WHEN ART IMITATES ART

New Zealand D-Photo - - PROFILES - Words | Adrian Hatwell

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.

FRIDA KAHLO

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.

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