The photographer, who divides his time between Australia and Hong Kong, tells Yvonne Lai about his less-is-more approach to taking pictures.
ORIGINS I took my first photographs when I was about 17. As with most educational establishments, my college was behind the times. I got a job as photo assistant to a well-regarded food and still-life photographer in Sydney and learned more from him than I did in college - about the real world and about the business of running a photo studio. I eventually went freelance and built a business over 20 years.
THE MEANING OF LIFE If you know The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, you'd know that 42 is the meaning of life, the universe and everything. We live our lives in seven-year cycles; 42 and 49 are very important ones for males, because that's when they have their mid-life crisis. At 42, I realised I wasn't having fun in commercial photography. I felt like I was a technician, a gun for hire. I wasn't creating my own work; I was making somebody else's vision. I went, 'Got money - so what? There's got to be more to life than that.' I didn't take a photograph for five years after that. Instead, I designed and built websites. In the long run it was a really good thing, because it allowed me to fall in love with photography all over again.
BARE BONES I'm a firm believer in 'less is more'. In my latest body of work, you can tell I like simplicity. I had too much complexity in my days as a commercial photographer. It's a past life. I've given that all up and returned to the essence of me: one camera and what I can find in the world. This simplicity is key. I don't see digital imaging as any better or worse than traditional technologies; it's just a different toolbox to use.
BLACK AND WHITE My black and white dark room is probably the aspect of pre-digital photography I miss the most. I've always printed my own negatives. I learned my traditional black and white photo techniques from [American master] Ansel Adams' writings and work. I read his three volumes cover to cover. I learned his system of development and exposure. One of his quotes that will remain with me for life is: 'A great black and white photograph is like a symphony. The negative is the score and the human is the performance.'
SPIRITUALITY I went to Ayers Rock [the Australian tourist attraction now known as Uluru] by myself and spent a week photographing. Out there in the middle of the desert, with this exceedingly large monolithic rock dominating an ocean of sand dunes, there is a clock - and that is the sun coming up over here and going down over there. That has been the pace of the land for the 25,000 to 30,000 years the locals have lived there. I don't consider myself a religious person - I'm a pragmatist, a scientist - but as I stood there and watched the day end, it was one of the closest things to a religious experience I have felt. The other was seeing my daughter born. These experiences take you out of your sense of self - you suddenly lose that sense of ego.
A huge step forward in my career and as a person was when I reached the ability to stand in the world - under whatever circumstances - and go, 'I don't need to take the photograph. It's already beautiful and I can't improve upon it. Thank you universe for this moment, and I'll move on.' That is liberating.
FORWARD THINKING I'm a serious fan of science fiction - but the hard stuff, emphasis on science, none of the 'sword and sorcery' fantasy genre. My favourite author is William Gibson [who is credited with having coined the term 'cyberspace']. A book I read last year, which is one of the five best sci-fi novels I have read, is called Light, by M. John Harrison.
Something I find therapeutic is driving a car. It's like a movie, like you have a screen in front of you and you are moving through the landscape. Whether it's at 110km/h on the freeway or slowly on a dirt road - it's a constantly changing vista, the world out there. My sense of vision doesn't have an off-switch.
TIME AND TIDE One continuing theme in my photography is the concept of entropy - things breaking down. In the same way that rocks erode in the natural world, in cities, paint peels, colours fade, thing don't last - especially with such an aggressive climate as you have in Hong Kong. What fascinates me is the evidence of the passage of time. The most satisfying feedback is a comment I got from another photographer: 'Are these photographs?' I love to make people think. If [my work] holds your attention, I feel like I've succeeded. There is nothing worse than indifference. You may love or hate my work, I don't mind, but if you are indifferent to it then I'm not doing my job properly.
Nick Gleitzman's Palimpsest exhibition will be at The Rotunda, Exchange Square, Central, from Tuesday until July 20.