Alexis Harper

WINNER, NATURE PHOTOGRAPHER OF THE YEAR (NON-PRO), 2019
Q: Tell us a bit about your background and history.

A: I was born in Moses Lake, Washington – a small town with cowboy roots in Eastern Washington.  I remember my childhood with the smell of horses and cattle ranches, the feeling of bare feet covered in dirt, and sunburns after working outside. I swam in irrigation canals, spent mornings cliff jumping and otherwise, was a feral child.

Summers were spent working as a lifeguard, and winters as a ski instructor in the mountains of Western Washington. I began working when I was twelve as a nanny and have since roamed independently. I made the most of growing up in a small town, but never felt quite at home. Cut-up National Geographic articles had been taped to my walls since I was five. I’ve always been enamored by the oceans. I’ve always been in love with the mountains. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be an artist and an explorer.

When I was seventeen, I was set on becoming an oceanographer, but had never been on a boat longer than a summer afternoon. I wanted to see if I could do it, but I’d never travelled on my own before. Through a study-abroad program, I set out to live on a sailboat in the Caribbean. I conducted research and explored shipwrecks, studied reefs, befriended locals and lived with sailors who resonated with my soul. When I returned from that expedition, I knew I was capable of leaving my town.

My goal was to teach in the outdoors, to guide and enable future explorers, and to live intentionally, with curiosity and gratitude. I wanted to return to that place I entered every time I was in nature, that place of wonder and peace. Be it kayaking on an alpine lake or scuba diving under the waves, I thrive on the feelings of insignificance, awe, freedom and contentment that I feel in nature. I then left for Seattle to pursue a degree in Oceanography at the University of Washington. From there, I discovered rock-climbing, mountaineering, backpacking, travel and ultimately, photography.

 

Q: In light of your recent achievements, are you still continuing your studies at the University of Colorado?

A: I recently changed my trajectory. I will not return to my graduate program in the fall. I’ve chosen to pursue my artistic projects independently moving forward. It was a difficult decision but has since established my confidence in aspiring to be the artist I want to be. When I returned from the IPA Awards, I applied to the Masters of Fine Arts Program here in Boulder and committed to my first art classes – ever. With that, I was not accepted to the program. But it is for the best – I will use the freedom to learn, grow, travel, and photograph on my terms.

While my academic studies are tabled for now, my work is otherwise centered at CU. I’m an Academic Coach for the Environmental Design Program, and love what I do. I work with students who are at risk and navigate with them through the hurdles of a challenging, fast-paced program through mentoring and wellness support. I’m also an Outdoor Guide and hope to build out a wilderness therapy program in line with my coaching work for the future.

 

Q: When did you realize you wanted to dedicate your time and career to photography?

A: It wasn’t so much a moment of realization when I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to photography and storytelling, but more so a moment of surrendering. I’ve always been an artist – I can’t help it, I can’t fight it, I can’t stop it. But the process of building confidence in myself to dedicate my life to the arts took years and is still ongoing.

During my time in Seattle, I didn’t draw for three years. I didn’t touch my camera for nearly two. It wasn’t until I began climbing that I felt the pull to capture moments again, and even then, I didn’t see myself as a photographer. It was necessary to commit myself to my scientific pursuits, to understand the workings of nature through a different lens, but I struggled with the growing disconnect between my strengths and where I was dedicating my time. I reserved photography for climbing trips, but after two years of this, it wasn’t enough. It eventually came down to a coin toss.

The true moment of surrendering to this life path, to embracing my strengths and committing to what brings me joy, arrived when I found myself in Boulder, Colorado. I was on my way to New Zealand for an oceanographic research thesis. I had no reason for taking a detour to Colorado. I was committed to my degree, my career, and my responsibilities. I had a one-way ticket and a secure path, but it just didn’t feel right. I still don’t fully understand what drew me to these mountains, but I know that when I arrived, I was home. Never had I felt such a strong pull to a place. In a matter of two weeks, I fell in love.

It was only meant to be temporary – a brief visit, but the thought of leaving Colorado was heartbreaking. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. So with that, I left it to a coin toss; continue my oceanographic career in New Zealand, or reconnect with my art in Colorado? With that pivotal toss, I “missed” my flight for Queenstown. Over the course of the next year, I dusted off my camera and revisited old photos I hadn’t touched for years. I picked up a pen and began to draw and write again. I converted a van. I roamed and explored, collecting stories and reconnecting with my inner voice. I fell in love and out of love. And finally, after months of loss, growth, healing and fighting, I accepted that I am capable of changing my narrative. I surrendered to my love of photography, film, storytelling and adventure seeking.

