PLACE AND THE HUMAN TRACE
Photographer Simon Devitt works closely with New Zealand’s most prestigious architects to capture beautiful buildings, as well as the people that inhabit these structures. We find out how Simon expresses life within his photographs both with, and without, human subjects
Simon Devitt teaches photography to wouldbe architects at The University of Auckland. In the course of his career, he has experienced a phenomenon that all educators eventually come to know: moments when the student becomes the teacher. During one class, Devitt had a student, who was just coming to grips with the potential of the art form, comment that the world of photography is bigger than the world itself. “He’s absolutely right,” the photographer exclaims. “As soon as you pick up a camera, the world gets 10 times bigger, and you go, holy shit! What do I choose? What do I leave out?” These are questions that Devitt has been wrestling with himself, ever since his world was first enlarged by photography at the age of four or five. While most children find themselves bored to tears in front of family slideshows, he was transfixed by his father’s holiday shots, fascinated by the opportunity to view himself and the world he occupied in picture form. From then on, Devitt became a neighbourhood wanderer. With camera in hand, he hunted down those sacred moments when subject and light harmonize. And he hasn’t slowed down to this day. Working as a professional photographer for 22 years, Devitt’s architecture-centred work has been featured in many magazines, both national and international, and he works closely with New Zealand’s most prestigious architects. As well as teaching university classes, Devitt also publishes his own award-winning photo books. He has even founded an annual photography award, the Simon Devitt Prize for Photography, now in its ninth year. But, for all this success, Devitt does not feel too different from that young man who would rove the streets, teaching himself the camera’s workings. The awareness and focus that drove him out to explore public spaces in his youth are the very same things that propel his exquisite work today.
“That’s my playground.” A building can’ t travel to the rest of the world but pictures can, so it’s up to Devitt to represent the combined work of all the people involved as authentically as possible.
“It’s no different to what I do now, except [that] now I am invited into people’s homes,” the photographer says with a grin. “It is about people, landscape, and the built environment. Those three things can’t exist without each other, so that’s where the richer, deeper, story can be told. “Sometimes, the pictures will last longer than the buildings, so it is important to me — a responsibility I have — to tell that story with pictures in a way that the viewer understands a little bit of what it is like to be there,” he explains. “What it feels like to be there.” Over the years, Devitt has developed a series of organic processes for capturing the built environment and the way it interacts with its natural context, as well as how people use, and are affected by, these designs. His charge is to capture the moments in which these dynamics are expressed and in which those stories are told. This requires connecting very intimately with a scene: “I am really aware that the camera I have in front of me is the best way I can be present [in] every moment. To me, that’s exactly like meditating.” And it is a playground that is constantly expanding. Working with architects to document their constructions, Devitt travels all over the country and takes international trips several times a year. He shares this playground with many others involved in the work, collaborating not just with architects but also with lighting engineers, designers, furniture makers, landscape architects, and magazine and book publishers. While the photographer is living a dream job, he feels the weight of his responsibility acutely: a building can’t travel to the rest of the world but pictures can, so it’s up to Devitt to represent the combined work of all the people involved as authentically as possible. However, working commercially, Devitt isn’t always able to dictate the ideal conditions in which to shoot. Time can be a factor — sometimes people will be home for a shoot; at other times, the space will be empty — and New Zealand weather is notorious for not
“Both are beautiful, both have their own power.” As Devitt doesn’ t always know whether he will have the opportunity to shoot the inhabitants while there, the photographer has developed ways of expressing life both with and without human subjects.
taking direction. Some of these issues can’t be predicted until he turns up for the shoot. It is this power that Devitt seeks to teach to his students through the 12-week course that he runs at The University of Auckland’s School of Architecture and Planning. His class typically comprises around 25 students, all eager architects with varied amounts of experience behind a camera. His goal is not to turn these students into architecture photographers but to teach them to use their formative architecture skills in aid of photographic storytelling. “It’s about being aware of the ingredients I have, being aware of the ingredients I can alter, and the ones [that] I can’t,” he says, serenely. “It is my responsibility to ask for whatever I need, to get whatever I want.” Reflecting the character of a space and the impact it has on the lives lived out there is an integral part of Devitt’s arresting images. As he doesn’t always know whether he will have the opportunity to shoot the inhabitants while there, the photographer has developed ways of expressing life both with and without human subjects. This is not an easy ask, but Devitt has honed the curriculum to help learners discover the same sort of energy that informs his photography. He does this in a way that, on the surface, sounds antithetical to creativity: by constraining his students. “The world has its own way of constraining us, and we don’t have any choice over it; we fight it, or we walk with it down the street. And then learning to apply our own constraints is what I think is really useful, in terms of creative output.” “Without people, you get the opportunity to allude to the presence more, [to] suggest something has happened. With the people, it is a bit more emotive, and it’s a different way to tell a story. One of the constraints Devitt employs with his students is to take away their freedom of
movement. He leads the class on a walk through downtown Auckland, getting each student to stop at a particular spot along the way. They are told to remain in that spot — they can rotate around but are not allowed to walk — for three hours and to document their experience.
“Sitting still has value in it, especially as a photographer,” Devitt explains. “For most of them, it is an exercise in fighting off boredom, but, for others, it is learning about things they didn’t [previously] notice.”
“Everything else is a distraction.”
Another constraint he employs is a return to film shooting. In one lesson, he gives his students a disposable camera each, has them come up with an idea they can define in three words, and sends them out with a roll of film to make it happen. Not being able to see their pictures right away is an alien experience to most, but delayed gratification serves a purpose. “When they see the pictures a week later, their eyes just light up. Something else happens — this magical thing,” he says. The magic is fully explored in the final learning experience for the class: creating their own photo book. It’s a form that Devitt himself is a master of — his latest publication, Rannoch, documenting the home and life of arts patron Sir Ian Wallace, was named joint winner of the most recent New Zealand Photobook of the Year award. As the architecture students learn new ways to consider photography and create compelling narratives, interestingly, most of them do not create books of architecture photography. But it’s no surprise to Devitt, who tells his students that he doesn’t really care what their subject is — he is purely interested in how the images work together and the reaction that he and other viewers might have to them: “The idea is more important than the subject matter. It’s about authenticity; it’s about connection; it’s about what it is to be a human being. See more of Simon Devitt’s work at simondevitt.com.