Travel photographer Blaine Harrington makes an enormous effort to research the many countries he visits, but what he likes best is sharing his experiences.
If you run into Blaine Harrington — maybe in an airport — do him a favor and ask him where he's been lately. He says he comes back from globetrotting photo shoots excited to share his experiences. That exuberance comes through the lens into award-winning photographs that have kept him happily in the business of travel photography for many years. It's a career that's equal parts adventure, good planning and desire to tell a story.
"It's all part of the richness of it," he explains, "just wanting to experience everything, and if I get a feeling for a place, wanting to get it on film too."
Being up close to the action has been Harrington's plan throughout his career. In high school, he got published shooting motocross and grand prix motorcycle racing. He traveled to races around the United States and, at the age of 16, first traveled to Europe, where he shot more racing and realized an ambition to begin to see the world. "That completely changed my life," he recalls. "I was interested in foreign countries as a child, had Pan Am posters of Tahiti and other places on the walls of my bedroom."
He studied at the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, Calif., and, on a school break in the summer of 1975, took another trip to Europe, again with assignments to shoot grand prix motorcycle races. While there, he visited photography studios, looking for an apprenticeship to begin after graduation in 1976. He found one at a major commercial studio situated along the banks of an Amsterdam canal. Less than a year into it, however, having found the work "a bit too limited," he left to join some Brooks friends in New York City, working for a few years as an assistant for advertising and fashion photographers. He recalls feeling "caged up" in their studios when he really wanted to be seeing the world.
Harrington moved back to Europe, staying in Zurich and Paris with his first wife who was a model, before relocating to Manhattan again. Leaving commercial work for editorial photography, he worked for the magazines of Time, Inc., and started shooting travel stories for The New York Times' Sophisticated Traveler section.
His editorial connections led to a major assignment for Time-Life Books shooting Scandinavia, then a National Geographic book chapter on the ancient architecture of the Greek and Roman empires. The magazine assignments and European trips allowed him to build a stock collection, a reputation and a list of contacts, all of which he continues to mine today with assignments and self-assigned trips. During his 30-plus years as a photographer, he has visited 50 countries and shot for magazines, book publishers, travel catalogs, calendars, corporations and many other clients.
Along with the travel experience, his years in advertising, fashion and editorial led to development of a technique for photographing people and places. His pictures certainly display a masterly grasp of the craft, but they also convey a sense of place and unique experience that prompts viewers to get up out of their armchairs.
Alabama photographer Milton Fullman describes an Austrian photo of Harrington's that has that effect: "He knows how to place the power points in a picture where it jumps off the page," says Fullman, president of the Society of American Travel Writers. "It makes you want to be there, just jump in the car and go."
The Austrian lake and village that Fullman describes are on the cover of the 2003 SATW calendar, which recently honored Harrington with its 2005 Travel Photographer of the Year award. At the award ceremony in Switzerland in September 2004, Harrington said that he was moved by the honor and the "heartfelt comments about my work and really good, positive feedback." The recognition, he says, "makes you feel that you're doing something worthwhile."
"Blaine is a classic travel photographer with an eye for detail, design and color," says friend and colleague Jack Hollingsworth. "This guy knows his stuff."
"I've looked at Blaine's pictures for years and have always loved being a student of his, the way he sees a destination and the people," Fullman says. "He puts forth a lot of effort into his pictures, and it shows."
Harrington describes his technique as being informed by past work experiences that ranged from on-the-fly photojournalism to entirely staged advertising shoots.
"I like everything to be very realistic and believable, but some of my shots are completely found and some are completely set up," he says. "The bottom line is, I don't want the viewer to be able to tell the difference."
Measure twice, shoot once
There's a lot more behind Harrington's pictures that you won't see.
Months of planning typically will go into every four- to seven-week trip. He learns about the people, the culture and the history; how to get around, and how to fit in; how much time he'll need at each location, and how long it takes to get from one to the next; what to expect from the weather. Then he writes up a "shooting script" of the iconic shots he definitely needs from a location (when in Japan, you've got to get a geisha), other ideas for shots that have come from his research, and the right time to be in each place.
That last requirement is possibly the most difficult. "When you ask people about the direction of light, what direction a façade faces," he says, "most people just don't think about these things the way a photographer does." If he hits it wrong, valuable time has been wasted.
Increasingly, he says, his trips have become more tightly scheduled, not only to maximize the return on the investment but to get the job done so that he can get back to his family in Colorado. He and Maureen, a hospital nurse, and their two children make regular sacrifices for his travel-based career.
