If you look at the work of the masters, we can aspire to create masterful work.
So spend some time getting to study the classic street photographers– and the masters who have come before us. I have written many articles (similar to this one) in my “Learn from the Masters” series– which is a good starting point. Use that as a starting point.
Once you find a photographer whose work really inspires you– buy all their books that you can afford, research them, study them, read interviews by them, and devour their work. Learn their motivations and life stories– and see them as a mentor to your own work.
3. Channel your emotions
One of the quotes from David Alan Harvey which has stuck with me for a long time is:
“Don’t shoot what it looks like. Shoot what it feels like.”
I think in street photography– we can get too caught up in the visual side of things. We want nice compositions, contrast, light, and framing. However at the end of the day– we should focus on the emotion we get from creating an image– and what kind of emotion we can convey to the viewer.
When asked how a photographer can start working on a project– Harvey suggests for a photographer to fall in love with an idea or a concept:
“You know, so if I’m not kind of in love, I won’t be able to do anything. Not really. I can be kind of professional. I know enough professional photography to be professional. I have to be feeling something— and love is a great way to start.”
Harvey expands on the importance of love in a project:
“The thing I always tell my students is to find a project that they love. Something they really care about. Something they know about. And use that as a platform for developing and evolving emerging story.”
I think it is important for us to be analytical in our photography in terms of our concept, composition, and how we present our work. But at the end of the day, I feel the most memorable photos and projects I’ve seen are the ones that are emotional. The photos that punch you straight in the heart. These images are the ones that embed themselves into your mind and soul.
A good way I like to edit my photos is to see if there is any emotional impact in the photos. While I do like photos with nice layers, light, colors, and composition– my favorite ones (or the ones that stick out) are always the ones that exude the most emotion.
So when you’re out shooting in the streets– shoot with your heart, not your eyes.
4. Make something special out of an ordinary moment
One of the most difficult things as a street photographer is to create something special out of ordinary moments. Even more difficult is to do this when at home– where everything seems so boring, so everyday, so routine.
But striving to make beautiful art out of ordinary moments is what first inspired David Alan Harvey to photograph:
“I studied painting early on, so the French impressionists were really important to me— they were doing things of normal people. They were seeing average street scenes and making art out of it so that’s why Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank interested me— because they were taking everyday life and making art out of everyday life. And this was important to me. Because they could take whatever was taking right now, right here— and make something special.
Even as the years have progressed, this fascination of creating beauty through ordinary moments hasn’t escaped David Alan Harvey:
“I still love that, you can take your little camera— you can take an ordinary situation, and make art out to it. I’m still absolutely fascinated by that phenomenon.
To find beauty in mundane everyday life is hard. I constantly struggle with it myself as well.
I currently live here in Berkeley in California– and it is a very interesting place (to an outsider). But to me, I’m used to it. I’m bored of it. I see the same streets everyday. I’d rather be in San Francisco shooting street photography– because it seems so much more interesting, exciting, and novel.
However I’ve applied this methodology which has helped me find more beauty in my everyday life: imagining if I were an alien, and visiting my neighborhood for the first time.
So I try to make myself an outsider in my own neighborhood. I wonder what aliens would find interesting about my neighborhood– and I photograph it. I end up photographing a lot of signs, buildings, urban landscapes, and interesting people I meet along the way.
Many of us suffer from the “grass is greener on the other side” syndrome– in which we always feel that the place we live is boring. But realize regardless of where you live– there will always be somewhere more interesting.
For example, I have friends who live in New York who wished they were in Paris. I have friends in Paris who wish they were in Tokyo. I have friends in Tokyo who wished they were in San Francisco. And people from San Francisco wish they were in New York.
So appreciate the neighborhood you live in– and use that as a starting point. If you live in a neighborhood or city which doesn’t have a lot of people– no problem. Study the work of William Eggleston and Lee Friedlander, who have made a living photographing mostly urban landscapes without people. If there is a will, there is always a way.
