Last Longer With No Rules
Photographic Artist H.N. James approaches life, work, and art with a refreshingly honest punk rock essence.
Going to interviews without having met the artist in person first, I often worry about being able to recognize them. When I parked at the riverwalk park in Clarksville, though, I had no trouble spotting H.N. James and her electric blue hair. Joining her at a picnic table overlooking the Cumberland River, I immediately relate to her midwestern accent and honest, stream-of-thought way of speaking.
“So, you go by H and you’re a photographer-” I begin, but she immediately corrects me.
“Well, Photographic Artist, I usually say, because people have a lot of associations with the term ‘photographer’-” She then goes right into telling me how the first question she is always asked is, “Do you do weddings?” and that her answer is “No — but maybe, if there’s less than 15 people.” She then briefly tells me about one of the few weddings she’s photographed, before circling back around to why she calls herself a photographic artist.
“People just tend to think of photographers as technicians and documentarians, but I’m an artist first. I want people to know where I’m coming from.”
About nine years ago, H was struggling with a creative block. She believed that she was simply a frustrated writer.
“That’s all I am, a writer.” She rolls her eyes. “Never mind that I also taught water aerobics, that I also was a club DJ in Madison, Wisconsin… I’ve always done these creative kinds of things, but I thought my only creative thing was writing.”
At the time, she was living in West Virginia, and started going to a “Creative Cluster” at her local Yoga studio. The group took twelve weeks to go through The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and H was convinced that it would unblock her writing.
“But that was not what happened. What happened was that I became convinced that I needed to take my friend’s contemplative photography class in Madison, which I did, and that started me going out on photo walks… and that led to me discovering that I was a visual artist after all.”
She started out doing abstract photo walks, focusing on light, colors, textures, shadows, patterns. A majority of her early work is reflections and things that caught her eye — but no people.
“I never thought I’d be photographing people — ever, ever, ever — because I was scared to. I’ve only been pursuing portrait art and my own personal projects, like Urban Goddesses and People Who Do Things, in the last four years.”
The non-linear life, the creative life, the life that other people aren’t going to understand — I’m embracing it. Nobody’s going to get this, and that’s fine.
Once H and her husband moved to Nashville, she began further studying the visual arts industry. This led to the definition of her style — which is that she refuses to define herself and follow the “rules.”
“Once I started studying the photography industry, I was like oh I do not want that, I don’t love this certain way everybody edits, I don’t like this trend towards having everybody look shiny — I mean, I’ll take out a zit or two, of course, but I will not photoshop to make you look thinner, I will not photoshop to change your body or make you different, because people are fine the way they are and they just need to see that! And that is what my gift is — showing who a person is on the inside on the outside.”
During a conversation with a friend, she told them she was going to start a blog called “Punk Rock Photography” that would be about her unique approach. “Then a light bulb went on and I tell my friend, ‘Hey, maybe to keep all the branding consistent, my whole brand should be called Punk Rock Photography,’ and she’s like ‘Um, yeah. Duh.’” We laugh, and she says, “So I decided to be Punk Rock Photography, and I haven’t looked back.”
With an Undergraduate degree in Medical Biology, Immunology, and Spanish, and a Masters in Library and Information Science, it wasn’t always this way for H. “I tried to play by the rules and do the things that I was supposed to do right out of college — do this, do that, even worked for two genius doctors… now I never want to work for another genius again, except for myself.”
I hope it’s always like this, where sometimes I’ll look at my work and say, “Oh my god, I made that!” That’s the best feeling in the world — “I made that.”
Her first creative project, People Who Do Things, comes up frequently during our conversation, as the purpose of the project is something we both relate to. Right away, she tells me, “I notice with Meridian Creators — it’s sort of the same thing I do with my People Who Do Things series, only with photographs. I’m photographing everyday people who are creatives living a creative life amidst the ordinary things, whether they have a day job or not.”
While I had been meaning to reach out for weeks already, seeing H’s latest Urban Goddess shoot on her Instagram is what made me realize I had to contact her for an interview right away. When asked what inspired this project, she explains that her subconscious is always ahead of her by about three years.
“I started photographing some models, and I’d been on Facebook and was collecting people that I thought I might want to work with, but they’re all really different. I wondered, ‘what am I doing?’ and then my subconscious bubble goes ‘oh, just make them goddesses.’” She laughs, shrugging. “Okay. Alright. I started with that, and discovered it really had its own trajectory.”
Her process for casting the goddesses is never based on what the women look like. “I have to know them, because it’s an intuitive thing. The goddess has to tell me which one, who you are. As I am punk rock photography after all, I like this idea of subverting how the goddesses are traditionally portrayed. Whatever they’re associated with, yeah, I’ll keep symbols and images, but… what are they now? They’re modern women, punked out.”
I ask her what she hopes other people will get from her photography, and she hesitates for the first time. “Sometimes I need other people to put this in perspective. I know, but I can’t put it into words until I talk to someone else about it.”
She tells me a friend had recently seen photos she had taken of a light show, and told her they were “stunning.” “Of course I deflected, saying ‘mad props to the people who did the psychedelic light show.’ She told me, ‘No, bring it home, you did that.’ She said it was a difficult thing to capture, but my photos made her want to be there. Another friend said when they look at my portraits, they want to know that person. So I think that’s what you could say I’m doing — I’m trying to show people and places and experiences so other people can feel it.”
“You can make a technically perfect photograph — people do it every damn day — and that is boring as hell to me, because there’s no emotion in it, there’s no character and personality in it. So it’s not interesting to me.”
I want people to see themselves the way I see them for at least 5 seconds and not hate themselves.
Further attempting to explain her style, H tells me she “ blends a photo journalistic approach with my own sort of creative what-not.”
“Everyone will say they do that, everyone will say they’re a storyteller — which is so cliche even if it’s true. But I’m a story junkie. I see the stories, and I show them to you.”
Part of her unique style is being open and adaptable in all ways. “I’m all about doing the most I can with what I have, learning to work with whatever I have. I’m not going out and buying tons of gear, I’m finding other solutions. I think it’s really important to be able to work in multiple environments and not say, ‘I can only do it this way.’”
Even her branding is adaptable — a friend of hers who lives in St. Cloud, Minnesota, designed the Punk Rock Photography logo. Handing me a business card with the logo clearly depicting her signature blue hair, she says, “I have ones in pink and purple too, for when I change my hair color again.”
As far as her tagline for social media and her website, that’s something she’s struggled with — but she finally found a “snarky and true” line that perfectly encapsulates her approach to life and art. As a punk outside a club in San Francisco once said:
“Take a picture — it’ll last longer.”
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