“We need beauty, nature and colour, as a salve almost.”

Pink is a Touch, Red is a Stare, 2019 © Cig Harvey / Courtesy Robert Mann Gallery

Can you introduce yourself?

My name is Cig Harvey, I’m an artist who uses text and image to explore the senses.

Your works sometimes reads like metaphors. How would you define your creative process?

The metaphor, symbol, light, colour, form, shape, palette… Metaphors are part of that, where I really think about “how else can I say this?” and so that’s how it works for images, but it also works that way with my written work. Where I’m trying to somehow come at the world in a slightly different way. So, this whole process of working intuitively and then deep thought about “why” and “what does this mean”? I really think of photography as this sort of Ouija board, like it’s telling you something and you need to listen. And you need to be a good date when you’re listening, and not talk too much, and really absorb what you’re making. Because I think a lot of us photographers make a lot, but we don’t spend much time analysing why we were drawn to that area, or this person, or why we got up at dawn, and photographed this river. So, I really love that sort of duality of the conscious and unconscious mind coming together.

Can you tell us about your relationship with colour?

I used to work in black and white, in the 1990s. I worked in black and white for years, and did a number of projects in black and white. Actually, my first love was black and white street photography. But in 2003 I made this shift where I really analysed and thought about my relationship to colour and I realised that colour is something that shaped my entire life. If I think back on major events, if I map my life, colour has had this huge effect. It’s a scientific fact that colour affects the body, that’s proven. So more and more I’ve been exploring this idea of colour and how it can heal, as a form of beauty, how it can repair, how it can foster conversation. I feel really strongly about colour. It’s something I’m leaning into more and more, and this idea of the psychology of colour. I think it’s a tool for photographers, that we can use to seduce people. But it’s also more than that. It’s a complicated and deep relationship that humans have with colour. So much has been studied on the theory of colour and how we interact with it, I think there’s a precedence to being drawn to colour in certain times of trauma, certain times of need in our life. Like Josef Albers wrote The Interaction of Color in his 70s, that was his last major treaty. Derek Jarman wrote about colour when he was dying of AIDS. I think it’s linked very closely to beauty – beauty and colour, and this sort of intersection. And I think we need beauty, nature and colour, as a salve almost.

How do you bring the viewer into your subconscious?

You know I think I do that. I think I bring the viewer into my subconscious by exploring these ideas of metaphor. Photographs are of something – it’s subject matter. But working with symbol and metaphor, you can then start to transform that. In my latest book Blue Violet, the images are of flowers, but they’re not about flowers. They’re about living and dying, and the senses. So, I’ll use whatever I can, I’ll go across genre – still life, portraiture, landscape – using any type of subject matter as a way to get into your subconscious, to tell a story, to make a mark on the world.

You seek out “the magical in everyday life,” would you say your work is more rooted in reality, or fantasy?

I definitely seek out what I consider to be magical in the everyday. My work is not based in fantasy. It absolutely is rooted – like full feet on the ground rooted – in reality. And that to me I consider my job. Every day I get up and think: “Ok, I have to go out there in the world and find something that gives me pause or makes me gasp.” Something that’s almost like a stamp, a stake in the ground that I’ve lived and I’ve seen this. So, while I love a lot of work that is Photoshop-based, that’s not for me. I want to have seen it. So, these cameras again, this idea of witness, of journal-taking, of being out there in the world. Photography makes me get up at dawn, otherwise I’m too lazy, there’s no way I would get up without that camera there to say “I saw this”! And I think of it as almost a way of life, we’re all here trying to make a mark on the world, and what do we leave behind, what are our legacies. I really feel that my role is to do that, to find these things that remind us that the world is not beyond repair and that it is beautiful.

How are you able to transform photography into a complete sensory experience?

That’s my work, some days it feels impossible, and other days, I feel like I got there, I touched it you know! 75% of all information that comes to our brain comes from the eyes, but what about the other 25%? So, it’s that idea of how I can get to you more as the viewer, how I can get to myself, as the image-maker. So, I’m always searching for different ideas of how to incorporate the other senses. How can I make a photograph about touch? It’s complicated. I don’t quite know, but I feel like that’s my work every day – to nudge closer towards that. We make assumptions about the senses, we think of flavour being only about taste, but it’s made up of all of the five senses, it’s not just taste. So, I love thinking about this sort of difficult in-between pieces of how I can touch people more.

You have said having a non-gendered name has helped you a lot. Has being a woman affected your status as a photographer?

I don’t know. The answer is we don’t know what we get or don’t get because of someone’s assumptions about something as simple as a name, so that part I don’t know. But I do often get emails addressed to “Dear Mr Harvey” and I know I like it! I like that idea that people have these presumptions and that’s interesting to me. So, I think it probably has, but who’s to say? Who’s to know? Not me.

Do you believe in the idea of a “female gaze”?

I don’t believe in the idea of a female gaze. I feel like we all come to our work from our own perspective. I almost feel like it’s too easy to categorise male, female… What about non-binary people? This idea that perhaps for many years we’ve been hearing of only one area of society, so I’m really welcoming this period of reckoning, where we’re realising that through our artwork, we can learn so much more from each other’s and hear from more voices. So that’s what I want to foster, hearing from more voices, more experiences… I believe in the individual gaze.

Can you pick three women photographers who have inspired you?

Definitely Sally Mann! As a kid I loved her work, and she blazed a trail for so many women and photographers who wanted to tell a story from within a home. I think her work was revolutionary in that way. She’s also brilliant, smart, and articulate… You know just a wonderful human. Also, Andrea Modica I really have utmost reverence and respect for her work. Debbie Fleming Caffery, she’s extraordinary, I’m such a pulse and a heartbeat to her work. It’s very different from my own, but I’m really drawn to it. All of these women have inspired me.

Cig Harvey


Born in 1973, British artist Cig Harvey uses both images and texts to study sensory experiences and elevate everyday life. Inspired by nature, her photographs explore what it means to “feel”, by mixing metaphors and symbols. She composes a body of work punctuated by vibrant colours and delicate compositions. With four monographs to her credit – You Look at Me Like an EmergencyGardening at Night, You an Orchestra You a Bomb and Blue Violet – the artist has received numerous prizes. Amongst them, the Excellence in Teaching Award of CENTER (2017) and the Prix Virginia (2018). Her productions are also included in several collections, those of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland and the George Eastman House in Rochester for instance. Her artworks are regularly published in prestigious media, such as the New York Times, Vogue and the BBC.

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