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Speaking with Photographer J Henry Fair

September 14, 2016

Eyes on the Edge: Photographs by J Henry Fair is on view through October 23

Will South, chief curator

On a beautiful March afternoon, I sat down with J Henry Fair in his fifth-floor walk-up on East 9th Street. The windows were open to New York’s sounds of traffic and street life. Henry has lived in this apartment for years—he redesigned and renovated it himself to be both studio and living space. We pour two glasses of wine, turn on a recorder, and begin to talk. 

Henry tells me he has deep Columbia roots. “My family was originally from Columbia. It is an historic family, the Taylor Family. Our house was the original Columbia Museum of Art.”

Indeed, it was. Henry’s great-great grandmother was Marianne Heyward Taylor, and the Taylor House became home to the CMA in 1950. A painting of her by William Merritt Chase hangs inside the museum today. 

But Henry’s parents moved to Charleston, and it was there he was born. He grew up hunting and fishing in the wetlands north and south of the town, along the Edisto and Santee Rivers, and he came to love nature. “This landscape is in my consciousness, in a big way,” he tells me, and he finds himself yearning for the topography of the South. He muses on how much history is here, good and bad, what rich stories, what astonishing beauty. 

Henry realized he was a photographer when he was still a boy. For him, taking pictures seemed quite natural. “I stole my father’s old Kodak retina; he wasn’t using it.” He shows me a photograph he made of an old African-American man talking inside a telephone booth—a quiet, somehow solemn image. He was just 15 when he made it. “Many people don’t know what their mission is in life,” he says, “I always did. I’m blessed.” 

After going to school in the Berkshires, Henry arrived at Fordham University in Manhattan. His camera was with him. He met a fellow student who got him working on some upper West Side renovations, and with his profits Henry bought more cameras—his first Hasselblad was one. It occurred to him then that shooting fashion was a way to make money. He worked his way through that world and landed JC Penney as a client. At the same time, he started shooting classical musicians and opera singers. He was enjoying success and would always be self-employed.

But even then Henry knew there were other stories to be told with his camera, stories he carried deep inside him. Stories of rivers, oceans, and sand. “It just took me some time to make those stories.” 

At first, those stories took the form of taking photographs of what was happening to the American environment. He took pictures of factories, housing developments, and oil rigs. His life-long love of nature had evolved into genuine environmental activism, and photography would be the way he practiced this activism. What really changed the way he made his photographs speak, though, was “going aerial.”

“It was a revelation. I had being doing these pictures of industrial detritus, and at the same time I had an environmental consciousness. But I hadn’t taken the leap from document to art.” 

Every photo for Henry is a document, in that a photograph is always a picture of something. On a trip back home from the west coast, he was looking down out of the airplane and saw what clearly was a coal-fired power plant, only from 10,000 feet in the air. He took a picture, knowing it was a “document,” but the aerial perspective, to his eyes, had turned it into art. There was abstraction from such a height, there were flowing patterns and rhythms, there was mystery. 

So, Henry went to New Orleans, hired a Cessna and a pilot, and started shooting at 100 miles per hour with a Leica. “I’m zooming up the Mississippi, looking for something. But I don’t know what I’m looking for.” Abstract possibilities would emerge in a moment, it was his challenge to see them. The plane, the altitude, the speed, and the limits of his own eye, along with the many concerns he constantly carries in his head, led to one stunning image after another.

He began a series of large-scale images that he would call Industrial Scars, focused on the effects of industry on the land. “I want to show, in a visually stimulating manner, how we are damaging our habitat and threatening the future of our children with our consumption-based society.”

His interest in somehow raising awareness of environmental problems was always equaled, though, by a desire to make something beautiful. “My approach to photographing the South Carolina coast is triple-sided: it’s nostalgic, it’s an objective amazement at the beauty and biodiversity that exists there, and it’s also tinged with a certain sadness over the darker history of the land and how it was used. I come to this project [photographing the coast] with all of these things in the back of my mind.” And, after a pause, he adds that another factor is the “rampant, unchecked development” of our own time.

