Auckland-based urban photographer David Straight is fresh from Venice when we meet in a Kingsland cafe, having been commissioned by Creative New Zealand to document the nation’s exhibition at the biennale. City landscapes don’t come much more dramatic than the fabled canal-lined cultural hub, though David admits that he generally seeks out more subtle cues, preferring to capture those harder to notice “everyday moments”. Smaller towns, he muses, are often more interesting, “less looked at, and less affected”.
“Carlo Scarpa was a great Venetian architect, one of the major modernists, so I hunted a lot his work out, but the everyday stuff is just mad,” he chuckles. “As a city, Venice is kind of bonkers! It was fun just walking around, not having to deal with cars, and examining everything.”
Growing up in West Coast in the shadow of the Southern Alps and rarely too far from the salty mist of the Tasman Sea undoubtedly honed David’s creativity and curiosity. That oft-forgotten South Island ribbon being arguably the most evocative region of this most evocative of lands.
“West Coast will always be home in a spiritual way,” he says. “Down there, it feels as though what you don’t need, the Earth takes back. It’s such a harsh environment, but it’s incredible, just such an amazing place to grow up as free-range kids on a farm.”
David was “around 10 or 11” when his brother was gifted his first camera and remembers being “really jealous!”: “So, I always stole it—and having been taking pictures ever since.”
Do you prefer the old days of shooting in film?
“I love that process. I used to roll my own black and white film and process it myself. I loved the chemistry of it all. But I stopped shooting film around 2009. Commercially, digital just makes more sense, but I don’t prefer one over the other, they both have their place.”
Though David’s commercial work now mainly centres around snapping buildings for many of New Zealand’s leading architects, his first passion was for street photography—a craft he mastered during his stint in New York (and later London) interning with renowned photojournalism and documentary agency, Magnum Photos.
“I did a couple of projects over there, but I was basically most interested in walking around and capturing moments on the streets. New York was among the happiest periods of my life. I worked on a lot of independent books but when I came back to New Zealand, I realised that photography is the only thing I knew how to do, and had to make a living out of it.”
Through a friend, David secured a gig photographing restaurants for an online dining site, and from that became interested in architecture.
“It developed into me creating a commercial outlet to making a living from it,” he says. “Being a street photographer, you begin to realise how cities are formed, how important social and public spaces are. Visually consuming cities, you begin to learn their fabric.”
While most studio photographers are in control of their environment, you are almost at the mercy of yours, in terms of the likes of weather and lighting?
“Yes, it’s those kind of serendipitous moments that have always interested me. The way the light can fall thorough a building, it can only be there for a few minutes and then it’s gone. It’s different on a cloudy day and a sunny day. It all comes down to those special, serendipitous moments that keep drawing me back in.”
You’re constantly on the lookout?
“Absolutely. I did a book called Vernacular which is about the everyday environment, looking at things which you’re not supposed to look at—from manhole covers to fence posts. It tunes your eye into noticing those small, overlooked things.”
David’s most recent book, published in March, is John Scott Works, a gorgeous collection of photographs (complemented by a collection of selected accompanying essays) of one of New Zealand’s most influential, yet underappreciated, architects. The project took David two-and-a-half years to complete.
“It came about because of the demolition of a really incredible, important building, the Aniwaniwa Visitor Centre in Te Urewera. It was an amazing piece of our history. John Scott was a Māori architect who incorporated Māori ideas into his buildings. He worked in the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70’s and ‘80s. He was such a significant architect, so, for that building to be demolished was just a shocking moment.”
It was a violent action that implored David to ponder the “Māori world in our modern-built environment”, and “to make a statement around that”: “John Scott created his own language of New Zealand architecture. He was a pioneer.”
As well as reflecting on his career, David believes it’s important, moving forward, to embrace Scott’s design philosophies. The photographer expresses disappointment at the lack of consideration given to the indigenous culture in terms of the way we build, from individual housing through to urban planning: “There is this huge wealth of knowledge that Māori possess around how we live, especially in communal settings.”
I ask if architecture is a path he has ever considered.
“Not formally, I don’t have the patience! It’s not the individual buildings that I’m most interested in, rather the social and community angle. I’m fascinated by, and love, public architecture, and the publicness of architecture, it’s really important. It’s something that New Zealand doesn’t do very well. Auckland is a wonderful example of not having enough public space. In Europe I used to walk everywhere, but coming back here you realise how much you depend upon your car. It’s frustrating.”
David tells me that it’s vital he feels he’s doing work that has “some sort of value”. It is, he adds, why artists do what they do, “because they feel they have something to say”.
“It’s essential to have that. The John Scott book was about making a case for something, an idea, and a person. You get invested in it. It’s good for your soul.”