+ by Melanie McCarty + photography by Alison Harbaugh
“Stand up on tables! Lay on your belly! Do whatever you’ve got to do to get your angle!” says Alison Harbaugh.
It’s a warm January morning, and a small group has gathered for Harbaugh’s Beginner’s Camera Workshop. The class is held at ArtFarm, the classroom and gallery space in the Annapolis Arts and Entertainment District that Harbaugh runs with friend and fellow artist Stacey Turner.
During the class, Harbaugh shares images from her impressive portfolio. Although she uses the photos to demonstrate concepts such as aperture and shutter speed, students keep interrupting to ask, “Where is that?” or to utter a simple “Wow.”
You can’t blame them. Harbaugh’s images are striking: birds taking flight in a public square; a waterman at dusk, his silhouette so crisp that you can make out the contours of his beard. She often uses light to convey mood or express something fundamental about her subjects, whether a portrait of the popular Annapolis band Pressing Strings taken at sunset, their long shadows reaching towards the viewer, or a photograph of a train station in Paris, the travelers transformed into anonymous, moving shadows by the station’s dim lighting. Although her subject matter varies, one constant is her unflinching eye. She approaches the people and places in her photographs with genuine interest and documents them with care.
“I like to tell stories,” she tells me. “I’m fascinated, learning about people. I like to understand what makes them tick.”
Raised in New Oxford, Pennsylvania (about ten miles outside of Gettysburg), Harbaugh became interested in photography at an early age but wasn’t sure how to pursue it. At Philadelphia University she majored in graphic design, which seemed like a good bet for future job prospects, yet she couldn’t shake her attraction to photography. During senior year, she begged her teachers to allow her to pursue a photojournalism project—a hard sell for a design major.
The result was the impressive book-length work The Fox and the Gentleman, composed of interviews and photographs of two Philadelphia boxers-in-training. She photographed them fighting at the legendary Blue Horizon boxing venue. “It was my first photojournalism experience,” Harbaugh says. “I had no clue what I was doing with the camera . . . I didn’t even really know what photojournalism was.” Months later, the book served as a portfolio and helped launch her professional career.
Phil Hoffmann, Director of Photography for the Naval Academy Athletic Association, offered Harbaugh her first photography job. “I recognized right away [that she was] very passionate about photography,” he says. “She had boundless energy and was totally willing to learn. She just absorbed everything.”
A pattern emerges when you delve into Harbaugh’s background. Passion, hard work, and big ideas rule the day. She doesn’t wait for permission to take on a project or experiment with a new medium; she does it, learning as she goes, and then leverages the experience to achieve her next big idea.
That is how the film Swampcandy: Midnight Creep came about. Harbaugh and collaborators Joe Karr and Rebecca Saunders documented the Annapolis-based band Swampcandy as it recorded its third album (Harbaugh is married to the band’s singer and songwriter, Ruben Dobbs). Though none had made a film before, Harbaugh and her collaborators dove in. The documentary received favorable reviews and was screened at several film festivals, including the 2014 Annapolis Film Festival.
Harbaugh credits Midnight Creep with helping her to realize the possibilities for storytelling available in film that aren’t possible in still photography. “It’s neat to see your subjects come to life,“ she says. “Instead of me writing the captions to tell the story, they’re telling the story themselves.” Today, video production makes up a large portion of the work undertaken by Harbuagh’s multimedia production company, Sugar Farm Productions.
In addition to her creative endeavors, Harbaugh also teaches. The aptly named Fearless Girls Photography is a monthly workshop for girls aged 12 to 17 that is run by Harbaugh and fellow photographer Lisa Shires. In the era of the selfie, Fearless Girls empowers young women to own their image, encouraging them to consider how they want to be seen and what they want to convey, rather than blindly copying poses and behaviors that they see online.
The workshops–which Harbaugh and Shires call “meetups”–often include hands-on training in the technical aspects of photography. For instance, at one meetup, the girls went outside and learned to shoot in the dark using slow shutter speeds. At another, they worked together to shoot an ad for Annapolis-based jewelry and accessories boutique, Sparrow. Other times, Harbaugh arranges for successful female photographers to speak to the group, such as Karine Aigner, a world-traveling wildlife photographer, or Lori Gross, a photographer who has led expeditions into Antarctica. Harbaugh chooses women who are passionate about their craft, respected in their field, and, often, who have achieved success by taking a non-traditional path. In addition, Harbaugh shares some of the lessons she’s learned along the way, such as the necessity of learning the business side of the arts and the role of constructive criticism in growing as an artist. Her work has garnered her an enthusiastic group of young women who consider her a mentor.
When asked about the future, Harbaugh pauses. She speaks warmly of her fearless girls. She mentions plans for Sugar Farm Productions, and relocating ArtFarm to 45 West Street, a part of Annapolis’ Gallery Row, in early spring. However, no matter the task, it’s clear that Harbaugh’s greatest passion is telling stories. “I like to share people’s lives,” she says. “I don’t know what else I would do.” █