Postcards to herself

New Zealand Photographer of the Year Tracey Robinson talks with Adrian Hatwell about allowing life’s winding trail to guide photographic development


It is often said that specialization is key to creative and professional success in photography, and there are certainly many great photographers whose careers would attest to this truism. But some creatives baulk at pinning their trajectory to a single style, and sometimes variety isn’t just the spice of life but an essential ingredient to accomplishment. Case in point: this year’s New Zealand Photographer of the Year, Tracey Robinson.

The Rotorua photographer was recently named champion of the New Zealand Institute of Professional Photography’s (NZIPP) annual print competition, the Epson/NZIPP Iris Awards. In an uncommon turn, Robinson was awarded the top honour without winning any of the programme’s individual categories — so taken were the judges with her “thoughtful, conceptual, and honest approach to a range of photographic genres and subject matter”, according to Kaye Davis, chair of the organizer’s honours board.

Robinson, who has been competing in the event for the past five years, says the accolade came as a complete surprise. She had entered with the simple aim of accruing more points to move up the professional organization’s qualification ladder.

“It wasn’t on my radar at all; I didn’t go in with the intention of trying to win this. I was just hoping to get a gold medal to go towards my next photographic honours level,” she explains. “To win the whole thing was quite surreal.”

And though winning the award, presented to the photographer during a gala dinner at Queenstown’s sumptuous Rydges Lakeland Resort, might have felt like a dream, it is clear recognition for the very real breadth of talent evident in Robinson’s expressive personal works. The photographer’s versatile artistic style — an intermingling of fine-art practices instilled by early tertiary training and two decades of photojournalism experience — has developed in the almost ten years since she quit the newspaper game and went into business for herself.

“I shot for newspapers for 20 years and really needed a change. I wanted to move away from news photography into something more friendly, so to speak. Bad news sells, and 20 years of that … [was] enough,” Robinson says.

She’s now squarely in the good-news market, having built up a successful commercial practice in the Bay of Plenty. Since opening her business, she’s seen a huge jump in the number of people offering a photographic service in the area, thanks to the digital boom: “Rather than being one of about five in Rotorua, I’m now one of maybe 300.” But professionalism, quality, and creativity set her comfortably apart from the pack; a reputation further solidified by the Photographer of the Year title, which she says is already generating a healthy buzz for her business.

Although welcome, the commercial boost is not the primary reason Robinson takes part in the Iris Awards programme. In fact, the creative development encouraged by the competition provides a liberating creative release from the dictates of business. She explains, “It pushes you in directions that your everyday work doesn’t. A lot of my work these days is commercial work, so it’s not emotive kind of work. It’s nice to put yourself up against your peers and get a feeling for where you are sitting at. Am I heading in the right direction, or have I lost the plot completely?”

The Iris win provides strong validation for the direction Robinson’s creative pursuits have led her in, which she describes as a naturalistic extension of her interactions with the world around her.

“There’s a good quote from Tony Bridge,” she says, “who is an amazing photographer I went on a course with. He says every photograph is a postcard to yourself. They are reflections of your life, they say something about who you are and how you see the world.”

This idea is perhaps best exemplified by Robinson’s Silver Award–winning portrait entered into the Iris Award’s Illustrative category. A striking and playfully anachronistic portrait of a beautiful young woman at first blush, the image contains many poignant ties to Robinson’s identity and lineage.

The subject is Robinson’s daughter, costumed to represent her dual Māori and European heritage. The moko, drawn on by Robinson, is a family design worn by the subject’s great-great-great-grandfather; she wears a brooch belonging to the photographer’s grandmother; the pounamu her father and grandmother gave her; the ring was a 21st birthday present from her mother; and the riding crop she holds comes from the photographer’s horse-showing days.

“I’ve got a 110-year-old villa that I’ve been restoring for the last two-and-a-half years, and, above the big kauri fireplace, I wanted to put a big frame with something that looked like a big Goldie-type [Charles Frederick Goldie, a New Zealand artist from the late 1800s to mid 1900s] painting,” Robinson explains.

Calling on her fine-arts experience, she shot the portrait in classical fashion, setting up a grey backdrop in her lounge, using light from two big sash windows, and exposing for four seconds with a shallow depth of field.

