Creating Art All Day Long
By Emily Magnus
As a child, Toby Harriman ’06 told his mother he wanted to create art all day long; he hasn’t strayed from that objective yet. Ceramics and graphic design held his attention for a bit as a young adult, but photography has developed into a life-long pursuit, particularly when it involves hanging out of helicopters and capturing images with drones.
"Whether you stare into that nocturnal abyss or marvel at city skylines at sunset, this world is a beautiful place,” Mr. Harriman writes on his website. “We are ambassadors of our reality. We’re setting it free as a creative revolution gives us a stage, puts the tools into our hands and waits.”
This creative revolution caught Mr. Harriman’s attention in elementary school. By the time he reached high school, he did what he needed to do to get by in his core academic courses but spent most of his time exploring whatever art courses were offered. At Cardigan, he remembers sculpting with clay, and at Holderness School, he became passionate about ceramics.
“Boarding schools have these things called study halls, meaning every night (but Saturday) for two hours, we had study hours,” he explained in an interview with Aperture Academy, a California-based company that offers on-site, hands-on photography courses. “And if you had bad grades, you had to work in the proctored cafeteria rather than your dorm room. That was me! Until I found ways to get permission to get excused from it...[Then] I went to the ceramics room to throw pots every night. When I didn’t have my homework finished for classes, all the teachers knew why” (June 2015).
It wasn’t until he was attending the Academy of Art University in San Francisco for website design that he discovered photography’s potential for bringing his ideas to life. Rather than relying on stock photographs for his assignments, Mr. Harriman challenged himself to create his own images. In each website design or graphic project, he led with powerful images, building on his intuitive conviction that a strong image can direct a person’s attention more easily than words. The more photographs he created, the more he wanted to focus on photography full time.
“I found myself getting involved in the online photography community pretty young and interacting on pretty much every photo site I could,” he remembers, “Flickr, 500px, Google+, Facebook, Instagram, and so many more. Then I started gaining a following, and while I was sitting in web design with my buddy, kind of laughing over the fact I had just gained over a million followers on Google+, that moment kind of made me really think about what I was doing” (June 2015, apertureacademy.com). Decision made. Mr. Harriman graduated early with an associate’s degree and dove into a career as a freelance photographer.
“Now I hang out of helicopters, dodge waves on distant shores, and get up at oft-forsaken hours to glimpse our galaxy sprawled across the night sky,” he writes. “I am partners with a few companies as an ambassador and will continue contributing to National Geographic Travel, but for the most part I live day to day. I work as an aerial director on various car commercials and with other clients, but my true passion is creating work for myself and telling stories where I have full control over the final product. Although they may not be as lucrative financially, they definitely highlight my true creativity and passions.”
For the past seven years, Mr. Harriman has been fortunate enough to work for a variety of high profile clients including Apple, American Airlines, Verizon, Budweiser, Cartier, Dior, Facebook, Instagram, Google, National Geographic, BBC, Verizon, Adobe, Kia, Hyundai, Lucid Motors, Czinger Motors, and plenty more. While based in San Francisco, CA and Anchorage, AK, he has also worked in Hawaii, Colorado, and Massachusetts, as well as the Bahamas, China, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Canada.
Mr. Harriman is working on his personal projects all the time, but of note are two videos. In 2015 he released Gotham City SF which features black-and-white timelapse videography of San Francisco and was recognized as a Staff Pick that same year on Vimeo, an online video sharing platform. Mr. Harriman worked on the project for three years while completing his schooling and waiting for access to better angles from which to complete his wish list of shots for the film. More recently in 2019, Mr. Harriman released Myanmar, An Aerial Journey in which he documents his travels through the country’s stunning waterways and lush temple-dotted landscapes. His photography projects have included images from Alaska’s ice fjords, aerials of US airports, and long-exposure seascapes of Hawaiian surfers.
After years of building his personal brand, Mr. Harriman established a multibrand platform that brings other artists along with him. The overarching brand, Planet Unicorn, is “a high-end collectible art gallery and original storytelling platform, designed to help manage artists and represent their work as well as help fund and create original stories.” From environmental art activists to acrylic painters, from storm chasers to documentary cinematographers, Mr. Harriman’s newest venture showcases emerging artists in their quests to tell the stories they encounter.
More recently, Mr. Harriman divided the company. PEGACreative continues to act as the backbone and production studio for all Toby Harriman and Planet Unicorn projects; it also helps with production for the artists they represent and work with. “With this studio we work with various commercial clients, helping them tell their own stories for their own marketing and advertising purposes, product launches, brand videos, social media, and much more,” says Mr. Harriman.
Along with PEGACreative and to continue building off his personal brand, Mr. Harriman has also started PEGAIR, which is a creative aerial studio specifically set up to target the aerial industry. PEGAIR also includes a strategic partnership with an aerial company called Aerography, bringing together many years of aerial experience and a fleet of drones.
Mr. Harriman would never claim that his choice to create art every day has been easy; it’s taken countless hours of hustle and networking, not to mention a good deal of courage and agile thinking. Failure and experimentation play a role in his story, as well as perseverance and patience. In an often-crowded field that is constantly changing and evolving, it is difficult to get noticed and receive recognition. But at the end of the day, Mr. Harriman’s plan is working for him, allowing him to push his creative boundaries and document the beauty of the world in which he lives.
For years I have seen pictures of these [Hong Kong] public housing/apartment tower blocks being built and knew that it was something I wanted to see and document for myself. Rather than just creating stills from these, I went with the goal of taking abstract videos and displaying them more like art, showing off their true scale.