Photographer David Alan Harvey on His Decisive Moment

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FRANCE, Paris, 1988© David Alan Harvey, courtesy of Magnum Photos

As his compelling 1988 photograph of French teenagers on the river Seine goes on sale as part of The Magnum Square Print Sale, the American image-maker recalls the moving story behind its realisation

In 1988, American photographer David Alan Harvey, then in his mid-40s, found himself alone in Paris on assignment for National Geographic, whose forthcoming issue was themed around France. “They had asked six or seven different photographers to cover different things, and they wanted me to take pictures of teenagers,” he tells AnOther. His first instinct was to “reduce the scope” of his subject matter, a key tenet of his artistic approach. “I tend to reduce everything down to a very small microcosm of the whole; I always assume that there’s a sample group,” he explains. “If I’d just run around taking photographs of French teenagers, I may have had more types of pictures, but I like to get into a small space and make it home; to capture what it smells like or feels like to be in a particular situation.”

Within a matter of days, Harvey had befriended Judith, a high-school student who was, in his words, “the social leader of about six or seven teenagers.” Harvey’s ability to make friends and adapt to new scenarios saw him embraced into the fold almost at once. “We grew very close very quickly, even though we had nothing in common in theory,” he recalls. “I went everywhere with these kids: went to school with them, stayed in their apartments with their parents. When they went to receive their Baccalaureate results, I was there. One kid went off to join the military, I was there. I hung out with this one group for a period of weeks and became completely immersed in their lives. We were like family when I had to hug them goodbye, and for them it meant goodbye to their childhood.”

"We were right in front of the house of Henri Cartier-Bresson on Rue Rivoli. Henri was my hero in photography but here I had broken away from him. You always have to break away from your hero." David Alan Harvey

The resulting images pay powerful testament to Harvey’s propensity for putting his subjects at ease: the friends open exam results, whisper conspiratorially and party un-self-consciously as if totally unaware of the photographer’s presence. Harvey’s favourite photograph from the series – a signed print of which will feature in Magnum Photos’ forthcoming Square Print photo sale, centred on “conditions of the heart” – shows the characterful group cruising down the Seine on a riverboat, talking, smoking and thoughtfully soaking up the view. “It was taken on their graduation day,” Harvey tells us. “They’d never taken that boat before but this was a special occasion. This image really resonates for me as being symbolic of Paris and the teenagers all in one picture. What I really like about it is that we were on that part of the Seine where you can see the Eiffel Tower in the background, and we were also right in front of the house of Henri Cartier-Bresson on Rue Rivoli. Henri was my hero in photography but here I had broken away from him. You always have to break away from your hero, artistically, and I’d taken a picture that looked kind of like ‘a moment’ that Henri could have taken, but he couldn’t have done it because he couldn’t have been on the inside. He wouldn’t have got to know anybody – he was distant, he was French bourgeois and I’m the opposite personality to that. I flipped the philosophy and by doing that I was capturing the moment in my own way.”

The Magnum Square Print Sale runs from October 31 – November 4, 2016. A selection of signed and estate-stamped, museum quality, 6x6” prints from over 70 artists will be available for $100 for 5 days only.