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Photographer Finds Nostalgic Americana In SD

As you drive through South Dakota you’re bound to run into remains of its rich history. A local photographer is capturing the nostalgic, Midwestern look through an old film camera. His work has been on display all over the U.S. and in Australia.

Seth Harwood scrolls through images of old cars and rundown buildings on a large computer screen. He selects one of a yellow van parked outside of a white gas station surrounded by a black sky…and then hits print.

This image is part of Harwood’s Night Owl series. The shots are taken with a film camera from the 1980’s. He develops them by hand using a process that is more than 100 years old.

“Alternative processes date back to late 1830’s. It’s like chemistry meets photography, such as hand coating salt prints, things like that. So for my night work it’s all color film, which is shot in camera. Everything I do is analog. I hand process the film, all in my kitchen sink...You mix raw chemistry, coat the paper with chemistry and expose it to U.V. light. And that essentially sunburns an image into the paper.”

After the photos are developed, Harwood scans them onto the computer and edits them in Photoshop. He says he wants to capture the nostalgic feeling of Midwestern America. 

“So I spent countless hours driving around looking for scenes. I’d say, for this series I’ve got maybe 60 images that I feel confident in releasing and showcasing. All of my post processing is very minimal though. I want the scene that the viewer sees to be the scene that I saw.”

The printer spits out the finished image. Harwood looks it over then heads outside into the night to hunt for another subject.

He says he’s only been serious about photography for three years. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in architecture but recently earned a master’s of fine arts degree. Now he works as an adjunct professor of photography at Black Hills State University.

Harwood: “So the night usually begins by getting in my car like this. I could drive around for 15 minutes; I could drive around for 5 hours. There’s a lot of variants in the amount of time I drive before I find a scene that inspires me to stop and investigate.”

Credit Seth Harwood

Lockett: “Driving through Spearfish, like the entire town of Spearfish probably takes about 20 minutes. And you can drive around Spearfish for hours?”

Harwood: “I want people to slow down and notice these little scenes that grow between places. If you take the time to look at these odd little spaces that normally you drive by 20 times without ever noticing, you realize that there’s these beautiful little details that reward you for stopping and admiring them. And that’s where all of a sudden I can end up driving around a small community like Spearfish for 4 or 5 hours—because I’m going slow being very deliberate, soaking in every single detail I can on this drive. Let’s say I’m driving around for a couple hours in Spearfish though and I don’t find anything that’s really working for me that night. I’ll go to Deadwood, Belle Fourche, Sturgis—other towns in the community. A lot of the photos of Night Owl, they’re all within 100 miles of here. It’s very much almost like a documentary road trip style project.”

Lockett: “As you’re looking around right now out of the windows, what kind of things are you noticing and what’s catching your eye?”

Harwood: “A big thing with this is light. Working at night time, lighting is limited. And with a scene like this, you’ve got a street light working for you that you can suddenly take advantage of.”

Something catches Harwood’s eye and he pulls the car over. He reaches into his back seat and grabs a rectangular camera. 

Harwood: “So this is the camera that I work on for the Night Owl series.”

Lockett: “What kind of camera is it?”

Harwood: “This is a Bronica. It’s from the early 80’s. I like the vintage film cameras. I like feeling the camera work as I work with it. I like feeling the gears line up, things like that. This is the film back. I work all in medium format film, which is twice the size of a conventional 35 millimeter canister, which is what most people probably shoot in like a point and shoot camera.”

Harwood loads a credit card sized film spool into the camera. He attaches it to a tall tripod and walks towards a sidewalk next to a busy Spearfish road. Dogs bark in the background while headlights from passing cars illuminate the scene.

Harwood “Driving by, I might only have a quarter of a second to make that decision—is this something I want to stop and interact with. And I saw this old, beautiful blue mustang—very antiquated—and it feels out of its time right here. Beautiful form to the body; there’s these old design lines that you don’t see in contemporary cars. There’s beautiful chrome lining, every edge of it, that’s catching the light and glinting and catching my eye as I go by. And it’s got these circular headlights that almost personify the front of the car. The light just kind of barley cascades in through the windows into the interior giving just a little bit of detail to the old, leather steering wheel. It’s got kind of a timeless sensation to it that if you put a frame around it, it feels like the scene could sit here indefinitely and just totally be lost to time.”

He says he chooses subjects that he can create this kind of narrative around. Harwood paces around the car, deciding on an angle. He positions the tripod and then steps back.

Harwood “So as I’m framing the photo, what’s going through my head is kind of three layers—what’s in the foreground, what’s in the background, and what’s in between. Just one detail that’s out of place can make or break a composition. So I spend a lot of time just doing little tweaks. And working at night time like this you can use this darkness to kind of hide details in the black.”

Credit Seth Harwood

Modern items like cars, new buildings and houses aren’t in the shot. Harwood says they take away from the classic Americana look he’s trying to create. His exposures last anywhere from one to fifteen seconds. Longer exposures let more light get to the film so images turn out brighter—even ones shot at night.

Harwood finishes the shot and packs his gear away. Tonight’s trip lasted nearly an hour, which is quick for him.

Harwood “So that’s usually how a night goes for me, shooting photographs. There’s not a lot of planning to it. I like the intuitive nature of it. Just head out, see what I see.  If the road rewards me with a scene I appreciate it. If not—I’ll try again some other time. I like the prospect of just heading out and seeing what I find.”

Harwood says he usually develops his photos after two weeks. If a shot doesn’t turn out just right, he’ll go back and reshoot as many times as it takes.

Harwood is also working on three other film series. Pieces from Night Owl are currently on display in Rapid City at the Garage, The Rapid City Public Library and the Perfect Hanging Gallery.