In 1938 in Rock Hill, South Carolina, Alex Harsley was born, the child of a Methodist mother and a Baptist father. His mother’s rigidly conservative Methodist family, who also ran the local church, disapproved of the union and treated Alex and his mother as outcasts. Due to the beginning of World War II -- when rationing and drafts led to economic hardships and men drained out of domestic households to the war's front -- Alex’s childhood was cut short as he soon had to play an active role on the family’s farm, which was built on land given the family via reparations, and take care of his younger siblings. He then quickly learned how to manage his and his family’s lives responsibly. Briefly in 1945, he met his father for the first time, a soldier who fought in an armored division during the war, and he never saw him again.
Unhappy with life in the South, Alex’s mother moved to New York City and sent money back to her family for her children’s care. Alex was not satisfied with this arrangement or his life in his grandparents’ strictly religious household and he rebelled. His family urged his mother to retrieve her children, and in 1948, at age 11, Alex and his twin sister and brother arrived in New York, where Alex’s career as an urban artist began.
The realization that his life had changed drastically came when he noticed that in New York lights were on all the time - when the sun went down, the lights came on and stayed on throughout the night, as opposed to his former Southern schedule where when the sun set, you went to the house and stayed quiet until it was time to sleep. New York offered Alex an opportunity to explore his creative freedom and he used photography as his initial medium.
His unconventional photographic career began with no formal education in photography but rather with a destined meeting with a girlfriend’s father who taught him the darkroom basics. In 1959, he purchased his first real camera, an Exacta XV, and some lenses and via informal apprenticeships and artistic networks, such as meeting with a group of young photographers who were experimenting with and creating their own special effects cameras, Harsley began to explore photography.
Ironically, Harsley’s learning disability – dyslexia, which was not diagnosed until his early fifties – aided his comprehension of photography. He can easily deal with the mirrored reality of photography because his mind operates that way. Harsley relied on the countless pictures he took and used the photographs to supplement his memory when later examining the contexts and situations of his work.
Harsley was drafted into the Army in 1961 while working as a photographer for the Frank Hogan’s Manhattan District Attorney’s office. While in the Army, Harsley qualified as an expert sharpshooter by his steady aim and astute vision gained through photography. After his tour in Vietnam, he reenlisted in the army based on their promise that he would have a chance to study photography. The army reneged on their promise and shipped Harsley to the deep South – Anniston, Alabama – as part of a Chemical Biological Radiological (CBR) Warfare unit. He was back where he originally started as a child – outcast, an alien adult Black man in the South during the Civil Rights movement. In turn, he never left the post during the four month assignment and eventually staged a one-man protest, vociferously stating the army’s broken promise. The army conceded and sent him to Ft. Devons, Massachusetts, where for 3½ years he was allowed to explore photography with freedom and modern facilities. He won the first prize in the First Army Photography Contest for a photo titled “The Left Foot” – a low angle shot of the marching feet of soldiers.
Alex was never far from the New York’s energy as he traveled back almost every other weekend where he would hang out in Washington Square Park and rub shoulders with other fine art photographers as well as roam the city at large looking and photographing unique images. Through his residence in the east village and eventual friendship with Dr. Lloyd E. Varden, he became acquainted with many intellectuals and formally educated artists from the local colleges and universities.
His photographic collection grew during this time. Harsley realized it was equally as important to not only have the image but to show it as well. He developed a portfolio and started hanging photos in various establishments throughout the city as well as minimalist sidewalk displays.
From 1964 to 1966 upon his return to New York, he did freelance work as a breaking-news photographer for a studio called M. Associates and several Harlem newspapers, and during that time his interest in photographic processes bloomed as his freelance work declined.
In 1966, he resigned from DA’s office. An ad in the New York Times listed a position for a color technician, and Harsley applied even though he knew little about the photochemical process but he knew he had enough knowledge to learn fast. As a Black man in the 1966, applying with a major processing firm, he also knew his association with the District Attorney’s office would help secure the position. His first job was developing prints, immediately he knew he did not want it, the job was drudge robotic work and low pay. The company took notice of his disinterest and placed him in a color printing position which requires a finer eye and more skill. Within a month, he was the primary printer with the most difficult jobs assigned to him due to his fast speed and keen eye for the color process. Within 3 months, Harsley was manager of the printing division.