5. Create your own music
It is always important for us to copy the masters before ourselves before we find our own voices. For example, the Beatles started off as a cover band– playing other musicians’ music. Even in photography– David Alan Harvey was mostly inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank and started off his work in black and white.
But soon, David Alan Harvey found out that black and white wasn’t the way he saw the world– and wasn’t his voice. After switching to color– his work really started to take off.
David Alan Harvey gives practical advice in terms of how to become a great photographer– to create your own music (and not just always copy others):
“If you’re any kind of an artist, it’s like a songwriter. There are two types of musicians—those who play other peoples songs and those who write their own songs and create their own music. In photography if you want to reach the highest levels, you need to be writing your own music. You need to be thinking of your ideas. If you don’t have something on your mind—you need something that is a little uncomfortable and you’re trying to tell the story. So you need a point of view, and something to be thinking about. It doesn’t mean what you are thinking about is more important than what other people are thinking about. If you have an idea in your head, whether it is the migration from Spain and Portugal to the Americans, or some social revolution thing—or an artistic thing. If you have this on your mind, you want it on paper—you just do it.”
Continuing on this point, Harvey shares the importance of finding your own voice:
“My only suggestion for emerging photographers, or photographers who are changing—who want to do something special—is to find their own voice. To have something to say. Look deep deep inside your own soul, and figure out a way to say it. And that’s the only thing I do with my students.”
We all need a takeoff point in our photography. We all start by copying the photographs of the masters we have seen before us. But there is a certain point that we need to stop copying them and their music– and create music for ourselves.
David Alan Harvey suggests for us to have a unique point of view– and something to say.
I think one of the best ways to have a unique point of view is to use our own life’s experiences to say something through our photography. Figure out a way you can integrate your current life and your photography.
For example if you are a family man– photograph your family. You don’t need to quit your job and go photograph in Brazil. If you are a teacher, perhaps you can figure out ways to photograph your students and do a project on that. If you are a business man and hate your job, perhaps photograph how you feel through your workplace in your images.
The best photos we can create are the personal ones– that come from our own life’s experiences. Reflect on your position in life, how you see the world, and try to go and capture that– in your own unique vision.
6. Don’t worry about the medium
In photography, we are often a bunch of nerds. We talk about different cameras, lenses, films, f-stops, printing techniques, post-processing techniques, etc. But David Alan Harvey doesn’t care too much about the medium in which we create images (whether it be digital or film).
What he cares about most is stoy-telling:
“The new technology doesn’t faze me a bit. A picture is a picture is a picture—whether on film or digital. Now I shoot film with a Mamiya 7– I shoot medium format film. I like that. I make my own darkroom prints in my house. I shoot color pictures with my iPhone, and I shoot color photos with my Leica. So the medium doesn’t—there is a lot of discussion about what kind of camera and film versus digital. I don’t care too much, I don’t think about it much.”
Harvey continues in an another interview:
“The basic thing is telling a story—or making a representation. So whether it is a digital or film camera doesn’t make any difference to me.”
It is easy to get bogged down by what camera to use, what lens to use, what kind of film to use, how to post-process your images, and whether to use film or digital. Personally I have been juggling with this myself: There are many days I love shooting film, and other days I want to quit spending so much money on film and developing and just shoot digital.
But at the end of the day, I think the thing that David Alan Harvey taught me was to not worry about those details– but just focus on what kind of story to tell.
One thing that fascinated me about his new book on Brazil: “Based on a true story” was that he shot it on a bunch of different digital cameras: including the Leica M9, an iPhone, the Panasonic GF-1–whatever camera he had on himself at the time.
Personally I don’t believe in using too many different cameras for a project, but David Alan Harvey made it work for his book. I’d have to admit as well– some of his photos taken on the iPhone vs the Leica M9 aren’t distinguishable in the final printing.
So let us all not worry so much about the gear we use to create our images. Let us focus on telling meaningful stories– whichever tools we decide to use.