 

Q: What do you enjoy most in this medium? Do you have any role models or favorite artists?

A: Behind the lens, I find great joy in that I have the capacity to show others not how they see themselves, but how the world sees them – through kinder eyes. I believe it’s a powerful and delicate responsibility to be the keeper of a moment. I thrive in sharing the essence of an experience for others to cherish or to be inspired to create their own. Photography is a medium that can weave a story from the fibers of imagination as much as it can strip away the veils of fear and bias to reveal the raw truth. It can transform that which is fleeting into something timeless.

In the pursuit of photography that unsettles foundations, awakens creativity and enables awareness, I’m inspired simply by the people in my life. My role models are those who fearlessly commit to the pursuit of what brings them joy while enabling those around them to do the same for their respective paths. I’m drawn to those who are endlessly curious and full of spirit. My favorite artists are those who see the world around them, within them, and within others – constantly exploring and evolving with their strengths. I deeply admire many climbing photographers in the field who shine light on the stories, history, and ancestral lineage of the places we explore.

I’m interested in the realm of photography that dances between surrealism and untouched beauty, drawing from the luck of timing and the skill of a keen eye: nature and outdoor adventure photography. I want to push the definition and accessibility of fine art through landscape and portrait photography in nature. In the midst of moments covered in grime, snow, dirt, and grit, I want to capture beauty in the experiences of mother nature. I want to expose the human character that shines in these fleeting moments, and explore the larger concepts of human-environmental connections. Simply, I like taking pictures of people playing outside because I’m usually playing outside to get that shot too. I like hanging from a wall, hundreds of feet up, breathing in the landscape and scoping out shots from behind my lens. For me, it’s so much more than the final image – it’s the whole experience.

 

Q: Do you think you have already identified your personal style and process?

A: My style is rooted in the idea of using my camera as a time-capsule of a moment, a place, a person, or a feeling. I’m simply the observer. I aspire to be unseen so as not to leave my imprint on the essence of the moment, and I craft only the details I find necessary to bring my photo closer to the truth of the experience. I focus on the present and adapt my approach to what is happening around me. I emphasize holding space and shaping an experience that will be remembered by more than the efforts to create an image. From that organic approach, one that ebbs and flows with the people I’m surrounded by or the landscape we’re exploring, I often find emotions of nostalgia, contentment, youthful bliss and awe. I want to keep pushing those emotions further in my candid portraits of others.

So, with that, my style is still growing. My process is everchanging. But I hold onto these roots to keep me working towards not only a visual style that I can find joy and pride in as a photographer, but a style in every sense of the word, that I can live by.

 

Q: What are your plans and vision for the future?

A: With moving to Colorado and recognizing my ability to pursue photography and the arts, I’m just getting started. I am finally bringing my sketches to life and my ideas to fruition. I plan to film movement choreographed by women in my life to reflect their strengths and insecurities in the landscapes they dance in. Imagine a fierce dancer twirling on a rock, her pedestal, in the midst of a raging river. Imagine that same dancer, so fearlessly leaping between granite, also easing into ballet shoes that hadn’t been worn in five years; the hesitation, the expectation, the foreign familiarity, the anxiety. I’ve filmed that – and I want to do it again. I plan to document not only the movement of these women I’m inspired by, but the experiences that bring them to dance, to run, to climb, to explore, and to be wild.

I plan to capture stories of strangers and weave a fiber of common understanding through play and photography that goes beyond culture, language, borders and barriers. I plan to create installations of my sketches that are blooming with foliage, fungi and life and build them in spaces for anyone to enjoy. I plan to write a novel of my life and my lineage so that others may learn the lessons I have through another set of eyes, building wisdom into their own human experience. I plan to dive into big expeditions and capture the finer details of exploration (exactly how cherished is the last cup of coffee on a big wall climb in Yosemite?).

Close to my heart are the efforts to protect, preserve and conserve our natural world. Our environment allows us to get lost so that we may find ourselves, to know our place and to feel insignificant, and to critically observe what it means to be human. I fiercely believe in living for the next generation. As a child of the Earth and a child at heart, I think often of how I shape the landscape I explore. I want to be a part of the fearless pursuit of scientific research and progress our understanding of how humans connect with each other, themselves, and places. I want to create space for people to freely and safely explore their understanding of identity, place, lineage, and self.

