Ivanho Harlim: High Fashion with a Core of Human Charm

Born in a small town in the southern part of the Indonesian island of Kalimantan, Ivanho Harlim moved to Singapore at the age of 10 to be with his grandparents and receive a better education. Eventually he pursued his university studies in Melbourne and spent about seven years living in Australia. His interest in photography was sparked while attending an advertising course that included a photography block and it morphed into a passion after he took a part-time course in traditional black-and-white photography where he was introduced to the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Bill Brandt.

By dint of his hard work, perseverance and talent Ivanho Harlim has established a strong name for himself among major fashion magazines. A regular contributor to local and regional magazines, Ivanho has shot for household name advertising clients including Nike, Nokia and Levi’s. As a result of his uniquely engaging photographic style, he has also been associated with the youth and music culture, leading to the formation of a long-term collaboration with the noted designers Woods & Woods. Here he shares his story and his insightful reflections on his technique and the motivations behind his creative process.

Q: How do you find shooting with the new Leica S after having used the Leica S2 extensively?

A: I upgraded to the S because I find the improvements make a significant difference in the way I shoot. The bigger buffer is the biggest difference. With the S2 it was sometimes frustrating because it would only let me shoot about seven to eight images continuously before having to wait. Also, now with the S, when tethering using the Leica Shuttle, the orientation of the preview window is automatically adjusted to vertical or horizontal whereas the preview on the S2 is fixed in the horizontal position even when you’re shooting vertically.

I’m particularly fond of the minimalist design of the system. But with the S, its stable buffering when shooting continuously is the big advantage for me when compared to other medium format systems in the market.

Q: Which lenses do you own and use on the Leica S?

A: The 70 mm, 35 mm, 120 mm, and 180 mm. I use the standard 70 mm lens the most. I like the 120 mm macro lens for photographing faces. With a system like the S, the fact that the sensor is a bigger one compared to a 35 mm-based system, when the lenses are shot wide open at maximum aperture, the images have a pleasant softness which is distinctive. However, I don’t find this especially important; rather I think the subject and intent of the photographer is what makes the images relevant.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica? When did you first start using the S-System?

A: The idea of a discreet camera that lets you capture images in a non-intrusive way was always appealing to me. But it wasn’t until about two years ago that I made the decision purchase the S2 system, ironically for my fashion work!

Q: What approach do you take with your photography?

A: I’d say that my approach is always changing and evolving in the course of my work. But the natural, humanistic aspect of photography is always the charm for me, so my way of looking at things always starts from there. Photography to me is a bit like the obsession of collecting. I read somewhere that photographers are likely to be hoarders, and this is certainly true of me. There’s a psychological reason for hoarding, and this might explain my choice of profession.

Q: Your statements that “the natural humanistic aspect of photography is always the charm” and “photography is a bit like the obsession of collecting” are quite intriguing. Can you say something more about how you express or integrate “the natural humanistic aspect” in your work, and give us your impressions of the similarity between photography and “the obsession of collecting?”

A: When talking about fashion photography, there’s a tendency especially in the market I’m in, to portray cold and aloof subjects, or what is commonly termed “high-fashion.” For me, I prefer images that seem to be more in-the-moment and un-posed. I’m also against excessive retouching, and for my personal work I very much prefer to leave imperfections such as skin flaws intact and un-retouched.

I drew the comparison between photography and collecting because they’re both similar in the way that you’re almost in a quest of continuously putting together a series of images in the case of photography, or let’s say toy figurines in the case of collecting, with a certain common theme in mind. In photography, this can be done consciously or not.

Q: Anteprima consists of a lovely pair of sensual images of young women in lingerie and it has a masterful use of lighting that contributes to the overall impressions. How did you light these images, and what is your general approach to lighting — that is, what do you do and what are you generally trying to achieve?

A: For both these images my inspiration was the photographs of Jan Saudek. We painted the wall backdrop to recreate the look. I was after a soft low-key sidelight, but was not keen on using flash because of its stark quality. So what I did was use a 1.2K HMI, which was bounced to a big piece of foam board, from the left side of the frame.

