Brett Stanley developed a love of photography at a relatively tender age. But, he admits, he wasn’t always very good at it. Luck wasn’t always on his side, either. “I always had a camera when I was kid,” says the photographer. “When I was a bit older I inherited an SLR from my brother who was into surf photography. It was a Zenit, Russian-made from heavy, solid steel. In the late 90s I went on a trip to India expecting to take all these amazing pictures but when I got home and developed the film, the shots were terrible.” On his final day, Brett was given the wrong train ticket. He arrived in Mumbai just a couple of hours before his flight left and he had neither cash nor time to get to an ATM to withdraw some: “I had to sell the camera for cab fare to get to the airport. The last picture on the roll was a selfie with me and the two Indian guys who bought it.”
Brett spent a great chunk of his teenage years underwater and dreamt of becoming a diver. “We had a pool in our backyard and I was always in it,” he tells me. “On another trip to Asia I bought a digital point-and-shoot with an underwater case and took it diving. I was like, ‘Oh my god! I can take pictures of fish, this is amazing!’ I toyed around with that for a while, bought some more gear then later swam with humpback whales in Tonga. It was the most incredible experience that changed my life in more ways than one. After that it was a case of screw the fish, I want to take pictures of mammals. In the ocean, with whales, I’ve never felt so insignificant. Apart from living in L.A.!”
The photographer, originally from Sydney, now lives in Tinseltown with Jaime Leigh, his make-up artist Kiwi wife of four years, having spent a number of years living in Wellington in between. “I was only supposed to stay in New Zealand for a year, but I fell I love with the natural environment, the outdoors,” says Brett. “It’s so much better than in Australia where you have to drive for hours to see something new. Here, it feels as though there’s an incredible new vista around every corner. The whole country is amazing.”
Brett incorporates his love of landscapes into many of his shots, but it is his underwater work for which he is most revered. He was inspired to first shoot his subjects in the drink after watching an aerial display by his friend, trapeze artist Tanya Drewery, in Wellington: “She does this incredible act from chains and I just thought, ‘we need to get you underwater’. It was a light-bulb moment.” There followed a series of underwater pole-dancing shots that soon went viral. “That was just off the charts,” says Brett. “I had never had anything like that before, it was so exciting, I didn’t know what to do. My website was getting so many hits I spent a week sat at my computer hitting refresh!”
“Everything changes in the water. Physics, the way light reacts, the way people react. You have to have a plan and give clear and concise directions before you go down.”
– Brett Stanley –
There was interest from around the world. A Japanese crew even flew to L.A. to film one of Brett’s underwater pole shoots. The photographer now tours the world, shooting subjects beneath the surface. “Everything changes in the water,” says Brett. “Physics, the way light reacts, the way people react. You have to have a plan and give clear and concise directions before you go down. When I first started, I had no idea what I was doing, but people trusted me. Now I have a very tight process.”
Presumably your models must all be confident swimmers?
“No, not at all. I’ve had people book with me who literally can’t swim and I’ve had to piggy back them from the side of the pool. To me, that’s mind-blowing, that people are that motivated to do it.”
There are no tricks or tanks. Photographer and subject simply hold their breath then sink: “I can usually hold my breath for longer than the models, but I shot three Japanese synchronised swimmers at the beginning of the year who could stay down for two minutes. I can maybe manage one.”
Brett tells me he draws much inspiration from the movies: “I’m driven by lighting. I love the way movies are lit. Cinematographers are my idols.” I ask him if he believes a good eye is god-given, or something that can be developed. “A bit of both,” he says. “I’m not particularly artistic in any other way. I can’t draw. My handwriting is awful. But I think creativity is within, and you have to discover how to get it out using whatever tools necessary, whether it be painting or creative dance. The images, the visions that I see inside my head, I recreate through photography. A good eye can be developed through practise. If you have a love of aesthetics, if you can look at something and see what’s right and wrong with it, then it’s just a matter of honing those skills. I look at old photos and can see how I’ve changed. I don’t know whether I’ve got better or just have different tastes now. It’s an evolution.”
The photographer’s world tour will draw to a close stateside and he’ll be taking a well-earned breather come Christmas. Brett doesn’t get to see his family as often as he’d like, made all the more difficult by the fact they’re still pretty spread out across Australia. They, too, will all be spending the festive season in the states — Brett’s sister, Sharon, has booked an inn in the middle of nowhere in New York state: “Hopefully it’ll be a white Christmas.” He’d better keep his camera out.