Behind the Lens – How I became a museum photographer
When I tell people that I work in a museum as a collections photographer I am often met with a bemused stare. It’s not what people expect or know much about. I would have reacted exactly the same way prior to working in this role. To put it simply, I take archival quality photographs of the objects for preservation purposes and to be used online–but in reality it’s so much more than that.
As collections photographers, we create a visual narrative of an object that enriches the existing information an institution has gathered. People are dispersed more than ever, living at all corners of the globe but we have never been more able to connect with our history, our taonga–now photographed in high resolution at angles you would never see in a display case, delivered right into the palm of your hand.
One of the most incredible projects that I was apart of, was the Pacific Collection Access Project. Pacific Communities came to Auckland Museum to view their taonga and share their knowledge. That information was added to each record along with the digital images so it could be preserved for history. Traditional knowledge that could have been lost is now accessible to future generations, and having contributed to that, even in a small way, is something I’m very proud of.
Photographing collection objects does not come without its challenges and although it may seem like my day is filled with wondrous and beautiful artifacts, in reality history is not so selective. Between gilt laden pocket watches from the 18th century are things like 19th-century clay sewer pipes.
History is also not without its humour. There are so many examples of incredible artistry and workmanship, like this NZ blown glass art collection, and then there is artristry that leaves you wondering.
I recall photographing a purse made from carved bone. It features an image of a ship's anchor entwined in a cross with a heart at the crossroads. The bag's frame is rusty and the lining faded red with small fabric divides. In preparing it to be photographed I found a green folded note tucked inside. It revealed a little more of the bag's history, a 50-cent note dated March 1863, fractional currency or shinplasters, introduced by the United States Federal Government after the outbreak of the Civil War. These are small pieces of a puzzle that contribute to a much larger picture of that time.
There are moments that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. When I was working on the pocket watches, I found that one was engraved with a message of love from a husband to his wife. As I placed it on the table it started to chime, and it didn’t stop until I tucked it back into its box–most likely a testament to the impeccable mechanics but for just a moment it sounded like two hearts beating.
So how did I get here, romanticising over a pocket watch?
I have this vivid memory of coming out of the final interview for the photographers position at Auckland Museum, turning to my boss Dave Sanderson and wishing him well in finding the right candidate for the job. There was no doubt in my mind I wasn’t good enough. Dave thankfully saw things differently. He is one of a handful of people in my career who have given me the chance to work as a professional in an industry that is tough to make a living from.
I have always been an observer of the world, of people and places. I am deeply emotional, taking on all the world’s pain and joy and I feel that same emotional connection to everything I photograph, be it object, person or place.
Photography was a way of bundling that all up and using it to carve out a career that has spanned 25 years. In that time photography has moved very quickly. It feels like a lifetime ago that I packed up my Minolta Dynax 9 with a bag full of Kodak Porta film and headed out in my Nissan Sentra wagon to photograph a wedding. Fast forward not much and my kids now have no idea what I’m talking about.
I put it down to a chain of events and encounters throughout my life that have put me squarely where I am supposed to be.
I was always taking pictures or video but when I left school I wasn’t thinking of it as a career. In fact I had no idea what I wanted to do; I wasn’t a standout at anything. Media Studies was my strongest subject so I opted to go to university and do a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Media and Communications. It was there that I fell in love with video production.
After graduation a friend introduced me to a videographer who employed me part time to travel around the pubs of Auckland filming live feeds of the “Battle of the Bands.” It was not uncommon that I’d run for cover when the drunken fist-fights started.
At the same time I got a job as a production assistant at Toonz Animation in Parnell when animation sets and chararcters were all hand drawn. Ironically when Disney went full digital our roles became null and void and the business closed.
It was around this time that I was introduced to a couple who ran a very successful wedding photography and video business and they took me on as a photographer, teaching me everything I needed to know.
Two years later I had my own business which I ran part time for a number of years while still working full time at a laser and pyrotechnics company. I don’t know how I did it!
My big break came when I secured a job as a marketing assistant with the iconic childrenswear designer Pumpkin Patch. It wasn’t long after starting there that I found myself in the studio, working my way up and eventually becoming creative manager in charge of the photography. I built a studio from the ground up, managing a small team of studio photographers. At the same time I was coordinating all shoots both onsite and off. I would do the photography and art direction. It was a massive job but incredibly rewarding. I worked with many of the models for a number of years and watching their confidence in themselves grow was beautiful to watch. It kept me there for 14 years before I made the leap from fashion to history.
Working as a collections photographer has cemented my view that to truly optimise your approach to photographing anything you need to find its uniqueness and explore ways to bring that out in a visually engaging way.
I hope that I never feel good enough for any job because the best part of the journey is knowing how much more there is to learn.