By Tony Fawcett
Every second year HMA Victoria stages the ‘Joy Harland Memorial Photographic Competition’.
While quite a number still remember her, there are many, mostly younger, members who only associate the name Joy Harland with the contest and know little about the person behind the name.
So who was she?
Put simply, Joy Harland was about colour. Colour in character. Colour in the clothing she wore (she loved mixing vibrant reds and yellows). And colour in what she photographed.
Joy was delirious about colour. Put a colourful flower in front of her lens and she was ecstatic. She created beauty, a breathtaking result. Something startling.
I first met Joy when I was editor of the magazine ‘Your Garden’ magazine, some time in the 1990s. She flew into my office like a whirlwind. And in many ways Joy was a whirlwind. She arrived with a fellow freelancer, a writer, and demanded to show me the shots from a feature they had done together.
She was bristling with enthusiasm and couldn’t be put off.
Straight away I saw there was something special in Joy’s shots.
Her regular shots were good … but her flower portraits were brilliant. Stunning. They were a celebration of colour and form. The sort that editors instantly envisage on covers.
Encouraged, the Joy Harland hurricane continued. I got to know her quite well.
Every couple of weeks, she would storm into the ‘Your Garden’ office like a boisterous puppy, with boxes of her latest 35mm transparencies. There were no digitals then. She worked with a quite basic Nikon, little else.
She would insist on going through her photos shot by shot on a lightbox, demanding to know what you liked. What you didn’t like. Why? How she could do better?
A week later Joy, the perfectionist, would be back with better.
Joy Harland was certainly a one-off.
She was an artist with an artist’s temperament – and a colourful vocabulary to match.
The flowers she photographed were all “gorgeous” … “breathtaking” … “divine” … “a beautiful thing” … “an exquisite creature” – and then there was “cool bananas”, her trademark utterance.
If Joy was happy or agreeable, it was always “cool bananas”.
When I try to explain what Joy Harland was like, I think of the comedian and actor Robin Williams. Like him, Joy was an artist consumed by her craft. Passionate and driven … taking creativity right to the very edge.
Joy was lovable, eager to please, a good friend certainly – but as an artist with an artist’s temperament, she could also be frustrating at times.
For instance, Joy was not a horticulturist. She rarely knew the botanical name of a plant she was photographing. She was an artist portraying beauty, pure and simple. Horticultural names were irrelevant. To her, a red rose was a red rose. A thing of beauty to be adored and glorified.
Joy was also a big game performer. And as a big gamer, she was only satisfied when her photos were on covers. She wasn’t about back-of-book shots. That wasn’t her. She wanted her shots to be centre stage.
The whirlwind that was “photographer Joy Harland” continued for several years. Cover after cover. Her shots sold nationally and internationally. She was wonderful.
I recall hiding purchase orders for Joy’s not-quite-so-brilliant photos (and there were a few) from accountants, burying them in the system, purely to keep her supplying those standouts.
But then in 1997, Joy’s output uncharacteristically slowed.
It could have been caused by a number of things, I really don’t know.
I think the saddest I ever saw Joy as a photographer was when she was commissioned to take hundreds of plant photos for an A-Z type plant book. She was being paid so many dollars per image, all to be taken to the same format. This McDonald’s type output was anathema to Joy’s creative soul … and she was battling to cope.
I didn’t see Joy as much around this time.
We still spoke on the phone but she was clearly in crisis, somehow driven to achieve more, disheartened that people wouldn’t come along with her.
The terrible reality is that Joy didn’t go on to realise her full potential as a photographer.
In February 1998, Joy Harland was gone. Dead at just 38. Way too young.
It wasn’t spoken about that much at the time, but the sad fact was that she had taken her own life.
I don’t know for sure – I couldn’t bring myself to enquire – but I do suspect it was her driven personality, that fearless preparedness to go right to the edge, the very thing that made her such a brilliant photographer, that killed her.
I think she hit a few roadblocks in life, wasn’t able to crash through them, then opted out.
I confess my main memory of how I felt when she died was shock, lots of shock – and then anger. Like others, I was angry that she had ended it all, thrown away such a fabulous talent.
I remember at her funeral Rob Pelletier remarked we would never again be able to look at a fully unfurled sunflower without thinking of Joy.
That was exactly how it was. Joy Harland had that magic ability to seemingly get right inside a bloom with her camera. To grasp every nuance of mood and colour and emotion.
Without Joy, cover shots were so much harder to come by.
I remember after I left ‘Your Garden’ I was editing a large-format garden book for the Herald & Weekly Times and I was looking for a few high-impact shots. Wow shots. I immediately thought of Joy.
So I rang her parents, a lovely couple, George and Judy, and arranged a meeting with them and Joy’s sister. We talked and reminisced about Joy’s photographic talent for some time. The upshot was they agreed to sell me some of Joy’s shots for use in the book. I suspect they were the last of Joy Harland’s shots to be published.
If Joy were here today, I know she would be ecstatic, ecstatic to know her name is carried on via HMA’s Joy Harland Memorial Photography Competition.
She would be delighted that her creativity is now encouraging others to strive for photographic brilliance in garden photography.
Brilliance in photography was what Joy Harland was all about. She set a benchmark for others to aim at.
For Joy it would be “just gorgeous”, “a beautiful thing”.
“Cool bananas”, I can hear her saying now.