Michael Harker, Carver College of Medicine
Michael Harker has seen many things through the lens of a camera. In 38 years working as a professional photographer, he has captured images in Germany while serving in the military, shot architectural detail for commercial industrial firms, and documented the inner workings of the human eye for departments in University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.
But the inspiration for his favorite projects came to him during a hunting outing. While scanning the Iowa countryside for pheasant, his keen eye noticed an old barn. He traded firearm for camera, and started shooting.
This led Harker up and down Iowa’s gravel roads to document these iconic structures, which became the subject of his first book, Harker’s Barns: Vision of an American Icon, published by University of Iowa Press in 2003. A postcard book followed in 2006, and UI Press printed a third collection of Harker’s work in 2008, Harker’s One-Room Schoolhouses: Visions of an Iowa Icon.
fyi sat down with Harker to talk about how he got his start in photography, how he’s adapted to photography’s evolving technology, and what it’s like to photograph inside someone’s eye.
You’ve been working professionally as a photographer for 38 years. How did you get your start?
I was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War era; I ended up in Germany, where I was introduced to photography. There was a nice darkroom where I was stationed, and a professional German photographer had been hired to run the darkroom. I talked him into tutoring me on photography theory and darkroom skills—he got to me before I could develop any bad habits. Before I was drafted, I had studied biochemistry for two years, so the chemistry of the darkroom was easy for me. Once I was out of the Army, I decided to get a degree in professional photography.
What sort of work have you done over the years, including your work at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics?
I’ve been with UIHC for about twelve and a half years—more than 11 years in ophthalmology before moving to media services in radiology about a year ago. In ophthalmology, I took diagnostic images of people with eye disease. In radiology, I digitize illustrations out of textbooks, CT scans, and magnetic resonance images that are not already in digital form. I also take individual and group portraits for the department.
Before the University, I worked for 25 years as a commercial industrial photographer. That work involved a lot of architectural photography, something I always enjoyed.
Did that architectural work inspire your photography books?
Well, my barn project started as a hobby, almost by happenstance, in the fall of 1993. I was working at Rockwell-Collins at the time. I was hunting pheasant with a friend near Clutier, Iowa, and drove by a farm with a big metal windmill vane mechanism leaning up against a barn. That juxtaposition struck me as good material for what I consider my fine art photography. That was my first barn picture. I took another eight to 10 barn photos over the next three years—again, these photo opportunities happened upon me. I wasn’t necessarily seeking out barn photos at this point.
In 1997, I did some research, and discovered through the Iowa Barn Foundation that the state was losing 1,000 barns per year to tornadoes, fires, or collapse due to age and wear. Soon I was devoting my weekends to making a book from these photos. It took me another three years to compile 115 photos of barns in Eastern Iowa. I met with Holly Carver with UI Press in mid-2001, and the press committed to publishing the book. Harker’s Barns: Vision of an American Icon came out in February 2003. A spinoff book, Still Standing: A Postcard Book of Barn Photographs, came out in 2006.
What sort of reaction do you get from the farmers whose barns you shoot?
They are very hospitable—I have not been turned down once when seeking permission to shoot. I always talk to them about their lives before I even ask permission to take a photograph. I always send a signed 8-by-10 portrait to the farmer as appreciation.
What other books have you published, and are you working on anything at the moment?
UI Press published Harker’s One-Room Schoolhouses: Visions of an Iowa Icon in 2008, and I have found a publisher for another project, which focuses on courthouses across the state of Iowa. A book will be published later this year, and a calendar series using photos from the courthouses book will be published annually over the next eight years. I also have been taking photos of rural churches and cemeteries for a future project.
I understand you work with the Speakers Bureau here at the University.
Yes, I’ve been with the Speakers Bureau for about eight years now, giving lectures across the state on disappearing barns and how my documentary project led to my books. I am speaking in Marengo in July, as a matter of fact. I usually do two to five appearances a year. Humanities Iowa does great things for the state; I’m proud to be associated with them.
Photography changes quickly and dramatically. Has it been tough to adapt?
For most of my career, I worked with Ektachrome films. Your exposures have to be very accurate to get anything of quality. Digital photography is very similar. Most people overexpose their images in digital—they lose important information in the higher midtones and whites. I was used to controlling exposures. I had to adapt once I started my job in ophthalmology, but more from a content standpoint rather than technical.
What’s it like shooting the inside of someone’s eye?
It’s a very specialized field of photography. We dilate the eye, and use specialized cameras to shine a beam of light into the eye and take the picture using a bright flash. I took approximately 1 million photos in my 11-plus year in ophthalmology, giving me the chance to photograph rare eye diseases. My knowledge of the human eye is pretty good, albeit through osmosis! When you work in a nationally reputed clinic like Iowa’s, with retina and glaucoma specialists, you pick up a lot in that environment.
by Christopher Clair