As Tony Carter adds yet another win to his copiously populated trophy cabinet, the 2018 Photographer of the Year discusses the motivations and rewards that continue to propel his craft forward
Words | Adrian Hatwell
This year, Taranaki photographer Tony Carter was crowned New Zealand Photographer of the Year for the sixth time. Having topped the New Zealand Institute of Photography’s (NZIPP) Iris Professional Photography Awards yet again, you might imagine that his excitement for the win would be starting to wane. But you would be wrong.
The photographer first took the grand title in 2000 with pre-digital work, shooting film in medium format and printing on traditional fibre photo paper. Jump forward a few years and Tony had fully embraced digital photography, becoming New Zealand’s first professional photographer to scoop major awards with digital composite images.
“That was a challenge, learning new skills and producing work that was more in my mind’s eye,” Tony recalls. “There’s always a new challenge to give yourself. A lot of what I’ve been doing over the last four years has been shooting real events; observational photography rather than creating something with digital composites.”
And this back-to-basics approach has brought him full circle, impressing the 2018 judges with a series of black-and-white works that, while digitally shot, were treated in much the same manner as his darkroom photography of old.
“I grew up shooting film as a portrait photographer, and we were trained to get things right in-camera, so you don’t have to play with it too much later,” he says.
“I wanted to go back to that type of thinking again, where you don’t just blast away and hope.”
While adding a sixth trophy to his mantle is an impressive achievement, Tony isn’t in it for the awards in and of themselves but as a means to meet his own personal photographic challenges. He submitted photos across multiple categories — Portrait, Landscape, Travel — that would work as a series if they happened to be pulled together as the champion images.
“I always think of winning and how things will look if … presented as a set of six, which is what it takes to win Photographer of the Year, and work backwards to see how I can achieve that,” he says.
“It sounds a bit arrogant, but the last time that I won was in 2010, so there are a lot of years in between. Most of the time, it doesn’t work, but it’s part of the challenge that I set myself. If it falls over, it falls over.”
Anyone familiar with Tony’s past successes knows his penchant for creating portraits of people from small, provincial towns of Aotearoa. This year was no exception; the photographer included nine environmental portraits of people in their homes, not far from where he lives in Taranaki, combined in a three-by-three grid as a single image.
“I produce a lot of work, and I found it hard to narrow down what I wanted to enter,” he explains. “I looked at single images and thought ‘that’s great’, but it wasn’t quite telling the story — at the end of the day, I’m a storyteller. I like the way, if you get a series right, it can tell so many stories.”
Tony remembers being followed and abused by a motorcyclist after shooting what, in hindsight, was probably some illegal front lawn auto work
It was a risky strategy, as a series will often be judged by its weakest image. But, through a combination of various visual hooks and the use of people and gestures as graphic elements within the layout, the print impressed the judges enough to earn a Gold with Distinction award in the Portrait in Camera Artistry category.
The image is a culmination of 18 months of work, with those nine images chosen from a pool of about 70 portraits that Tony created in small towns throughout the region. And while narrowing down his final arrangement was difficult, simply getting the images was challenge enough. These are not people the photographer knows, so how did he manage to be welcomed into their private space? He simply knocked: “I’m always out there, driving around the block somewhere … if I see a home that might have a distinguishing feature, something quirky about it, I’ll go knock on the door and start talking to them. Some people will decline; some people will let me in.”
His small-town probing has produced a beautiful array of images, but it has also resulted in a few close calls. Tony remembers being followed and abused by a motorcyclist after shooting what, in hindsight, was probably some illegal front-lawn auto work and, on another occasion, had something suspiciously rifle-like pointed at him as he drove off after a shot.
It might be risky business on occasion, but, for him, the work is rewarding beyond any photographic prize he might pick up.
“Judging wins you golds, but I really want to produce something that can be around forever, that says something about people of the provinces and small towns,” Tony states. “It might be pulled out in 20 years and be shown somewhere else, gaining another life.
“That is very important to me.”
Not all of Tony’s winning images came from around the block this year. A companion print to his nine-photo grid features nine street scenes from the other side of the globe, taken on a trip to India. As a way to avoid celebrating his 50th birthday last year, he and a photographer friend journeyed through India’s ‘golden triangle’: Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur. They might have been walking the tourist circuit, but the photographer had no time for tourist imagery.
“We went to the Taj Mahal and places like that, but I wasn’t interested in shooting there,” he says. “I was more interested in the people and the harmony of people and their animals. It was more of a life experience than a photo shoot.”
As well as providing ample street scenes for Tony to construct another nine-image series from (which picked up a Gold award), the trip also introduced him to the subject of his Silver-winning portrait triptych. Cropped in tight on an old woman’s deeply-furrowed face, the series brings the viewer intimately close as weathered fingers bring a cigarette stub to her lips, before hooded eyes close in pleasure, masked by exhaled smoke.
“I walked up to have a chat and she just kept puffing away on her smoke,” he remembers. “She started performing and was happy to have the camera pointed at her — her friends were egging her on a bit.”
Not content to wow judges with portraits alone, Tony also included two landscape shots in this year’s Iris entries. One from Delhi — the stark graphics of birds against the sky — and one taken during a sperm-whale stranding on a Taranaki beach. The beach shot was made around 7am on a cold winter morning, with the photographer having to wade waist-deep into freezing water.
“I did a whole series of images with very, very slow exposures, down to a quarter of a second,” says the photographer. “I was just holding onto the tripod for dear life, capturing the water going in and rolling back out, trying to capture some feeling.”
And capture some feeling he did, with the beached whale sitting moodily amid a remarkably cohesive set of six champion images. Despite having succeeded in the personal challenge that he set for himself, Tony isn’t sure he’ll be entering the Iris Awards again next year: “It might be like a wave, it needs to build up over time. It might take me a while to build up enough work that I feel comfortable entering.”
While that wave begins to grow anew, the photographer is content to continue living and breathing photography. Recently setting up a new gallery studio at the edge of the New Plymouth CBD, Tony invites visitors to explore his growing body of personal work, which he is shaping into an artistic record of his time and place. A fine gift for generations to come.