In the early 1990s, photographer David Alan Harvey worked on a profile of the famous American painter Andrew Wyeth for National Geographic magazine. Wyeth passed away last month and so I’ve asked David to recount his experience on the assignment.
David Griffin: National Geographic rarely does living biographies, why do you think Wyeth was seen as an exception and worthy of coverage by NGM?
David Alan Harvey: I think Andrew Wyeth represents in an artistic way a real Americana. His painted "fantasies" are probably the dreams of many Americans. So many Americans feel tied to rural roots, whether they actually grew up on the farm or not. On top of that, his work is quite comprehensible and he was indeed a living legend.
DG: How long was the assignment?
DAH: I had very few shooting days due to the elusiveness of Wyeth himself. He loved to play cat and mouse. He tested my resolve, because he denied most photographers access to his life. I think I was on that assignment for six weeks. I mostly waited. It took all of my ability and patience and "public relations" skills to make this story work. I only shot 35 rolls of black & white film. This story was literally "one picture at a time."
DG: What was Wyeth like to work with? Was he easy to approach?
DAH: Andy was a prankster. Like a young boy. He always wanted to throw me off track, and see if I could pick up on it. For him the whole process was a game. But I liked him. I can be pretty playful myself!
DG: At one point you met Helga, his famous model. How did Andrew and she interact?
DAH: I never thought in a million years I would see Helga, much less photograph her. I only shot three frames of her with Andy. He "gave" me the picture that was in the magazine. So there was no real way for me to know how they interacted. Since he painted about a hundred nudes of her, I would imagine they interacted just fine.
DG: What was your favorite image from the coverage, and why is it so?
DAH: I liked the shot of Andy coming through the window. THAT was Andy. He was out on the roof just walking around dangerously. Again, like an errant child. When he came back through the window, I was there. One frame. Literally.
DG: Earlier you mentioned shooting this in B&W, what was the thinking behind this decision?
DAH: I convinced the editor to go with black & white for one simple reason: I knew the coverage would be mostly Wyeth paintings on the page. I felt that my saturated Kodachrome look would just be garish up against his monochromatic paintings. My suggestion to the Editor was that if we went B&W that the Wyeth paintings would jump out and our photographs would stand on their own as well without conflicting with his work. I got the go-ahead for B&W in about 15 seconds.
DG: When you approached this, was your aesthetic choices for this shoot influenced by his painting style?
DAH: I had been influenced by Andrew Wyeth long before I ever knew I would shoot a story on him. I knew my work would blend with his no matter what I was thinking.
DG: You are an artist, did you feel a connection?
DAH: Absolutely. The only reason I could put up with Andy was because I could identify with him. I think he felt the same.
DG: Do you feel Wyeth recognized, acknowledged photography as an art form? Did he have any views on this?
DAH: He did not talk about photography. But I brought him a print of mine as a gift, and when I came back a few weeks later it was hanging in his living room. He was also friends with Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was the only other photographer who ever spent any amount of time with Andy.
DG: What was the strangest moment during your time with him?
DAH: The moment when he seated me next to Helga for Thanksgiving dinner. She was in disguise. In costume. I had no idea the woman next to me was Helga. Andy loved this joke. I guess she liked talking to me, so a few days later she showed up for the picture in the studio. I guess it always pays to be nice with whomever you are sitting at dinner whether you know who they are or not!
DG: Do you know how he reacted to the publishing of the story?
DAH: I never saw Andy again after the story. I heard the family was pleased.
DG: Was your later work (or life) influenced by Wyeth?
DAH: My life is always influenced by the people I meet. Both the well known and the unknown. What I loved about Andy was that he thought about nothing else but painting. His wife Betsy ran the "business." Without Betsy, Andy would probably not have sold a single painting. I saw the blend of art and commerce with this team. No one person can do both. But, it was Andy's freestyle way of living and playing and being very serious at the same time that both influenced and reinforced my overall life philosophy.
Check out David Alan Harvey’s new online blogazine, Burn.