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Friday Interview with Marie Harkness

Photographer Marie Harkness on building Hidden Heights Creative Studio.

Written by High Life North
Published 13.08.2020

By Jenny Brownlees

Named as one of the North East’s Young Entrepreneurs, Marie talks to HLN about creating a unique workspace, career highlights and resilience when times get tough.

Internationally published photographer Marie Harkness has 10 years’ experience in the industry, after launching her business venture Harkness Photography in 2011. In 2014, she went on to found Hidden Heights Creative Studio, a uniquely innovative space that is used for both her own work, and is available to hire. The studio is housed inside a stylish railway arch within a hub of independent businesses in Bridges Quarter, Gateshead. Just a short walk from Newcastle City Centre, the studio offers a diverse workspace — the first of its kind in the city. Marie has expertly curated a forward-thinking team of photographers and on-site hair and make-up artists that call the space home. Hidden Heights offers a collaborative area for work, is a fully-functioning photographic studio and has been host to both intimate events and large-scale evening entertainment.

Marie specialises in fashion, editorial, commercial and portrait photography, and has worked with leading brands both locally and nationally. A truly innovative creative force, her work has been featured in international campaigns and industry-renowned magazines. She has worked with clients including Toni & Guy, Tutti & Co, Intu Eldon Square, William Reed, The Vermont Hotel, SSD Concerts, Gigs North East to name a mere few, and she has been recognised as one of the North East’s Top Young Entrepreneurs.

Tell us about yourself and the beginnings of your career have you always had an interest in photography?

I’m Marie Harkness, aka Harkness Photography and I’m the owner and founder of Hidden Heights Creative Studio. I’m 29 and originally from Dumfries in Scotland. I began studying photography in 2008 and fell in love with creating studio and fashion-focussed portraits. I moved to Newcastle in 2010 to complete my BA Honours in Creative Practice and I’ve worked in the industry ever since. This year is actually my 10th year of business, so I’m very thankful to you guys for helping me celebrate that! Growing up, I was always creative, in school my mains interests were in Art and Design, and I have been told that when I was very young I was constantly running around with a disposable Kodak camera in my hand — so I think my career was always destined!

Tell us more about your photography, the work you create and your signature style…

Over the years I’ve had many different types of commissions, from fashion campaigns and events to editorial work for magazines. I’d say the main focus of my work currently is creating content for brands — I’m shooting a lot of e-commerce imagery for fashion brands, to help them grow and expand their business. I also photograph hair and beauty collections for industry professional’s portfolios, allowing them to showcase their work. I’d describe my photography style as strong, clean and polished. It is mostly studio-based, but I do occasionally shoot out on location for a different feel.

Could you tell us how you go about creating and executing a photography shoot, for those that don’t know what that entails? A typical shoot involves building a team to create the idea, usually from a set brief. This team includes a photographer, make-up artist, hairstylist and wardrobe stylist but can be expanded depending on the size of the job undertaken. We are really lucky to have most of these individuals available in-house at Hidden Heights, but we are also able to source these for clients if needed. We then select and book the models to suit the brief, then discuss ideas and brainstorm as a team, devising a plan of action for the day of the shoot. Once the shoot is completed, it’s my responsibility to select, retouch and finalise the work for final delivery or submission to the client.

What advice would you give to readers wanting to get into photography? Learn the profession well, do your research, find your market and do something different to stand out from the crowd.

We love that you have based your business in the North East. Many creatives feel they need to move to London in order to make their business work, what do you think about this?

I used to believe that I needed to be in London to make it in my field, but for me, the slower pace of life here is much preferred. The North East offers a better way of life, is less stressful and more affordable. Newcastle has developed so much even in the ten years I’ve been here — it’s thriving with creativity and culture which is wonderful to see. There are now many conscious brands and independent businesses here, and I’m a big believer in, if you have a good business model and are good at what you do, you can make it work anywhere. I feel like I have been truly welcomed with open arms, and taken on as an adopted Geordie! I have a huge amount of love and respect for the North East.

Jobs in creative-industries are notoriously tough, both to secure a job and sustain a career long-term. Were there any moments you felt things may not work out, and if so what got you through?

