By Nicole Cohen
On Jan 1, 1999, Jeff Harris held his camera at arm’s length, gave a loopy half-smile from under the hood of his fur-lined jacket and snapped a photograph of himself.
Since then, Harris has taken a photo of himself every single day, documenting the monumental and mundane details of his life on his Web site, www.jeffharris.org.
“Everyone has pictures of their holidays, of them and their friend smiling for the camera. That’s not really how we live our lives,” says Harris, who graduated from Ryerson’s School of Image Arts in 1996 and is now the assistant photo editor at Maclean’s. “I think it’s really neat to look at that part of life that isn’t always photographed, like walking to the bus station and brushing our teeth. Those are the kinds of things I’m more interested in.”
The April 29, 2000, photo shows Harris standing in a subway station as a blur of a train whizzes by. On June 4, 2001, he picks vegetable from colourful rows of carrots and celery. On Aug. 14, 2002, he sits in the dentist’s chair, cringing during gum surgery. And two days later he snapped a show in The Eyeopener newsroom, where he spent three of his university years working as a photographer and photo editor.
Harris says Ryerson’s photography program prepared him to work professionally through critiques, where a student has to defend his or her work in front of their classmates and instructors. He was a bit surprised, he says, when an instructor told his graduating class that only 10 per cent of them would actually work as photographers.
“I couldn’t believe they were discouraging us,” he says. “But the bottom line is that I came out extremely skilled. Ryerson makes you comfortable with talking about your work and being open to suggestions. I have a lot of friends who can’t take criticism.”
And since graduating, Harris hasn’t had to take much. His Web site was nominated for a Webby Award — the Internet’s answer to the Oscars — in the Best Personal Web site category.
What began as a one-year, end-of millennium project has turned into a three-and-a-half-year photography exercise.
“My site is a good outlet to think about and work on my photography,” says Harris, who admits to being a hopeless diarist. “A shot a day is a great way to accomplish that while keeping a diary.”
The only parameter for the project is that he has to be in the photo somehow. On April 8, 2002, he appears as a minute dot at the bottom of a winding staircase. The June 26, 2002, photo features only his feet. And sometimes only his shadow is visible.
He has only missed two days, in March 1999, and has left their spots blank on the site. They were the only two days he forgot to shoot.
After taking almost 1,400 pictures in a row, the process has become habitual. “Everyone has their keys and their wallet in their pocket. I have my camera as well,” he says, pulling a palm-size black Olympus out of his pocket.
Harris shoots on film rather than using a digital camera, so he gets the most authentic representation of a memorable moment of his day. “If I shot digital I’d shoot 20 photos a day to make sure it’s perfect,” he says. “This way, I take my one picture and it’s over for the day.”
Most of Harris’ photos are self-times portraits, but many are taken by his friends and family. He’s has his photo taken by celebrities, including Sarah Harmer, REM guitarist Peter Buck, Tori Amos and Beck. Harris asks people on book tours or events to step away from the press conference or podium to take a photo, reinventing the scene so it looks like he was riding bikes with Naomi Klein and goofing around with Douglas Copeland.
Though simple, Harris’ portraits have a cinematic quality to them. He has stopped holding the camera at an arm’s length and started setting up shots as if the camera wasn’t there, turning snapshots of monotonous events into art.
“When I was younger I wanted nothing more than to have photos people cared about and to show them to the right people,” Harris says. “Instead of focusing on my photography, I wanted to focus on the promotion of it.”
Now that he’s involved in a project he’s passionate about, people are giving him some major recognition.
“It’s been a great experience because I just did a project and I didn’t care about anyone else and all of a sudden it’s a pretty big thing.”
In June, Yahoo made his site a PickOfTheDay and traffic increased to 5,000 hits a day. Shortly after, The Globe and Mail, Western Living and the San Francisco Examiner ran stories on his site.
“When the Globe came after me it blew me away,” says Harris. I have learned that if I do my work and focus on it the rewards will come. It feels so good to not have to chase it down.”
Harris plans to keep his site going until 2004, then reassess the project at the five-year mark. He may turn his work into a book.
“The project has a lot of subthemes. There could be a whole book of me in a red shirt or me eating breakfast or me on Friday the 13th,” he says, laughing. “Maybe someone will think it’s important enough and do it for me.”