Q&A with photographer Dr. Harry Agress

Harry Agress, Jr., MD, a retired radiologist and now professional photographer, is generously donating large-scale versions of his photographs to select Gold Partners Council hospitals and healthcare institutions. The Gold Foundation caught up with Dr. Agress to learn more about his passions for photography and humanism in healthcare.

Read the full announcement.

We learned that you were 10 when you got your first camera. What were you drawn to take photos of as a kid? How has your photography evolved over the years?

Mainly, I just wanted to experiment. I took shots of people and animals in Forest Park in St. Louis in addition to landscapes. The most fun was getting my prints (or slides) back from the Kodak lab. I couldn’t wait to see how they turned out. It was like getting a present each time.

I have always enjoyed learning. It has been stated that “the goal of education is to make you curious,” and for me photography is the tool that has allowed me to explore my own curiosity. In its grandest sense, it has opened up the world to me, creating an appreciation of the nature and people of cultures far different from my own; and in its finest sense, photography has allowed me to explore infinite combinations of light, color and texture.

We hear from members of the Gold Foundation that fitting in a hobby in a busy medical career can sometimes be really challenging. Can you tell us about how you made time, and what a difference it made to you to have this outlet?

I agree that it is difficult to fit anything extra into a busy medical career, but I think it is really important to take care of all aspects of your life and sometimes make yourself take a break, even if just for a short while. Outside of friend and family events, most of my photographs were taken while traveling, something I really cherish and presently miss. I would come home with hundreds of photos and plan out small pockets of time to organize and select my favorites. It was a wonderful way to escape the daily pressures and to also take me back to those experiences.

What first gave you the idea to begin donating photographs to hospitals?

I was asked to do a photo exhibition at my high school back in St. Louis, the Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School (MICDS). They were very enthusiastic and involved in the selections, which were geared toward different world cultures. When the show was over, I thought it might be nice to donate the prints to the school. This turned out to be a wonderful gift for me, as I have the joy of knowing they are now hanging throughout the campus for students to see every day. I also believe that combining your interests can produce some intriguing ideas. It felt so good to bring something thoughtful to those students, and I immediately figured the same could be true in hospitals by creating a more comforting and welcoming environment for patients, their families and the staff taking care of them. While I was viewing my first healthcare installation, a nurse walked by, stopped and said, “Oh, that’s where I want to go for my next vacation.” That was exactly the effect I wanted to create, and I knew I was on to a good thing.

Tell us about a couple of your photos that have a special meaning or story behind them. Where were they taken, and what do they mean to you?

That’s tough. I enjoy shooting nature scenes with a broad focus, such as landscapes, seascapes and on occasion, cityscapes. This stream is in Harriman State Park in New York. The fall foliage and slowly rippling water were very calming, and my goal was to capture that simple feeling of serenity.

One more personal photograph is this young student monk in a Myanmar monastery. I was struck by the elegance and focus of this young man studying by the soft glow of the late afternoon sun. I was lucky to get the shot before he looked up. The anatomy charts faintly visible in the background are used to explain the physical components of the human body. The students then learn that these are less important than the human soul, which will survive them.

What’s one place you’d like to photograph that you haven’t yet?

I would love to photograph Iceland and the British countryside. I would also like to go back to Africa, now that I have better equipment and more expertise than when I went many years ago.

Tell us about the difference it makes to see a gorgeous landscape, instead of a blank beige wall, in a hospital. Why should hospitals consider brightening up their walls?

Although there are some healthcare facilities that have beautiful artwork, many are full of either blank walls or limited artwork, much of which is neither stimulating nor soothing.

Hospitals can be very intimidating, and patients frequently enter with a great deal of trepidation. I strongly believe that art can have a significant emotional impact, by creating a welcoming, supportive and hopeful environment of beauty and color.

As for children, art can also provide fun, and often distraction. It allows the mind to expand beyond the present…on a journey wherever your imagination and creativity may take you.

Also, importantly, I want patients to know that physicians care about both their physical and emotional wellbeing.

Your photographs have already been installed in many hospitals. What have you heard from patients and families about them?

I couldn’t ask for more. Here are some examples of their responses:

Last week, when I was headed to the cafeteria passing a lot of white walls, I was met with a pleasant surprise of beautiful pictures being hung.  This has brought calm and beauty to an area that was lacking.  I know the purpose is for the patients to enjoy them as they move from one side of the hospital to the other, but the employees are also the lucky recipients as well.  Thank you for your beautiful donation.  It brings brightness to the day!”

– Nurse / Professional Practice and Development

“One of our Respiratory Technicians shared that he has been enjoying your images since they were hung.  After reading the artist statement he started talking about how the images help him think of the beautiful places he has been to on his travels and how these beautiful images help him refocus as he goes to tend to patients and the challenges of his job.  Knowing you are a doctor who cares about sharing the beauty he has seen made the photos even more special to him.  He asked me to personally thank you for inspiring and giving him something beautiful to look at instead of the wall.”

– Foundation Director

 This is breathtaking.” – Oncology Patient

“When you look at them, it just relaxes you.” – Nurse Practitioner

“I’m going to take a selfie and tell people that I’m there!” – Gynecologic Oncology Staff Member

What advice would you give medical or nursing students – or practicing clinicians – who are interested in pursuing an artistic passion?

To take advice from Nike, “Just do it!” You are giving so much to others all the time. You deserve to take care of just yourself, in whatever way makes you feel good. You don’t need a master plan, just set aside a little time every week to bike, run, tap dance, play an instrument, sing, read, paint, draw, write…whatever. If you want to go a little further, check out YouTube instructional videos, a source that taught me a lot of photography. Also, if you can fit it in, treat yourself to a weekly personal instructor/coach. It can work wonders.