New Zealand photographer Derek Smith has a keen eye for the everyday world. His colour, light, and composition make his photos memorable documents of a changing world. There is a beautiful simplicity about them that seems to echo the joy of the photographer. Some of his photographs resemble the work of painters like Edward Hopper or Alex Colville. For a more in-depth view of his work, check out this wonderful BBC interview with Derek. Also, you can see more of his work on Flickr.
I asked him eight questions about his work and his current projects.
Tell me a little about yourself. Where are you from, and where do you live now?
I am 60 years old and was born in Newcastle, UK, but have lived in NZ since 1963– originally in Auckland but have travelled and lived extensively around the country since 1988. I married Maclean Barker (another obsessive photographer, luckily) in 1994 and have a son, Oscar, who is now 21. We are now finally settled in a small seaside village, Kakanui, on the east coast of the South Island.
What subject matter attracts you, and why?
I really enjoy composing pictures and that leaves the content fairly open but because I prefer them to also have a documentary value, I tend to focus on the social landscape. I love colour, light and form and arranging these elements to have aesthetic meaning to me in a rectangular composition. As children, we respond to these elements in a purely primal sense before we identify them as learned objects (tree, house, car, etc.) so I try and retain that simple sensory joy when observing things rather than attaching cultural, social or political meaning to what I observe (all learned rather than sensory.) I believe that everything is natural so I view myself as a nature photographer.
Your social documentary photos of New Zealand are stunning in their lighting, colour, and composition. (They certainly make me want to visit New Zealand.) And you have been at it for thirty years. Have you pretty much covered the entire country?
I am the “fill in guy” for a nationwide meter reading company so I get sent to every corner of the country often for weeks at a time when required. Due to the nature of my job, I have familiarised myself with my country very intimately. It is a relatively young country with a limited degree of diversity but I have gotten to know the different social and physical characteristics of each region really well. This has given me a great opportunity to chat with a huge range of people and photograph the country I love. The pay is crap but thanks to digital I am cheap to run.
Can you tell us about the projects you are working on these days?
Photographically, I am on an ongoing lifetime project that began almost 40 years ago. I carry my camera everywhere and always seem to find something to point it at. I did have a book published a few years ago but the publisher packaged and marketed it more as a Kiwiana collection for the local market. It sold quite well. I would like to self publish a book or two with a more specifically photographic feel but I know that would limit its market, particularly here in NZ. The bookstores here are filled with magnificent landscape works that I don’t feel compelled to add to. The social landscape is the broad theme that I seem to be most attracted to and the passage of time always adds a fresh dimension to the pictures.
You have probably the best day job I’ve ever heard of for the kind of photographs you take: You’re a meter reader. This was a genius move in choosing a job path. What are some elements that you think make a work environment potentially rich for photography?
Yes, I have been very lucky integrating my passion with my work life. Could not have been better, actually. I suspect many other outside jobs would offer similar opportunities but with the nature of work changing radically lately (my job will soon be obsolete), work time being so vigorously monitored, and many manual jobs becoming automated, these opportunities will be far more limited. I would encourage anyone to document their workplace, especially in this era of phenomenal change.
What’s your state of mind when you’re taking good photos? Do you think there’s any connection between your mood or mindset and the results you get?
My mood doesn’t change much, I don’t think there is a great range of emotional content in my work. I am not disturbed or creative enough to be an artist. I am a happy chap with a love for colour and a passion for New Zealand. Some pictures work on an aesthetic level, most miss the mark but at least they may possibly have a documentary function. If others find the pictures enjoyable, that’s great but I generally photograph to please myself and the great thing about photography is that the possibilities are endless. There is that famous saying, not sure who originated it “I photograph to see what things look like, photographed” Always surprising!
Do you find these days that you’re inspired by the same people, places, or events that inspired you in the past? Or has this changed for you over time?
I still do what I have always done because the contemporary social landscape is in a constant state of flux and the light is ever changing so the opportunities are endless. I have found my language. I will revisit certain subject matter and re-photograph it to illustrate the wonderful effects of time. As with much of your wonderful work, the passage of time gives another dimension to the images that can often present a strong social pointer.
One final question: Can you tell me briefly about a couple of photographers I may not be familiar with yet but you would recommend checking out?
There are many photographers that have influenced me. Walker Evans, Eggleston, Shore, Friedlander. All are great renderers of the utterly ordinary. Here in New Zealand, I have huge respect for Bruce Foster, in my opinion our most astute observer, and the wonderful Ans Westra, a national treasure who has documented the lives of Maori in New Zealand since the sixties, Always with her beloved Rollieflex for beautifully candid images. (she now has a permanent Rollieflex stoop!) Well worth a look.