Exploring the rolling green landscape of Murfreesboro, replete with miles of decaying early American estates, gave us a unique window into small-town life, it's charm and mystery. Photographer Leeta Harding's most recent work, is deeply rooted in the south and the history of America, which is what inspired our latest editorial collaboration. We spent a few days exploring the area and discussing the benefits and challenges of life there, and the development of her work. Read on...
Nativen: First tell me a little bit about where you're from, where you grew up.
Leeta: I grew up on the west coast of Canada in a fishing town called Campbell River. My roots were based in the land and I grew up riding a horse. My dad was a logger and my mom was a dressmaker. Growing up in the late '70s, photography, music, and nature were really the fundamentals. So when I moved to Vancouver in 1983, it was because of a David Bowie concert. My parents were free to let me go, they thought that I could handle life on my own. I was 15 and I did. And I really never looked back after that.
Nativen: Was there a moment in your life, an “aha” moment which made you realize that you want to pursue photography?
Leeta: At 20 I was backpacking in Europe and learning about European culture, going to Turkey and Greece and thinking, "God, this is such a huge world." It was the quest of the traveler; you're searching, you're looking and you're discovering. I was most comfortable behind the camera, because I was shy, I was able to observe people and I found out pretty quickly that I was good at photographing people because I was very easygoing and I put them at ease.
Then, after spending a month in Turkey, my girlfriends and I moved to London and got jobs illegally. I remember I was walking through Hyde Park and someone said, "What do you want to do?" And I was like, "Huh? I want to be in New York and be a photographer." I just said it matter of fact. I guess it was in my brain by that point that that's what I wanted to do.
Nativen: So when did you move to New York?
Leeta: I was 22 when I landed in New York and I knew that that was a place I could live because it was a melting pot of people just like me, searching, looking for an identity. I went to SVA for a little, and I knew that my background had to be art. I chose my education a la carte and I paid for all my classes on waitressing tips.
Straight out of art school I ended up working for Harper's Bazaar and then Index Magazine and then all the other glossies and downtown magazines. That was complete fluke in a weird way, but it was a time in the '90s that there weren't a whole lot of women out there doing that.
Nativen: What made you decide to leave New York in the end?
Leeta: After 20 years living in New York working for magazines and having a diagnosis of cancer and living through that, I knew I had reached an endpoint in my career that I didn't need to explore any further. I felt like I had done a lot of what I'd set out to do there, and that was a great feeling. I was just looking for change. I was tired, and I wanted quiet. It was 2008, and people were leaving in an exodus looking for life outside the city, and I knew I needed to be out in New York State. I wanted to try something completely different and my then boyfriend (who is now my husband) and I went on two trips across America photographing old abandoned theaters and diners and ghost towns, and I thought, "This is something I love to do, I love taking photographs but I don't need to be a commercial photographer, a magazine photographer anymore." I had reached my saturation point and I was just, again, that point of searching and wanting something new.
Nativen: How did you wind up in Murfreesboro?
Leeta: Serendipity brought us down here and we happened to find this house. It was the story of the house and the renovation project that enchanted us. We both had money, we were able to do it, so we spent two years in another world learning about the South. Looking back now, it was about the love of an old home, saving this home in a weird way. Maybe it was like saving myself or saving my soul, and wanting to be connected to land again, to have property, to have animals and let my dog run free and not walk her to Tompkins Square Park. I really wanted a quiet, simple life away from the art world and the fashion world.
Nativen: What effect did the move down south have on your work?
Leeta: It wasn't, I think, until I moved here that I was able to take all of my published work and put it aside and start again. Here I was able to work in isolation without any outside influence and strip myself of what I knew. All of a sudden, I didn't have a deadline. I didn't have to produce images for anyone or anything as a way of survival. I dug deep and then dug deeper, trying to find that voice. When you commercialize yourself and you measure something, it changes. The freedom of not having to make money was a wonderful feeling to start again, to begin again.
In my search for solitude, a happenstance encounter with an old dilapidated plantation called, Myrick Plantation, in a very rural little farming community propelled me to pick up the camera out of sheer joy. It was me and bats in a room, just me being alone with the wind and the creatures of this antebellum home, and feeling this ultimate sense of timelessness, of peace, and my breathing and the sound of my shutter.
After that came more old plantations and an old home called Smith Farmhouse in Milwaukee, North Carolina, another rural town. Soon it occurred to me that I didn't have to be me alone in these places, I could bring new life to these homes, and I decided to do a search for models who would sit for a portrait for me in these places. It’s a great explanation or a great definition of rebirth, really, isn't it? Recycling things that are existing but forgotten and no one cares about anymore.
