SUN Editions interview: Simon Harsent


Simon Harsent has balanced international success in advertising with commitment to his personal art practice in photography.

He spoke to Sunroom about his limited edition print collection exclusively available through SUN Editions, a new curated online photography gallery by SUNSTUDIOS Australia.


The Tears of Hinehukatere (1) by Simon Harsent | Available exclusively through SUN Editions

What role has photography played in your life?

I started taking pictures at a very young age and I've never wanted to do anything else since I developed my first roll of film - it was a transformative experience. Photography has been part of my life for so long I don't remember a time when it wasn't.

Being a photographer is who I am. It's the way I express myself and it's how I earn a living. There isn't a day that goes by where I'm not doing something related to photography and I couldn't imagine life without it.

I don't have a single agenda with my work, it's the exploratory aspect of the craft that excites me, finding something new, a new way of seeing.

I love having the ability to express myself through my work. Obviously there are other things at play - how I shoot, what I shoot and the subject matters.

The main theme around my personal work is the decisions we make and the paths those decisions lead us on - how a decision we make today has the potential to define the rest of our life.

I've lived in England, Australia and the United States. I've traveled to more countries than I can remember, had some of the most amazing encounters and I've met some incredible people through photography. It has not only provided me with a myriad of experiences - it has, and continues to, shape the person I am.

Photography in its basic form is a visual art, and as all art does, it brings with it different interpretations and responses to the work which relies on the artist who creates it and also the viewer who absorbs it.

The value that photography as an art form has in our society is incredibly important, it is part of our culture. I've been collecting photography for many years now and my collection is very specific. I think collectors need to tailor their collection to personal taste rather than a trend. If you are going to live with a piece of work it needs to speak to you in some way then its value is far more than just dollars and cents.


The Tears of Hinehukatere (2) by Simon Harsent | Available exclusively through SUN Editions

What are your three top ingredients in a photograph that you most value when looking at your own images or the images of others?

I don't think there are set ingredients. Formulas can be a downfall for a lot of artists. My taste in the medium is varied (as it is in all the arts). I like lots of different types of photography and because of that it's hard to put my finger on exactly why other people's images appeal to me.

First and foremost it has to speak to me in some way. It has to move me the same way a beautiful piece of music can. It's a sensibility that is hard to explain but you can tell when you see a great picture or series of pictures straight away - it's something that sparks the senses.

A great photograph like all great art can speak to different people in different ways. It's not about a pretty well-composed picture. It's about how that picture makes you feel.

When it comes to my own work it's the same, I guess I've been doing it so long now I know what I'm looking for when I'm out working on a project, so most of my shooting is done in response to what I see. When I see the result you just intuitively know when you have something.

I also enjoy different aspects of photography in my own practice. I love shooting portraits, I enjoy the interaction between myself and the sitter, I also love the solitude of shooting landscape work. I'm equally happy in a studio photographing someone's portrait as I am when working on landscapes. Having both gives me the balance that I need not only my work but also my life.


Waterfall Franz Josef Glacier by Simon Harsent | Available exclusively through SUN Editions

Which moments, relationships or projects have impacted most on your approach to photography?

I'm not sure moments relationships projects have impacted my approach but all three have definitely helped me as a person so in turn I guess that has impacted my work.

Family and friends are the most important thing to me, having the support of my family from a very early age to pursue a life as a photographer was an incredible gift. It enables one a freedom to live a life that is in some ways quite selfish but without judgement from those who you love most.

I've lived in different countries away from my immediate family since I was 21 but never received anything but love and support and as a parent myself I know how hard that would have been, especially for my mum.

Times spent with my son became very important to me when I was in New York. I'd visit him every school holiday we would go on walks and road trips and in those times I produced a lot of work that I look back on now and realise was and still is very important to my growth. One of the bodies of work I produced during this time was 'Salt Moon' which years later became a book in collaboration with my father. 'The Beautiful Game' project came out of that period as well.

'Melt: Portrait of an Iceberg' was a defining project for me. It was my first book and the first time I'd used my own journey as a metaphor in my work. It felt as if everything started to come together after the book was published.


Snowy Mountains by Simon Harsent | Available exclusively through SUN Editions

Your father is a poet. Did that influence your creative expression?

Absolutely. Without question my father has been my biggest inspiration and influence.

Poetry and photography to me are very similar art forms, they are both about expression and not always about what is on the surface. They are a way of showing someone something in a way that evokes emotion.

I learned everything from my father, not only sensibility but about expression and how to translate that through an artistic practice.

Just being in his presence when I was a child was one of the most important things that has happened to me. When I was a kid I used to sit with him in his study while he wrote, I would sit quietly in the corner looking through art books of painters such as Rembrandt, Van Gough, Pollock - the list is endless.

Those quiet moments with my father taught me something you could never learn at art school: an appreciation to be able to sit with, look at, and study art without really knowing you were was priceless. Ever since then I have tried to find work that moves me and to spend time with it, absorb it.

But I think the most important thing I learned was not to fear expressing myself.

Collaborations with my father are some of the most magical moments in my career. Our first was a poem he wrote in response to a seriesI had made called 'Into the Abyss'. The second was a project we did together for WWF.

Last year we published our first book together called Salt Moon. I made the pictures in 2006 while walking along the headland in Burleigh Queensland with my son. At the time we talked about the work a lot, years later David was looking at them again and something sparked in him. He began to write poems responding to the photographs. The end result is Salt Moon which was published by Guillemot Press in the UK.


Miami QLD by Simon Harsent | Available exclusively through SUN Editions

What was involved in making and deciding on your SUN Editions collection?

It was a challenge choosing only nine images but I knew from the outset I didn't just want to use images from one series for the collection.

I chose key images that offered insight into my diverse bodies of work, treating it like a "greatest hits".

