People all around the world have seen Brownie Harris’ photographs. They may not know his eye looked through the lens and caught that split-second in time, unless they search for the copyright. But whether it’s John F. Kennedy, Jr. with his chin on his folded hands, Andy Warhol stoically looking at the camera while resting his arms on the back of a wooden chair, Michelle Dockery sporting a blonde wig for a scene in Good Behavior, or King Kong sprawled out on a street in New York City with Twin Towers in the background, Harris’ images have graced magazines, newspapers, annual reports and museum walls since 1972.
Yes, Brownie is his real first name. No, he was not named after the “brownie camera”, introduced by Eastman Kodak in 1900.
“My uncle’s name was Brownie,” Harris says when asked if it is a nickname. “There was a midwife, and my aunt didn’t know how to name the child, so the midwife said ‘well, he looks like a little Brownie’. That’s where he got his name, and so my family gave me his name. But they didn’t know I was going to be a photographer. A lot of people under 30 probably don’t know what a “brownie camera” was.”
Harris’ uncle and his father both took a lot of pictures during his childhood. Harris says he borrowed his father’s camera to take his first photographs of his pet rabbit. He would later take portrait photos of his mother, which Harris says he would love to find in the thousands of pictures and transparencies in the family collection. Photography remained a hobby through Harris’ high school years. But a train ride Harris took with a fellow student at Virginia Commonwealth University in April of 1968 changed his mind. It came on the night after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Harris talks about that at 2:30 of the podcast.
“The next night we took a train ride from South Carolina back to Richmond, and every town was on fire,” Harris remembers. “A friend of mind had a Nikon “F” camera, and he let me borrow it. Back then you could walk between the trains, they were open, and we would take photographs. That night I decided to become a photographer. I had never seen anything like that before. You’d see towns on fire, people looting, national guard there, from Rocky Mount, North Carolina all the way up to Richmond.”
After graduating from VCU in 1971 with a degree in communication arts and graphic design, Harris took what he calls “a detour”, which took him to Morocco (with a friend buying fabric for a clothing designer) and Switzerland (to pick grapes and apples), Harris landed a job as an art director in Roanoke Virginia, but after six months he packed up his things, and $200, and went to New York City.
“I was a taxicab driver for a couple months, painted lofts in Tribeca, when no one knew was Tribeca was, and I was a photo assistant for a couple of months and I thought ‘I don’t want to do this photo assisting thing’,” Harris says about his early days in the city. “So, a friend of mine was at WNET Channel 13, the mother station for public broadcasting in the United States. So, I started there as a graphic designer for six months freelancing. Then I realized they needed photography within the corporation, so I created a photography department there when I was 23 years old.”
Harris’ earliest days with the network included working for talk show hosts Dick Cavett and Bill Moyers. He would shoot publicity photos of guests on their programs. He also worked on other shows including “Dance in America” and “Great Performances”, providing him the opportunity to share experiences with famous entertainers and performers like Sophia Loren. Harris talks about a trip he took with Cavett and Loren at 5:50 of the podcast.
Harris began freelancing for other networks after his time with PBS, but decided to leave television for photography work in the corporate world. He did photography for Exxon weeks after leaving WNET. Harris did photography for General Electric’s and Ratheon’s annual reports for 15 years. The work brought new challenges, including what became another of Harris’ most famous images of the world’s largest gas turbine engine.
“All of a sudden, I got an interest in doing industrial photography because you were sent to a place you’d never been before, and you were supposed to come back with something that looked like a jewel,” he says. “So, you had total control.”
Harris would still freelance, and one shoot for Time Magazine took him to the set of the movie King Kong in New York City. It’s described at 14:30 of the podcast.
The iconic images continued as Harris began to build a reputation. In September 1982, USA Today hired Harris for a photo shoot with Andy Warhol, who by now had established himself as an icon in the world of Pop Art. The shoot was a first in newspaper history, as Harris shares in the podcast. He also shares the memory that Warhol did not say a word during the entire shoot.
