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© Cally Whitham

Cally Whitham: New Zealand Beauty

Can you remember when a child even a simple tree in your backyard seemed magnificent and magical to you. If you looked at that tree now, would you see that magic? Would you visit a zoo to show your kids a hen? Hardly. Our today’s guest, the New Zealand photographer Cally Whitham with her work reveals an aesthetic value in unpromising subjects, one that we could overlook or even forget in the fuss of humdrum.  Something that was once perceived as meaningful may become plain and ordinary with time. The photographs by Cally Whitham are not just the photos of animals and picturesque scenery, they are grasped memories, feelings, emotions of one artist. In Cally’s own words, her work is an attempt to «capture those things that have become more favorable in the memory than in the seeing.» Imagination, assosiations, memory — all these often transform ordinary things into subjects of creativity and art. Maybe it sounds banal, but banality is one of the main subjects of this interview, so let it be — it’s us who make things ordinary, beauty becomes apparent …look closer. This is what Cally Whitham’s amazing photographs make me think about. And what do they say to you?

You started to photograph when you were a child. When did you understand that it’s what you want to devote a big part of your life to. Was it kind of a decisive moment?

From a young child I was always taking mental pictures from car windows when we traveled. So the idea that I could do it for a living just seemed a natural progression for me. I really felt a connection with it and was taken with the ability to keep the things I saw.

Please tell us more about the use of colors in your photography. It feels like there’s a special role you give to color palette. What is color for you?

I have never really been a fan of straight black and white for my work; coming from a film background my default was to shoot in black and white, sepia tone and then hand paint with oil paints.

Since moving across to digital I have been shooting everything in color. Instead of starting out with a black and white film and hand coloring prints, I have been starting with a color file, which in a way I have been attempting to return to the feel of a painted or hand-painted photograph. So my color palette is definitely in that oil painting color range of yellows and umbrias and burnt sienna’s that I used in my film days.

I find color provides warmth to my work, which may not be naturally there with the subjects I tend to choose. Often subjects don’t show the colors that I know are there in the feeling rather than the seeing, so that is where my post production becomes so important, to add the light and color that I know is there but is not apparent. It’s like color is a feeling rather than a visual.

In New Zealand we have a crisp slightly cold, blue light that can leave my work feeling melancholic rather than nostalgic. The colors I use really help support the notion of an idea or feeling that floats fleeting in the back of your mind; something that maybe you weren’t quite old enough to retain all the details of or it was so long ago it has become some-what favorable in the memory — more so than it was in reality.

Speaking about ‘aesthetic value in unpromising subjects’, how did you decide to touch this topic?

I have always been in love with the idea that there is ‘more’ to the everyday and banal – the romance of every day things and how perceptions can change with the right light and colors. As a teenager I discovered Romanticism through poetry, paintings and early pictorialists who I felt were attempting to create favorable impressions of fairly ordinary life events. This seemed to resonate with my ideas, so its really continuing exploration of that.

What equipment do you use? Do you believe in “camera phone” photography the world is now obsessed with?

I use a Canon 7d, often with a low-fi lens such as a mirror lens or the cheap canon 50mm 1.8. My gear is only important to me in that it allows me the reach or the iso I need to get the images I want.

Most of my work is shot wide-open, high ISO and slightly soft. I am not a fan of pin sharp so my gear reflects that.

In terms of camera phone photography, I love it. It allows people to really let go of perfection and just shoot for love, to see and grab, I am such a fan of grabbing hold of everything I see that I want to hold on to and phone photography really allows you to do that because you always have it with you. People seem to have changed their perception about what is worth photographing now, the wider population are noticing stuff they never saw before.

The only thing that really bugs me about it is the over-cooking of the images, people seem to be drawn to the apps that go too far with the texture and color shift, in my opinion. The mood of the image is lost and it just becomes a jarringly over processed snap.

I shoot with my phone a fair bit, purely for fun although, recently I got a Fuji x100 and now the phone doesn’t come out of my bag.

You live in the country for over 15 years, am I right? What is it that makes you so taken with your environment for so many years?

Nostalgia – a romantic memory that is constantly fed by my environment. From early childhood, we used to visit my aunts farm and that is when I fell in love with the country. I used to draw little comic strips of my trips to the farm which started with scenes of things on the way there from the car window, followed by frames of the hill over the road, a grove of trees I could see from the front porch, the corrugated iron wool shed and the lightening tree. So, as a child I was already in love with the rural environment and taking mental photographs of it, to take home with me to the city.

When I got my first camera at 10, my first thought was that I could finally photograph the country rather than draw it. The photos I took were nothing special, but it allowed me to hold onto the country until I could visit again. I am still trying to get back to those early impressions through my work.

Is photography your only creative outlet?

Pretty much. I did spend a summer making willow sculptures of birds. I was determined to make it out of branches from wild trees, rather than purchase precut willow so that the sculptures felt more authentic to me, like actually capturing a wild bird from a bush or tree. After making five sculptures I felt I needed some more bird photos to work from. I started taking bird photos and I just haven’t managed to get back to sculpture.

You used to photograph people in your career, but there are no people portraits in your gallery now. Why?

I do have portraits in my gallery on the Behance network. (now they’re on Cally’s website as well - editor) I love to photograph people but what I chase most is an intangible notion, a kind of rawness, an emotion or nostalgic feeling that I can never quite grasp and I constantly look for this in everything so the actual subject is almost irrelevant. So for portraits I have to find the right face or ‘air’ to be compelled to photograph people. Recently I have found this manner in birds more than anything else. As i notice this intangible elsewhere my attention moves with it.

Some of the photographers we talked with are disappointed by the  viewer  today. How would you describe the state of the modern fine art photography? Do you feel comfortable  working in the established environment?

There is so much diversity and taste, that I can’t really comment on what others are doing. I am happy that photography is really beginning to find its feet as an art form; it has been a very long and slow journey. To be honest though, I don’t really care what other people are doing, photography as such is not really an influence for me. People will either see something in my work or they won’t, despite what other people are doing. It either strikes a chord or it doesn’t.

Your portraits of animals and poultry resemble  famous human portraits by classical artists. What are your influences in visual arts, if any? What are your sources of inspiration in general?

It sounds cliché, but light is my main source of inspiration. I am inspired by paintings and early photography, but more so on the way light creates the mood rather than the subject matter itself.

What would you advise to the budding photographers?

Find your voice without reference to what other people are doing or what is considered fashionable or saleable. These days good work will always find an audience.


Don’t miss a chance to get to know more about the art of Cally Whitham:

Website: Cally Whitham
Profile on Behance: Cally Whitham on the Behance Network

All photos copyright © Cally Whitham. Reproduced on this page with permission.
Photos can’t be reproduced or used without prior agreement from the photographer.