VICE Loves Magnum: David Alan Harvey
David Alan Harvey discovered his love for photography at an early age and was talented enough to turn that love into a career. He first received recognition for his 1967 black-and-white self-published book, Tell It Like It Is, which documented the life of a poor family in Norfolk, Virginia, and he followed that up by traveling the world for years, shooting forNational Geographic and picking up the Magazine Photographer of the Year award from the National Press Photographer’s Association in 1978. He became a full-time member of the Magnum family relatively late in his career, in 1997.
Since then, he has continued to photograph all over the place as well as highlight the work of others via his web magazine and publishing house, burn. His new book, (based on a true story), is a beguiling visual story that acts as a sort of Rubik’s cube with pictures that can be placed in different orders. I caught up with him to chat about his secrets on life and photography.
From the book Divided Soul
VICE: I’ve read that you started shooting at a really early age.
David Alan Harvey: Yes. Lightning kind of struck when I was a kid. I mean, I was 11 or 12 and light bulbs just went off. So yeah, that was a lucky break—not just for photography, but for life in general, right? I had something to focus on early, so it kind of kept me out of trouble. Although, not completely [laughs].
Do you remember what originally attracted you to photography?
Well, I had polio when I was a child, so I was in an isolation ward in a hospital at the age of six. I was seriously in, like, solitary confinement because polio was a greatly feared disease at that time. The only thing I had going for me was that my grandmother and my mother would send me books to read and magazines with pictures, so that was my escape—books, magazines, a combination of literature and pictures. Pictures were in my life in a very real way early on. At some point, I got a camera—probably like every other kid did—but I also got a darkroom and I realized that I could do anything with a camera.
Rio de Janeiro, from the book (based on a true story)
Were there specific photographers whose work you enjoyed at the time?
I actually started looking at the work of European artists. I wasn’t too interested in 99 percent of American photographers, but I really enjoyed European art—the French Impressionists, for example, and the Italian and Dutch painters. All of these people really influenced me early on, just in the way that I looked at stuff.
The people I liked were those who were able to do something with nothing—painters, writers, and photographers. I looked into photography and I saw that there were sports photographers who needed an Olympian, fashion photographers who needed a model, and war photographers who needed a war. [Henri] Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, and [Marc] Riboud and those guys—they didn’t need anything. They would just look out the window or go to the garden.
In other words, the everyday life situation became a gold mine for these artists, and I gravitated towards the fact that you could take something right next to you and turn it into art or communication. I liked the integrity of journalism but I was always interested in photographs. Photographs didn’t have to communicate a great concept, they could just be.