Cig Harvey lives on a farm in rural Maine, where she photographs the people and places around her. Harvey’s photos often feature bright, saturated colors and a touch of surrealism, as she tries to find magic in the mundane. His latest book is Blue Violetan exploration of mourning through flowers and colors.
Your latest book Blue Violet, features bright, color-saturated photos, but it’s really a book about grief. How did this project start?
A friend was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia at 36, and she entered an isolation unit, where everything is super sterile, for six weeks. It was summer in Maine, and she was in Boston, and she said, “Send me some pictures.” So I sent him a photo; it was that wild, voracious bush that was blooming. And she said, “Send me more.” I wasn’t going to send him any B&W work; I wasn’t going to send her anything that wouldn’t bring her joy. So it became this habit of sending photos every day, and then it became its own thing, where it was this idea of celebrating the senses. I worked with flowers because they touch all the senses. Originally, the book was organized by the senses: sight obviously, but also touch, the feeling of things, like lamb’s ears; then taste, the idea of cooking with flowers and eating flowers. I thought I wouldn’t have anything to write about sound and flowers, but there was so much there that this was actually one of the most interesting chapters.
I wanted to send her lifeful things, but then I realized it wasn’t just about her and me and our relationship, it was about trying to live more, trying to appreciate each day more and transmit this joy to others.
There are 72 pictures in Blue Violet. How long did it take to sequence the book? Did you do large prints and small prints; have you arranged them in a large space…?
I have a room in an old school about 10 miles from here, and I keep it really minimal. I make prints continuously; prints small enough that I can move things around. Then I sequence the text; I also print all the texts, so it’s very practical analog. I print the text on white Xerox paper, and the prints are 5×7 or 8×10, then I try to do the sequence puzzle. It is a very slow and exhausting process.
I often think there can be multiple sequences, but it also seems like there should only be one. And because the text and the image don’t happen at the same time, but I want them to be woven together, it can be a real headache. But I like it all; I love this puzzle. And I would always sequence my own books rather than having a publisher do it.
We are still in the midst of COVID-19, and there is the war in Ukraine currently unfolding. How does art respond to this?
More and more, as I get older, I feel like that’s the central theme of my raison d’être: the idea that we can unite on certain things. Our politics may be very different, but we can unite on nature and what is considered beautiful. Years ago, I was on a beach in Florida, on Sanibel Island, and every night at sunset, people gather on the beach and cheer for the sunset. They count, ten, nine, eight… It’s just nature doing its job, but the light and the colors are beautiful.
I think art can kind of help create the repair. Last year, throughout COVID-19, I did night screenings in my city. I had to do it for four days; it was right around election time, and COVID was skyrocketing, and the clocks were rolling back. So I started doing these projections on a 50-by-30-foot wall downtown; bright pink flowers and all the work of Blue Violet. It was the emotional high point of my career because people were driving home – not the people who usually go to an art gallery – and stopping and stopping. It became this event that people went to at night. I did it for four months, every night. I watched people and saw that it helped somehow.
You grew up in a rural area of Devon, England, surrounded by nature. How did this upbringing influence you and your interests as an artist?
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I believe photographers don’t choose our projects or what photographically obsesses us, it’s just within us. I don’t know if that’s why, but I know that the natural world is absolutely integral to my work. I lived in a city for 10 years, and a photo made it into one of my books. I love the city for several reasons, but I don’t work there at all. And I’ve tried and tried, but that’s just not what’s in me. I think Devon is in many ways similar to Maine; it is a similar landscape. I think the blueberry moors here are related to the moors; this kind of wild landscape that is so full of metaphor and symbolism.
I found an article with photos of your house, which is beautiful. It looks like a lot of pictures in Blue Violet were taken in your garden around your house.
If they’re not made within a mile of my house, they’re very close. There are a few photos I’ve taken on my travels, but I try to make them feel like they could have been taken anywhere rather than specific to that location. So there are no palm trees in my last 20 years of work. I truly believe that if we can live wide-eyed and awake at home, the same way we do when we travel, when all of our senses fire because things are new; if we can try to live that way, that’s an amazing way to live a life. And photography helps me. It makes me more aware and more present and more grateful for the light on a picnic table.
Right now, we’ve only just hit spring here in Maine, but the forsythia and magnolias are about to burst. They are not exotic flowers, but I think they are extraordinary. So I try to do everything at home.
Flowers are a popular subject for beginner photographers. But there are some amazing photographers who have photographed flowers, like Imogen Cunningham and Robert Mapplethorpe. Are photos of flowers considered less serious?
I think it’s interesting, there’s this hierarchy of what can be photographed. It’s snobbery. I really think flowers have fallen into the realm of the feminine and sometimes we know that what’s feminine is kind of denigrated and not seen as important. I like to turn it all on its head. For me, it’s all about metaphor and symbolism. If you look at the history of art, you know that the way artists have used the symbolism of flowers through the ages is fascinating and glorious, and the secret history, the secret language of flowers, goes back to the Victorian.
As I mentioned before, this book is all about flowers, but it’s not about flowers. It is about being and dying. My best friend was dying, and this is what I sent her. That’s about as serious as it gets.
The third printing of ‘Blue Violet’ is now available.