Starting out in the creative industry is very difficult, I’m not going to lie. When I finished my degree, I had three different jobs at the same time — I worked a day job in retail, would then shoot music gigs after work and then nightlife photography on a weekend! it was tough going and there were many times I felt like giving up and pursuing a full time 9-5 role, but I knew that just wasn’t right for me so that kept me pushing on. When I started out, there weren’t as many budding photographers in the area and the main line of work available was weddings. I did give this a try for a year or so but I just didn’t enjoy that side of photography as much, my passion definitely lay within the studio, shooting model portraits and fashion. There was undoubtedly a gap in the market for this type of work and I think my vision, paired with the launch of the studio stood out to potential clients, which helped to establish myself here in the North East. Looking back, to say that I’m glad I held in there is a huge understatement, I’m beyond pleased I stuck it out.

What made you want to set up your own photography studio? 

Initially, it was never an ambition of mine to own my own studio, but in 2014 I was beginning to work with larger commercial clientele, and suddenly my home studio set up didn’t seem so functional! This made me look at the bigger picture — I realised I needed a new challenge and a plan of action to sustain my career in professional photography long-term. I did a lot of market research before opening the studio, and the concept behind the brand was a big part of it. I knew I wanted to work alongside like-minded creatives, so I approached a local, talented make-up artist whose work I hugely admired and she joined me in the venture. The branding of the business was always important to me, as our concept was one of the first of its kind in the area and I wanted it to be unique. During this process, I learned a lot about the marketing side and finding our place in the industry. I wanted to get started in the studio as quickly as possible – I think we gave ourselves a tight deadline of around three to four weeks to set up before launching. We did it, and Hidden Heights Creative Studio was born. We found a small but functional space just off Northumberland Street on the 3rd floor, space was tight but it was a great starting point for the studio to grow. It did just that, and after six months we found ourselves needing to expand and relocate into our second space on Westgate Road, under the railway arches in Newcastle near Central Station. We had a wonderful year and a half there as the business continued to grow — it was then we expanded further into our very own, larger railway arch on Brandling Street, Gateshead where we have been for four years.

What sets Hidden Heights apart from other studios?

I think it’s because we offer the full package — a high-quality photography studio, professional photo and video content creation, award-winning hair styling and professional makeup artistry under one roof. Because of this, many creative opportunities have become available to us. We praise ourselves in being able to offer full brand content creation packages, which are unique to the area.

We love the décor of the studio, did you always want it to have an edgy industrial vibe?

When we relocated to our arch space, I definitely wanted it to have a chic and quirky interior, something that really stood out. The Pinterest mood-boarding life was real! My dad and brothers have their own construction and renovation business, so I think a lot of inspiration came from them. It was a long process, creating the space and sourcing our furniture as a lot of it was reclaimed and custom, often made locally.

What have you learnt about business and yourself over the past ten years?

Where do I start, I have learned so much! Owning my own studio has allowed me the freedom to experiment with different lighting and techniques, which has improved my knowledge tenfold. If you told me ten years ago would I be running a studio and salon with seven team members in completely different fields to mine I would have laughed! I could not have imagined myself in the position that I’m in now, so I guess I have learned that if you stick at it and really put your mind to it, you can achieve your goals.

Has anything helped you along the way when times have been tough, did you turn to family for emotional support or look to anyone you admire?

Developing the studio and business to where it is today hasn’t been an easy ride, there has definitely been a few occasions where I’ve thought “I’m done!” But I am rather stubborn in terms of making it work and I’m not one to quit easily. Although my parents didn’t quite understand what I did on a daily basis, they were always a phone call away when things got tough and I needed some emotional support. I think the current pandemic has been one of my biggest challenges in term of both my business and personal life, with the temporary closing of the studio back in March. At the beginning, it was very uncertain how lockdown would affect us in both the short and long term. I also sadly lost my dad during this period, and I have to admit trying to bounce back after something like that has been one of the toughest challenges. He always had the best business advice and we would have many conversations about working life. I’m missing that so much right now. With the support of my team around me and business picking up post-lockdown, I’m pushing on and am slowly starting to feel like I’m getting back on track.

Thank you so much for sharing that with us, as we know this has been such a challenging time for so many and a personal loss on top of that is must have been extremely difficult. We’re glad to hear you’re being well supported in such a hard period of time.

You are constantly juggling being both a creative and a businesswoman, how do you marry those two aspects at work?

