Acclaimed New Zealand Photographer
Derek Henderson is probably the most successful New Zealand photographer of his generation, or the next few generations for that matter. He’s shot more fashion stories than most of us have had hot dinners, and is in high demand for his travel and art photography. He’s internationally represented by one of the top photographic agencies, MAP, and in New Zealand by the Melanie Roger Gallery. Derek has recently shot for big brands such as Aesop and Lexus, as well as on going collaborations with Karen Walker. Although he’s constantly surrounded by clothes from the big designers, his own style is a bit more low key and practical revolving around grey separates. Almost like a prison uniform. When I met him his grey sweater was by New York label Rag and Bone (bought by his wife) but he also shops at Uniqlo and American Apparel. He told me he rates Nick Cave’s style and admires any man who wears a tailored suit. We chatted about travel, photography and remaining true to yourself.
R. I’m just going to start recording, so watch what you say!
D. No swearing. I did an interview the other day for a commercial I’d just done and they wanted a behind the scenes type thing. So I started saying ‘oh yeah in the seventies I was a Calvin Klein underwear model’ and I did it quite seriously and I could see they were all like ‘wow, you actually really did this’.
R. Oh dear…. I really loved the cover story you shot for Holiday magazine; can you tell me a bit about that shoot?
D. I was commissioned by Franck Durand, who’s the, I suppose he’s the editor slash producer of that magazine. I think he owns it as well. He contacted me, because you know how they do issues on different countries, and he said if I commissioned you to go to Argentina what would you do? And I knew straight away that I wanted to do in Patagonia, I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Bruce Chatwin who wrote In Patagonia, and Songlines and all these fantastic books. So I thought I’d do that and they straight away said that’s a cool idea. So we went to Patagonia for two and a half weeks and did 6000 kilometers from Bahia Blanca to Tierra del Fuego.
R. What was the weirdest thing that happened to you on that trip?
D. Oh there were lots of weird fucking things. One weird thing was we were on state high way 40; quite an infamous road you know and we were just driving along. You don’t see anyone; you don’t see a car for 100 miles. Some cyclists were on the side of the road and we drove past them with my assistant and my assistant said ‘ stop they need help’. I said ‘naw, fuck em, too bad’ and it looked like the lady was sitting on the side of the road crying and it was obviously her boyfriend and they’re in the middle of no where. And my assistant goes ‘you’re such an arse hole Derek’ so I just said ‘oh you bastard you’ve made me feel bad’. So we stopped and there wasn’t really anything wrong apart from the fact that she was exhausted and they wanted a ride to the next town that was like 200 miles down the road so we chucked all their bikes on and gave them a ride.
R. What about food?
D. Argh god, we ate some crap, we ate some pretty bad food. It’s like a frontier. There are quite a lot of places in Patagonia that are quite touristy but we avoided them. We went where Bruce Chatwin went. He didn’t go to too many of the touristy places. He did go to one place that was really interesting, which was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s hide out. They were on the run and this was like 1905. They went and lived in Patagonia for five years and they built a cabin and you can visit that cabin today, it’s still there. You can still go there, it’s pretty amazing. I thought it would be like a real tourist destination, but there’s nothing there, there’s one little sign. You could basically stay there and no one would give a shit.
R. No one would know.
D. No one would even know. It’s in a paddock and there’s no signs or anything. When we were there no one else was there; never saw a single tourist that went near the place. I think that’s what Bruce Chapman was about. He was I suppose a travel writer but he made it a bit more interesting. He changed the whole perception of travel writing I think.
"If you want to be a photographer you better be pretty passionate about it because there’s a lot of people out there who want to be photographers"
R. Travel writing can be a way of incorporating art, history, politics, everything really.
D. Yeah and I think he was particularly good at it.
R. Where would you be keen to go to next for a travel story?
D. I was asked to go to this island in Micronesia, that I’d never heard of, that the Pacific Forum are going to be in about three weeks and I’m just trying to work out if I can do that job, but that would be interesting. But honestly I’d never heard of the island, I couldn’t even tell you what it is now. (The island is called Pohnpei)
R. Is there somewhere that you’d like to go to?
D. I wouldn’t mind going back to South America to the Chilean side of Patagonia; I’d like to go there, I think that would be cool.
R. You also shot a travel story on Wellington for Monocle magazine – what was your favorite find in Wellington?
D. I liked, I think it’s called Karaka bay, around the bays. I can’t remember the name of the café; I think it’s called Scorching Bay or something. Like right on the headlands of the harbor, that was really beautiful.
R. what advice do you have for aspiring photographers?
D. If you want to be a photographer you better be pretty passionate about it because there’s a lot of people out there who want to be photographers.
R. What about weekend photographers?
D. You can do it on your iPhone; you don’t even need a camera. Really, the quality is incredible. I often take pictures on my iPhone and post them on instagram and people can’t tell the difference between which ones I’ve taken on my iPhone and which ones I’ve taken on my four by five camera. I mean that would change if you had it on the wall. But most people look at things now on phones. More often than not that what they look at things on. There’s a huge difference there, but I quite like taking photos on my iPhone
R. Do you think that instagram is changing what people want to see in photography? And is that good or bad?
D. It is what it is. It’s a powerful tool, like I know, just personally, I cant speak for anyone else, but as a commissioning tool I know creatives who have never even seen my portfolio and they’ve booked me off my instagram feed. And I think you can find out what people are kind of like, like a portfolio might not necessarily tell you what someone is about, because with instagram I can put commercial work up there that I’ve been commissioned to do, but then I’ll put up a picture of my son and so you can find out what people are about. It’s sort of a more personal visual diary. It’s quite powerful and I think people want to know what you’re like too. They don’t want to just know the pictures you take and you show. I mean it’s an edited diary as well. What do they call it, Snapchat? That’s kind of less edited again. You can let people know as much as you want about yourself. I think it’s a powerful tool.
R. Is there a trend or a fad in photography at the moment that annoys you?
D. Just human beings annoy me. Honestly, like I love and I hate the human condition, equally. You know what, I reckon now you can do what you do and things aren’t driven by fads so much, for me anyway. I don’t notice it as much as when I was younger, probably because I was more worried about what I was doing and trying to keep up with everyone else, but now I just do my thing and I think that’s the best advice. Just do your thing, even though that sounds cliché and it’s quite hard to do.
R. Working out how to do your thing is the challenge.
D. Yeah that’s it. It’s probably a bad word to use, but working out your style or what ever, that’s the hardest thing to do. The most successful artists and musicians in the world; you can recognize their work straight away. You don’t have to see their name, that’s the most important thing. So don’t try and do everything to please everybody, you’re sort of going to fuck off half the world and half the world’s going to like you. You can’t please everyone.