FREEZE FRAME

WHEN RO­TORUA PHO­TOG­RA­PHER TRACEY SCOTT LOOKS THROUGH HER CAM­ERA, SHE SEES POS­SI­BIL­I­TIES – NOT PROB­LEMS – WHICH IS ALSO HER METAPHOR FOR LIFE

NZ Life & Leisure - - News -

Point­ing the lens at pho­tog­ra­pher Tracey Scott

FOR A POR­TRAIT photo of her­self, Tracey Scott would wear jeans, a checked shirt and her grand­mother’s jew­ellery. She would have a book and a bunch of old English roses be­side her chair, a small dog at her feet and, on the walls, framed pho­tos of her girls. Through the win­dow would be more roses and a dark bay horse. Tracey would be pic­tured look­ing di­rectly at the cam­era, one eye­brow raised.

For the viewer, cer­tain facts would be re­vealed; the sub­ject likes gar­den­ing, an­i­mals, fam­ily and ca­sual clothes. All of which is true. To­day, she wears a shirt and jeans. A chi­huahua-cross named May pads in her wake, and a strik­ing photo of her daugh­ter, Na­talie, dressed in a 19th­cen­tury rid­ing habit, stares out from the wall. And the eye­brow? More about that later.

Tracey is a Ro­torua pho­tog­ra­pher – much dec­o­rated as it turns out, al­though she is re­luc­tant to brag. Two years ago, the New Zealand In­sti­tute of Pro­fes­sional Pho­tog­ra­phers named her Pho­tog­ra­pher of the Year; she is three bars short of be­com­ing a Grand Mas­ter, an ac­co­lade achieved by only eight oth­ers. Iron­i­cally, pho­tog­ra­phy wasn’t her first ca­reer choice or even sec­ond. As a school-leaver, she tossed up be­tween psy­chi­atric nurs­ing and fine arts. A friend of her grand­fa­ther’s, at that time the su­per­in­ten­dent of Tokanui Hos­pi­tal, per­suaded her to choose the lat­ter.

At the Otago School of Fine Arts, she ma­jored in oil paint­ing with a view to even­tu­ally train­ing as an art re­storer. But the Dunedin course closed be­fore she could en­rol. Still con­vinced her des­tiny lay in restora­tion, she headed to Lon­don, where she dis­cov­ered a qual­i­fi­ca­tion would cost 40,000 pounds and span seven years. Most stu­dents, she says, were the progeny of ti­tled par­ents, for whom time and money were no ob­ject.

Stuck in Lon­don with­out prospects or funds, she in­stead com­pleted a two-year course in pho­tog­ra­phy and worked in a photo li­brary un­til her work visa ex­pired. When her New Zealand child­hood sweet­heart spent $2000 on phone calls urg­ing her to re­turn to marry him, she booked her pas­sage home.

In 1984, a year af­ter their wed­ding, daugh­ter Na­talie was born and pho­tog­ra­phy was side­lined. But then her child­hood sweet­heart up and left. “I was sud­denly a solo mum with a mort­gage.” She took a job as a press pho­tog­ra­pher at the Ro­torua Post, where she stayed for 20 years.

This could have been the end of the story. News pho­tog­ra­phy is ad­dic­tive and Tracey was well suited to the adrenalin-fu­eled life­style. She says she in­her­ited a com­pet­i­tive na­ture and can-do at­ti­tude from her fa­ther Bob Scott, New Zealand’s first he­li­copter pi­lot. She loved the pace and en­ergy of the news­room and there were in­deli­ble mo­ments, like when she tram­pled on some royal toes. “I was walk­ing back­wards, shoot­ing pic­tures of the Queen dur­ing her visit to Ro­torua. I stepped on Prince Phillip’s foot and al­most tripped him up. He was very gra­cious.”

But chron­i­cling tragedies and hard­ship took its toll. Even to­day she can bring to mind two stark im­ages: one of a man sit­ting on con­crete steps with his head in his hands af­ter fire had razed his home; the other a fatal car accident, where af­ter shoot­ing her pic­tures, she com­forted the victim’s wife. Re­mar­ried, she de­cided the time was right to leave news pho­tog­ra­phy. “I thought I would paint for a while, but my art was very dark. It was like an out­pour­ing of emo­tion.”

