Behind The Canvas: Saatchi Online Interview With J Henry Fair

J Henry Fair

MR: When did you first begin working with photography as your primary medium? Did you always have an affinity for the camera, or was there a catalyst that aided in igniting your practice?

JHF: I stole my father’s old Kodak Retina as soon as I could figure out how to use it and started photographing the same things I’m doing now: people, machines, icons. It’s a medium that comes naturally for one with a technically oriented brain, though in my case, interestingly, not a visual memeory.

You’ve chosen to primarily display your Industrial Scars series here at Saatchi Online rather than any of your other additional work, how long have you been working on this collection? Is it a continuing effort as the elements evolve or a closed topic for your practice?

It is more difficult to edit down to an essential set that to show more, both within a series and to represent the cumulative impression. A lot of the skills are not transferable: a collector of abstract art doesn’t care if I do a great portrait. This project has engaged me for 12 years or so. The activist nature of the project will demand its continuation till its obsolescence.

Untitled, J Henry Fair

What about our current ecological state do you find most disturbing, and how do you feel your work via the art context affects the environmental conversation?

General apathy and complacence frighten me the most in the modern world. Denial of responsibility is a large element of the equation, as none of us wants to admit to ourselves that the latest electronic gadget or car trip has a significant consequence. My images, coupled with the facts, provide an enthralling and inescapable report of those consequences.

It’s entirely evident that the lush abstractions in your work are unquestionably beautiful, though do you feel that the intent behind abstracting the catastrophic imagery draws attention to your cause or distances the viewer from it?

The images work precisely because of the dissonance established due to their beauty. The eye of the viewer sees beauty, then the brain comprehends the ugly inherent in the subject. So we have a cognitive conflict and it stimulates our interest. Just as the abstractive directions of other artists pushed the pieces into a new realm, as the references are stripped away, these become more beautiful and frightening.

How would you like your work to be perceived in the art context?

Of course my preference would be for everyone to look at my images and change their purchase decisions (behavior). But those are not the metrics of the art world, which is, by definition, about the aesthetic qualities of a given work. This series has the same mysterious power of any abstract expressionist piece, with an added twist when enough clues are included to explain the subject without revealing it.

Oil Spill, J Henry Fair

Why have you chosen to work primarily with photography? Do you ever utilize other mediums in order to project your concept of intent?

Photography comes naturally, and i have no aptitude for music. I have done some small work in film, and will do more- would like to do industrial scars in video. Introducing other elements into the Industrial Scars Series could be very interesting, and i am exploring the use of atmospheric sound, and/or music. I also work in wood and things.

How has the topical matter of your work changed over time?

I have photographed the same subjects my whole career: people, ruins, and icons. I find them all endlessly fascinating.

Cover-up, J Henry Fair

As a photographer working in both a professional context and the world of gallery exhibition, do you find the lifestyles conflictive, an easy transition from one to the other, or a cohesive and unifying experience all together?

In spite of the initial similarities of tool use, the two works are very different, and I enjoy going back and forth. The business side of each is different, and must be learned.

What type of work do you find inspirational to your practice?

It’s always important to study as much art as possible, both to re-inspire, and re-mind. One can also study it to stay current- no art is created in a vaccuum- we are all responding and commenting on the predecessors whose work we admire. Humans are born mimics, whether it’s a phrase, expression, brush stroke. Two of the most inspiring art experiences of recent memory are a trip to the Ufizzi and a Dvorak concert by Menahem Pressler and the Emerson Quartet. Constant favorites in the visual realm would certanly include: Giacometti, DeChiricho, Canaleto, Durer

What reservations, if any, do you have about the current climate in the art world?

Of course we would all like a return to the days of free spending, and every collector buys for their own personal reasons. Cautious moods always promote a rush for the established… But easy money leads to Industrial Scars.

The images in your Industrial Scars series depict sites that few are afforded to see, how did you access some of these landscapes? Is there a particularly interesting story behind any of these images you can share with us?

Many times I was chased away from industrial sites, threatened with arrest, and questioned by the various authorities. I try to see each location from as many angles as possible. Often the only way to see something is from the air, and it is such an interesting perspective for a land based animal. The process begins with a lot of research: the nature of the industry, environmental impact of their practices, different operators and locations. Then it’s a matter of logistics. Once, with a pilot from Alabama, on a trip to explore the lower Mississippi river. We had landed at a small airfield to warm up, hit the head, and begin. After takeoff, I asked if it was safe to open the window, and proceeded, only to have it come free in my hands. As this was a push/pull plane, there was a prop behind us, and the aileron. Had I released the window (in the 100 mph airstream) the results might have been problematic.

What are you currently working on that we can watch out for in the future?

There are always new projects within Industrial Scars to be explored, often in conjunction with any environmental law that is under attack, or an issue that demands attention. In different realms, I’m doing a series on the south, mostly people, with a sort of Tennessee Williams look at the normal/bizarre. Also the concept of brand and logo interest me, so I’m doing a series of images depicting their effect on daily life.

J Henry Fair’s new book, The Day After Tomorrow: Images of Our Earth in Crisis, published by powerHouse Books, is currently available for purchase.

For more information, please visit and, or contact Katherine Benjamin,


  1. I loved looking at your work and found that your images resonate with me highly. My work has always been about the environment and drama/beauty of nature. I have only touched on environmental concerns. Both aerial and close up views have been integral to my practice. However I was stunned by some of your images which really highlight the drastic effects of mining and oil production on our environment. Your photographs have opened my eyes to these major concerns and the devastation caused by human greed and exploitation. They are also extremely inspiring on a creative level. Perhaps we can exhibit together some time!
    Hope you like my work.

    • henry says:

      Really nice work Michele. i, of course, gravitate to the abstracts. Love those lava flows and yellowstone. i’ve always wanted to shoot a live volcano. give a shout when you come to nyc, and i will do the same when i come to the UK.
      cheers H

  2. relidaniela says:

    wow sow nice, impressing…


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