Storytellers: CJ Harker Lights up the Skating Scene

By Tema Stauffer

Skate House Studio Portraits: Harker set up a makeshift studio in Skate Jawn’s Philadelphia headquarters, where he makes classically-lit portraits of housemates. Pictured here, skater Sloan Palder.


Mood Lighting: While Harker makes use of sophisticated and inventive lighting techniques to heighten drama and highlight individual skating styles when shooting action on the streets, he keeps the lighting fairly simple for his studio portraits, which allows him to focus his vision and attention on his subject. Above, a lighting diagram showing his portrait lighting set up.

A native of Trenton, New Jersey, Harker began casually photographing the skateboarding scene with a point-and-shoot camera as a teen. After graduating from Ewing High School, he spent a few years discovering his creative path, partly by assisting close friend Cody Styder with shooting assignments while he was studying photography at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts. Harker initially enrolled as a business major at Rider University, but he lost interest and left school after three semesters to work full-time in an automotive garage.

Harker started taking photography courses at Mercer County Community College in 2009. As his passion for photography and desire to follow his dreams grew stronger, he was attracted to a photography program with a wider curriculum. In September 2012, he transferred to the University of the Arts, where he just completed his junior year. Under the guidance of his instructor, Barbara Proud, Harker has continued to shoot what he loves and to perceive photography as a potential vocation.

Light Lately

His recent collection of photographs combining action shots and studio portraits of his skateboarder friends, Light Lately, was partly based on class assignments encouraging students to experiment with camera and lighting techniques as well as to find their own subject matter. According to Harker, “Skateboarding is a stylistic activity. Everyone looks different when they are doing it, even though they’re doing similar things.” The desire to capture each skateboarder’s individuality has been the impetus for his recent shoots.

Harker also belongs to a group of UArts students, alumni and others who contribute content to Skate Jawn, a Philly-based ’zine devoted to the culture of skateboarding. The magazine started in a college skate house in 2010 and publishes new issues every other month. Skate Jawn’s Issue #18 was released in July 2013, and the group celebrated its third Anniversary with parties in Philadelphia and San Francisco. Harker, who takes pictures for the magazine, says, “We try to showcase the skating we want to see but don’t find in other skate mags. The magazine helps us fill a void we see in the skating community and bring people with common interests and mentalities together.”

Action in the Streets

What makes Harker’s photographs of skateboarders stand out from the crowd is his ability to dramatize his subjects through a sophisticated and inventive use of lighting techniques. Shooting at sites in Trenton and Philadelphia, Harker first assesses each environment for compelling natural light and angles. Then he determines how he wants to further illuminate his subjects with Nikon Speedlights mounted on light stands or clipped to ledges. “Once I find the right vantage point and compose my frame, I reassess the scene and place anywhere from one to four Speedlight units to highlight interesting elements or features and complement the mood of the photograph.”

Harker appreciates the light weight and versatility of these units and his ability to sculpt light. “I use my Speedlights on location most of the time. It’s a great little punch in a small package. They allow me to be mobile and manage my whole kit of light and glass in one bag. That really comes in handy for shooting in the streets.” He also employs inexpensive, modified radio slaves to trigger the bursts of light.

Speedlighting: (top) Dylan Goldberger scoops a stalefish out of a DIY ditch spot in Ewing, NJ, (directly above) James Pitonyiak ollies out to a wallride in Trenton, NJ, with a lighting diagram shows how Harker positioned his camera and lights for this shot.

Captured with a Nikon D800, his photographs of skaters in action are spontaneous and richly detailed. Harker captures each skateboarder performing a “trick” within the context of an “obstacle,” such as a swimming pool. Whether his subjects are soaring in the air or riding a concrete ledge, Harker fills the frame with the entire figure in motion, frozen in a “decisive moment.” The carefully positioned Speedlights enhance these performances by accentuating the subjects’ bodies. For his photographs in the street, Harker draws inspiration from Ed Templeton and Henri Cartier Bresson, and he also mentions Oliver Barton as a master of photographing skateboarders with a fish-eye lens.

Skate Jawn Studio Portraits

Setting up a makeshift studio in an apartment that served as Skate Jawn’s Philadelphia headquarters, Harker also makes classical black-and-white portraits of his friends, inspired by Irving Penn and Yousuf Karsh. Shooting with a 4x5 view camera with a bulb shutter and a soft-focus portrait lens, Harker captures the strong faces and direct gazes of these young men some with dreadlocks and expressive facial hair. He positions two Speedlights on light stands—one key light just above and to the right side of the subjects with an umbrella to diffuse light and the other to the left side behind the subjects —to create highlights and defining shadows. According to Harker, the process of shooting these large-format portraits is slower than documenting his friends in action with a digital camera. He says, “Shooting with the view camera is much more deliberate and allows me to immerse myself in the process of photography.”

Inspired by the Classics: Harker mixes old and new in this series of view camera images, shot with a vintage, soft focus portait lens and lit using Nikon Speedlights. (top) Marcus Waldron, (directly above) Kevin Winters.

Honing his Craft with a Peter’s Valley Internship

At the suggestion of UArt’s instructors Alida Fish and Harris Fogel, Harker successfully applied for an assistantship and spent part of this summer helping instructors with photography workshops at Peter Valley School of Craft, a nonprofit education center in Layton, New Jersey. Working with mentors possessing a range of specialized skills—Laurie Klein, Craig Barber, Tillman Crane and Richard Ritter—Harker honed his abilities to shoot with a view camera and learned alternative techniques such as platinum/palladium printing and the wet plate collodion process using glass and tin plates. He also expanded his understanding of shooting models and explored the notion of the “emotive portrait.”

Harker received school credit for his internship, and he returns to UArts in the fall for his senior year. After graduation, he plans to search for opportunities to assist professional photographers and shoot his own magazine assignments. He also plans to continue photographing his skateboarding community and contributing to Skate Jawn’s creative vision. Ultimately, he hopes to cultivate a healthy balance in a career as a fine art and editorial photographer. To young photographers just starting out, Harker advises, “Just do what you love to do.”



PDN August 2016: The Fine-Art Photography Issue



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