Photographers Stephen Tilley and Petra Leary release virtual exhibition

Stephen Tilley and Petra Leary Point of View exhibition

Photographers Stephen Tilley (left) and Petra Leary (right) share details of their new exhibition. Image by James Black for PROCESS STUDIOS.

Leading photographers Stephen Tilley and Petra Leary recently collaborated on an exhibition of new photographic work called Point Of View Virtual Exhibition + Artists Conversation + Physical Exhibition. The exhibition was created as part of the 2020 Auckland Festival of Photography with Stephen and Petra presenting dramatic imagery that explores their considerations as award-winning visual artists through digital portraiture and documentary aerial photography.

Stephen Tilley is a renowned New Zealand fashion and portrait photographer known for his evocative and emotive style and for this exhibition he created a dozen haunting images using polaroid-inspired techniques. Focusing on parts of the body from head to toe, Stephen distils the human form to an aesthetic essence.

In striking juxtaposition to Stephen’s work is Petra Leary’s colourful aerial photography which explores contemporary craft and technique in six images. Giving new perspective to everyday situations and subject matter, Petra goes beyond the obvious by creating imagery with a drone camera. Her strong use of colour and elegant geometric composition are complemented by a perceptive use of light to reshape ordinary settings into the extraordinary.

We caught up with Stephen and Petra to find out more about their exhibition, what techniques were used to create their stunning photographs and what photography means to them?

Stephen Tilley and Petra Leary Point of View exhibition

Stephen Tilley exhibition works 6a (left), 6b (centre) and 6c (right).

Why did you ask Petra to join you in showing her work alongside yours in an exhibition?
Petra Leary coincidentally lived directly across the road from Caroline and me – we often chatted to her mum, Kate (an artist), and used to spot Petra walking down to Nixon Park with her cool street style and skateboard in tow. Curiosity got the better of us so we asked her mum about Petra, and found out she’s an award winning aerial photographer. After scanning her work, we became obsessed! Caroline contacted her about joining our creative team. The exhibition marked our first project together. The thought process behind this was to combine two completely different photographic styles into one exhibition and allow our shared love of image-making to be the single common thread. In the end, the contrast between our two completely different subject matters became a strength of the exhibition. Petra’s bold, colourful, tightly composed images is the complete antithesis of my exhibited work, which is intimate, drained of colour and information. It graphically represents a range of styles while introducing to viewers contemporary methods of photography such as aerial photography.

Why did you choose to have a virtual exhibition and how did you approach it?
Given we were heading into lockdown when I agreed to this project, our original plan for the Auckland Festival of Photography was to produce a virtual experience for viewers  –  a short film/ walk through of the gallery showcasing Petra’s and my work. In addition, we thought it’d be fun to have an artists’ talk on the ‘Point of View’ theme.

I went from 6 weeks of lockdown (where I was stripped of creative sanity by not being able to take a photographs of humans) to literally an exhaustive, but massively rewarding few weeks, which involved creating a new body of works, editing, printing and curating the prints over many late nights with my partner, Caroline Brown. We filmed the Virtual Exhibition and Artist Conversation our PROCESS Studios team including videographer/editor Nik Parkinson. It was added bonus that we could host both the physical exhibition and event as well.

Can you tell us about the technique/s used to create your imagery?
I used a technique that I have been perfecting in my personal fashion work during the past decade, which emulates Polaroid film. Over the course of three sittings I had this body of work. Technically-speaking, a slow shutter speed exposes the available light and creates a sense of movement. At the end of each frame the flash fires which creates a sharp exposure within the blurred image. Although very minimal, it allows an abstract frame to have a thread of information, enough to make sense of the composition.

The method I used to edit the pictures came from past personal work that I have exhibited, which I simply title ‘polaroid pieces’. Making brutal crops, I focussed specifically on feet, hands, torsos. The images are stripped of colour and information, leaving an abstract composition. I chose not to use photoshop at all and to stay true to the nature of ‘Polaroid’. Caroline and I spent many late nights with the lounge floor covered in tiny prints and created diptychs and Triptychs and slowly a cohesive collection emerged.

Stephen Tilley and Petra Leary Point of View exhibition

Stephen Tilley exhibition work 2a.

Stephen Tilley and Petra Leary Point of View exhibition

Stephen Tilley exhibition work 2b.

What would you like the viewer to takeaway from viewing these images?
It’s not a secret that I suffered from some level of anxiety, isolation and concerns of the unknown future during lockdown, as did so many of us in New Zealand. However, after weeks of working through these emotions I unconsciously found a way to channel the unknown, and to find freedom by finding a darker and more artistic approach to my work. Things don’t always need to be in focus; things don’t always have to be sharp and be bright and airy. I hope that these images give viewers the opportunity to explore the yin/yang that exists in life and within ourselves.

