THE ENVIABLE LIFE OF RILEY HARPER
Words by Seth Richards | Photography by John Ryan Hebert
The danger of living an enviable life is that one day you may wake up and envy your own past.
The danger is greater still when your job is to document this life, to hold it in your hand and see it like so many pearls in a strand slipping through your fingers one opaline memory at a time – distinct yet connected until the strand ends, and the pearls transform from idyll to idol.
“Living in the past is really bad for you,” says Riley Harper. “But I fucking love it.”
Harper, a Hollywood stuntman, photographer, and accidental influencer, may run the risk of ruing his glorious past, but only because he’s made an art out of living in the moment.
Race week at Monaco. Negronis on a moonlit veranda. Aston Martins in Portofino. Triumphs in Tenerife. Sailing the Tyrrhenian Sea. Lipari. Cefalù. Corfu.
It makes flipping cars a grind.
Handsome, lucky, talented: You want to hate a guy like Harper for the gifts conferred on him by fortuitous fate, but you can’t begrudge him for making the most of them. A life so glamorous would seem a fiction, but where Hollywood’s unreality ends, Harper’s reality begins.
Growing up in Los Angeles, the son of a Hollywood stuntman and racer, Harper was raised on movie sets and in racing paddocks.
“I grew up watching On Any Sunday instead of cartoons,” he says. “I was in that kind of a household.”
One of his first big films was the cult classic Old School. In one of its most memorable scenes, Frank the Tank (Will Ferrell) shoots himself in the jugular with a tranquilizer dart at a children’s birthday party. Before toppling into the pool in a drugged-out stupor, he stumbles through a crowd of kids, sending one of them flying out of frame with a shove to the noggin. That was Harper, age eight or so.
His father was stunt coordinator on the film, so it was only natural Riley and younger brother Reid—who also grew up to be a professional stuntman—were enlisted for the scene.
Besides, Harper had been racing motocross since he was four years old, so he was accustomed to taking the occasional knock to the head. What’s a little push from a beloved Hollywood funny guy?
By the time he was a teenager, Harper had years of racing experience that equipped him for a future in stunts, to say nothing of genetic predisposition.
“Growing up racing, you have a certain way of how you think and how to take on things in a very fast-paced way,” Harper says. “That’s what you have to do with stunts. You have to make very rational decisions – motocross gives you that.”
Harper graduated high school at 16 and began booking stunt gigs straight away.
While his old schoolmates were sneaking out of the house at night to get a taste of freedom, Harper was away from home for months at a time, returning only for a few weeks out of the entire calendar year.
Since then, he’s traveled to more than 50 countries and appeared in around 200 productions, mostly big-budget films, including many of the Marvel films and the Dark Knight franchise. He’s worked with household names and legendary directors.
While doing stunts has been his ticket to the movies, so to speak, the attraction wasn’t merely in profiting from an adrenaline rush or from being part of the spectacle.
“I’ve always had a fascination with cameras. Still and motion,” Harper says. “I just loved shooting photos as a kid. I discovered [the photography of] Slim Aarons at a really young age. I saw the photos of American celebrities he was taking in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s in Europe, and those were the coolest images. It opened up a whole new part of my brain.”
Aarons famously said his work depicted “attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places.” His photographs are endlessly evocative and sumptuously stylish. His subjects, captured in the moment, live lives of leisure that look too perfect to be real.
Aarons’ influence on Harper is immediately recognizable in the images populating his Instagram profile, @lifeof_riley.
“Originally, it was a creative journal,” Harper says of his Instagram content. “I would look back at stuff from 2014 or something and say, ‘Man, I’ve done some cool stuff.’”
“[I work with] these old-school guys who are legends in the stunt and film industry and they didn’t understand what I was doing. They were like, ‘Why would you show this?’ It’s just fun for me. It’s fun to showcase creativity and what I think is cool. It’s a personal thing.”
Even before Instagram existed, Harper was borrowing friends’ cars and shooting photos for the fun of it. But what started out as a simple platform to share his photographs has morphed into something far different.
“Instagram opened up this world of opportunity,” Harper says. “Now, I have to divvy up my time and turn down stunt jobs that maybe aren’t ideal to do jobs that are personally more gratifying. I get to be creative, build relationships with really cool brands, and be my own boss. With stunts I’m just showing up and doing someone else’s vision. I’ve done that for so long and now this is a lot more fun for me. I love doing both, and I’ll never give up doing stunts, but it’s a really cool mesh of the two that I enjoy.”
Harper currently has 275,000 followers on Instagram and has worked with iconic and wide-ranging brands in the automotive, fashion, hotel and lifestyle industries.
When Aston Martin sets you up with wheels for a week, Tag Heuer gives you time to kill, and Polo Ralph Lauren thinks you make its tweed and chambray look good, you know you’re doing something right.
It’s plain to see why some of the coolest brands are itching to work with him. Harper wearing Ralph Lauren doesn’t make him look any cooler; it makes Ralph Lauren look cooler.
