Leeta Harding

Past and Present Merge

Letter from Bessie Barnes to her sister Sarah, Murfreesboro, NC
Sisters, Coco and Rubyrose, Ave A, NYC, Oct 2019
Bessie Barnes journal and found doll, 1892, Murfreesboro, NC
Archiving the Barnes’ family letters that I found in the outbuilding. In my office which was once the sewing room, The Barnes House, 2009
Garden Rose, Murfreesboro, NC
The Barnes sisters with brother Colin and mom Betty, The Barnes House, 1892
Found Tea Dress, The Barnes House
Childhood things, found in the outbuildings
Found newspaper, The Barnes Archives
Myrick Plantation 1830, Como, NC
Shae, dotted swiss church dress, Myrick Plantation, Como, NC, 2013
Asia, portrait in black and green, Smith Farmhouse, Conway, NC, 2013

Artist’s Statement

My photographs are drawn from the experience of living life. There is a tone and texture to everything I see and feel. Like an imaginist dream sequence where heroines are caught between two realities or roles. The gaze is about a longing for escape, to break free of social conformity and restraint. There’s a darkness in the light, subversion in the saccharine southern charm. A desire to be in a world away from their own. Each woman I photograph becomes a character that I art direct using vintage dresses and location. And each possesses a steely inner strength and power. Themes that are a constant in my portraits.

I spent nearly seven years in rural North Carolina renovating a Victorian historic house. What I learned about the south deeply affected me. The isolation of being so remote allowed me re-evaluate the meaning of time. And to meet new people I never would of had the chance or opportunity to cross paths with. It was a whole new experience in every aspect. Not only did I learn about the intensity living in an ongoing renovation of our house but I got to know women in the town who welcomed me with lemon cakes, home cooked meals delivered to our door. A welcome wagon of local folklore, ghost stories, shared recipes for cornbread and child rearing remedies. I was smitten with my new neighbors’ curiosity and southern charm. Being Canadian, I also wanted to know more about the civil war, and how the past owners of our house specifically Judge D.A. Barnes who was a moderate democrat an was an aide-de-camp to the troops. He was deeply in love with his first cousin and twenty two years younger, Bettie Vaughn.

I became obsessed with the story of the Barnes family, Bettie and her daughters, Bessie, Sarah and Annie who lived in the house up until the late 1950s. The reason why they all never married, haunted me. I found a photo of Betty and Sarah Barnes from 1899 in a burlap sack in one of the our buildings. Two of the seven outbuildings were packed to the rafters of what was left behind of the Barnes family possessions. I got to work immediately after we bought the house in 2009. I became their archivist, as I sorted and sifted through a rare find of victorian clothing, top hats, shoes, undergarments, personal letters, journals, magazines, and news papers. I was thrilled to find hand written speeches that Judge Barnes read to Congress or a scripted recipe for caramel cake by Bettie Barnes. I felt like I was living in an alternate reality. Lost in their letters and news papers from the mid 1800s – victorians never threw anything out! I organized and archived amongst the daily crew of thirty men who replaced foundations and roofs, rebuilt kitchen and bathrooms. I felt like I’d stepped back in time. My son Tate was born two years later in 2011 via surrogate, I had cancer and couldn’t carry. It was an epic journey which I will reserve from sharing here. Tate was two when I started my portrait series, Past and Present Merge: Young women of Hertford County. I found local historic plantations and farmhouses as locations and held casting calls at the community college. The series took place over six years and I still go back to Murfreesboro to shoot.

Life circumstance brought me back to New York City four years ago. There was the predictable rush of the familiar sink or swim urban lifestyle but things were different—I now have an eight year old son. My life and portrait work I did in Hertford County, North Carolina felt surreal yet more real than anything I’d ever done.

My portraits span over decades and the women I photograph become friends. The work I’m doing now is rooted in these very diverse worlds. There’s a documentary subtext in my work that centers around women, sexuality, and domestic roles. My influences are derived from classic portraiture and painting, fashion, film, music and politics.

Leeta Harding is a portrait photographer currently living in Montclair, New Jersey. Born in Squamish, British Columbia, she studied photography, film and Canadian art history at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. She graduated with a BFA photography in 1996 and moved to New York City. Her first cover assignments were shot for index Magazine published by artist Peter Halley and Vice Magazine. She worked for two years for Harpers Bazaar shooting the feature, In Her Closet and contributed to iD, WSJ, New York magazine, New York Times, Interview, Tokion, Vanity Fair, Spin, Radar, and Details Magazine, Lucky, YM, Cosmo Girl.

In 2017 she was invited to shoot private portraits of the Missoni family at their home in Italy and she was also hired to photograph Missoni FW17 and SS18. She is currently working on a series photo books scanned from her indepth archives and journals from the 1990s-2000s. Recently her NY magazine portraits from this era were featured in GQ Brazil, Sept 2019 Issue. Links to press interviews iD magazine and The Bitter Southerner.