In Conversation with Derek Henderson.
If you had to describe Derek Henderson in one word, ‘curious’ would be a good one. The New Zealand born, Sydney based photographer has spent over thirty years documenting his curiosity and utter fascination with the people, places, objects and landscapes that captivate him, leaving a trail of stunning imagery in his wake.
INTERVIEW BY ERIN BROMHEAD
Renowned for his fine art and iconic fashion photography, Derek’s devotion to his work borders on obsession, though he refuses to call it that. “I don’t really look at photography and what I’m doing as being work”, he says. His latest project took him to the depths of his own backyard to photograph ManiaMania’s coveted crystal collection for the upcoming ‘Crystalline’ exhibition in Sydney, featuring a series of striking still life portraits capturing the unique qualities and raw natural beauty of crystals. We picked up the phone to chat about the show and his artistic process, which led to a colourful conversation about alien rock formations, the human condition, and the best way to live before you die.
First, let’s talk about your images in the upcoming Crystalline show. The crystals are placed in all different ways—how did you decide how to pose them for the camera?
Just by looking at them and trying to get the best form out of them, really. It’s pretty organic.
Is that the same with your still life photos too—how do those compositions come about? Is it a painstaking process to arrange them?
Anything I do is painful, for anyone that’s involved in the process. No, the best thing you can do is spend a bit of time with whatever you’re photographing. And honestly, it’s pretty obvious, you just kind of look at it and look at it, and the more you get familiar with whatever it is, the more you can sort of see in it. So it’s about making an observation.
What about the light? Obviously for the crystal images you wanted the direct light hitting them. If you have an idea in mind and the weather doesn’t work out, what do you do? Wait, or change your idea?
Just wait. I was waiting—I had the crystals for a couple of weeks, and I just put them outside, because I knew I wanted really hard sunlight and no clouds, just pure sunlight. And when you use film it’s even better, the range you have on film is really good. From from the highlights to the dark areas you get about seven stops of light and also I knew you would get little reflections on the crystals if I used hard light. But again, it’s just a matter of putting them outside in my backyard, which is where I shot them, and before I get any cameras out or anything I always just look at them and look at them and then think, ‘Okay, this is the way I want to do it’, and then I’ll set something up and take a picture. What I actually do now is take a picture on my iPhone and then take it into a dark room and look at it and if it’s working then I set my large format camera up and take a frame, because obviously you can’t see that immediately because you’ve got to get the film processed.
Have you ever used crystals for healing or calming purposes?
No, but I do think they’re quite beautiful and amazing. Imagine if you were walking around somewhere 100,000 years ago and you picked up one of those ones that look like a perfect cube; you would just shit yourself. You would think, what the fuck is going on? You’d think some alien had made it. They’re quite incredible.
I had a vivid dream this morning about our conversation because I think I was worried about sleeping in, and in it you were blaring music over the radio. Do you listen to music when you are shooting?
I do, though I’m not one of those photographers who, like, has to have music on to get an energy going. When I’m doing still life, I actually kind of enjoy the silence. Noise sort of affects me in a weird way; I feel like there’s too much going on. I’m quite sensitive to things and noise is one thing that drives me a little bit nuts sometimes. But if I’m working with people, sometimes it relaxes them and it makes them forget they’re being photographed.
Do you let them choose the music?
Yeah, if they want music on they can choose. It’s all about facilitating the sitter. You want them to feel comfortable.
Have you had to work through some really shitty music, then?
Oh god yeah, some absolute trite. But it doesn’t really put me off. But then I also appreciate when I’m photographing younger models and they put on music that I’ve never even heard.
Aside from your fashion photography, you shoot a lot of nature. How much time do you spend outside?
That’s not work! Look, I don’t really look at photography and what I’m doing as being work. I like being commissioned, as much as I like doing my personal work, it makes me use my brain. I like solving problems, it keeps you active, all of that, I think that’s important. But what else are you gonna do? I can’t understand people who don’t want to work, it’s probably because I have something I really love doing. But basically, what you’ve got to do with your life is you’re filling in time before you die, so you may as well do something you like. People who don’t work, I’ve seen them, and they’re not happy. You’ve gotta fulfill yourself doing something.
Out of humans and nature that you shoot, which would you say is more unpredictable?
Humans. I’m fascinated with the human condition. I’m fascinated by the way we relate, or don’t relate, to the natural world. I think that’s kind of what it’s all about, especially in the age we live in now; it’s trying to have that balance.
When you say ‘especially in this age’, do you mean in regards to technology and social media and all that?
I think just in general. I find it cathartic if I go out into a space, especially a natural environment, I just enjoy being in that place. And I think most humans given the opportunity to do that would feel the same way, but they don’t give themselves the time to do that ‘cause there are so caught up in their lives. I think it’s an important thing to be aware of the natural world and spend time in it, its good for you. It’s like if you go for a swim in the ocean at Bondi, you dive under the waves and swim out a little bit, you kind of feel maybe a little bit vulnerable, but you feel alive, you know?
Of course. Just one last thing—I was wondering, a lot of people have your photography in their home, but do you have much of your own work hanging up?
I have a couple. Not too many, I’d get sick of looking at my own work.
The ones you have, are they sentimental images?
They might be a series I’m working on and I want to see them and let them sink in and see how I can improve on things or if it opens up any ideas, it’s more about that, really. At home I have more paintings and pictures from other people.
It honestly sounds like you are always working, even when you’re not.
Honestly, what fulfills my time is either working or being with my family, those are the things that I do now.
You’re very lucky.
I am lucky. I’m very lucky.
Limited Edition prints from the series are available to purchase here.