The work you've included to sell within your SUN Editions collection is primarily unpopulated landscapes and cityscapes – but ranging from the grand to the nuanced and understated urban everyday. What role do environmental images play in your portfolio?

Sometimes I work in a series of images, sometimes in the single image. The beauty in photography for me is finding that image that sparks something that makes me want to pursue an idea or theme.

I tend to approach landscape and a portrait in a very similar manner. To me it's about centering yourself, finding a way of being in harmony with what is around you, whether that be a landscape or a person.

My landscapes are mostly void of people because I want the viewer to concentrate on the environment rather than the people in it. It is a very conscious decision and often I wait for hours for people to move out of the frame.

For example my project of football grounds 'The Beautiful Game' was about the stadiums and their role in the landscape. If people were in those images they would have taken on a completely different meaning.

My approach to both portraits and landscapes involves a lot of looking, I'm not a photographer who runs around snapping. There is nothing wrong with that, I just prefer to be more considered in my approach and take my time.

Obviously there is interaction involved in a portrait sitting but I like this to be calm and considered. I don't direct the sitter very much. Normally it involves a conversation and I shoot around that. With my approach to a landscape I'll walk around where I think I want to shoot from and study the view. I'll take my time even before I get the camera out, try to get to know my surroundings and have a feel for the place.

With both portraits and landscapes it has to be calm, I don't have loud music playing in the studio if I'm doing a portrait and when I'm driving around looking for a location I normally do this in silence - I don't want any external forces interrupting my thought process or influencing my feelings.

Patience is key to what I do with both landscapes and portraits, I take my time and allow the pictures to show themselves to me.

Also, having a genuine interest is really important, if I feel a disconnect with a sitter or a landscape I rarely get a great shot.


Black Star Kangaroo Valley by Simon Harsent | Available exclusively through SUN Editions

Your image Black Star Kangaroo Valley was recognised as a finalist work within the 2018 Moran Contemporary Photographic Prize. What did that mean to you and is there a story behind this image?

Black Star is a friend's property in the Kangaroo Valley. I love the valley, it was the first place I visited after I first came to Sydney many years ago. It's a magical place and I fell in love with it straight away.

Years later one of my closest friends bought some land there and his wife has built the most amazing house on it. This picture was taken when my friend David and I went down to see the progress on the house. Top soil had just been laid on the newly excavated land, we stayed the night and woke in the morning to mist rolling through the landscape, the wind was pushing the thick fog through and lifting the topsoil.

It was just one of those images that presents itself to you.

These stumbled upon images form an ongoing body of work titled 'Nothing Random'. They are at times images I find while out shooting a different project or in this instance an image that presents itself and marks a time and a place.

It's always nice to have work recognised but I do feel too much importance is placed on awards and prizes.

The sad reality is that shows like the Moran are one of the only ways for photographers to get their work recognised by a larger audience, and given the prize money a lot of importance and prestige is placed on prizes like this. Personally, I'm not a fan of art being turned into a competitive sport. The nature of award shows means different practices are judged against each other to select an overall winner. I'm not sure how different disciplines can be fairly judged against each other, different photographs are taken for different reasons and have different importance so lumping them all into one show and selecting a winner feels contrary to what I believe in, for that reason I battle with awards and prizes and find them a necessary evil.

Personally I think award shows should be regarded as a form of recognition but unfortunately these days they are seen by many as a validation. Basically they are a competition where photographers are pitted against photographers and I'm not sure how healthy that is in the arts.


Greenpoint NY by Simon Harsent | Available exclusively through SUN Editions

Was Green Point NY made near your studio in the United States? What does that area mean to you and your practice?

Generally speaking my landscape work tends to be in series but it can be inspired by a single image that I might take. I always feel compelled to document the areas where I live and work, for the most part I like to do this with fresh eyes, before I've lived in the place too long and become too familiar with it. I did the same thing recently when I moved my base back to Marrickville in Sydney after 20 years in New York, that project lasted nearly four years and hopefully will be my next book.

Working this way allows me to operate in a way of reacting rather than trying to think myself into work.

This was the case with Greenpoint. I was living in Greenpoint and my studio was a short walk away in Williamsburg, quite often on the way to the studio I'd walk with a camera and just shoot the things that drew my attention hoping that an image might lead to something.

Is printed work still important to you in a digital era?

Absolutely, probably even more so, it's tactile and for me it's the way I envisage the work being seen when I make it. A printed piece forces one to really look at it, it draws you in and has longevity not only to the physical sense but in the time one can spend with it.

Good art is like fine wine - it needs to be savoured, shared and experienced. For me this can only be achieved in seeing something in its physical form.

There really is nothing quite like seeing an original work of art on a wall. That's why galleries are packed these days - people want to see original work the way the artist intended it to be seen.

I look at stuff online all the time but the work feels insignificant in comparison to seeing it in the flesh, I think work just gets lost when viewed online, especially platforms like instagram even the greatest picture ever would get lost on it, it's instant gratification that really has no lasting effect.

To me nothing is more satisfying than seeing my work hung in galleries or someone's home, letters and messages I've received from people who have my work hanging in their homes are far more rewarding than any awards I've ever won.

Above my desk is a letter I received from Seamus Heaney. I was lucky to spend time with him and photograph him. I sent him prints from the portrait sitting, and he was so taken by the images and quality of the prints he wrote me the most beautiful letter which is my most treasured possession. It sits above my desk as a reminder of the impact work can have and the experiences that are shared are really the reason I do what I do.


Khancoban by Simon Harsent | Available exclusively through SUN Editions

Simon Harsent's collection is exclusively available through SUN Editions: own exclusive fine art prints by Australia's leading contemporary artists. A new curated online photography gallery by SUNSTUDIOS Australia.