“The coast is the greatest asset of South Carolina,” Henry says. “People flock to it because it is gorgeous. What many may not know is that fully half of its 183 miles of coastline is inaccessible, which has kept large swaths of it beautiful.” On the whole of the east coast, he emphasizes, South Carolina’s coast is “really unique, extremely special.”

That specialness and uniqueness is fully on display in the 27 photographs J Henry Fair will soon have on view at the Columbia Museum of Art. His 50 x 70 inch color photograph entitled Housing Development Cut Out of Woods could almost be a gigantic footprint on the land when seen from above, so evenly and patterned are the impressions upon the land. But here, as with every photograph on view, we are stopped by the sheer visual grandeur of the scene. “It must first be beautiful,” Henry reminded me, back on that March afternoon. Then, the viewer can look for different layers of meaning. In this picture, it is the relationship of thickly growing trees with man-made housing—the one surrounds and engulfs the other, but only temporarily. The housing development will grow. Meditating on such an image reminds us how delicate is the balance in nature. 

Just as the Housing Development image could be a footprint, so Kiawah River Shoreline, Habitat for Many Threatened and Endangered Species could be a vein inside a body carrying the fluid of life, in this case, water. That is, in part, because it is. The rivers are vital to survival. Henry’s photographs give them a prominence and a presence we could never see on our own, on the ground. We all know that seeing something up close is very different than seeing it from far away. So, too, is it true that seeing something from high above is very different. The Kiawah River from this point of view becomes a shimmering, emerald thread of life. Henry’s hope, among others, is that such pictures will remind us of how precious this earth is.  

Back in New York, I ask Henry what artists have influenced him. It is an extensive list including Kandinsky, Goya, de Chirico, and, surprisingly, Canaletto. I remind him that the CMA has a masterpiece of Venice by Canaletto, one Henry can’t wait to see. One can almost see a touch of Canaletto in Henry’s Brick Hurricane Shelter for Slaves Working in Rice Fields, an image with historic resonance where present-day light bathes the buildings near water. Of course, this is not Venice, and the hurricane shelter is not the Doges Palace. But the interface of water, architecture and light rings a visual bell. Like any serious artist, Henry has been open to past innovations and how they can be reinvented for new audiences. 

As evening light is coming on through Henry’s window, back on that March day, I ask him, finally, what is his hope for his show at the CMA? “First, it should be beautiful, visually compelling,” he repeats. “With meanings underneath that viewers can get to if they want. What is it they are really looking at? There must be multiple levels to appreciate. I want people to see the beauty of the coast, but also to be moved, to walk away questioning how we are utilizing our coastline.”

Does art still have the power to do this? I ask him. Henry responded, “We’re in a time when dialogue has failed. We’re all polarized. We all thought the internet would connect us. Instead, it has isolated us. We all run to our own camps, and we take our opinions from those who already agree with us. There is no longer a rational give and take. It’s ‘No, it’s this way,’ and the other person says, ‘No, it’s that way.’ My belief is that art, because it sidesteps dialogue, might open a door in someone’s consciousness that dialogue cannot open. I can show them a picture that might prompt a question. Art can do things that dialogue can’t do.” 

Just as the sun is setting, we make our way up East 9th Street to one of Henry’s favorite restaurants, and continue to talk about just how powerful art can be. Eyes on the Edge: J Henry Fair Photographs the Carolina Coast is a beautiful opportunity to join that conversation. 

Presenting Sponsor: Susan F. Boyd. Contributing Sponsors: Ms. Cheryl R. Holland and Mr. P. Douglas Quackenbush. Friend Sponsors: Margaret Anne and Theodore B. DuBose, Harriott H. Faucette, George and Rab Finlay Thompson, The Hilliard Family Foundation, Inc., Mast General Store, and South Carolina Coastal Conservation League. Patron Sponsors: Ms. Sherrerd Hartness, Susan B. and C. Carroll Heyward, Dr. Jeff Kline, Beth and Matthew Richardson, LS3P Architecture, Interiors, Planning, The Nature Conservancy of South Carolina, and Southern Environmental Law Center. Grantors: South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism and Richland County.

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