Minimal landscapes with Dave Sanderson
In celebration of our current exhibition Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2017, we decided to seek out the hidden photographic talents of our Museum whānau and share their passion for the medium with a few select images from their personal collections.
In this interview we spoke to Dave Sanderson, Project Leader for the Collection Imaging team and responsible for managing four dedicated collection photographers in our on site production studio.
How did you first get into photography and what is it about the field that interests you?
I bought my first ‘proper camera’ when I was 18, it was an SLR from a colleague at an engineering factory and he absolutely ripped me off for it.
I bought it as two of my friends were returning from holiday and had used an SLR during their trip and, unlike the images I was shooting on my pocket Halina, their photos were in focus. As soon as I saw their photos I knew I had to get up to speed and start shooting similar stuff.
By the time I was 19, I had started to take on paid jobs - I say 'jobs' loosely, I wouldn’t go back and look at the work with any pride now. I went to both polytec and university to study photography and digital media a few years later, at the time feeling pretty confident about my technical skills as a photographer. My course lecturer Dave White, who I credit as being absolutely fundamental to my growth as a photographer, sat me down and pointed out that a technical understanding is only part of the picture in being an awesome photographer.
Understanding camera capability, lighting, colour spectrum, process and all that geeky stuff is essential but it’s really only 20% of the puzzle, the other 80% is learning to understand why you are taking the photographs in the first place.
For me, at least at first, it was meeting new people and making them happy with the result. I got really good at shooting portraits both indoors and outside and loved working with people, but you have to take a step back and try to understand within yourself what it is that makes you want to take the picture in the first place. This definitely takes a while and it probably took me about 10 years of taking pictures to get to the stage where I really started to put my own stamp on things.
My early work focused on portraiture, I have always been interested in people and had a desire to know more about the individuals I photographed, and what makes them tick. But portraiture can only take you so far and I think it’s absolutely necessary to push yourself into new territory, to keep building new skills.
In the last couple of years my landscape photography has really taken over in terms of a vehicle to express myself.
Where do you see your photography heading next?
In my personal photography I’m very much at a crossroads. I’ve felt some pressure to move back into portraiture as that is a field of photography I am relatively well known for, but no longer have much of a desire to do. So the question is whether I go back and reignite that, or just let it naturally move on.
I enjoy shooting landscapes and architecture but in order to develop that I'm looking at moving away from solely digital and 'going backwards' to more original equipment and technology as well. I'd like to use a large-format rail camera with movements so I can explore shooting Polaroid - which is about as old-school as photography gets these days.
A Polaroid gives you one chance to take the picture and each frame can cost around $50 to $60, so you have to make sure what you are doing is legit. Adam Custins, the owner of KINGSIZE studios, creates work in a similar way which I feel is about removing the geek and technology in order to master the basic art of photography – it goes back to the essence of why you make photographs.
By using Polaroid I will be forcing myself to be completely sure about why I’m bothering to take a shot which when I apply it to my digital work I’ll have a much purer focus and vision on what I want to capture.
Have you visited Wildlife Photographer of the Year and was there one image that stood out for you?
Absolutely. Wildlife photography is not a field of photography that I have wanted to explore myself so I wasn’t sure how I would feel about the exhibition, but the first time I went in I spent nearly two hours in there. It is hands down one of the best exhibitions I have ever seen and I don’t say that lightly. Everyone should go and see it.
There is an image ('Clouded by Mystery') of a Chilean mountain range by photographer Alexandre Deschaumes and it really catches my interest in minimalist landscapes. It is staggeringly bleak and angry but is beautiful in its simplicity. I hate having to dissect something down to its technical details but the way it was taken with a telephoto lens and then stitched together in post production is very different to how it would look if captured in one wide angle lens.
Because of this approach there is this fantastic, one-dimensional perspective that you could not achieve any other way and it just speaks to my soul. This photographer clearly knows his onions technically but ultimately what he is trying to say is something about the scene itself and not the tech that made it happen. I spent about 15 minutes just looking at it over and over again. I just love it.
I was travelling through Northland aiming towards the beach when I arrived in Glinks Gully, set up in an old campsite and captured this photograph.
Normally I try to avoid these types of pretty sunsets but there is something quite special about this image, where what can be quite a brutal West Coast beach is somehow forced by the weather and light to become this quite picturesque scene.
This particular image was taken on my trusty Canon 5D MKIII but I also shot the same scene on my Hasselblad medium format camera, and my iPhone as well. I’m interested to see how the same picture comes out across different formats and to understand the technical differences between them.