7. Embrace social media
David Alan Harvey is quite prolific when it comes to the social media scene. He is active on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr– and through his online/print publication “burn magazine.”
When asked about the role of social media in photography, David Alan Harvey explains his methodology:
“The new platforms of online and the social media—I use it to build an audience, to number one teach—and number 2, to put out my own work. Like the new book: that I did on Rio de Janeiro, I put an online pay wall for $1.99. That helped finance the project and sell the book. So I’m very comfortable with Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and the digital age online.”
There are many photographers (especially the older ones) which are quite wary of social media, photography, and digital media. However David Alan Harvey has embraced it whole-heartedly, and it has helped him gain tremendous popularity online. Through Burn Magazine, he is constantly featuring new emerging photographers’ work
and sharing his information, advice, and knowledge with the rest of the world.
I have social media to thank as well. I couldn’t teach street photography workshops and write for this blog for a living if it wasn’t for social media. But at the same time, I am wary about the limitations of social media in terms of publishing and sharing your work. I think social media is a great way to build an audience to learn about and appreciate your work– but in order to create a strong body of work, publishing a book helps a great deal.
That is my next goal: publishing long-term photography books. David Alan Harvey also still works hard toward publishing new work in print form–whether it be in book or magazine format.
I highly encourage you to publish your own work on paper too. David Alan Harvey shared that a key takeaway point he got from Constantine Manos (also in Magnum) was that: “A photograph doesn’t exist until it is printed.”
8. Share your information freely
I know a lot of photographers and artists who hoard their information and knowledge. I think it is mainly due to insecurity– but I think it hurts themselves in the long run.
Photographers such as David Alan Harvey are quite open and free with his knowledge and information– and it has paid huge dividends for him (in building his popularity). Why is Harvey so open with his wisdom? Well– he feels he needs to give back:
“I didn’t feel any need to have secrets or I felt I could share information with people without sacrificing anything. Because I always had confidence in my own photography ability. My mother was a teacher. If you’re a survivor at an early age, you feel blessed at an early age. Then you have energy to give to other people for sure. So I still do that—I spend a lot of time with other photographers, particularly with younger photographers who are trying to work forward. So that’s what I do.”
Personally I grew up in a similar situation to David Alan Harvey: my mother was a teacher, and I was blessed to be given all the support I did growing up. I felt ethically I needed to give back for all the help I received.
This is the ethos of starting this blog– to keep information and knowledge about street photography open and free. In my post: “My vision of open source photography”
I made a personal vow to never charge for information on this blog or in videos. I want the information I share on this blog to be as easily accessible to everybody.
Personally it has paid off tremendously for me. The more you give, the more you receive in return.
So in your photography, think about how you can share your own information, wisdom, and give guidance to other photographers. Share how you shoot in the streets, the technical settings you use on your cameras, the methods you use to post-process or develop your film. Give away all of your secrets– and I can guarantee that in the long run, it will help you (and the rest of the world) tremendously.
9. Shoot first, focus later
One piece of advice I find tremendously practical and useful from David Alan Harvey is this: Shoot first, focus later.
I think we often get caught up in the settings of our cameras when we’re on the streets– that we miss the moment. And once the moment is gone, it is lost forever.
David Alan Harvey says he is a very untechnical photographer– and elaborates on this idea of just taking shots (and not worrying about the technical things too much):
“I don’t teach my students how to use a camera, because I barely know how to use my own camera.
For example there are 2 ways to learn how to play the guitar: you can properly learn every chord, or you can listen to a song you like and you just play it. Same with a piano, same with photography. You can learn everything technically—forget it. Find something in your mind and try to say it. You can learn the technical part later. Like I always say: take the photograph first, and focus later.”
Harvey shares a story in which he saw a great photographic opportunity before his eyes– and just instinctively took the shot:
“I had one cover in National Geographic where I took the picture first, then focused after. Well I saw a moment and I just took it. I could have thought: I’m a professional photographer, I should see if my camera is set right. What happened was a big surprise, and I took the damn picture anyways. By luck I was in focus. But I checked the focus and f-stop and exposure after.”