“He didn’t say a word, and it sort of upset me a little bit,” Harris says. “I made him turn the chair around, so he’s like in his own prison.” That is the image seen on Harris’ website.
Harris tells stories of photo shoots with other celebrities, like legendary jazz musician Miles Davis (“He didn’t want to be photographed, he wanted to go downtown to buy a pair of shoes.”) and actor Paul Newman (who asked “Brownie, what if you get an “A” in photography and fail life?”). But the photograph that may be the most famous of Harris’ career came from a photo shoot in 1988, with John F. Kennedy, Jr. Harris was hired to shoot photographs of the younger Kennedy, who was doing an audio recording of his father’s book “Profiles in Courage”. The two met at a recording studio in New York City. The story begins at 22:45 of the podcast.
“He came there on a bicycle without any secret service agents and walked up,” Harris recounts of the day. “I’m waiting in the lobby of this recording studio. He comes up, shakes my hand and says, “I’m John F. Kennedy, Junior’. I thought ‘yes, I know’. You liked him instantly.”
Harris remembers the shoot was done in a cramped space in the studio, and was done with a single light. Kennedy did not have his jacket on when it started. Harris remembers telling Kennedy saying ‘I don’t know what to do’ for the picture. Harris told him to relax, that “it wouldn’t be as painful as going to the dentist’. That brought a laugh from the young man, and a slight turn of his head which Harris captured. As the session progressed, Harris had Kennedy put the jacket on, and the shots that followed produced an image used countless times over the next 29 years.
“It started without a jacket on, which he looked like a kid of 27 years old,” Harris says. “Once he put the jacket on, something happened. I didn’t realize until 11 years later, when I compared the photograph of when we first went in there and then the one we finished with. It’s almost like he became the person, the age closer to his death. He became this mature person. I was shocked.”
Harris’ photograph was later selected from among six thousand as the basis for a painting of Kennedy, Jr. that hangs in the John F. Kennedy Museum in Hyannis, Massachusetts.
Harris’ brother invited him to come to Wilmington “for a weekend”, and he moved here permanently in 1994. He co-founded (with Brett Martin) HeartsApart.org in 2010, to keep military families connected during deployments. Harris began taking photographs of soon-to-be-deployed service members and their families, which are printed on waterproof, durable bi-fold cards that fit in the pocket of a uniform. The service is done for free, and Harris talks about its growth at 29:30 of the podcast.
“I did it for the first six months alone,” Harris says. “Two months into it, there was a live interview out of New York for Fox News. This thing just blew up worldwide. Four or five months later we were honored at The White House. We were chosen as one of twenty non-profits in the United States, out of 300 or 350, to be honored.”
Harris says there are now ten photographers on the HeartsApart team in Wilmington, and 450 across the country. “That is huge,” he says. “It will never end.”
Harris has also returned to television photography, working on the sets of several shows that have shot in Wilmington and at EUE Screen Gems Studio. They include Secrets and Lies, Revolution, Sleepy Hollow, Under the Dome and the current production of Good Behavior. Harris has become friends with several of the cast and crew members, including best-selling writer (and creator of Under the Dome) Stephen King, Tom Mison (who starred as Ichabod Crane on Sleepy Hollow), and Michelle Dockery (star of Good Behavior and formerly of Downton Abbey.).
“Michelle Dockery is a great actress,” said Harris. “Very few actors or actresses you see tell the story with their eyes. If she’s not speaking, you can tell the story just by looking at her eyes. She’s brilliant, I love working with her.”
Harris is busy, raising two teenage daughters, working on television or film production sets and capturing pictures of military families. He’s been behind the lens for photo shoots around the world, never trying to make himself bigger than the object of his lens.
“Just moving forward, one assignment after the next,” he says. “Because you’re always unemployed until the next job when you freelance. No matter how successful you are.”
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