By creating this work, for me, I wasn't really conscious I was creating a body of work. I just said, "Well, we'll see what happens." I didn't know it was really going to turn into something over a period of a couple of years, but I was working mostly with Africa-American girls and it was very important to me to connect with the black community because it's not by nature my experience. Before, I’d photographed mostly white girls, models in New York. I really had to strip myself of what I knew in order to experience something completely different in portraiture, and even skin tone, for instance.
Nativen: How did this kind of creative process go down locally?
Leeta: There's no getting away from it; I'm not an activist. I didn't start out thinking I was going to draw attention to racism at all. It was more about my own love of creating beauty, finding some of these girls that were living in these tiny little towns, and to approach them.
At first, I was like, "Oh, how am I going to find models?" But then driving in town, going home, and I saw this girl walking down the street, who was absolutely perfect, and I pulled over, jumped out of the car, went running up to her, and was like, "Please don't think I'm crazy. I'm a photographer but I'm doing a project for an exhibition, and I really think you would be perfect for my project, my photo series."
She looked at me and she laughed, she said, "I've been praying for somebody to come along and take my photo because I really want to be a model." Her name was Shea and she went on to become a model in Miami. She's very successful now.
Nativen: What part of your process, your photography process in general, brings you the most joy?
Leeta: For me the joy comes after or before. I like the research and the collecting of imagery or clothing, it's like wrapping Christmas gifts. It's like the time you have alone, steaming the clothes or choosing the lipstick color or the search for the right shoes to create the story with creating your props, building your collection of things to choose from. That is exciting.
Then once you're behind the lens and then you get everything into place and you get the image, and you know you've gotten the image, that's the joy, but then it's the editing afterwards that I end up getting excited, really excited because it's fresh, it's new.
Nativen: What part is the biggest struggle for you, do you think?
Leeta: I'm a one-woman show. I art direct, I style, I do makeup, hair, I edit, I write, I have to be all these things or do all these things.
Nativen: What's one thing you've always wanted to do but haven't done yet?
Leeta: Go to India. When I was four years old, my babysitters were Indian and I loved the food and the smells coming out of the kitchen. I love the colors and the saris and the gold jewelry. I just think Indian women are just extremely beautiful. And then there’s…the light.
Nativen: I don't know if you listen to music in any part of your process of inspiration or editing, but are there any songs or musicians that you listen to regularly?
Leeta: I was watching the Grammys a couple of years ago and there was an amazing performance by Jack White, and Ruby Amanfu. They did this song called Love Interruption. The styling of both of them and their lyrics and their performance was so charismatic, it stopped me in my tracks and so I downloaded Blunderbuss. I listen to that album over and over and over, driving the back roads of North Carolina.
Nativen: Your work is very much about engaging in what's happening around you in the community here, but is there anything through your work that you do to really try and specifically connect with the community here?
Leeta: I keep in contact with the girls that I photograph and have a dialogue with them. I became a mentor to one of the girls who interviewed me for her 12th grade project. Feeling like I made some difference in their lives, whether it's just through an image that they will have of themselves documented at this age that's a beautiful, iconic image is kind of a heartfelt feeling. But also just having personal relationships with a community of women who I wouldn't have gotten to know.
Nativen: What's the most helpful advice you've received or what's advice that you'd give to someone who's looking to build a career out of their creative interest?
Leeta: Have faith in yourself, first and foremost. You don't have to justify creative process to anyone. Keep trusting what you do, if you love what you do, and continue, hopefully, to work on that relationship with trust and respect with people, but then, ultimately, with moving forward if you feel stuck. Because in those places, those in between places of waiting for something to happen or self-doubt, those are the times that you need to hang on to because when the going gets good, that's not necessarily going to be your best true work.
Nativen: Is there someone who's really a hero to you or maybe someone who's really helped influence your work that's been a vehicle through all of this?
Leeta: I was in my 20s in New York and I happened to be walking along Broadway and I was feeling very alone and not knowing how I was going to do what I wanted to do. I saw this sign, and two girls were sitting at a table with a sign that said, "Free Advice." I sat down and we just started talking. They said to me, "What is it you really want to do?" I said, "I really just want to take photographs and travel the world."
They asked me, "If you could do that, what would you do right now?" I said, "Well, I'd probably go up to Central Park and photograph people, but I have to go to work." They said, "That's what you should be doing," and it was just that simple. It was one of those things; it just occurred to me, if that's really what I think about all the time, then that's what I really should be doing. It was that simple anonymous advice from two girls I don't even know.
Nativen: What are three words that sum up your work for you?
Leeta: Finding personal truth.
Check out the editorial Leeta shot for us here!
Interview and Photos By: Lily Hetzler
Edited by: Kristin Knox (This interview has been condensed & edited)
all images are copyright of Nativen