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Friday, July 3, 2015

Harvey Pratt

Racing with the Feather, Harvey Pratt
I've long maintained that painters can do things photographers only wish they could do. Twenty or thirty years ago when I first made that claim, it would have gone unchallenged. Today, with the advent of digital photography, those behind the camera have gained somewhat on the artist. Just as any professional photographer in decades past possessed some degree of darkroom skills, even amateur digital photographers today sometimes have highly refined computer skills in the area of digital image manipulation, which may outstrip those of most painters today. Although digital photos are still printed on paper, very few get that far without at least some tweaking using photo-enhancement software. In fact, the better the digital photographer becomes using a mouse (or digital drawing pad) the fewer demands are placed on his or her camera skills. In working with film, trial and error was expensive and skills at "getting it right the first time" were at a premium. That's not so much today. It might even be safe to reverse my outdated declaration. Today, photographers can do things artists only wish they could do.

The Three Guardsmen, Harvey Pratt
Harvey Pratt
Forensic artist, Harvey Pratt has lived and worked through this transition. And, like other artists willing to change "with the times," he has no doubt come to learn new skills, abandoning others, and adapting new tools to old techniques, thus simplifying, improving, and hastening artistic outcomes. However, as Pratt's Racing the Feather (top) and his sculptural figures, The Three Guardsmen (above), unequivocally prove, this forensic artist is every bit a traditional painter/sculptor. The Oklahoma native is also a Native American, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. As Oklahoma's top forensic artist, he's also a lawman, having joined the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation in 1972 as a narcotics investigator, retiring in 1992 as an Assistant Director. Today, at the age of seventy-four, he remains with the agency as a full-time forensic specialist.

Bigfoot, one of Harvey Pratt's major interest in which
he employs his forensic drawing skills.
Sandman, a facial reconstruction
based upon a skull.
As fascinating as his Native American art might be, Pratt is but one of thousands of such artist all over the West working to preserve their traditional cultural images. On the other hand, Pratt is probably the only Native American forensic artist working today (though he often conducts training seminars which likely have included younger such artists). Be that as it may, he's undoubtedly the most experienced, having practiced his art for over forty years. Pratt has also turned his forensic drawing skill toward "fleshing out" the legendary sub-humanoid creature known as Bigfoot (above).

Forensic art can be broken down into eight specialties. The painted clay figure of Sandman (right) involves two of them, historic reconstruction and skull reconstruction. Among the others are: witness description composite drawing; skull tracing; soft tissue postmortem drawing; age progression, photo enhancement; and sometimes, courtroom sketching. For the most part they could all be loosely categorized as recreating what was from what's left. Pratt's expertise in one of the most difficult (and valuable) of these specialties can be seen in his drawing of Roy Russell Long (below, right) based upon descriptions offered by two eye-witnesses. The actual photo (below, left) of the convicted double murderer allows for an accurate indication of Pratt's skills.

Roy Russell Long photo (left) and Pratt's color
drawing (right) from eyewitness descriptions.
Skull facial reconstruction (below) allows for a face to be reconstructed in clay over a bare skull, in this case an unidentified, highly decayed body found in a shallow grave. By comparing Pratt's reconstruction to photos of local missing persons, Oklahoma City Police were able to identify the body.

Skull facial reproduction (left), allowing the postmortem
identification of an unknown individual (right).
With the modern day presence of surveillance cameras on nearly every street corner, Pratt has broadened his skills to include photo enhancement. Many such cameras (perhaps even most of them) provide only brief, low-resolution records of passers-by which are, for identification purposes, virtually worthless. However, in the hands of a skilled artist (using digital technology or simply a pencil), such images can be improved to the point they become a valuable tool in directing investigative efforts toward a certain individual. Sometimes, as photos are disseminated electronically, they can also deteriorate to the point of likewise becoming virtually useless. The image (below, left) was of a Louisiana skull reconstruction. Pratt was able to reproduce the photo, enhance it digitally, and then draw the features more accurately and in color, making identification of the decayed body possible.

Photo Enhancement
Forensic art is an "art" only in the sense of employing artistic skills for very practical, rather than creative pursuits. As valuable as such skills may be, few artists could resist employing them in creative endeavors. Pratt's Chief Magpie (left) is one such example, a portrait done in oils prepared using several of Pratt's forensic skills. By the same token, the artist's bronze One Butt (below) uses none of them.

Chief Magpie, Harvey Pratt

One Butt, Harvey Pratt


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