The dream gig

Alistair Guthrie talks to Adrian Hatwell about his Tourism New Zealand assignment, taking to the South Island to shoot beautiful landscapes and director James Cameron

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It’s the job of Tourism New Zealand to showcase our nation to the rest of the world, and, for its latest advertising campaign, the organization is spotlighting one of our more recently acquired national treasures — Hollywood bigwig James Cameron. A new promotional video shows the Avatar director exploring many of the spectacular sights of his adopted home, and photographer Alistair Guthrie had the good fortune to be asked to document the ride.

The job was a whirlwind tour of the South Island’s remarkable natural attractions, including climbing the Tasman Glacier, visiting the Mackenzie Basin’s Lake Pukaki, exploring the rural Paradise region, walking the Routeburn Track, riding the Dart River, and gazing from the mountains overlooking Lake Wakatipu. Over the top of the footage of these remarkable locations, Cameron extols the virtues of exploring the land in a script he penned himself. For Guthrie, it was an exceptional gig.

“It’s one of those jobs where you pinch yourself,” he said with a laugh. “This is why you do it: you work away and you get the opportunity to work on jobs that take you to these great places. Get on a helicopter and fly up the Tasman Glacier on a perfect day? You really do have to pinch yourself.”

While it might be something close to a dream job, nobody could argue that Guthrie hasn’t earned his spot in the chopper. Photographing commercially since arriving in Auckland in 1990, the photographer has been steadily shooting editorial and advertising jobs since, building a reputation as a reliable, affable professional.

Guthrie currently shoots predominantly advertising jobs, as editorial work with some of the bigger media conglomerates operating in this country has taken on a more exploitative hue. Unwilling to agree to the punishing terms and conditions regarding copyright and usage being forced on contributors by certain publishers, the photographer has seen that avenue of work run dry but remains excited about the challenges of working in an ever-shifting media landscape.

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“Here I am in 2016: still here, still with it, still with a passion for shooting and recording life. And loving it — I really do,” Guthrie exclaimed. “I don’t doubt [that] it’s harder now, but you can’t let that stop you. As long as you laugh and have a good time, and those around you have a good time as well, that’s the main thing.”

The photographer’s persistence has paid off in terms of continued work with valuable clients like Tourism New Zealand. He has been working with the organization for several years now, including being asked to shoot still images on the back of a five-
day TV commercial production all around New Zealand last year, which then led to the James Cameron campaign. Having to shoot brand ads around a film crew working on moving images can be a common photography brief in the ad world — a position affectionately known in industry terms as “fucking stills”, Guthrie explained glibly. The photographer’s relative position on the production totem pole comes with its own share of challenges.

“You get your turn when the filming has finished or there’s shitty weather and they’ve stopped shooting. And the pressure is on because of time restraints. So they say, ‘OK, you have a go’. And I say, ‘Why would I want to shoot in this crap, when you’re not shooting in this crap?’”

But compromise and speed are some of the important tools a photographer must bring to this kind of job. Guthrie understands that having not been part of casting or the conceptual process of the campaign, his role is more to observe and record. However, a wily stills photographer should always be on the hunt for opportunities to make the images work. Sometimes, that’s shooting alongside the moving image set-up; other times, it means stealing the talent away for a quick bit of stills-only work.

When your talent happens to be one of the biggest film-makers in Hollywood, you might imagine giving direction to be an intimidating prospect, but Guthrie found Cameron — and his wife, Suzy, who was also part of the shoot — to be engaging and accommodating subjects. They were all for doing extra bits and pieces once the film crew had stopped rolling, to help Guthrie get the stills he needed.

“I got this great shot of him and his wife in this little grotto in the Dart River, in their Funyaks, looking around. They paddled in, and they turned around and paddled out, and I managed to get off a dozen shots. I was screaming and shouting at them, but they couldn’t hear me because of the noise of a waterfall — but, ultimately, we managed to get a great shot from there.”

Released in mid July, the Tourism New Zealand video has found its star power to be an effective propellant, being shared widely across many international media websites — invariably accompanied by Guthrie’s gorgeous stills. Shooting images that will only see life online is one of the many new facets of the evolving profession, but the photographer embraces it as part of remaining relevant and passionate.

But even while keeping up with industry trends, Guthrie still has his fondness for the old-school, and couldn’t resist breaking out his trusty Hasselblad film camera to squeeze in a quick portrait of Cameron just before he flew out at the project’s end: “He laughed and said, ‘the last time I shot film was Titanic’. He said he’d never go back.”

When Guthrie got around to processing the film, he may well have started to come around to the digitally fixated director’s way of thinking: of the half-dozen images he had taken, only one was in focus. Then again, sometimes one shot is all you need when it’s done right — Guthrie managed to sell the sole successful portrait to the Hollywood heavyweight as a public relations image.

Article originally appeared in The Photographer’s Mail 214 November-December 2016