“It’s printed life-size on canvas with a big gold frame, and everybody thinks it’s a painting,” she says with a laugh.

While that image is a very literal example of Robinson’s life informing her work, her distinct approach is often exuded in subtler fashion. The heartstring-tugging image of a morose chimpanzee, which won a Silver with Distinction award in the Illustrative category, is an example of the photographer’s journalistic instinct for story combining powerfully with artistically emotive execution.

The image was captured during a trip to Hamilton Zoo, where Robinson spied one chimpanzee that seemed to be enjoying itself far less than the others.

“In the chimp enclosure, there was this one chimpanzee, and, to me, it looked depressed; it looked really unhappy. It just sat there curled up in the corner looking at me and I felt really sorry for it. I took some photographs, but didn’t know what I was going to do with them,” Robinson discloses.

She revisited the images when it came to submit for the Iris Awards and found the primate’s deep sadness still resonated. She recast the image in muted sepia tones and gave it an oval crop to hold the subject in its sparse dirt-and-concrete space, the result reminiscent of artistic etchings.

On her vision for the image, she relates, “I wanted it to have an old feel, like it might have been taken 100 years ago, or it might have been taken yesterday. A timeless effect. I wanted it all to focus on the expression and the hands and the way it was looking at me, because to me that’s what it was all about.”

It wasn’t until after she had finished creating the image that she discovered how on the nose her sense of the chimpanzee’s ennui had been; in an email from the zoo, she discovered the animal’s name was Lucy, one of the last ‘tea party’ chimps from the old Bell Tea commercials. Trained to interact with people and now relegated to an enclosure, Lucy has, in fact, been diagnosed with depression, explained the zoo — a situation Robinson had instinctively captured and conveyed with potent empathy.

Creating an emotional connection through imagery is one of the key lessons Robinson has taken from her years of entering the Iris Awards. All prints are examined and discussed by a panel of judges; the photographer can sit in on this process but is not allowed to say anything. Having had judges misunderstand visual elements of an image in the past, the photographer has been studiously developing techniques to clearly communicate emotion. Sometimes, as in the case of Lucy, it may be a sad sympathy, but just as effective is getting the judges to smile.

Robinson’s latest success in that vein is a delightfully whimsical image of a rabbit, dressed in a hunting vest and brandishing a rifle, turning the tables on a traditional canine predator. The seed for this image, which scored a Silver Award in the Illustrative category and raised a good chuckle from all judges, was fortuitous Trade Me browsing. The photographer found her leporine subject in the taxidermy section of the online auction website and had to have him.

“I started in a bidding war with somebody and I was horrified at what I ended up paying for it, but I was so set on buying it, because I had this image in mind,” she says.

This time, the path from concept to print was not a smooth one. Her initial idea was to have the rabbit in a standoff with a hunter. But, venturing to her partner’s farm in Hamilton for the shoot, she found the look was not quite what she was after. The plan changed, and, in a friend’s paddock, she dug a hole with the idea of a hunting dog emerging to face the barrel of the rabbit’s gun. But, again, the elements didn’t quite come together. It wasn’t until her own little dog, May, got in on the action that the stars aligned.

“She won’t move when I tell her to stay, but she didn’t want to be anywhere near this rabbit,” explains Robinson. “It frightened the living daylights out of her, anytime she looked at the rabbit she would cringe, so I sat there doing a series of images of her cringing, and it gave the impression that the rabbit might be holding the dog up. It worked.”

Having matched the dry grass and green pasture to the rabbit and its outfit, she made sure to shoot the image on an overcast day to ensure there was no harsh light. It was then a matter of desaturating the colours to achieve that perfect child’s illustration look, which delivers the gag so charmingly.

With her personal work so essentially influenced by personal experience, it’s unsurprising to learn that Robinson’s life is an extremely busy one. As well as running her photography business, she also runs a bed and breakfast, owns a motel, and is fixing up her century-old villa home. Mad as she admits the schedule gets, Robinson is steadfast in making time to continue developing her artistic works and moving towards a concrete goal; when next we hear from her, it may well be as she becomes one of the few New Zealand photographers to achieve the lofty qualification of Grand Master of photography.

Article originally appeared in D-Photo 69 December, 2015-January, 2016

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