Video Verisimilitude of Peter Harvey

by Michael G. Devoll and Jean Caslin

Hey, hey… hey, wait…wait, this’ll only take one second – just one second. I know you’re…you’re in a hurry, you’re probably late, you’re on your way – but look – just one second. Ok. I…I appreciate your looking in – on me – ok – cause that’s… I mean… I’m sure that it’s just, you know, curiosity – ok, so – just a minute. Ok…one minute. Um, the thing is, that while you’re looking in here, other people out there are looking at you looking in here. So when you turn around, you know, the expression on your face is gonna say something about what it is that you’re looking at, in here – okay – so just remember that – ok. Thanks…..There’ll be more if you stay tuned.

We see a headshot of an athletic, clean-cut white male with a crew cut. He has smooth features, brown hair and eyes, and is wearing a conservative shirt with a button-down collar, a wedding ring and a watch. He makes eye contact with us, and confronts us with his lively, direct gestures that emphasize the tight space in which he is framed. He is in front of an expressionistic backdrop drawn with green and red magic marker. This is how we are introduced to the mind of Peter Harvey in his eight-minute video, “Test Tube” (1989). The opening monologue cited above sums up his major artistic concerns, and sets the stage for the three videos that he presented at FotoFest.

In first person narrative, Peter establishes a connection to the viewers. He cajoles us to pay attention and listen to him. By raising his hands and pushing his palms out towards us, he signals for us to stop. He points directly at us, emphasizing his efforts to involve us as active participants in the interaction. He entreats us to be aware of our facial expressions that reveal our innermost thoughts – about him. We feel an obligation to him to be self-conscious about our reactions, because they will influence other people’s reactions.

He quickly establishes the duality between the “in here” and the “out there” and makes us think about what is “real” and what is “illusion.” He approaches us, goes out of focus, moves out of the frame to the right, and lowering his voice, whispers in our ear: “I’ve got the secret to success. Don’t spread it around.”

A parallel narrative takes place at the Success Labs, where a scientist stands in front of a blackboard holding a clipboard. He wears a white lab coat, white shirt, black tie and black-framed glasses. In solemn tones reminding us of a 1950s training film, he discusses the “success potential test.” The test involves observing participants engaging in a ring toss game, and the results indicate levels of competitiveness and their potential success in the business world. The test, developed by “a Harvard professor,” has an air of authenticity, and we are encouraged to trust the accuracy of its scientific results. The scientist uses pseudo-scientific jargon, whereas the first character speaks casually and colloquially.

The two narratives are skillfully woven together as the first speaker gives us the accumulated benefit of his wisdom: “You’re busy doing something every day. That’s what’s important. Sssssst sssssst. Concentrate. …It’s not what you do, but how you so it, your attitude. …Be aware of what’s going on with your pants down – again. … Scrutinize. Look for that weak spot. … They’re always watching.”

In his four-minute video, “Verism,” (1989), Peter Harvey also presents two personas, each shown standing before a backdrop of crumpled brown paper, but this time, the character goes through a physical, and by extension psychological, transformation. The character begins,

“I tell you, I got this new book – one of those self-help books” that gives basic tips about self-motivation and self-image. “One of the things it says to do right off the bar is to get a haircut. I couldn’t believe that. Get a haircut! I figured I’d do it. What the heck. It’s got to have some kind of effect. It’s in the Book, right? … People will perceive you differently,” and then “you will actually behave differently.”

So, Peter gets a short crew cut. “Sometimes I tell them the Book told me to… Other times I try to say it was my idea – it was something I thought of. If I tell them it was the book, then I get embarrassed… I think that changing one’s self image is good if you have the time.” The character with the new self-image wears black-framed glasses, and is similar to the “Success Potential Test” scientist. The character has believed in the authority of “the Book” and has followed its instructions. Our perceptions of the character do indeed shift, as we begin to question his psychological stability. We are led to question if after the character says, “I feel that lights keep dimming and going brighter. I’m kind of confused after all of this.” We see close-ups of his eyes, and we wonder whether he’s taking the Book’s tenets too literally. The character asserts that he will soon read the second chapter, and “by the end (of the Book), I think I’ll be a pretty neat person.” The accessibility of the narrative, its sense of humor and ironic questioning of a “truthful” authority, continue to be the hallmarks of Harvey’s style.

In “Veridical,” a three and one-half minute video (1989), a silhouetted “eyewitness” speaks to us on the condition of anonymity about a story he heard on the news. He relates a series of highway incidents in which an “insane man” drove around menacing other drivers by pointing a brightly painted orange gun out of his car. Giving the effect of a TV news report, the video cuts between the narrator and footage of highway traffic. Using a series of technical effects in this reenactment, including split screen, delayed repetition, altered speeds, and second generation footage, the viewer senses the disorientation and fear that the witnesses claim to have felt. The narrator then questions the truth of the reported events by saying: “It is not a regular occurrence. It may be the same person. In fact, it may not be true. … In all cases, the person has killed no one, and there were no accidents. It happens about this time each year.”

The inability of the viewer to verify by visual evidence the events described above speaks to the power of the medium to control our perceptions. In “Verify,” a two-minute video, Peter Harvey shares a secret of the medium with us. “OK, well just pay attention to this. One thing I’m going to share with you.” And soon he says, “Nobody sees what’s outside the picture. I’ll demonstrate so that you’ll know. Watch this.” With a series of fast cuts between the narrator in the video, to second generation footage of the video showing parts of the narrator’s head and shoulders isolated and altered through strange perspectives, and out of focus images, he demonstrates the “enormous benefits” of the video medium and its restricted/limited views. “You can put in or take out whatever you want – what suits your fancy – however you want to edit something. The power is in your hands whenever you have the camera.” While speaking, he is performing some task off screen to soon demonstrate his statement about “what’s outside the picture.” He demonstrates this video “truth” by holding up the visual evidence – his underwear – while saying, “All right. Now what d’ya think?”

We think we like this guy. All three videos presented at FotoFest, “Verism,” “Veridical,” and “Verify,” share etymological roots in “truth.” As a photographic medium, his videos speak to critical issues in the medium with a sense of humor and irony, and involve the active participation of us as viewers. His approach to video personalizes and humanizes the medium.

Michael G. DeVoll is the Administrative Director and Jean Caslin is the Executive Director of the Houston Center for Photography.