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Englishman in New York: A young photographer blends old and new techniques

Lunatics Lowriders © Owen Harvey

Whether shooting mods, skins or lowriders, Owen Harvey combines traditional camerawork with the latest image editing technology.

When Owen Harvey arrived in New York last August, armed with his Bronica SQ-A, he wasn’t sure what to expect. Having just left a job to focus full-time on his own photography, he’d set off for America with a not-entirely-concrete plan to shoot a project on a low riders group he’d been in touch with over email.

“All they said was, ‘Yeah no worries, give us a call when you’re here’,” he remembers. “I didn’t really know if it was going ahead or not but I thought the worse thing that happens is I make some connections in New York and fly back a few weeks later.”

Luckily for him, they stuck to their word. The next three months saw Harvey fully immersed in the world of the Lunatics Lowrider Club: days spent meeting up with them individually to shoot portraits, nights spent cruising around the city in convoys of ten vehicles.

Lunatics Lowriders © Owen Harvey

Lunatics Lowriders © Owen Harvey

Harvey’s recent clients include Time, GQ and the BBC but it’s his personal series on British youth subcultures, Mod UK and Skins and Suedes, that has defined his career since graduating from the documentary photography course at Newport (University of South Wales) in 2013. He’s known for shooting solely on film, but also incorporates the latest digital technologies to fulfil his artistic vision.

His work has been exhibited in group shows at The Photographer’s’ Gallery, the Royal Albert Hall and Metro Imaging Gallery, where he had his first solo exhibition in 2016. His first exposure to the low riders scene came as a teenager watching N.W.A and Cypress Hill videos with his rap-loving older brother.

Although initially drawn to the spectacle, through his research into the history of low riding he discovered a continuity with his previous work on subcultures.

Dancing Mods © Owen Harvey

Dancing Mods © Owen Harvey

“It started as a working class cultural thing back in the 1950s. It was about being proud and being seen,” he explains. “It’s the same as with the mods, they have all these references in their head, this character – it goes beyond clothing, it goes beyond cars, scooters; it becomes the way you behave, the way you look into the camera, the way you present yourself in every way.”

Ralph & Billy © Owen Harvey

Ralph & Billy © Owen Harvey

In other ways though Ground Clearance, a work in progress of which the low riders pictures shown here are just a small preview, has been a very new experience. “With the skinhead’s project, I felt a pressure because Mods UK had been quite well-received,” he says. “I was anxious to make a new body of work to show that I was getting on with things.”

He also felt the need to expand his visual language, including how he edits. “[The mods work] was very punchy, black-and-white, heavy flash. For the next project I wanted to do something that was quite different so I didn’t get pigeonholed. I tried to keep a bit of that in the skinhead work but did it in colour and balanced the flash with natural light so it was a softer aesthetic.” 

Dancing Mod © Owen Harvey

Dancing Mod © Owen Harvey

Bringing a consistent feel and colour palette to the body of work is an important part of Harvey’s creative process. “In New York, I got small prints made for reference. Then I made an edit of the ones I liked and got them drum scanned,” he says. “Having a high res digital copy of the film enables me to have more control over that file in post production, which I do in Affinity Photo because it’s so simple and intuitive.

Sosa, Lunatics Lowriders © Owen Harvey

Sosa, Lunatics Lowriders © Owen Harvey

“Personally, I want to be shooting more and editing less, I want software that enables me to make quick changes and allows me to navigate around easily, that isn’t fussy or difficult to use, like other image-editing software.”

Harvey processes his work in the way film photographers have by hand for years, the difference being that digital is more efficient. “I’m a perfectionist, I like to get it right in camera so the main tools I use in Affinity Photo are dodging and burning – the same as you use in a darkroom – adding depth, shadows or highlights, anything that makes it a bit more dynamic. I also remove all the dust and marks, and give the image a clean up to make them look as good as they can.”

Lunatics Lowriders © Owen Harvey

Lunatics Lowriders © Owen Harvey

In June, Harvey returns to New York to shoot more pictures for Ground Clearance at the Lunatics’ annual barbecue. He knows the kind of shots he’s after and has a wider vision for how the project will develop, but is also open to how things unfold. “Sometimes it can be a little scary to admit that when you’re shooting, you’re still learning what it’s about. The project is changing over time – this is the first project where I’ve let myself have a more relaxed vision of what the project can become.”

Affinity Photo and its partner app, Apple Design Award-winning Affinity Designer, were created by developer Serif to offer state-of-the-art software to professional photographers and designers. “We listened to what photographers and designers wanted. It wasn’t just a bunch of developers going off and designing an app – the process was completely creatively-led,” explains Serif’s Managing Director Ashley Hewson.

Affinity Photo is available to purchase – for a one-off payment of with free updates included – on Mac and has also recently been launched on Windows.

Craig-O, Lunatics Lowrider Club, NYC © Owen Harvey

Craig-O, Lunatics Lowrider Club, NYC © Owen Harvey