FROM STUDENT TO PRO SHOOTER
We talk to graduate ’grapher James Black about his journey to a varied career across product, fashion, and event photography
To go where the wind blows is a romantic notion, evoking an unburdened, free, and spontaneous way of being. It’s also one of those phrases that sounds a whole lot easier to pull off than it is in practice. Just ask photographer James Black: he’s up for moving in whatever photographic direction the world might pull him, but that state is the result of a lot of hard work, heavy reflection, and bold decisions. James is one of those people who felt the artistic calling early on — he first gave voice to wanting to grow up to be a photographer at young age, following chuffed success with an instant camera. But even those fortunate enough to have a sense of their destiny often find the way barred by the world. “At high school, you get to choose your classes, but, at the same time, they sort of push you in the direction they want you to go in,” he recalls. “I was told, oh no, don’t waste your time with photography, go learn something else, like calculus or classics.” Luckily, James also knew from an early age how to put his foot down, and a successful high-school art portfolio eventually led him to a fulfilling tertiary experience, studying for a four-year Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree at Auckland’s Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design. Whitecliffe now offer a three-year option for the BFA, with one intake per year in mid-February. In his first year, James was offered a smorgasbord of disciplines, which included the likes of design, drawing, visual theory and cultural studies. From the second year he began a specialized photography major. “The fantastic thing about Whitecliffe is the teachers are all practising artists themselves,” the photographer says. “They knew the challenges you face in developing your own practice, because, at the same time they were teaching the course, they had their own practices going.” As his study progressed — from term-based projects in the second year to two major projects in the third and a year-long project in the final year — James was learning much more about not just his own creative self, but his classmates and tutors as well. The intimate photography-class size — 12 students at year two, down to six by year four — made for the ideal hands-on learning environment. “It almost felt personally catered, because it is such a small community,” he explains. “Over those years, the tutors really understood what we were trying to achieve, and they were able to tailor readings, or artists, or themes and topics that would enrich what we [were] … doing in the moment.” Once graduating Whitecliffe, James wasn’t sure where his next destination lay, an uncertainty he both enjoyed and found confusing. It was his tutor, Becky Nunes, who set him on the right track. “She said, ‘Don’t worry about where you are going or trying to get into further education — just go out and assist, that’s going to be the best way to take the next few steps’.” As though being handed from one mentor to another, James took Becky’s advice and picked up an intern job at Process Fashion + Design PR studio, where fashion photographer Stephen Tilley worked. One half of the workplace was dedicated to PR, where James spent his time shooting clothes and product, all the while gazing across to the full studio on the other side of the building, where he longed to work alongside the acclaimed photographer. “I’m not sure if I hassled Steve, or if he just saw something in me, but he asked me one day if I’d come along and assist him on a job,” James remembers. “The rest is history … He’s a wicked photographer, and he’s really easy to get along with, really onto it; a bloody genius.” That assisting experience, combined with his Whitecliffe education, has conferred in the photographer the confidence and skill to take on any number of divergent jobs. He has tackled fullstudio shoots for images in Mindfood magazine, shot editorial portraits for the Lumiere Reader website, and documented the voguish chaos of New Zealand Fashion Week. But perhaps most thrilling of all so far: he was the event photographer for superstar scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recent Auckland visit. “It was mind blowing: here’s me running around Vector Arena, getting all the shots, and I just had to stop for a moment and think, I’m the photographer right now with how many thousands of people here for this?” he says with a chuckle. “It was insane.” It’s the kind of insanity that comes along for those who are open to going where the wind blows them. But, as James will tell you, you can only fully take advantage of those opportunities if you’re willing to commit to the learning, gain the experience, and — when you’re not sure or being told no — take those risks anyway.