Meet the 2016 New Zealand Photographer of the Year

At the 2016 NZIPP Iris Awards, Katherine Williams was left speechless when her name was called to receive the top honour. Adrian Hatwell spoke with Williams about her win, and her plans for the future

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When Katherine Williams found out, onstage, in front of a roomful of colleagues and friends, that she was the 2016 New Zealand Photographer of the Year, she was dumbstruck. Taking the top spot in the Iris Professional Photography Awards is a prodigious achievement for any photographer, but Williams was completely floored by the announcement, having never considered the possibility of winning.

“In all honesty, it wasn’t on my radar,” the photographer said. “I’ve always set myself goals, but that wasn’t one of them … that one just snuck up on me and blew me sideways.”

In addition to the overall award, Williams also took out both the Wedding Classic and Wedding Creative categories in the professional awards programme with a portfolio of richly evocative monochrome prints. This marks the first time in over a decade that a wedding photographer has scooped the top honour — a strong testament to Williams’ sophisticated approach to the genre.

Organized by the New Zealand Institute of Professional Photography (NZIPP), the Iris Awards is a chance for the country’s top shooters to submit their finest prints to a rigorous group-judging process in the hopes of winning industry accolades. In assessing Williams’ portfolio this year, the judging panel was heard to describe the work as refreshing, with a quiet beauty, naturalness, and photographic honesty. The photographer’s fresh approach in the wedding arena led the judges down an intriguing new path, explained Kaye Davis, chair of the NZIPP’s Honours Council.

“While the judges acknowledged that each of the contending portfolios reflected an extremely high level of creativity and craft, Katherine’s took them in a new direction, towards what they perceived as a more authentic type of photography that was less about staging and more about seeing.”

And if that gift for sight failed to help Williams see her own award coming, she had good reason to be caught off guard. The running of both the Iris Awards and its attached multi-day professional photography conference, Infocus, this year fell heavily on Williams’ shoulders as the NZIPP’s current president. It’s a daunting task ordinarily, but Williams and her crew of volunteers had an especially challenging time this year as they took up the task of reimagining the conference in a new, more inviting format.

“We wanted everyone to feel important, it didn’t matter what stage of career you were at — if you’re aspiring or you’ve been doing it for 40 years — that was really important.”

Some of the changes included a more diverse line-up of speakers, an expanded roster of workshops and events, and the new Exposure Photo Show programme, which opened the conference doors to the wider public. Feedback from attendees has been enthusiastically positive, so Williams can also add that feather to her cap, alongside the competition win.

“Because I’m so involved with the organizational side, I had a million other things to think about. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I might be a finalist for New Zealand Photographer of the Year.

“I found out on stage, and I didn’t even know what to say.”

Williams’ path to that top spot began at the age of 15, when she first fell in love with photography. From the very first frame she knew it was what she wanted to do with her life. The ability to capture emotion, frozen in a moment, was a kind of magic the budding artist found irresistible, particularly in the age of the darkroom, when she could witness a photograph come to life right before her eyes.

“That visual beauty that photography brings to things, I find overwhelming.”

Following school, her ardour compelled Williams through several years of study at Christchurch Polytech, after which she worked freelance for a spell before being lured away from these shores to work as a photographer on cruise ships. Those gigs were fun enough to keep her away for nine years, before she returned to Christchurch to set up a portrait and wedding photography business.

For over a decade Williams has been cultivating her distinct style at Tandem Photography, a brand she operates in collaboration with her photographer husband, Neil.

“We share the business, but we shoot on separate jobs. As long as we are not shooting together it works out well,” she said with a laugh.

Over the years, Tandem Photography has become one of the region’s best-established photographic outfits, but it has not always been smooth sailing. Heavily affected by the 2011 Christchurch Earthquake and its fallout, the business is now in its fourth studio location. The disruption has a happy ending, however, with Tandem currently located in the charming Holy Smoke building, one of the few heritage structures of its kind left in the city — over a century old and built of classic-style red bricks. Situated on the top floor, the studio boasts high ceilings, elegant windows, timber floors, and plenty of space for clients to luxuriate in.