When all the planning comes together, the subject is in focus, and the weather is right, stepping behind the lens seems to complete the experience for him.
"I wait for the decisive moment and sometimes get the shot in one frame," he explains. "It's more deliberate shooting, more Zen-like." Guides have commented on the fact that he doesn't just shoot constantly, as some photographers do.
"Knowing photography and knowing your subject matter helps you determine what's going to happen," he explains. He calls it "pre-visualization." If he can picture the perfect shot in his mind, he won't always leave the outcome to chance. "Occasionally you see it happen but, sometimes, I'll set it up because I know it will be a great shot."
Then there are the times when the weather dictates that a planned shot just isn't going to happen. "The surprising thing is how many really good images are shot in less than optimal circumstances," he says. "It's very hard mentally sometimes. You don't have a crystal ball, and you're on pins and needles because you don't know if you should cut and run, which I've done, or wait it out."
On a trip to Scotland, for instance, menacing clouds chased all the glow from a planned shooting day — almost. On the horizon, a chink in the sky's black armor hinted at vulnerability, and he tracked its progress across the landscape, seeking a vantage point from which to exploit any exposure. "Out of this totally black sky, heavy contrast, a little streak of light came through and hit this castle," he recalls. The resulting photo of a castle bathed in golden light and backed by the dark sky "made my day, because nothing else was happening." It was a combination of preparation, flexibility and experience that he says a good photographer must take to work every day.
Eye to eye
The camera itself usually is enough to provide a great entry to meeting local people or gaining access to forbidden places, Harrington says, but guides and translators who know the territory are a big help. Just having another person to tap you on the shoulder and alert you to something interesting while you're behind the camera is also a benefit. "Sometimes serendipity happens," he says. "You turn [in] the other direction, and bingo!"
Even a de facto guide can be of help, he says. In one instance, a Chinese taxi driver he hired to pick him up at 4 a.m. accompanied him with flashlights to beat the sunrise to the Great Wall. "It's such a thrill to be all alone, in the quiet and solitude, and to have something as majestic as the Great Wall of China all to yourself." On the way back from their shoot, they passed busloads of tourists, he recalled.
A travel adventure really gains meaning, he says, when he can connect with the local people. Through photography, he has shown his children — Blaine IV, who is 12, and Lauren, 9 — the children of the world, and has created friends around the globe. "Being visual and looking at the world the way I do," he says, "I hope some of that rubs off."
People have told Harrington that he's an equally strong photographer of people as he is of landscapes, which is perhaps due to his zeal for capturing another way of life. He says that a good portrait starts with trust. "People have to feel comfortable with you and trust you to allow you to make a true photo of them," he explains.
"When I'm shooting up close, I make eye contact with the person the whole time. Sometimes I shoot with the camera away from my eye, so that I can keep making eye contact." His goal is to photograph people he finds "beautiful or interesting," and to show them respect. "I want them to take it as a compliment that I want to photograph them."
Sometimes it's the relationship with people behind the camera that informs his understanding of a place, such as in a recent trip to Japan. He experienced people who "look right through you, like you're a ghost," but "at certain moments there was such kindness." In a modern Tokyo neighborhood, he was capturing a Godzilla-size spider sculpture poised at the base of a glitzy office tower. A Japanese man walked up to him, leaned over his camera and said "Nikon," then pulled out of his backpack a 16mm fisheye lens, better for capturing the massive sculpture than Harrington's wide-angle lens. "It was so surreal," he says. "I took six or eight shots with the lens, handed it back to him, and then he walked away."
Getting to the Great Wall, the giant spider sculpture or the cover of the SATW calendar is an ongoing journey of learning and adaptation, Harrington says, and one that does not suit everybody. "The hours are long and the gear is heavy," he warns. "I stay in good cardiovascular shape, which is important."
The physical and mental stamina needed on the road are only a part of it. When in his Colorado office, he's cataloging photos; captioning and editing; scanning the photos, maybe working on a picture's color saturation in Photoshop; marketing his last trip while planning his next; managing his stock requests; billing and doing self-promotion; and considering the challenges of switching to digital, a leap he has not yet made.
"People who think they are going to save money and save time by shooting digitally are wrong," he says. "I think it will be a whole lot more work." He says the satisfaction of producing consistently high-quality work has not led him to believe that he needs to change, but clients might force him to overcome his skepticism. "I just turned 50 and have been doing this a long time," he says. "It causes you to pause and reflect, is this worth my time and effort?"
