An Interview with Chad Harnish
By Lauren Connelly
Writer/Editor, M Street
So, we've known each other for a long time. Over twenty years. We've traveled all over the place together along with our spouses. We've worked together for the past three years. It's been a pleasure to watch your evolution, both personally and professionally, over time. When I first met you in college, did you know then that you would own your own thriving business one day?
You and (your husband) Kyran have been a super meaningful part of my life.
As far as owning my own business, I can't say I was thinking that far into the future. I didn't really find my drive until later in my life.
You're an interesting, and rare, hybrid of techie/creative. What made you choose the path you did career-wise towards the tech side?
I've been into electronics, and computers, since I can remember. I credit my dad for that. I started with the Commodore Vic 20, but it was the Amiga where I first started graphic design. I was blown away by what was possible.
I was always a creator, and computers allowed me to create and imagine. I started to fall in love with graphic design in college. This was around 1993. Computers barely even existed, and the internet was in its infancy.
But, I was always a logic-minded person with a love for art, which led me to a computer science degree with a minor in art. I was building websites starting around 1997. My first site, Progressive-Sounds, was way ahead of its time. We reviewed electronic music, and interviewed artists from around the globe. Electronic music, unlike today, was very much underground at that time, but I had an international team, and we'd created something pretty big. At its peak, the site was bringing in 6,000 visitors daily from all over the planet.
It was the success of that site that pushed me to learn more.
I remember you used to paint back in the day. Do you still do that? Or, would you if you had the time?
I haven't painted for a very long time, except once recently. My family has "art hour" occasionally where we sit together, and do something artistic. I pulled out a canvas, and tried to reproduce a scene I'd photographed. I had a lot of fun with it. I think it'll be something I pick back up later in life.
You guys really have an art hour? That's so endearing. Our families have always made a point to take a lot of pictures while on vacation together. When did it go from a way to capture memories to an art form for you?
I think having kids was a meaningful reason to put a camera in my hands. I'd dabbled a little with cameras before this, but nothing serious. I can look back at the earliest photos that I took, and I do see art art in them.
At that time, 12 years ago or more, photos were mostly for personal consumption. I wasn't looking at photography for the most part other than my own, so there was no compulsion to push, and improve.
More recently, starting with Instagram, I'd start to get encouraging feedback, and that was cool. Initially, I was drawn into the ease of making art from a photo using filters, but it was only after I started seeing what my peers were doing that I really start to sharpen my skills, and expand my boundaries.
Before this, I rarely saw art in photography, it was just a tool to document life.
So, you were looking at it through the logical part of your mind. Interesting. Data collection in a way. Do you think Instagram was the catalyst that changed your perception of your photography?
Yeah, absolutely. Instagram gave me a reason to curate my photos. A year later, the #lancastergram contest suddenly gave me a real purpose. I had reason to post images outside of my routine. I needed to take a different look at Lancaster County.
I find that I learn best when I have a real-life situation to work with. That's how I learned to build, and run, websites. That's not part of a computer science degree at all. But, I needed this, so I learned that.
Photography is the same.
At the time, I was also into social media marketing, so I was also building influence, and numbers, as a goal. Instagram is a great tool to use to get attention.
What made you sign up for an Insta account? Did your kids have anything to do with it? I find it's largely a more popular social media platform for the younger crowd as opposed to, say, Facebook.
That's a good question. I can't really remember what started it. I do remember being extremely ANTI-social media. I felt it was all very absurd. A lot of it still is really. I wrestle with the meaningfulness of it all. I used to rationalize that photography helped me to be more present in life, to always be looking, and seeing things that would normally be benign.
Now, I can't look at anything without reaching for my camera. Which is worse?
I've always liked that about you. That you live in the moment. I think a lot of people wish they could do that. Don't you think it's great that social media helps us to document our lives? Regarding Facebook in particular, you can go back five or ten years and "relive" what you were doing at the time. In a way, we're leaving our legacy for our kids and future generations to look back on.
I used to tell (my wife) Anne that when I die, I want my Instagram feed to play at my viewing, because it's a great representation of my life.
My feed used to be more about my life and was posted (for the most part) in chronological order.
That changed, because now my feed is a representation of my artistic hobby. I'm more picky about what I post. I post fewer photos of my daily life, and my photos are no longer in chronological order as I'll pull photos from the past to compete in #jj.
I also think that as my kids grew up, they became less fun to photograph. Sounds harsh to say, but cute toddlers are easier to shoot than reluctant teens are. I do still have a massive collection of photos of them though. I just don't post them like I used to.
I totally understand that. So, how did you discover #lancastergram, and JJ Community? Can you tell us more about both of them?
Lancastergram came about when I was first learning hashtags on Instagram. I can't remember if Seth Dochter introduced me, or if I met him near the same time, but he went on to win that year.
JJ came sometime later. I remember someone tagged one of my photos in a comment with a JJ tag. I Googled it, and didn't quite understand what I was doing, and started hashtagging everything with #jj. I later learned what JJ was about, regarding the daily challenges, and how to properly submit my photos. After having a train photo featured, I've been addicted ever since.
Sometime later, I connected with JJ's founders, Josh Johnson and Kevin Kuster, to help them adapt the successful JJ Instagram account into a thriving website presence. Stay tuned!
