Growing up in Wellington, Aaron K originally intended to study illustration. In 1996, he enrolled in the Bachelor of Design degree offered jointly by Victoria University and Wellington Polytechnic (now Massey Fine Arts). As is often the way with study, the major you start out in is not the one you end up pursuing.
In his first year, Aaron fell into photography completely by chance. When it turned out that there weren’t enough computers for all the students to take their chosen electives he took the photography paper instead. His uncle had given him a camera a few years before but he had never used it until now. He found his tutor, Anne Noble "incredibly inspiring", got a fantastic grade, and changed his major to photography.
Working in a commercial field was always the goal for Aaron and after a few years assisting a number of photographers, both during study and after graduation, he made the move into independent, freelance work. Despite not coming from a fashion background originally, he found that fashion photography allowed for the most creative control. "In other commercial photography fields, there’s creativity in how you execute the idea, but it’s still not your idea." Fashion photography offered the opportunity to act as creative director, with challenges that were not just technical but conceptual as well.
From those early days spent studio-assisting, collaboration and community have been essential to Aaron’s work – in his own words, "fashion photography is a team sport". He built up relationships with stylists and fashion editors such as Barry Betham in Wellington, Chris Lorimer, who was just starting out as the fashion editor of Pulp magazine in 2000 and Dan Ahwa, now fashion editor at the New Zealand Herald.
After moving to Auckland in early 2001, Aaron began working closely with label Ricochet and others, shooting many campaigns for them. Other early work includes shooting for New Zealand Fashion Museum founder Doris de Pont, under her label DNA. While a move to London in 2003 had been Aaron’s original goal, he found Auckland hard to leave. The quality of New Zealand creativity was becoming recognised internationally and he decided to stay and continue building relationships in the industry.
Now more than ever, Aaron’s focus is on community. As one-time President and current executive director of the Advertising and Illustrative Photographers Association (AIPA), he is a passionate and a "very vocal" supporter of artists rights, especially in light of the increasing impact of global corporations on local economy. "The industry as a whole is changing so dramatically – we’ve got these megabrands coming in, the H&Ms and the Zaras that are making it harder for local labels to succeed." He cites local label Lonely as the perfect example of a brand thinking creatively, and engaging their community. Working with the AIPA is the perfect way to foster a community in a working landscape that is becoming increasingly isolated through newer technologies. "Before digital photography came along, the labs were a real hub for interaction – inevitably you’d bump into another photographer." The challenge is enabling those same engagements in the world of digital media.
It’s unsurprising that Aaron’s advocacy has come through in some of his work. His 2011 shoot, Student Model/Model Student, is an example of this shift away from depicting the fashion photography world, into actively critiquing it. The project contrasts images of models in high-editorial poses with carefully constructed images of the same models in the distinctive style of a school photo. The effect is distinctly unsettling, a clear response to the ever-decreasing ages of models in the industry.
Another recent shoot was for the AIPA’s exhibition Hyperreal, in March 2017. The AIPA described the title and show as "[alluding] to the fact that the imagery produced for fashion magazines and advertising campaigns is not a true representation of reality, but rather a distorted or exaggerated interpretation of reality. As such fashion photography is a form of fiction… where the photographer assumes the role of director or author."
This description could as easily be applied to Aaron’s full body of work. Inspired by photographers such as Nick Knight, Phil Pointer and Sean Ellis, Aaron’s approach is "all about constructing an image, not about capturing an image". When he first started out in fashion photography, film was still the popular (or only) choice, and he would often sketch out each shoot frame-for-frame beforehand. This attention to detail is still evident in recent work. His distinctive images are hyper-real, polished, bold: the model’s face or body in full focus, with bursts of unexpected colour and strong light-dark contrasts.
The shift from film to digital photography held both positives and negatives for Aaron. When you can only get around 40 images per shoot, as on film, the chances for experimentation are limited. Digital photography offers the opposite - spontaneity in studio, followed by hours of whittling down a final selection in post-production. Even with film, a lot of time was spent retouching, but Aaron is wary of the increasing reliance on the "fix it in post" mentality, which is at odds with the current trend towards more 'raw' images. "It’s interesting in terms of the future with the move away from retouching - I like that but am struggling with it myself, because it’s been ingrained into me to do the opposite … I’m really battling with that." As Hyperreal shows, however, fashion photography is as much about the narrative as it is about the clothes, and Aaron is a master storyteller.
Text by Arielle Walker. Banner image © Aaron K.
Last published May 2017.