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Slow developers

Slow down and look, intensely, is the message from Derek Henderson and Harry Culy. Both men share a familiarity with Hawkes Bay and photography and were judges in the 2022 Capital Photographer of the Year competition.

Dan Poynton chatted to them about their work.

Left: Derek Henderson Right: Harry Culy

Just slow down and take a good look, Derek and Harry seem to be telling the world. Calm down with your Instafame and four billion images spewed out at us every day. No one really wants to look at them anyway.

“I reckon most people don’t really look. I really look at things – intensely. That’s probably why I find the mundane quite interesting because it goes over most people’s heads; it’s just a blur,” says Derek. And these two photographers – one a little younger, one a little older – actually live this slowness. They choose to work with a medium that basically puts them in the 19th century, technically speaking. “Large format is a slow, old process. It’s not very efficient and it slows you down. It helped me look at the world in a different way,” says Harry, who mainly works with a 4x5 inch film camera. “When you shoot people with that camera, you have to really get them to stay still so they almost turn into statues. We all take photos on our iPhones these days – so quick and easy. It’s the opposite of that kind of snapshot aesthetic.

Derek agrees that, counter to today’s norms, less is more when it comes to taking photos. And using his preferred 8x10 camera, you can’t really do anything else. “You don’t take many. It quietens everything down and makes you really give attention to detail. It’s not a camera for catching action shots.” And these old-fashioned cameras with their bellows look shockingly out of place in the 2020s. “You’ve got to put them on a tripod. Then you basically put a black cloth over your head and you’re looking at the glass plate upside down,” Derek says. And the image in the viewfinder is the same size as the film frame. “It’s like looking at the actual photo, so you get the chance to really tighten up your compositions. There’s something beautiful about that.

Although some photographers use viewfinders to correct the image, both Derek and Harry love the stimulation of viewing this surreal world. “I like it being upside down, as it changes your perception of the everyday world. It takes it out of context and you notice different things. When I flip it around those things still remain in the photo,” says Harry. Derek’s brain is obviously similarly adjusted. “It’s all about form and composition, so if it works upside down it’s probably going to work the other way around.”

Derek Henderson, Palmerston Street, Westport, West Coast 6.05pm, 2nd February, 2004

Late 19th-century photos are legendarily clear and detailed. “The technology was all there. I can get more out of a 4x5 negative than I can out of any high-powered digital camera. It’s like a portal to that place – better than the eye,” says Derek. “Even Egyptologists were using 8x10 a couple of years ago for National Geographic. That says a lot, when scientists are still using that format to record artifacts.”

And, perhaps unexpectedly, they’re both not into staged shots. Although, due to the slowness of the medium, they sometimes have to ask someone – or the occasional horse – to “please do that again”, they both like to harvest images directly from environments they have lovingly scoped and spent time in. “We’re both influenced by a certain school of personal documentary with long-term projects – some call it ‘lyrical documentary’,” says Harry. “There’s lots about place and the notion of home with both of us. It’s not so much about reporting an event – it’s very personal.”

Harry’s ongoing Rose Hill series documents his relationship to Hawkes Bay, where he spent school holidays visiting his mother’s family (see AZ#72). And Napier-born Derek’s early Milk Run arose from his childhood job in Hastings in the 70s. “I wanted to go back to that neighbourhood where I had a milk run and record the places. The same houses were still there – even some of the people were the same.” The series is an uncanny time-traveller’s parade of old state houses, adoringly portrayed. One is seduced into noticing the beauty and variety in this stereotypically drabbest of subjects.

Harry Culy, Goldfinch Street, 2018. Image courtesy of Jhana Millers Gallery

Diane Arbus is probably Harry’s “favourite photographer of all time”. Our rather puritanical era sometimes retrospectively puts her in the stocks for mounting a “freakshow” of people – often disabled – in a perversely ugly light. Harry disagrees with this assessment, although his work is less sensational than Arbus’ and he’s obviously at pains to portray his subjects ethically and sensitively. “I’m drawn to those people who aren’t the beautiful classic model. I’m obsessed with that tension of beauty, darkness, and something a bit off and uneasy. Maybe I see something of myself in these people. I don’t want to make people ugly or beautiful – I want to give a glimpse into their psychology at that particular time. The collaboration between the person being photographed and myself is a beautiful dance.”

For Harry a band-aided hand or cobweb on a car-mirror speaks more eloquently than a Vogue model. Derek too is drawn to the unbeautiful and ignored. “I probably don’t go for bright shiny things. It might be something that appears quite mundane at first but then if you spend some time with it you might start to see something going on. I don’t think my work smacks you in the face.”