When I first entered the industry I thought that having creative knowledge and business knowledge were two completely different things, but as the years have gone on I’ve realised that whatever field you’re in, as long as you know your market, the business side of things will come to you naturally as you actively work in the sector and build your knowledge over time. It can be difficult to balance these two aspects on a daily basis, i.e. running the business and financials at the same time as tuning into your creative side on a shoot day.

Though there may not be a typical day in-studio, but could you share with us what your work day might entail?

There can be many different roles and responsibilities I undertake on a daily basis, everything from shooting imagery to retouching photos, responding to emails and enquiries, invoicing, giving quotations for work, discussing projects with clients, setting up the studio for rentals, managing our social media and marketing strategies — the list goes on! My favourite part of the job is definitely meeting so many like-minded creative characters, I have met so many interesting people through my job from all walks of life. I love hearing about other’s work and life experiences.

What keeps you going on a long shoot? Definitely music! A little bit of disco and house goes a long way and keeps the spirits up during our long, often 12-hour days. We actually have our own Spotify playlist, ‘Hidden By Day, Heights By Night’ which everyone who visits the studio loves and knows all too well! The team gels so well that we tend to keep each other entertained.

Can you tell us about the choice to add team members to Hidden Heights?

Building a team of creatives was always a goal of mine, to achieve the concept that I had for the studio. It has been a natural progression over the years and we are pretty maxed out for the time being with a team of seven — but never say never! I’m proud to call all of the team members good friends, we are like one big creative family. Every day really is different, and having a mix of wonderful creative energies really makes the studio a fun environment to work in. I love being part of a team on set where everyone is on the same page, works together to each brings something different to the shoot. That’s when something really special comes to life.

Are there any challenging parts of your job, and what would people be surprised to find out?

E-commerce photography can be quite challenging, as it involved shooting multiple products in different variations and retouching, usually in a quick turnaround which can result in long working days and sometimes nights! I think people would be surprised that aside from portrait and fashion photography, in the summer I love to shoot imagery for food and cocktail menus! I find it really enjoyable to make food and drink look aesthetically pleasing.

When running your own business and working non-typical hours how do you ensure you strike a work-life balance?

In the first three years of business my work-life balance was shocking, I worked extremely long hours, late nights editing images until three or four in the morning was the norm. But in the last few years, as the studio and team have expanded and the business is more established, I have been focussed on bringing back a sense of balance, with a healthier lifestyle. I work with my partner Aimee, who is an integral part of Hidden Heights. She is an award-winning hairstylist and educator. Working together does mean it can be really difficult for us to switch off in our spare time, as we do tend to talk business and our minds are constantly ticking, thinking and planning how we can progress the studio. That said, Aimee is definitely my rock when things don’t go to plan! Together, we are definitely working to prioritise taking time to recharge. If I need some time out or am in a creative rut, I take time away from the camera and visit new places. I love to travel and discover different cultures and ways of life.

What are your plans for Hidden Heights in both the near future and further down the line?

During lockdown we’ve been looking at the production of some HH products. In the current situation we find ourselves in, hand hygiene has never been more important, so we thought this was the perfect time to introduce a ‘HH Hand Cleanser’ and our ‘HH Sanitiser Spray.’ We hope to grow the range further and actually have some exciting new products we’re currently working on, which will be available in-store and from our online store — so keep your eyes peeled for those! I have a lot of short term plans and definitely hope to host new events at the studio when that’s possible again. In the long-term, we may look at branching out into different elements of studio rental, or even pop up in different cites.

Work aside, what do you like to do on your days off to unwind? Where do you like to head to in the North East?

I try to regularly switch off as best I can in order to unwind and recharge. I do enjoy a good spa day or a face mask, good food, a duvet and Netflix day at home — you can’t beat it! In my spare time, I like to shop and support local independent businesses, bars and restaurants. I love having a scout around the city or in smaller towns nearby to discover new independent ventures, cafes or businesses from like-minded creatives. I enjoy spending time at the Ouseburn at Kiln,  Under The Bridge or on the Quayside at By the River Brew,  Quay Ingredient or anywhere with a good brunch or a touch of alfresco dining. Trips to Tynemouth or a walk around Saltwell Park are great for a day out — my goal this year is to try and bring the outdoors back into my life and surround myself with nature.

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