My general approach to lighting is to use as little artificial light as possible. In cases when I have to use it then I keep to one light as much as possible. This relates back to my overall approach to photography, to keep it natural and not overly staged.

Q: Istanbul is a lovely image of a beautiful woman, richly attired and wearing an ornate necklace, with a mosque and flying pigeons in the background. It has a back lit feeling although foreground details and skin tones are very well defined, and it was evidently shot at a wide aperture since the background is soft, leading your eye toward the subject. Aside from the setting, it is reminiscent of a frame from Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.” Where and how did you shoot this striking image, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?

A: As the title suggests, this was taken in the city of Istanbul. It was shot on a trip with a magazine for the fashion brand Chanel. I wanted to create a shot with a view of the Blue Mosque in the background, and found this café on the rooftop of a small hotel with the perfect view. I think a vista shot of a cityscape, or rooftops of a city often evoke some kind of romance. The birds in the background were a bonus that was not planned, but they added so much to the resulting image.

Q: There is a kind of wistful quality to this image showing an elegantly attired young man perched on the corner of a building with a pigeon standing next to him. The almost bald gray sky and his almost morose expression are in stark contrast to his upscale attire. What were you trying to convey with this enigmatic image, and why did you choose this approach and setting?

A: This was in Paris and was taken for the brand Dunhill. As you’ve probably noticed by now, it often starts with the initial assignment of photographing a set of clothing.

Again, in Paris, I wanted a view of the city from a higher position so we went to Montmartre, and I found the perfect platform for the model to sit on. The back-story you mentioned wasn’t intended, but the juxtaposition of the upscale attire and his expression, somewhat created this. Usually, I have a preference for a more languid posturing of the model in my images. Rather than creating an image of a happy and successful young man, which is to be expected if he’s dressed as such, a contrast will always make the image more interesting. I wasn’t necessarily trying to convey anything explicit about a specific story though.

Q: What makes the image of two fashionably attired young women on horseback at the seashore visually compelling is the shooting angle and perspective that emphasizes their high status. Can you tell us something about how you took this shot, which lens you used, and why you think it works?

A: This was taken with a standard lens, on a 35 mm-format camera. It was in Bali on a black sand beach, which has horses you can hire for rides. Physically, it was a challenging shoot for me since I had to run backwards to keep up with the horses as they rode forward. But I was very happy that to get this shot in the end. Again, the high status impression is not deliberate at first, but perhaps it comes about because of the clothing, which the image is intended to showcase. The horses, black sand and blue sky perhaps contributed to this grand effect.

Q: It would appear that your professional mission entails projecting image of prestige, class, and exclusivity for clients. How do you feel about that, and do you sense any conflict between those aims and the natural humanistic aspect that is also evident in your work?

A: The nature of the assignments I take on is to portray these clothes in the best light for the purpose of commercial marketing. So it’s true when you said that the images project “prestige, class and exclusivity”, albeit this might not be my first personal intention. There is certainly a conflict between the final projection and my own personal aims. I’m continually exploring the inner dialogue of this conflict and hope to extend it more and more in my images. The tendency of these clothes to be portrayed in the high-fashion manner I’ve mentioned, partly led me to take things in the opposite direction of portraying them in a more human and less impersonal way.

This also opens up a discussion on the subject of capitalism and the imperial connotation of the current global course of these Western brands entering markets such as the one I’m in. I’m hoping to explore these concepts in my work increasingly going forward. The fact that the media I’m photographing for is in Asia, and the subjects mostly portray a white Caucasian look, is also a conflict in this case. I hope to find a way to explore and express this in my work.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years or so, and do you plan to explore any other genres such as street photography or architectural photography?

A: Yes, I so hope to explore making more images of spaces and cityscapes, particularly those from around the region of Southeast Asia. But I’d also love to go to a small English countryside town or more exotic places like Morocco and revisit Istanbul and other cities in Turkey. With these types of photography, perhaps I’d have greater freedom to explore subjects that are more true to my personal aims.

Thank you for your time, Ivanho!

- Leica Internet Team

You can see more of Ivanho’s work on his website and his studio’s blog.