By 1968, he realized his career path as color tech was coming to end and at age 29 began to spend a year experimenting with different color processes. He needed to talk with someone regarding earlier processes such as Gabriel Lippman’s interference method and holography, and soon began a close friendship with Columbia University Professor Lloyd E. Varden (1911-1970), a knowledgeable chemical engineer and expert in the area of photographic processes. Harsley’s in-depth research of developing and printing methods was broadened by Varden who at the time was rewriting the book The History of the Chemical Process of Photography. The meeting turned into a close friendship with the two often discussing visual perceptions, spatial construction, multidimensional reality, holography, and Lewis Carroll’s disclosures on photographic techniques.
In 1971, he founded the non-profit organization, Minority Photographers, Inc. which has grown into an internationally recognized resource for aspiring and professional artists, an organization that continues to stay active over 35 years later. The headquarters of MPI are located at the 4th Street Photo Gallery, a quiet modest storefront gallery cum meeting space that also draws on the likes of a neighborhood barbershop providing a place for community socializing and lively conversations. The gallery and Harsley have touched many contemporary artists’ and photographers’ careers either through making the gallery available for exhibiting their work, by providing MPI as a resource for direction and technical knowledge, or simply by an inspiring conversation with Alex. These artists include Hugh Bell, Dawoud Bey, David Hammons, Andres Serrano, Robert Frank, Abelardo Morell, Don Hogan Charles, Wayne Sides, Spencer Tunick, and many more. MPI and 4th Street Photo Gallery stand as a communication and support network for navigating through the world of photography providing a creative web of ideas and artistic reinforcement for anyone who decides to join.
Harsley’s work has grown in strikingly various directions over the years. Always rooted in truisms and experimentation, his photography began as a showcase for evolving social conditions around and in New York. From capturing the poverty of Far Rockaway, the first Muslim conference in New York City, Shirley Chisholm’s nomination for President, snowstorms on the Lower East Side, neighborhood kids playing hopscotch in the middle of a Harlem street to the legendary Manhattan jazz scene with shots of John Coltrane and Ray Charles at the Apollo, Sarah Vaughn at Birdland, and Oscar Brown Jr., Harsley expresses visual and metaphorical composition through the use of light and a sharp sense of timing. His early small hand held camera was expertly used as an extension of his journalistic eye; many of his early shots based in documentation and surveillance photography use the photograph to speak about information in a specific moment in time. Throughout, his works have showcased the city’s changing social landscape economically as well as politically. Photographer and writer Dawoud Bey eloquently describes Harsley’s portfolio:
“An aspect of both intimacy and foreboding permeates ‘Harlem Night,’ yet another photograph from 1959, and this intimacy and emotional warmth is given full reign in ‘Central Park, Lovers." Less than two decades later in "Lower East Side, Essex Street" all that appears to remain is the desolate urban environment under police surveillance. These photographs can only hint at the vast body of work that Harsley has compiled that notes with great emotional resonance and insight the changing nature of the urban experience in America as exemplified by one city.”
Currently, Harsley continues collaborating with artists and photographers, expounds on the rise and fall of the photochemical process against the effects of the digital divide, and produces video documentaries and montages. As of 2007, he has completed a video titled the Fresh Light Series. In the series the theory of relativity and unified field theory serve as a backdrop to Harsley’s simultaneous investigation and affirmation of monotheism using form, duality, and content. Interpreting the interaction of Dark Matter and Dark Energy to create life, Harsley allows a single dancer to illustrate duality, content and context, form and content against the backdrop of Manhattan’s East River. He then separates context and content by layers of sensory experience: the ears hear a garbled reading of John Locke’s Essay on Concerning Human Understanding read by an actor in English and then in Japanese on top of indeterminate music – the human reference framework falls away. As the mind ceases to comprehend the auditory experience, the visual hypnotizes. The dancer’s image expands and splits into two, doubles upon itself and seems to breathe as if another indescribable entity, creating complex and simple dark silhouettes contrasted against the natural sunlight and generating a spiritual and metaphysical awareness.
Utilizing 4th Street Photo Gallery as a home base, founder, director, and sole curator Alex Harsley maintains an artistic and creative presence that has influenced a host of local and international photographers and artists.