What does photography mean to you?
Since I was a teenager, photography has been my method to express myself while exploring the human condition. The connection between my subjects and me is about finding the 60th of a second that is undefinable – when a person opens themselves up and allows you to capture an essence of their being. Photography has given me a career that has taken me to many corners of the world and allowed me to live a life that I love.

You’ve had an impressive photography career over the past 20 years, what stands out to you as highlights?
I’ve met and collaborated with incredibly talented humans, many of them becoming close friends. Sharing ideas to create tangible images across magazines, billboards and now the highly demanding digital platforms has always been fulfilling. Travelling worldwide to capture the essence of a new city through imagery is always an adventure. And while always getting the work done, we manage to squeeze in laughs, meet new people and kick up our heels a bit at the end!

A strong personal highlight is also creating personal work, and exhibiting, it gives me an opportunity to fully express my love of photography and exposes a deeper range to my style than what most people know. Today I am as passionate about photography as I was the first day I discovered that I loved cameras. Every single time I pick up the camera I learn something both about the medium and myself.

We are still adjusting to this new version of normal but what is next for you?
To continue working with our creative team; to develop my personal work. As this year marks 20 years of my life as a photographer, I’m working on a project that combines my love of music with photography.

Stephen Tilley and Petra Leary Point of View exhibition

STUDIO 58 gallery. Image by James Black.

Stephen Tilley and Petra Leary Point of View exhibition

STUDIO 58 gallery. Image by James Black.


Stephen Tilley and Petra Leary Point of View exhibition

Petra Leary exhibition works Mirrored World (left), Tokyo Crossing (centre) and Triple Blue (right).

What was your reaction when Stephen asked you to be part of this exhibition with him?
I was stoked! It was funny because we were neighbours for a couple of years but had only chatted a couple of times, so the exhibition was a really cool way to get to know Stephen properly.

It also really came at a good time, after being in lockdown for the past month the show was an awesome push to exhibit some work again after being so separated from everything.

How is your approach to photography different to his?
My work tends to be very graphic, and very bright in colours, were as Stephens is alot more natural in shape and muted palettes. We both have an abstract style of photography that was is different from each other but also works together in this strange way.

What is the inspiration behind this project?
I think it was a lot to do about the feelings and emotions of the whole Covid/Lockdown and being somewhat restrained over that time, the show was a chance for us to show some new work and I guess release this build up of wanting to create something.

Can you tell us about the technique/s used to create your imagery?
My work is all shot from drones. The series I chose to exhibit were images I had shot from all different places over the past year. I wanted to display a series that all shared a similar look, but are all of very different subjects and landscapes. My main technique across these images was to focus on very graphic elements and symmetry and tie them together with form and complimentary colours.

What does photography mean to you?
To me, photography is storytelling. Its something that can be so visually pleasing and also capture a moment in time and so much information and memories tied to the image.

Would you say this work is indicative of your style?
Yes, very much so haha. The work I showed in POV is pretty much my signature style I guess. Anyone that knows my photography will tell you that other then shooting basketball courts, all of my images have to be perfectly straight and balanced, and that was something youll see in the show.

Is there a specific piece that stands out to you, and why?
I think my favourite of is the photo of the car driving across the red salt lake. I love the colour of the water and this photo was one of the last I shot pre-Covid on a trip in South Australia. Its really the experience of seeing the salt lake in real life and the adventure/mission to get to it that makes the photo for me.

What would you like the viewer to takeaway from viewing these images?
One of the things I love about showing the aerial/drone photos is seeing how amazed and surprised people are about just how interesting our surroundings are from a bird’s eye view. I think the work can give viewers a new appreciation for everything and a look into how abstract and beautiful the most simple things can be, so hopefully that’s what people who look at my work might feel to.

What stands out as highlights of your career so far?
I think a big turning point in my career was having my photo of the Parnell Pools featured on the cover of Paperboy in 2017, it ended up being the final issue ever made of the magazine and opened up a lot of doors for me and some awesome jobs.

The second big highlight would have to be the documentary Bird’s Eye! for the Loading Docs 2019 series. It was something I was super excited about but also very nervous as it shared a lot of pretty personal things about me and my life. Seeing how open and positive everyone’s feedback was awesome, as well as hearing how so many other people could relate and really appreciated it. Plus its gone on to feature in New York as part of the DOC NYC Film Festival and just recently in Aotea Square as part of the Auckland Photography Festival.

We are still adjusting to this new version of normal but what is next for you?
I had a lot of plans to travel this year, but due to everything those are on hold so now i’m focusing on some new series of works and putting together an collaborative exhibition with my partner Tim of a body of work we shot while in New York. I’m also going through all my archives of photos and working on putting together a book that will hopefully be done in the near future!

Stephen Tilley and Petra Leary Point of View exhibition

Petra Leary and Stephen Tilley at Studio 58 gallery.

Stephen Tilley and Petra Leary Point of View exhibition

Behind the scenes Nik Parkinson (left) and Stephen Tilley (right).

Images by Stephen Tilley, Petra Leary and James Black.

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