PLACE AND THE HU­MAN TRACE

New Zealand D-Photo - - PROFILES - WORDS| ADRIAN HAT WELL

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.

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