I believe in fully expressing the feral, gentle, resilient, and divine feminine spirit through my photography, film, and art. I’m fascinated with how feminine and masculine energies dance within ourselves and each other. These topics of identity, sexuality, insignificance, youthful curiosity, spirituality and connection inspire my artwork, but more so are the driving forces of my lifestyle.

 

Q: Your winning picture at IPA is titled “her: I”, a wonderful image taken in Trolltunga, Norway. Picturesque scenery, mystical atmosphere. Tell us more about it.

A: “her: I” was an experience within a larger adventure, in and of itself an entirely life-changing moment, but fleeting. Captured in a different chapter of my life, this photo needed a story and needed to be shared, so that it could finally rest; so that I could finally move on. Yet, it inspired a series.

I was backpacking Europe with someone I credit to bringing my love of photography back to life. We met through rock climbing and as strangers, travelled 6,000 miles in six days, to return back to school in Washington as friends. From there, we explored often. Only weeks later, we made plans for ten countries in Europe, and Iceland. Nestled in the endless pre-booked flights, hostels, rentals, maps, and packets upon packets of information, was Trolltunga, Norway. It was his dream. It was a place that he’d fallen in love with years before hiking the trail with me in the dark, the rain, the mud, singing in sleep-deprived delirium. I knew nothing of it – I was simply along for the ride, happy to share in my friend’s dream coming to life.

The weather was not ideal. But we were there. The mountain guard was not expected, but we pleaded, and she was kind. The timing was altogether off (the ferry to Bergen was delayed by a sheep farmer, playing into our 2am return to the trailhead), but we persisted, nonetheless. And the dress?

Well… I found the dress in a Hungarian thrift shop. It was beautiful (and within my irresponsibly tight budget). The culmination of experiences that brought this photo to life were organic. We were just two kids roaming the world, climbing mountains, and exploring what it means to be human. While the token view from this incredible place was obscured by clouds, only amplifying the ancient spirit of that place, I’ll never see it again. This photo is a testament to that chapter in my life, and I need nothing more.

 

Q: As part of your series that explores the interaction between humans and their environment, what other locations have you gone to? Which was the most challenging image for you to take?

A: The other locations in the “her” series were photographed in Iceland. Projects like these have their own logistics; weather, timing of the light, things of that sort. But in choosing a location… it’s simply a feeling. To bring a dress up a mountain, to strip down in freezing rain and dance delicately amongst the rapids of waterfalls… it takes a special kind of pull from that place to justify the shot. In coordinating these images, the most challenging shot in the series is one I have yet to successfully take. Being a rock climber, I need a photo from the wall on El Capitan in Yosemite, CA. Imagine a granite backdrop above and The Valley below a dancing siren, suspended by seemingly nothing, peaceful, delicate, and brave. Now the effort that will go into creating that image; months, if not years, of technical climbing experience, training, and finding the right climbing partner crazy enough to go with me. I choose my locations and craft these images by the significance of the experience to my life. My next locations will reveal themselves at the right time. Each shot is a journey in and of itself.

 

Q: The competition at IPA 2019 is quite strong, so what does this recognition mean to you? How has it helped your career or your personal growth?

A: This recognition fundamentally shifted the way I view myself as a photographer and artist, bringing to light the necessity for me to listen to my inner voice and act on it. I intend to roam in my van, jump in creeks, climb on rocks and dance all day to the beat of my drum and if it so happens that photography will be the driving force of those adventures, I will embrace it fully.

 

Q: Finally, tell us a bit about your dreams. Picturing yourself 10-20 years down the road, what would you love to see?

This is quite possibly one of my favorite questions, because I find it extraordinary that in the coming decades, I want to be doing exactly what I am now (granted, with more style). I want to drink wine out of an empty soup-can around a campfire with good company. I want to feel worked after a day of climbing and rejuvenated after a day of work. I want to dance under a desert sky and howl at full moons. I want to capture moments of love in weddings, of loss in death, of family in friends and of light in play through all the human experiences I’m grateful to take part in. I want to see my projects and ideas come to fruition for others to enjoy. I want to see myself working as hard as I am now, but with a greater reach.

I dream of starting a garden someday. I dream of my writings empowering women to share their own stories of struggle and strength, and of men exploring their own spaces of vulnerability and vivacity. I dream of being in love and loving what I am – and that is the greatest adventure I can imagine embarking on.