Brownie Harris, a Wilmington resident since 1994, has amassed over 45 years worth of work, which is currently on display at CFCC’s Wilma W. Daniels Gallery. It opened on January 23 to a crowd of around 350 people. It will be viewable through March 13 in an exhibit entitled “Brownie Harris: A 45 Year Retrospective.”
Harris’ visual prowess had humble beginnings. At 13 years old, he took his first photograph, which was of a rabbit, with his father’s 35mm Tashika camera. From that point on, Harris knew his future was in photography. He went on to receive a BFA in communication arts and design from Virginia Commonwealth University. After a brief stint of owning a farm, Harris moved to NYC with a mere $200 to his name in 1971. After undertaking endeavors as a freelance graphic artist, cab driver and even a few odd jobs painting lofts, Harris landed a position with WNET/Thirteen/New York/PBS and upstarted their photography department. From there, the 22-year-old’s life became a whirlwind of activity, as he was flown all over the country to take photos of celebrities and enlisted to do commercial work and dance photography.
Harris’ photos have graced the covers of publications like The New York Times, and his shoot with John F. Kennedy Jr. even was chosen out of 6,000 photographs as inspiration for the painting done after his death. It currently hangs in the JFK Museum in Hyannis. The photograph was taken 11 years prior in JFK Jr.’s first studio shoot since his father’s time in the White House. He was 27 years old at the time.
“He said, ‘I don’t know what to do,’” Harris details. “And I said, ‘You don’t have to do anything. Put your suit on, Jack.’” Harris gestures toward a set of negatives from early on in the shoot in which JFK looks like a deer caught in headlights. He then turns toward the two full-sized portraits that are prominently featured in the exhibit. JFK Jr.’s childlike naïveté transforms into a debonair look of a man poised for greatness.
“Look what he gave me 20 minutes later. It’s like what he was going to look like in the future. There has to be that connection between [photographer] and subject, so you can bring maybe the character and spirit of the person out instead of just a mere likeness. He was a kid there and 20 minutes later…”
For Harris, telling a story and forging that connection proves key in his portraiture work. A black-and-white photo of Miles Davis encompasses only the legend’s face, but manages to capture the turmoil of his life. The shadows, augmented by the black-and-white coloring, create a contrast between the two sides of his face.
“Miles Davis was addicted to heroin,” Harris elaborates. “He died of an overdose a couple years after this, and look at the two sides of his face. There’s a blister on his lip from the trumpet.”
Harris also photographed famed pop-artist Andy Warhol. Throughout the whole shoot, Warhol didn’t say a word. In the photo Warhol straddles a chair that’s turned backward. “I made him turn the chair around. It looks like he’s in his won prison—which he really sort of was, you know,” Harris tells.
The photo would go on to be featured on the cover of the second edition of USA Today in 1982. With such a long career in the photo biz, it’s not surprising that Harris has first-hand experience with the drastic shifts in technology.
“They said they were going to scan the photograph,” Harris says. “I said, ‘What is scanning?’ We’re talking about 1982. [They said, ‘You’re gonna send this photograph in zeros and ones to a satellite, and then from the satellite to your printer.’ It was the first time that was done, and I thought this is crazy: How can you send a photograph to a satellite in zeros and ones. Now, it’s common.”
Harris also has an extensive collection of industrial photographs he took for companies like GE. Though not as intimate as a portraiture, Harris’ distinctive knack for generating a story still prevails. One photograph of the largest gas turbine in the world features a larger-than-life depiction of the machinery, with a much smaller man, wearing a red jumpsuit that was provided by Harris, who puts the size of the gas turbine into perspective. The photograph was lit using 18 strobe lights.
“It’s creating industry as art,” Harris muses.
After 23 years between New York and Paris, Harris settled down in Wilmington. He’s opened up a 4,000 sq. ft. studio locally, called “Studio ILM,” and worked in the camera department of the myriad productions that come to the Port City, such as “Revolution.” As well, since being in Wilmington, Harris has shown his philanthropic side with a nonprofit he began alongside Brett Martin. The organization, called “HeartsApart” supplies about-to-be-deployed service members with photographs of them and their families. They give them the images using bi-fold, weather-proof cards they can keep in their pockets while overseas. HeartsApart has grown to enlist the help of 350 photographers nationwide.
One “American Gothic” inspired picture from the organization is featured as part of the exhibit. It shows a man in his uniform next to his wife, who wears and apron and holds a red, white and blue broom.
“He’s protecting us; she’s protecting the home front,” Harris says.
Brownie Harris: A 45 Year Retrospective
Photography by Brownie Harris
Wilma W. Daniels Gallery, CFCC
On display through March 13