Returning home after years abroad, photographer Harry Culy decided to reacquaint himself with Aotearoa by taking a series of road trips throughout the country, his camera along to document the odyssey. He talks with D-Photo‘s Point-Shoot blog about the unearthed darkness and beauty that make up his photo project, By the Wayside.
D-Photo: Hi Harry, to begin with can you tell us a little about yourself and what you do?
Harry Culy: Hello. Ihave just finished my studies up at Massey University. I’m a documentary and freelance photographer based between NZ and Australia.
Can you give us a brief outline of the By the Wayside exhibition?
By the Wayside was a project I started not long after returning to New Zealand after being abroad for five years. I came back with this new perspective on my homeland – so I started taking road trips at any available chance. I actually ended up going all over New Zealand. It was a great excuse to get to know Aotearoa again, meet the people and see the sights. I would just drive around and pull over at a likely looking spot, and just walk around and talk to strangers, which was hard at first because I’m a pretty awkward dude. It was a pretty intuitive or organic process, I was photographing everything, but after a while you start to notice a certain theme or feeling starting to appear. The feeling of something the uncanny or something odd within a familiar setting was a motif that started to crop up – this led me to researching a lot of New Zealand film and literature, especially the Aotearoa Gothic movement, for example Janet Frame’s writing or Vincent Ward’s movie Vigil. There was also this kind of undercurrent of darkness I was interested in exploring. Basically I wanted take a different angle to the colourful picture postcards we are used to associating New Zealand with, and find out what this country meant to me.
How do you decide what is going to make a good subject for a shot?
It was more of a feeling than anything else. I would meet someone that looked interesting, or see a scene out the window of the car, something that felt sorta dark or dreamy within the context of everyday life. Another thing I was interested in was this contrast or dichotomy I found – for example this mix of nostalgia and modern life, or fantasy within mundane everyday life, or the problems facing us in New Zealand but also the more beautiful things too.
Did you spend a lot of time in locations or with subjects before shooting?
Yeah, sometimes it was like one minute, other times I spent hours. For example, I met this widow in Levin and spent two hours with her, she invited me into her home and told me all about her life. Photography can give you this weird license to get into situations that you wouldn’t any other way.
What gear did you use on the project?
I used a Bronica SQ-ai with a 90mm lens and tripod, available light and black and white tri-x film mostly.
What was the most challenging thing about putting By the Wayside together?
This was my first proper project, which was a huge learning curve. Everything was a challenge! The sheer volume of images I had gave me a real hard time in the editing process, cutting it down so it had a flow. And also I made a dummy book and it was so hard to get the printing right.
What are you hoping viewers will take away from the exhibition?
I just want them to get some kind of feeling from the images. We hardly ever notice our surroundings when we live somewhere for a long time – it becomes routine. When I came back I really noticed how interesting it is here, there is all this amazing stuff on our doorstep, which I wasn’t fully aware of before doing this. I just want people to take a new look at this amazing country I guess.
What’s next for you?
I have a few projects in the works, the next one is going to be a like a modern day family album, except turned on its head. I’m moving to Sydney in March and have an Oz project I really want to do also; a similar style road trip project like By the Wayside, looking at Australia as a land of dreams, much like the way people explore the idea of the American dream. So that’ll keep me busy for the next five years or so.
What’s the best piece of photography advice you ever got?
Slow down. Be Patient.
If you could take a road trip anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Australia and New Zealand. I’ve done a fair bit of travel, I want to photograph the lands at the bottom of the world, I have a certain affinity for us antipodeans.