She put away her can­vases and con­sid­ered other op­tions. Serendip­i­tously, a friend asked if she would take pic­tures at her wed­ding. “Wed­dings are such happy places,” she says. “As a news pho­tog­ra­pher, ev­ery­one hates you; as a wed­ding pho­tog­ra­pher, ev­ery­one loves you.” She also joined the Ro­torua Cam­era Club, and met a group of tal­ented and like­minded peo­ple who thought out­side the square. “It was like paint­ing again. You be­gin with a blank can­vas. Any­thing is pos­si­ble.” She di­vided her time be­tween tak­ing her own pho­tos and – to make a liv­ing – shoot­ing happy cou­ples.

About this time, her sec­ond mar­riage ended and she was again left with re­duced funds, and need­ing a house. The only place she could af­ford ($250,000) close to town was a cen­tury-plus-old villa pos­ing as an an­tique shop. She’d been there many times to buy an­tiques. She de­scribes it as a mess. “It had only one light switch, which ac­ti­vated flu­o­res­cent lights in ev­ery room. There was no run­ning wa­ter other than the toi­let, no kitchen and no heat­ing.” Her mother told her she had rocks in her head.

But through her lens, the pho­tog­ra­pher saw pos­si­bil­i­ties. The house had strong bones made from hand-sawn rimu and kauri, high ceil­ings, and the po­ten­tial to cre­ate a li­brary with floor-to-ceil­ing book­shelves. She bought it, and be­gan the trans­for­ma­tion, sur­viv­ing the cold nights by sleep­ing un­der three feather du­vets, with an elec­tric blan­ket and a woolly hat. Ice formed inside the win­dows. “The builders used to go out­side to warm up.”

She rose at 5am to shower at her mother’s apart­ment, be­fore start­ing work. She also bought a wall plaque with the words: “Life isn’t about wait­ing for the storm to pass; it’s about danc­ing in the rain.”

Five years on, chan­de­liers have re­placed the flu­o­res­cent lights; the kitchen is trans­formed into a homey and light­filled space and her grand­mother’s china is dis­played in a cabi­net.

Stormy skies, stormy eyes: A shot taken by Tracey at an aban­doned or­phan­age in Pu­tararu.

While the house has had a long his­tory, it now re­flects Tracey’s own sto­ries. In the en­trance hall are rid­ing boots and a vel­vet rid­ing cap worn when she com­peted in dres­sage events; there is a carved bone from a mar­lin’s nose, which she hooked in Tonga; tucked away in her bed­room is a col­lec­tion of erotic Ja­panese net­suke. In­stead of a tele­vi­sion (“no time for it”), there are board games like Man­cala, an an­cient game played with stones or beads. There is no dish­washer, and the clothes drier is a ceil­ing-mounted wooden dry­ing rack. “The house is my sanc­tu­ary,” she says.

It is also now an Airbnb, since a friend per­suaded her to share the house with guests. “Ev­ery guest has been won­der­ful. Ex­cept for this one guy, who ar­rived car­ry­ing a six-pack of beer. He seemed to be get­ting flir­ta­tious and I had to think how to put him off.” She left the room and fetched a Bi­ble – which she was read­ing at the time – “just be­cause I’d never read it”. Her guest asked what she was read­ing. “I said, ‘it’s The Bi­ble’, and I opened it.” He went off to bed.

So, what about that raised eye­brow? Does it sug­gest a woman who views life through a scep­ti­cal lens? Does it reg­is­ter dis­plea­sure at some of life’s curve balls? She opens a port­fo­lio of im­ages, shot in black and white. In one, taken at a wed­ding, guests are in the back­ground faced away from the cam­era, deep in an­i­mated con­ver­sa­tion. In the fore­ground, a woman sits alone on a bench, hold­ing an empty glass. She looks bored or sad or both. A child be­side her seems ut­terly de­feated by weari­ness. “It was sup­posed to be a happy oc­ca­sion, but for th­ese two it was clearly not,” she says. Th­ese are the im­ages to which she is drawn. “I al­ways see life through a lens. It is both a trial and a plea­sure.”

The raised eye­brow, it turns out, in­di­cates an in­sa­tiable and nev­erend­ing quest to un­cover peo­ple’s sto­ries. She points with de­light at a por­trait photo of her grand­daugh­ter – a beau­ti­ful, fair-haired teenager, star­ing di­rectly at the cam­era. “You see. She has it too.”

WORDS VENE TI A SHE RSON PHOTOGR APHS T E S S A CHRI S P

OP­PO­SITE: Chan­de­liers have re­placed the harsh neon lights that lit the build­ing when it was an an­tique shop, while stripped boards are a fit­ting frame for an 1800s kauri dresser. THIS PAGE: The old villa was the only house Tracey could af­ford, but it took blood, sweat and freez­ing nights to bring it back to life; May, Tracey’s chi­huahua/ foxy cross, is never far from her owner.

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