Whether they are shooting analog or digital, he advises photographers to travel light. "Some photographers believe they need to bring tons of equipment to a shoot," he says. "In general, I prefer to be a minimalist. In most cases, a great photo comes from the eye of the creator, not the person with the most gear." Harrington says that he prefers not to use a tripod because "it anchors me too much in one place." Low light or windy conditions are the exception, he says.
Staying nimble also may mean getting right into the action. He tells of shooting the running of the bulls at Pamplona, Spain, from a ground-level open slat in a barrier that the bulls would often crash into while making a turn through the narrow streets. On his recent Japan trip, he wanted to shoot a parade so, in true journalist style, he walked backward down the middle of the street to capture the action. "The tourism official got a little ticked about that," he recalls, "but you can't be meek and be a photographer. You just have to go and get it. I realized after that, that it was impossible to travel in Japan and worry about what the locals thought and still get meaningful pictures."
For Harrington, that sometimes means getting into the action even without his camera. "Some days, I would run with the bulls, some days I would shoot," he says about his multiple trips to Pamplona. He has skied and hiked the Haute Route in the Alps, plunged from the world's highest bungee jump in New Zealand and scuba-dived Australia's Great Barrier Reef. He believes that "serious travelers thrive on the experience."
Sharing the experience
When he meets other photographers on the road, he says, sharing stories is a great pleasure. He believes that photographers should share tips, as well. "Never be afraid to tell other photographers what you know," he advises. "Be open to discussing all aspects of creativity and the business with your potential competitors." When preparing to shoot a location for the first time, he says, he'll often ask another photographer about the light, best time of day or other details needed for scheduling.
It isn't easy to get him to reveal his favorite destination: "I don't have one favorite country or location, because every region of the world is so different," he explains. "Some places I like because of the people: Ireland, for example.Others for the stunning scenery, like Norway or Switzerland. For the biggest contrast and most visually exciting, I'd have to say India is my favorite. It involves all the senses."
As with many seasoned travelers, the most exciting place to Harrington seems to be the most recent one that he has visited, but he has lasting memories of people and places that demonstrate how easy it is for the lens to capture the entire world. "I love small-world stories," Harrington says.
One such example relates to his Irish heritage. He was shooting in County Cork, an area where "there seem to be a lot of Harringtons who own pubs." He walked into one and came upon an iconic Irish setting. "There were five or six guys at the bar, straight out of Central Casting," he says. "One guy I was really interested in photographing. I told him I was a Harrington, and that's all it took. I went behind the bar and shot all these old guys with natural light."
The story doesn't end there, of course. The photo ended up in his portfolio, which happened to be in his hands when he was in a meeting at a big New York ad agency years later. The creative director was originally from Ireland, coincidentally from that small village in County Cork, and knew by name every character in the photo. "And we were meeting to talk about photographing India!" Harrington recalls. "It's all these various experiences that make it interesting and make it worthwhile."
IN THE LOUPE: Blaine Harrington III
Office: Littleton, Colo.
Gear: Nikon F100 and F4 bodies, Nikkor 20-35, 35-70 and 80-200mm zooms; Nikon flash and Lumedynes; Bogen carbon fiber tripods.
Film: Primarily Fuji slide films, including Velvia, Velvia 100 and Provia 400.
Stock: Images from more than 50 countries, specializing in Europe, with a growing emphasis on Asia. Recent coverage: Greece, Turkey, Italy, Switzerland, Ireland, Japan and the Rocky Mountain region of the United States.
Upcoming trips: Alaska. "Any places where you have midnight sun, it gets a bit kooky," he says. "You're always awake and can't afford to sleep or you'll miss a shot. You come into some port at four in the morning and the light is just happening — you hate to miss it!" Also, Costa Rica and British Columbia.
Pet peeves: 1) Adventure travelers who "want to shoot for the North Face company, and trade their services for sleeping bags." 2) When photographing a person, "it's very uncomfortable when another person comes along and says, ‘Oh, that's a great shot, I'll shoot it too.' . . . You're trying to get eye contact, and the eyes are going all over. Happens quite often."
Advice for travel photographers: Don't let the stock agencies dictate your style. "You can't just follow the latest trend," he says. "At various times things fall in and out of fashion." Also: "It takes some time to really see which [images] are the best of the bunch. You find which ones have common appeal to people, [but it] may be obvious only a few years later."
Favorite vacation spot: "There is no true vacation for a travel photographer."