As you will hear from other photographers there is nothing quite like film and the way it can reproduce subtleties in tonality. For instance, with digital the source colour for the highlights in this image may be orange, which transitions into yellow and then finally into white as it gets brighter, and in those extreme highlights digital can’t distinguish the source colour. On film it’s just silver and chemistry, and the reaction to wavelengths of light is different which result in natural graduations of colour, which is a subtle but physical difference between chemistry and pixels.
The knowledge that comes with using film and learning how to exploit its nuances can really further your skill set. This understanding can be lost with a digital camera where a lot of photographers rely on the tech to make the decisions automatically. For scenes like this I always favour film to really capture those thousands of colour combinations.
This is my most sold photograph, taken in Petone and it symbolises why I started to get into landscape photography, and why a good photographer should always have a camera on them.
I remember chasing the sea fog along the side of the motorway, then running to the beach, getting off about three frames before the fog cleared. I used my Canon 5D MKIII with a 35mm lens at aperture F4 slightly closed down from what’s now my preferred F1.4, this is the gear I carry with me 90% of the time and is the combination I just love.
I had started to develop a technique where I would shoot these bleak landscapes at aperture F1.4. This is contrary to how many landscapes photographers would usually approach a landscape where the usual intention is to get lots of depth of field by closing down to small apertures like F22. By using this technique of shooting wide open, especially on this lens you achieve a vignetting effect and an indescribable sense of 3D space. I know for a fact that if I had shot the same scene on aperture F11 it would look very different.
This image was taken in 2011 but draws directly from work I did during the final year of my degree. I made landscapes the focus of my final year project and by doing so forced myself to shoot more landscape photographs, developing a personal style in a genre which usually felt too ‘chocolate box’ to me previously.
I am a big believer that photographers should always try to develop themselves, and a good way of achieving this is to do something you hate doing. For me, that something was landscapes.
Since this photograph was taken I’ve tried to merge my passion for architecture and minimalism with my landscape photography style to achieve a clean and at times bleak result. I believe that photography is just another visual language and so you develop a way of speaking in the same way as other fields do, be that good architecture or good graphic design.
This is quite a nostalgic photograph for me, taken back in the UK on the moors above Derbyshire when I was last home. I’m not sure what type of flower this is but they remind me of cotton balls, more than anything this image reminds me of first picking up a camera and starting my lifelong interest and career in photography – these hills are where I started to learn my craft.
One of my friends picked me up from the airport and whilst driving over the moors I asked them to stop and I bailed out capturing six or eight photographs as the light faded. (Unlike in New Zealand this long grass can be home to the common European adder but fortunately there was nothing lurking there that day!).
I deliberately underexposed this photograph as part of a technique to increase the richness of colour. This is a tip I recommend to a lot of photographers particularly when trying to exploit primary colours. If in doubt underexpose a tiny bit and those colours will become really rich.
Unofficially this image is one of a series that I would like to bring together into a book one day. Taken on the east coast of Japan in the small city of Shizuoka it follows the style of landscape composition I have developed over time which leans heavily to minimalism, featuring just the beach and sky.
Making new photographs in Japan was a big deal for me – some of my earliest ‘photos I love’ were taken there. I’ve shown a lot of the photos I took when I visited but this is amongst my favourite and plays to that minimalist style I’ve developed but adds in the juxtaposition of the brutal concrete and sky.
Whenever I travel I try to seek out landscapes like this - so far I have 40 or 50 images of similar scenes from all over New Zealand and other countries I’ve visited which would be part of my first cut when putting a book together.
This was taken on the Kapiti Coast near Wellington where I lived for the first seven and a half years of my time in New Zealand - this area became my go-to happy place when I wanted to escape the city and just blow the cobwebs away.
At the time I was influenced by several New Zealand photographers including Paul Green and Eva Polak, and by following a similar approach to them I played with the exposures as a tool here. I underexposed the image to create this dark brooding scene which I feel has an almost painting-like quality.
Paul shot a lot of landscape photography at night using a really long exposure which can make the final image look as though it was taken during the day, and creates a really unique atmosphere. His work has inspired my own and helped me develop the approach I have towards my own landscape photography.
Overall, this image just holds a lot of a personal memories for me and that is something I think all photographers shouldn't be afraid to bring to their work. Instead of seeking to make a perfect image, make something because you need to and want to, and it will turn out to be something more meaningful in the end.
Dave Sanderson leads our Collection Imaging team who are responsible for over 100,000 stunning images in our Online Collection.
Post by: Auckland Museum
Auckland War Memorial Museum tells the story of New Zealand, its people, and their place in the Pacific.