I'm looking forward to seeing that! Speaking of websites, that's what M Street, your company, is all about. What made you decide to leave the corporate world, and start your own business?
I'd been working at Temple University for seven years when the Oregon Department of Transportation signed onto our traffic safety software. I'd been building this business on the weekend and evenings for many years. It was time to give it a proper shot.
I bet you're glad you did. You work with a lot of non-profits. How did that come about?
Self-employment has its pros and cons. There's a ton of risk.
Temple, in Harrisburg, had a huge focus on social work. I was a founding member of their non profit development group NEST. I was introduced to a lot of non-profits, and good causes.
One of my first major non-profits was the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. That project allowed me to flex my programming skills with the reward of working on a great cause.
I've donated a lot of websites to non-profits over the years. It's really a win/win situation.
That's wonderful. You're definitely a caring person. One of your many websites is this one, Visit Lancaster PA. It's become hugely popular of late. You use a lot of your original photos on this website, correct? What do you shoot with?
I'm currently shooting with the Sony Alpha A6000 thanks to the recommendation from Seth. It is a perfect fit.
Visit Lancaster PA is a 'hobby' site of mine. It's a site where we can build new technologies, make relationships, and promote.
I take nearly 100% of the photos used on Instagram, and Facebook, but I try to get as much art from Lancaster locals as possible. Victoria Gertenbach does the calendars, and Brian Wilson shot all of the covered bridges in Lancaster for us. I'm always looking to make relationships like this.
It's been fun to watch this group of people you're mentioning become close, and plan events together. You all go on a lot of photowalks that seem as much a bonding experience as a chance to take photos. Many have been in the Lancaster County area, as well as Philly. Do you all plan to branch outside of this radius at some point?
That's absolutely the best thing about it really. I've made some good friends, and I enjoy knowing all of these great people. I think photographers are a lot alike in many ways, so it's easy for us to connect. Photowalks are a lot of fun, for sure.
I know a few photographers are finding less inspiration with farms and sunsets lately. I've been spoiled recently with visiting Philly, Steampunk Unlimited, and photographing Erin across Lancaster city, that it's been next to impossible to motivate myself to get out and shoot locally. Just a pinch of photographer's block I guess.
That makes sense. You do live in a place of great natural beauty, but I can see where you could tap out the scenery at some point, regardless of where you live, and what you shoot. If you could take photos anywhere in the world, where would you like to go?
I would love to go back to London with you and Kyran. Negril, Jamaica is always amazing, and can't forget Emerald Isle. There's so much of the country, and world, I want to see. Anywhere new really, and I'm game! At the same time, I'm ready to go back to NYC, and DC, soon.
You have this great adventurous spirit, and, I totally accept your invitation to go back to London! I've always loved your landscapes. I think composition is your greatest strength in regard to photography. Are landscapes your favorite thing to shoot?
Landscapes are actually my least favorite things to shoot. I would describe myself as more of a street photographer. I like finding the candid in life.
In today's age, it's almost impossible to do anything original. With landscape photography, the only thing you have is location, and once that's known, it's nearly impossible to do anything new. Then, it's a fight to get the best equipment as a way to differentiate yourself. I like the shots, but if I really wanted the beauty, I would just buy a calendar. :)
My favorite photo of the moment was a candid I took in DC where everything lined up perfectly. Even a flock of ducks lined up! It's pretty one-of-a-kind unless someone were to stage the photo. I like to be different. I like to have exclusivity.
The mark of a true artist! You've been receiving a lot of accolades lately, but you're a very humble guy. How does it make you feel? Does it spur you on to find that next great shot?
It's almost had the opposite effect really.
It's been a great year for me. You were there with me on vacation when I heard about the contest with Philly Art Museum. I'm most proud of that. The photo has my art in it. The Lampeter Fair with three ribbons, including Best of Show, as well as winning #LancasterGram this year was also amazing, but it was more a sense of relief. I don't have to try so hard anymore. :)
Winning is tough, there are so many talented photographers that I am friends with, all of them just as deserving as I was. It can make me feel awkward.
Like I said, you're humble, but, you're definitely making a name for yourself these days. I often use the word "genius" when describing you, and that goes both for your artistic side, and your tech side. Embrace the love! Can someone buy one of your prints if they see a photo they like?
I haven't been asked to sell any prints yet. Though, I've been playing with printing recently. I've been talking to a few people, including Tim Nies about doing a show. He and I may do something together. Not sure how I fit into what he does. He's a super amazing artist. But, I've been printing, and framing, as an exercise in curating a collection of my work.
I'm afraid this means I'm taking myself too seriously. Maybe it is time.
Hey, I've asked you for a print! And yes, it's time. You have this talent that you need to share with the world. One last question for you. I mentioned your evolution earlier...what's next? Where do you see yourself going from here?
With the launch of the Lampeter Strasburg School District's website, and the partnership with JJ, I hope to grow M Street's stature in Lancaster city.
Regarding my photography, that's a good question. I'll probably take it into a multimedia art form in the next few years. Maybe use it as a basis for painting, or drawing. Or, if I get extremely lucky, maybe I'll be hired to travel around the world with my wife taking photos of our adventures!!