Persistently shooting weddings for more than 10 years, Williams has seen the trends of the industry wax and wane. She remembers earlier years where wedding photography was typically shot in a very conservative style, and is grateful for the creative sea change that has happened in recent times, making originality a most sought-after commodity. This current, more inspiring view of wedding visuals certainly lines up with Williams’ own bold, thoughtful style. But even with creativity trending, the experienced photographer says she is still vulnerable to occasional doubts in a fluctuating industry.

“For a little while I thought I was getting too old to photograph weddings,” she admitted. “Everybody seemed so much cooler: there are all these really hip wedding photographers and they’re cooler and younger than me, and closer in age to their demographic.”

But it didn’t take her long to realize hipness is fleeting, while the experience of an expert shooter will always be invaluable. Over the years Williams has developed the ability to work quickly and efficiently, and that speed allows her time to work more experimentally with a couple, knowing she already has the safe shots in the bag. This has given the photographer the opportunity to continually pursue her creative vision — a way of working that appeals as much to her clients as it did to the Iris judges.

Jessica Clapham is one of the brides who features in Williams’ Iris-winning portfolio. Speaking of her experience with the photographer, she praised not just the amazing images that were produced, but an expert who was able to make a jittery couple feel remarkably comfortable on the day.

“She made what was a fairly nerve-wracking experience feel both extremely professional but also very personal,” Clapham recalled. “Katherine had sourced locations for us prior to the day that were conveniently located but provided opportunities for hugely varied landscapes that had significant meaning to us as a couple.”

The couple had asked Williams to bring her artistic flair to bear in natural, uncontrived shots: the result was imagery which captured the couple in an authentic way while also showcasing the beautiful, varied environment in which they live. Clapham says she couldn’t be happier with the album, and is understandably proud to now tell people their wedding shooter is New Zealand’s Photographer of the Year.

With clients willing to put such trust in her expert hands, the photographer has steadily evolved her wedding shooting style to incorporate an artistic urge to explore new terrain. Deconstructing the traditional wedding imagery concepts, the photographer has explored alternative ways of representing bride and groom, as individuals and a union.

“In my creative work, I started playing a lot with the individual strengths of people in the wedding photographs. Often with weddings the bride and groom are together: I wanted to portray each person with their own strength, and do it in a way that there’s a bit of abstraction in the shot as well.”

Playing with textures and geometry in unconventional ways, while still retaining the recognisability of her subjects and their context, Williams has hit upon a visual style that rings with a unique tenor. She is now looking to harness the creative momentum which has made her wedding work such a hit and apply it to more diverse subjects. Though coy with the details, the photographer indicates her win has opened up some interesting new doors, and she’s keen to bring her emotive style to play in different genres.

One image in her Iris-winning portfolio might provide a glimpse of the photographer’s expanding horizons; an entry into the Landscape category, featuring a desolate road meandering through a forest of skeletal branches, subtly punctuated by hints of tawny-hued leaves. Shot while on an impromptu trip through Queenstown’s Skipper Canyon with fellow photographer Roger Wandless, the image was achieved after several hours of bushwalking.

“I got to this point and just had this amazing feeling of vertigo — there was this incredible drop and a kind of eeriness. I looked across and, because it was reasonably late in autumn, you were just getting this little clip of gold coming through. I saw this one coppery-golden tree and thought, wow, that’s just stunning.”

Though something of a departure from the rest of the portfolio, the image evidences the same discreet splendour and immaculate craft that categorizes Williams’ main body of work. The print ended up being her highest-scoring entry in this year’s competition.

She may have already achieved one of the highest possible accolades of the industry, but the win seems not to have cooled Williams’ ambitions. As well as a drive to widen her artistic practice beyond weddings and portraits, the photographer is also eager to seize new opportunities for travel. This in addition to big plans as NZIPP president, which she promises will see the organization’s potential growing further still.

Williams might not have known what to say when she was named New Zealand Photographer of the Year, but her actions speak volumes of an artist capable of taking the win and using it to drive an impressive career in ever more exciting directions.

Article originally appeared in D-Photo 74 October-November 2016