Some think they’re complimenting an artist by calling to mind other genres—comparing a realistic painting, say, to a detailed photograph, or a photograph with hazy aerial perspective to a Monet-like painting. Certainly the temptation to do so is there for Maggie Harrsen’s lovely pastel, impressionistic photographic images, many of which feature sharply focused centered objects set against out-of-focus backgrounds, where muted color and delicate hues count for more than contour line.
To invoke such comparisons, however, does an injustice to artists who feel they are distinctive in their chosen genre and who tend to evolve in that genre, rather than take on other media. For Harrsen, whose body of work can be seen in catalogue collections (she exhibits in the city and at Neoteric Fine Art in Amagansett), the essence of photography is spiritual exploration and expression. She would intuit a disposition toward “all living beings and their life energy” and have her images reflect that sentiment. She describes her work as a responsiveness to the “sensitivity of the earth” and hopes that her beautifully composed, gentle images of flowers, plants, seeds and food will encourage in viewers “ecological awareness,” a “mindfulness to protect the environment” and an appreciation of the interconnections of sea, earth, fire, wind and sky.
Harrsen, 31, is onto her fourth collection in conjunction with Good Water Farms—a “New American Farm” at 6 Plank Road in East Hampton, specializing in organic microgreens, which are sold to high-end markets and restaurants (the website contains some of Harrsen’s images). Microgreens are “young, edible greens of various vegetables and herbs that are harvested at the first stage of leaf growth,” and celebrated for their delicate nature and distinctive flavor. Meditations also dot her latest collection, as do references to her soul mate, Brendan Davison from Good Water Farms, whose travels to the Sacred Valley of Peru, where he observed farming in the mountains and participated in healing ceremonies with the shaman of the Andes, proved influential. Healing is important to Harrsen, especially since it prompted her interest in photography. An extended debilitating bout with Lyme disease some years ago sent her abroad, where she found benefit from homeopathy and a changed diet. There, in nature, she confirmed her new professional as well as personal direction. A former fashion photographer and art buyer—“the wrong life path”—the Pennsylvanian fell in love with the East End, which became her landscape source.
In September 2012, Harrsen self-published her first book, Kanoa (2012), which means “the free one” in Hawaiian. It sold out in several indie bookstores and was featured in the New York Art Book Fair at MoMA PS1 and at similar fairs in Paris and L.A. Her next collection, Solidago (2013), which takes its name from Solidago sempervirens, seaside goldenrod, shows the plant in various life cycles and is intended, she says, to prompt learning about its medicinal, healing capacities (mainly by way of herbal tea). Earthguide to Wellbeing (2013) was also locally inspired. In addition, it includes people along with vegetation, a happy juxtaposition that results in recipes. These, casually spaced throughout, include Buddha Bowl; Kale Hemp Smoothie, Lemon Balm and Chamomile Sun Tea, Mung Bean and Rice Cleanse (strikingly photographed in a bowl and set on a bare wooden table); Basil Sunflower Seed Pesto (try it on sprouted bread and top with cucumber slices); and Watermelon Arugula Microgreen Salad. A fourth volume, due out soon called Rio Abajo Rio (“the river under the river”), draws on Harrsen’s travels through Arizona, California and New Mexico, and shows her deepening desire to capture the ineffable, invisible, interconnected rhythms between people and the earth. The photographs, of little known plant species, are intended to lead the viewer to wonder more deeply about relationships between the self and nature. Thus her reliance on film, over digital, to generate overexposed images that create “dreamy,” reflective qualities. The images, taken with a Hasselberg, attempt to catch the special moment of connectedness—no cropping, no alteration. Although she writes (in Earthguide) that “All beings intuitively know what is right for their individual constitution,” she would point the way to accessing this “internal knowing” and “sharing this truth with all sentient beings.” Not a bad mission to invoke in the New Year.