From fashion to film and back again, photographer Kerry Brown’s career focus has been behind the lens, says Phoebe Watt
A few months ago at a warehouse in central Auckland, New Zealand-born, London-based photographer Kerry Brown shot more than 50 media and fashion industry figures for Workshop’s winter 2016 campaign. About a week earlier, he’d been having dinner with his friends, Workshop founders, Chris and Helen Cherry, when they proposed the idea.
“I thought, why not? I need some new clothes, let’s get the band back together!” It wasn’t the first time that Kerry, Chris and Helen had collaborated on this kind of shoot.
“In 1991 we did this collage, all these people – friends and whanau, musicians and artists – all wearing Workshop,” Kerry explains. “And it defined the brand in a way, so it was great to bring that back to life.”
Throughout the 80s and 90s, Kerry shot pretty much all of Workshop’s marketing material, as well as campaigns for Street Life, the precursor to Helen Cherry’s eponymous label. He also worked with Kiwi brands Standard Issue and Zambesi – they had “a distinctly New Zealand flavour”, but this hadn’t been coming across commercially or editorially.
Work by Kerry and the likes of Derek Henderson and Regan Cameron, changed that. “It was a subtle thing. It’s not like we were waving New Zealand flags around, the tone just changed to be more of a reflection of what was happening here.”
Launched in the early 1980s and helmed by Ngila Dickson (whose costume designs for The Lord of the Rings earned her an Academy Award in 2004), local fashion magazine ChaCha was both an instigator and a product of what Kerry calls this “seminal time in New Zealand fashion”.
There were already a handful of New Zealand fashion publications on the market, including Fashion Quarterly and a domestic edition of Vogue, “but they always looked very international”, says Kerry. “Ngila and Derek and Regan and myself, we just started to do our own thing.
We never really sat down and talked about it,” he says. “It just happened naturally… we looked around at the New Zealand light and the characters and faces all around us and it just clicked into place.”
Getting New Zealand and Pacific Island faces in the fashion spotlight was a cause close to Kerry’s heart. His then-wife Rosanna Raymond played a key role in developing the Pasifika Festival in 1993, and he remembers an event at Auckland Town Hall where several international designers were present.
“At the casting, Kiwi actor Rene Naufahu and his brother walked in. They had these beautiful Polynesian faces and we were like, ‘put them up on the catwalk!’ It sounds so simple now but back then, it wasn’t the done thing.”
A lack of diversity within the fashion industry might be less of an issue today, but in a world where professional models are losing advertising campaigns and magazine covers to celebrities, Kerry agrees there’s not a lot of work around for ‘real’ people. “Why are we as a culture so goddamn celebrity obsessed?” he asks.
He cites “the Brooklyn Beckham thing” as an example of the cult of celebrity gone mad. “The image isn’t important, what’s important is he has seven million Twitter followers. That’s how it all works now. It’s about celebrity because celebrities transcend cultural boundaries. Burberry wants to reach out to the whole world and ‘Beckham’ is a name that resonates everywhere.”
Having been immersed in the film industry for the last two decades, Kerry is well versed in celebrity culture. While his roots are in fashion photography, he has since worked predominantly in film and become one of the world’s most highly regarded film-still photographers.
He recently spent four months in Taiwan on the set of Martin Scorsese’s imminent release, Silence. Prior to that he worked on the critically acclaimed Brooklyn.
The photographer doesn’t muck around with false modesty. “I’ve shot advertising, I’ve shot fashion, I’ve done music videos, I’ve directed television commercials, and when I pick up a camera I’m informed by all of those things. Distributors love me because I give them what they need,” he says.
“I know what they need to sell a film. I know how to find that image. And if it’s a tense day on set and if everyone’s on edge, I’m confident enough to say ‘I’ll leave you alone completely, but what I need is the shot where you turn around and look over there’ because I know that’s the frame that’ll end up being used.”
As immersed as Kerry is in the film world, being back in New Zealand and “shooting frock again” had him pondering a return to fashion photography. He’s not concerned about being out of the loop.
“That’s probably a really good place to shoot fashion from,” he says. But he’s also a realist. “To get into any area of photography in London you’ve got to put a stake in the ground and work for 10 years to get to the door to knock on it. It’s not as simple as me going back next week and saying ‘okay, I might shoot some fashion now’.”
Photography has changed dramatically since Kerry started out. “Everyone’s a photographer now,” he says, referring to the development of smartphones and their high megapixel cameras. “You take a photo on your phone and it looks great, then you put it through one of those little processors and it looks even better. And if it doesn’t, someone else can fix it.”
He thinks it’s fantastic that technology has enabled more people to explore the craft, but he points out that with everyone having access to the same tools, it’s difficult to stand out. “It has never been easier to take a great image; it has never been harder to make a living out of it,” he says.
It wasn’t so much nostalgia for the old days that saw Kerry agree to the Workshop gig, although the day brought up plenty of memories. More than anything, Kerry will always have time for Workshop because their aesthetic is, much like his own, more grounded in “portraiture and real stuff”, than fashion.
“I look around and I see what stimulates me and I photograph it. That’s why I loved that shoot – I was just photographing a whole lot of great people and connecting with them.” And working with the Cherrys again? “I’ve got a lot of love for Chris and Helen and what they do… the madness of working with Chris Cherry,” he laughs. “You have no idea!”