I have missed many potential photographic opportunities because I was too caught up in my technical settings. On my DSLR, I used to shoot fully-manual. The downside of this is that I’m quite forgetful and absent-minded. Which meant there were moments in which I shot outside in the bright sunlight and exposed correctly– but forgot to change my settings once I went indoors. And once I was indoors, I forgot to change my settings– and totally underexposed my photo and missed capturing a great moment.
It was a great learning moment for me. From that point forward, I vowed I would never miss another great photography moment from technical settings. I started to just shoot on “P” mode, use autofocus, and ISO 1600. From that moment, I haven’t really missed any photos when shooting with a digital camera. Of course on my film Leica MP I shoot everything fully-manual (that is the only option I have). But when I’m shooting with the Ricoh GR or the Fujifilm XT-1, I just use “P” mode.
I was quite surprised also when I heard that many Magnum photographers (including Eli Reed and Moises Saman) just shooting with P mode and Auto-ISO. Apparently Steve McCurry shoots in “P” mode as well.
So if you find yourself missing a lot of great photographic moments because you are always fumbling around with your settings– give “P” mode a go. Increase your ISO high (I recommend 1600) so you always have the fastest shutter speed possible (even during the day). Unless you are a hardcore zone-focus street photographer, just use Autofocus– it works in most cases pretty well.
10. Focus on the background
One thing which makes David Alan Harvey’s work great is the layers he creates in many of his images. His images have great depth– it isn’t just the primary subject in the foreground which are interesting. It is often the people in the background which make the shot complete.
At a talk at Gulf Photo Plus 2014 in Dubai, he shared some of his famous images– and shared the concept of how his subjects in the foreground are often static. Once he photographs his subjects in the foreground, he waits for something more interesting to occur in the background (such as people walking into the scene, and not overlapping).
This is also what makes the work of photographers such as Alex Webb so great– the layers they are able to create in their images.
I think most street photographers starting off should start with single subjects– and work their way up to multiple subjects. Because with single subjects, there are fewer variables to photograph. Photographing multiple-subjects increases complexity and chaos– and makes it much more difficult to make an effective image.
However as you progress in your street photography– start considering your background more. It isn’t enough to simply have an interesting subject in the foreground. Try to figure out what extra elements in the background or the “cherry on top” you can add to your image.
David Alan Harvey is certainly one of the most inspirational photographers out there. Although he has a solid body of work behind him– he hasn’t stopped. He uses his passion for photography to continue to push him– in his new photography projects, in his teaching, his travels, and his online social media presence. He is certainly a photographer who you want to keep your eyes on– and draw inspiration. He is the perfect synthesis of the classics and “old school” as well as the “new school.”
David Alan Harvey Micro Documentary
Vogue Masters: David Alan Harvey
In Frame: David Alan Harvey
Books by David Alan Harvey
Some of the books I recommend from David Alan Harvey are listed below:
This is David Alan Harvey’s strongest body of work– which includes his 20 year photographic journey through Spain, Portugal, Cuba, Mexico, Honduras, Brazil and Chile.
You can also see all of the images on the Magnum website here.
His work in Rio De Janiero
the hardcover book is sold out, but you can still obtain a great magazine edition for only ~$24!
You can see all the images from the project on the Magnum site here.
Related Photography Books
If you dig David Alan Harvey’s work, I would also highly recommend these books:
If you love color street photography, this is a must-have book. It is seriously one of the most gorgeous photography books in my library– and only goes for $44 USD.
Quite rare to pick up and expensive, but if you have a chance to get it at a good price– the colors and prints in this book are exquisite.
Follow David Alan Harvey
Recommended photographers to check out
If you like color street photography, I’d recommend the other following photographers for you to check out whose work are similar to that of David Alan Harvey:
If you want to learn more from the masters, check out all of my articles on them here.