We’ve had a lot of photographers on the blog but none are quite like Hal Robert Myers. Hal brings an unpretentious dollop of cultural relevance to the UGallery table. Perhaps it’s his charm that makes his images so appealing. From the shores of his Orange County residence to the coast of Jamaica, Hal’s portfolio spans the globe and is a must-see for any travel/photography/culture junkie. In this Artist in Focus, we dive deep into what inspires Hal in order to gain context on his inspiring images.
What is your earliest art memory?
I’d have to say I was a writer first, which is a lot of what photography is about – telling a story. I won a creative writing contest in second grade. I think the story was about a tugboat overcoming extraordinary odds. You have to wonder, though: just a year earlier my dad asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said a big red truck. So heavy machinery was already having an influence.
What is your favorite camera to use?
Canon 5D. I’m tempted to say my current go-to, the Canon 5D MkII, but there’s something about that 5D that’s a bit like a Latina lover. I took it all over the Caribbean, from Cuba to Puerto Rico. I’m also starting to cheat on those with the Panasonic GX1, which is perfect for going incognito in crowds.
Regardless of time or place, what is one event/person/place you wish you could capture?
I hate war; I watch World War II battles on the History Channel. I live for sunshine and warmth, yet I run around with a camera at night. It’s upside-down, but I would like to shoot in a war zone at night. I know, it’s about the adrenaline. But mostly, it’s about seeking the truth. It’s about parachuting into a world in which all of our pretenses have been peeled away, skinned from the apple… completely exposed, our strengths and weaknesses brought into their sharpest relief. I’ve been to places like that where there wasn’t even a war. Naked. Honest. Inevitable. It’s amazing what you confront in the world by forcing yourself to observe it.
Have you ever felt endangered while taking pictures?
Once, in Haiti. I was shooting the colorful, dilapidated textures of a building in the center of Petionville, above Port-au-Prince. I sometimes take a “fixer” into situations like this, knowing they can double as a bodyguard if things get dicey. Sure enough, one of the locals took offense at my camera and became very aggressive. Fortunately, he calmed down as we circled the building, Bruno the fixer between us. Turns out the man’s anger had bubbled over from a deep sense of shame he felt in the local living conditions. And there I was, shooting “art.” It’s so important to be respectful of local morés, and I had clearly been insensitive. In fact, my intent is never to exploit a location but to celebrate its cultural value, or to shed light in a way that reveals a unique or intriguing perspective. While that building symbolized something larger than I even realized at the time, I immediately deleted the images.
For you, what is good composition and how do you spot it?
First, it sounds pretentious (perhaps I do need a war) but composition is nearly impossible to teach. Which also gets at the answer: witnessing good composition is like recognizing a beautiful piece of music, which delights for its content, can be interpreted in various ways and tends to reference the larger human condition. Anyone can say that Cartier-Bresson’s Behind the Gare St. Lazare is a “decisive moment,” but it takes recognizing how the image is orchestrated like a ballet that makes the picture so extraordinary. In my mind, that requires a certain amount of life experience. More interesting is when we view something that’s seemingly off-kilter and still know in our soul that it’s great. That’s more innate, and often quite personal. In the end, I think good composition is something you recognize because you can, but perhaps weren’t always able to.
Your Paperwork print, Rosita’s Grandparents, is wrought with emotions. Which of your photographs evokes the most emotions from you?
I took an interesting series of portraits in Jamaica. I think they really speak to that honesty I was mentioning. The contours of the men’s faces and the topography of their expressions spoke volumes, as if the heritage of each could be traced back in time, not only through their lives but to the birthplace of Rastafarianism in Ethiopia.
In your travels, what do you look for in a group of people to differentiate one culture from another? What stands out the most from one place to the next?
I live in Orange County, CA, which might be described as one of America’s more white bread locations. And that concerns me, as I see the perceived idealisms of Southern California, and Americana at large, being exported in a way that is threatening to franchise the world into homogenization. So much of what makes life interesting is a culture’s unique inheritance, continually recreated in its clothing, food, art, music, festivals and local traditions. While I’m as wired up with technology as the average Valley girl, I’d prefer if we all took a more preservationist view to the seemingly hell-bent attempt to make life better for all by knitting the fabric of every culture together to the point of becoming manufactured apparel. Whew!
You just uploaded a new series of photographs from London. You told me earlier that they “are a real study in contrasts.” Can you explain this a little more?
British history is, in some ways, world history, or at least during the last several centuries. We’re not used to that sort of historical depth in the U.S. It seemed each time I shot something of interest in London something of a more permanent or historical significance stood in contrast within the frame. Witness the shot of Westminster Palace with a fuel-efficient smart car parked in front. Or Trafalgar Square with Admiral Nelson lording over an empire that attempted to subjugate the Chinese – yet there’s a sign on his statue written in kanji and Chinese merrymakers celebrating below, having taken over the square. In fact, Lord Nelson is credited with conquering both the French and Spanish armadas from that vantage point (well, a little lower… he was only 5’4”), and yet the eye is attracted to the innocence of a red balloon floating by. I find all those elements working together to be ironic, if not paradoxical. Even the gentleman under the blue umbrella is strolling alongside what is probably a roadway originally built by the Romans (circa. 200 AD). I think Londoners must be used to all of this. Another week there and I may have been, too. Which is why it’s important to hit the ground shooting.
What interesting projects are you working on? Where is your next travel destination?
I’ll be visiting Chiapas, Mexico, in July – one year after taking the image of Rosita’s Grandparents. Sadly, her grandfather recently died… but the trip will be one of celebration, as Rosita is now getting married in a traditional wedding in her village. This will be an exciting and rare opportunity for a foreigner to witness. I’m also contemplating a trip to Lebanon in the fall. I have located a Muslim village in the middle of a Christian enclave to the north and that to me is a refreshingly hopeful story to tell – how the two have put aside their religious differences to coexist peacefully in a region generally plagued by sectarian conflict. It also happens to be close to Syria, so I need to be careful.
What is one word to describe your art?
What do you want people to know about you or your art?
See the layers in the composition, if possible… and look beneath the layers whenever you can.
For fun, what is your favorite cuisine?
Sashimi. But I have enjoyed duck beaks in Laos (with beer) and eaten monkey brains in Thailand. I’ll take you to dinner if you’re ever in town!
That sounds great, Hal. I never turn down a dinner, especially if it involves art talk over obscure dishes. Wish you could join us? For tasty photo takes instead, you can check out Hal Robert Myers’ first place prize on Island magazine and his Jamaican portrait slideshow. It’s worth a watch!