The Life of Riley is glamorous and daring and free-spirited. Riley jumping cars on the set of a major motion picture. Riley catching waves in Baja with his suntanned friends. Riley in the snowy Italian Alps riding a vintage Husqvarna with studded tires. Riley looking handsome in every damn shape of sunglasses he puts on. Riley on a yacht with his topless girlfriend, who’s a model.
None of that would be worth much to anyone if Harper didn’t have such a strong aesthetic. It’s not just about knowing how to capture it but having the eye to understand what to capture in the first place.
“I don’t care about girls with thongs on,” he says. “I want to see a really cool old house on the Mediterranean somewhere. It’s the sexiest thing you can see on Instagram.”
Harper’s subject matter brings back Slim Aarons. And with him comes the ineffable romance and glamour of the midcentury with which he’s associated.
“I’m a hopeless romantic,” Harper says. “I always have been. I don’t watch action movies; I watch weird Woody Allen movies. I love that shit. I chase the feeling more than the visual. I love seeing fat Italian dudes in Speedos on the beach playing checkers. That’s the coolest thing ever. That’s the stuff I stop for.”
Aarons brilliantly depicts the beautiful: the young, the affluent, the bare-chested countess reclining by the sea. Whatever the opposite of schadenfreude is, that’s what Aarons gives us: the pleasure of viewing someone else’s good fortune. Sort of the anti-Robert Frank, Aarons’s camera offers no critique.
In his presentation of the subject, the photographer has the choice, like Aarons, to remain silent, or, like Frank, to offer a perspective.
By often making his own life the subject, Harper enters the photograph’s meaning, forfeiting any hope of silence. When a photographer snaps a picture, it’s because he thinks the moment is worth recording. When he steps into the frame, it sets the photo up to be interpreted differently, as if he’s saying, “look at me.” The nature of Instagram as a medium means that viewers can choose to interpret that as phony or boastful – or something else entirely beyond Harper’s intention.
For another thing, it’s hard to imagine that a lot of people wanted to be Slim Aarons. But who wouldn’t want to be Harper?
He knows that people compare their lives to his. It’s only natural in our digital age. He’s sympathetic.
“This is a highlight reel,” Harper says. “I think some people seem to forget that. I always tell them, ‘Comparison will kill you.’ You’re only seeing the good shit. You don’t see the days where I’m on a movie set and I’ve knocked myself out and I’m in the ER getting stitches.”
“In the beginning of COVID I broke my back and collarbone. I was mountain biking with Troy Lee and Cole Seely. I was in ten weeks of physical therapy rehabbing my back and shoulder, and I didn’t post a single thing about it.”
For every one person who needs a reminder that what they see on Instagram is both real and not, Harper meets two who naturally discern his motives and take his content at face value.
Sitting at the coffee shop he goes to each morning near his home in LA, he’s approached by a stranger who says, “Are you Riley? Dude, you’re one of my biggest inspirations. I picked up photography because of you. I got my first motorcycle because of you.”
“That’s the coolest part, because I’ve used so many people for inspiration in my life,” Harper says.
Undoubtedly, the dude knows how to live. And what we see of his life, what he intentionally presents, is fodder for inspiration. @lifeof_riley is how-to-live porn. How to dress, where to go, how to relax, what to drink (Negronis. Always Negronis).
Knowing how to live a beautiful life and having the ability to achieve it, however, may not be what makes Harper most inspirational. It’s his perspective.
Looking at Aarons’ work now, it’s not so much the beauty that’s as striking as the feeling of nostalgia it provokes: Women are more elegant, men are more self-assured and upright, the parties are more glamorous, and all that was seems more real than all that is.
Nostalgia, in that light, is seductive and dangerous: What seems to be true rarely is, and the feeling it inspires is as fleeting as the illusion itself.
“I understand nostalgia is technically a bad thing, like in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris,” Harper says. “I never used to think of it that way. I love looking back at things. Who doesn’t like reminiscing? About an old relationship, an old friend, an old fling, a place you’ve been.
“My way of thinking is: Take the inspiration from something you did before, kill it, move on, and use it for what’s right in front of you.”
In the digital realm, that’s the spirit behind his other Instagram account, @nostalgia.killer, which he uses as a personal inspiration board. Plastered with photos of McQueen in old Porsches, graciously set tables on the terraces of Italian villas, and lesser-known Aarons shots, one imagines Harper sees it the same way he hopes others look at @lifeof_riley.
Kill it. Move on. Use it.
Maybe he isn’t so much a nostalgia killer as much as a nostalgia conqueror. He can look through the lens of a romanticized past, evade its snare of sentimentality, and cast a vision for living in the present. More than everything else, maybe it’s this ability that makes Harper’s life so enviable.
It’s all a matter of perspective.
The number of followers doesn’t matter. Comparisons are meaningless. 1960 isn’t more real than 2022.
“You are the hero of your own story. You really are,” Harper says. “That’s fucking life. If Instagram goes away tomorrow, I’m doing the same thing.”
Trendsetting in Top Siders. Night rides in the Santa Monica Mountains. Bonnies from ’69 and Porsche 912s. Taormina. Sanremo. Gréolières.