Life through a lens
He’s created some of our most timeless fashion campaigns ever. Kerry Brown talks to Dan Ahwa about coming back home to shoot Workshop’s new season campaign featuring some familiar faces.
By Dan Ahwa | Wednesday March 30, 2016
Two key Polynesian focused events that occurred this month, The 24th Pasifika Festival and the 41st ASB Polyfest formerly known as the Auckland Secondary Schools Maori and Pacific Islands Cultural Festival, are perhaps two barometers of just how far commercialisation has superseded the intent of such events. Both at its strongest during the mid to late 80s and early 90s, an era that signalled a strong attitude towards Polynesian pride. Suddenly attention was cast to the creative industries where the worlds of pacific tradition merged with the realities of life in New Zealand, becoming a catalyst for several artists, musicians, dancers and fashion designers to explore their creativity. It also illustrated the emergence of a pacific pride not only be confined to the sports field, where an already politically aware generation was still dealing with apartheid, nuclear testing and a homosexual law reform. That specific moment in time for New Zealand’s pop culture history not only embraced pacific culture but did so in a way that wasn’t contrived.
Workshop was an instigator in that conversation through its early campaign imagery celebrating diversity in fashion and our unique place in the pacific. Street cast models mingled with friends and family from creative worlds, a melting pot of faces that captured the zeitgeist of the time, all photographed by the brand’s close friend and collaborator Kerry Brown. The ex-pat photographer, BAFTA member and self-confessed culture-vulture “I unwind by seeing as much music, dance, art as possible” has been based in London for the last 17 years, and is now considered one of the world’s best film still photographers, racking up an impressive portfolio of credits for films including Once Were Warriors, Prometheus, Brooklyn and the forthcoming Martin Scorsese film Silence. Not bad for self-taught photographer who dropped out of school aged fifteen. A love of photography and skateboarding led Brown to capture the everyday scenes around him and people in their natural environment.
His career in New Zealand puts him as one of our most exemplary; a leading fashion photographer with a distinctive eye and an award winning music director. He’s lensed some of our most iconic music videos including Why Does Love Do This to Me by The Exponents, Greenstone by Emma Paki and Melting Pot by When the Cats Away. His Samoan foster family also played a part in his upbringing and appreciation of Polynesian culture.
“There was definitely a change in attitude in fashion during this time. People forget we had New Zealand Vogue during the 60s, but it was always looking outwards” says the 53 year old. “We looked around at faces that were around us. It was more about looking inwards rather than the received culture. Not wanting to be particularly ‘Kiwi’ but just using the landscape and the voices of those around us. It’s so obvious now, but at the time it just happened organically.”
That same organic approach was the catalyst for the Workshop’s new season campaign featuring friends and family of the brand, an update on a 1991 version photographed by Brown. “Kerry was back on a fleeting trip, we caught up for dinner one night and we started talking” says Workshop founder Chris Cherry. “We talked about him taking some family portraits, and then suddenly it evolved into this conversation about shooting the new campaign. We compiled a list and started making a few calls, and then before we knew it we had at least sixty people involved! It really showcases the breadth and depth of the brand.”
Brown’s influence on the local fashion and music scene during the 80s and 90s is not without noting his contribution to New Zealand’s first fashion magazine, Cha Cha. It was during this time he worked closely with then editor Nigla Dickson, who has since gone on to become an academy award winning costume designer.
“We probably met through her as Kerry began shooting for Cha Cha and then he gradually started shooting for us” recalls Cherry, who remembers the black and white catalogue for Street Life, one of Cherry’s earlier brand’s that later evolved into his wife Helen’s eponymous line, Helen Cherry. The Street Life catalogue from 1984 featured local creatives such as actor George Henare, art critic Francis Pound (who features in the latest campaign with his daughter Veronica) and Brown’s former wife, artist and ‘fashion activist’ Rosanna Raymond another important collaborator during this time. The part Samoan Raymond was a key player in the development of the Pasifika Festival that debuted in 1993, and was an important part of advocating Polynesian models and fashion designers through her involvement with the Pacific Sisters collective, a group of artists who celebrated pacific culture and highlighted this in the mainstream arena. Her work in casting and producing a Workshop show that was part of Dame Pieter Stewart’s Corban’s Fashion Collections during the early 90s was a moment Cherry remembers well. “Some people identified it as a landmark show. Pieter let us do it our way with our own music and casting, and Rosanna helped us showcase a complete cross section of Auckland’s characters. One of them was including a young Rene Naufahu, who I first met perfectly dressed in grey flannel trousers and a blazer straight from the rugby club. Eight weeks later, he was on the catwalk of every show in town!”
Another key figure that emerged was artist and photographer Greg Semu, whose personal style exemplified the unique mix of Pacific styling with utilitarian separates that personified this time. “He was the hardest one to style in that first campaign” says Cherry. “Nothing was cool enough for Greg! We started calling him Lord Semu. It was funny seeing him do that pose for the campaign with his arms outstretched; it became a sort of pre-cursor to his Crucifixion art works.” Brown later tapped Semu to work with him on the music video for In the Neighborhood by Hip Hop duo Sisters Underground, a collaboration that documented life in suburban south Auckland. “Greg new South Auckland well and so the two of us went out and shot a whole lot of footage. We were literally just looking at what was around us and putting a frame around it.”
These days Brown has welcomed the brief return to shooting fashion through the new campaign and catching up with friends and family back home. The Cherry’s, who he is in constant touch with, often stay with Brown while in London and his son Salvador (24) and Malia (20) Often holiday with the Cherry’s on Waiheke Island. It’s time off duty that is few and far between for Brown who has recently come off living in hotel rooms for the last six months working with the world’s best directors, actors and film crews. “You feel like you are part of something special, working with people all at the top of their game. I get a kick out that collective experience. I try not to complain about what I do, because I’m very lucky to do what I do.”
For Cherry, having Kerry on board for the new campaign is an opportunity to share that history and collaborative friendship with a new generation of customers. “I guess what Kerry and what Workshop does is that it sits both inside and outside fashion” explains Cherry. “It’s never really been just about the trend of the moment. In its day, this was very much fashion photography and what Kerry does is beautiful portraiture, as opposed to over-stylized fashion photography, and for me that has always sat beautifully with our own aesthetic.”