WHEN ART IMITATES ART
Wood takes clear inspiration from history in much of his work. Whether via homage to a historical figure or his own take on a mythological idea, the artist has frequently used the past as a foundation for his own creations.
NZIPP Professional Photographer of the Year Richard Wood started learning about photography under the dim light of a red bulb. Now, he creates his texturally rich imagery within a digital darkroom. We look at three of his 2017 winning images, for which he used the great masters as his muse
Wood’s portrait isn’ t just a nod to the artist’s own distinct style; it references an ongoing discussion of the details of Frida Kahlo’s life, which have come to light decades after her death.
If you’ve been reading D-Photo for a while or have had even a cursory interest in New Zealand photography in recent years, you are likely to be familiar with the work of Richard Wood. The Hastingsbased photographer was recently named New Zealand Photographer of the Year, and not for the first time — it is an accolade the New Zealand Institute of Professional Photography (NZIPP) has already bestowed on Wood twice before. The title is not only rich in acclaim but demonstrable business advantage, too. Wood has found that each win at the annual Iris Professional Photography Awards brings with it an influx of new commercial work from clients increasingly further afield. And he’s not the only one well aware of what’s up for grabs — each year, the competition between the organization’s members gets tougher as the work gets better. However, though taking home the top title might be an increasingly difficult feat, Wood says the euphoria of the win won’t diminish with time. “It doesn’t feel any different from the first,” he beams. “It’s still such an honour.” Freshly home from the awards ceremony and still abuzz with success, we asked the photographer to share the stories and thinking behind some of his standout Iris images.
LADY WITH AN ERMINE
Wood takes clear inspiration from history in much of his work. Whether via homage to a historical figure or his own take on a mythological idea, the artist has frequently used the past as a foundation for his own creations. “It pushes the brain harder,” he explains. “Bringing through ideas from history and mythology allows you to take people to another place. It allows you to create another world.” While many of the photographer’s past images refashion an idea through his unique lens, this work is Wood’s most explicit instance of imitation as flattery — he set himself the task of painstakingly recreating, as faithfully as possible, Leonardo da Vinci’s oil painting
Lady With an Ermine in photographic form. Enlisting a taxidermy ferret that has long lived on a shelf in his home, Wood called up his trusty stylists, located a suitable young model, and began his exercise in visual control. To accurately imitate the romantic quality of the portrait, the light, tone, design, and composition had to coalesce seamlessly, creating the painterly period feel: “I was literally sitting there with a hairdresser to my right, and a makeup artist to my left, staring at a picture, holding it up to the model, and painstakingly moving her millimetre by millimetre by millimetre.” Through this intricate process, Wood made a discovery that simple appreciation of the painting had not revealed — the contrapposto posture of the subject is anatomically impossible to replicate in real life. Just as da Vinci used his painterly licence, the photographer took to his digital easel to finish the homage, working the figure’s shoulders, back and neck into an immaculate reflection. That fastidious eye for detail compelled the judges to bestow the portrait with the highest possible accolade, a Gold with Distinction award.
Some of Wood’s work goes beyond historical reference, becoming more of a conversation with the past. This year’s Silver with Distinction–winning image of Frida Kahlo, entered in the Illustrative category, is a prime example. The image presents a model with a resemblance to Kahlo seated for a portrait. On her stomach is a cutaway — much in the style of Kahlo’s own self-portraits — revealing a foetus in her womb. Behind her lurks Santa Muerte, the female personification of death in Mexican folk religion. Unlike the Anglo personification of death, Santa Muerte represents healing and protection, as well as delivery to the afterlife. Wood’s portrait isn’t just a nod to the artist’s own distinct style; it references an ongoing discussion of the details of her life, which have come to light decades after her death. Kahlo always painted her pain in an intensely personal way, but there remained biographical ambiguity as to whether her child-centric suffering was the result of miscarriage or abortion. The mistitling of works, along with correspondence only recently uncovered, has spurred the debate anew, and Wood invites us to make our own considerations with his image. “The holy death is encouraging her with the sickle,” he says. “You could read it as ‘I’m going to take that child that’s in your belly’, or the irony that she can keep the child but, at the end of the day, death is going to take them anyway.” Wood found himself contemplating Kahlo on a recent trip to Mexico, where he was fortunate enough to visit her home. As well as being the creative impetus for the work, the house also made a literal contribution to the image: the background is Kahlo’s actual garden, shot by Wood during the visit.