Harry Culy, Tree stump, Brooklyn, Wellington, 2018. Image courtesy of Jhana Millers Gallery

Harry especially talks a lot about darkness in his work and sees himself as being part of the Antipodean Gothic movement. He says this is a “slippery term to define” but could include everyone from Ronald Hugh Morrieson to Aldous Harding. “I’m interested in the juxtaposition of beauty, terror, and darkness, where beauty and desolation exist together – maybe that’s the Gothic. And it includes Freud’s idea of the ‘uncanny’ where you’re jolted out of the familiar because there’s something that’s ever so slightly off. Australia and New Zealand are colonised places, so they have this uneasy history and so it just emerges.”

While Derek says “everything I do is fairly grounded in reality”, the uneasiness behind his images often resonates with Harry’s work. “I wouldn’t describe myself as a Gothic photographer but definitely there’s something else happening in the image. It might draw you in by its beauty, but there’s always a bit of forebodingness there – something going on outside of the frame. It’s about scratching the surface.”

Both feel something unspoken lies beneath New Zealand’s polite and pristine mask. Derek’s first photography book was titled The Terrible Boredom of Paradise. “There is a brooding and kind of melancholy to New Zealand. If I go to the Ureweras on my own it scares the living shit out of me, but there’s nothing in there that can do anything to me. I'd love to do a book on the Ureweras but I think I'd be too scared. I couldn’t sleep up there.”

While Harry has “kind of been studying on and off for the past 12 years” at Wellington’s Massey University, Derek grew up in a looser time and had “zero formal education”. He went straight from school to working in a bank in Auckland, where one “flamboyant and artistic” customer got Derek’s attention. “I was privy to how much money he made and thought, this guy's cool and got lots of money. I want some of that!” The guy gave Derek a part-time job at his wedding photography business. “I started making more money taking pictures in a weekend than I did in the bank the whole week. I probably would never have been a photographer if I’d not met that guy. I’d probably still be in the bank.”

Derek Henderson, Kiataia Aotearoa, 2018

This job would eventually help propel Derek into an international career working as a freelance fashion photographer. “You go to Naples for 10 days, take two shots a day and the rest of the time drink great wine, eat beautiful food, and hang out with beautiful women. It was horrible!” smiles Derek. Although he loved the lifestyle, he cut down on that kind of work when he came to Sydney to start a family in 2006. “But I still love being commissioned. I’ll go somewhere I never would’ve gone on my own and it just keeps your mind open. I don’t think I could ever just be an artist coming up with my own ideas – I'd be bored with myself. I’m in a good place, with a balance between my own personal projects and commissioned work.”

Although Harry “assisted” a fashion photographer when he was struggling to survive in Sydney, he “realised the world of commercial photography wasn’t for me. Sometimes you have to do jobs that don’t align with your values. It’s the speed, the pressures, feeling like you’re a hired gun.” For 20 years skateboarding was Harry’s single obsession, and he left Wellington High School at 17 to become a sponsored skateboarder in Melbourne. His first introduction to photography was filming skate videos. “It gave me an interesting perspective because we really made use of what’s in the city and tried to look at it with a creative eye to do the tricks and film it. Maybe I brought some of that DIY punk attitude to photography later on.”

Harry Culy, (Untitled) Isla, Wellington, 2021. Image courtesy of Jhana Millers Gallery

It was only later, “pretty lost” and living in London, that he was exposed to photography through galleries and exhibitions. “I got more and more obsessed with it – like skating. I think I have an addictive mind.” By the time he came back to study at Massey he was “fully in love with it and immersed in that world”.

Derek Henderson, Corrin Maber, Reids Farm, 2008

In 2015 Harry co-created the photobook company Bad News Books, mainly to publish work of young people who didn’t have a platform, inspired by the zines he and his skater friends self-published back in Melbourne. And BNB has published three of Derek’s books.

“A picture can be out of focus, or underexposed – but that doesn’t matter if it takes you to a different place or shows me how the artist engages with the world,” says Harry. Then there’s Derek’s view: “I just pick the one I like the most,” he says. “I’m not a huge technician, but I really like the photographs to be tight. I don’t like them to be exposed wrong – I appreciate the craft. But that’s not the overriding factor in an image.”

Harry Culy, Sam, Wellington, 2016. Image courtesy of Jhana Millers Gallery

And they give some pretty solid-sounding indications of what it takes to be a photographer. “The key to making any kind of art is to try and be authentic to who you are, follow your own passions and don’t worry about trends. If you really love cats, photograph cats. I’d say I’m not a good photographer, but I take so many pictures that I increase my chances of getting a good picture. It’s like a focussed acceptance of chance,” says Harry.

“I’d say you’ve got to be obsessed with it,” says Derek. “I'm at the happiest when I’m taking pictures. I’m in a zone where time stops. It's cathartic – probably escapism in a way.”

First published in Art Zone #90


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