For Paul Gummer, great photography is all about the expression of feeling.


Afon Rhaeadre Fach, North Wales

‘I’m actually in the darkroom,’ Paul Gummer chuckled down the phone line. ‘It’s the only room that doesn’t get used these days.’ The disused darkroom in question is on the campus of Paul’s employer, UCOL (the Universal College of Learning), in Palmerston North on New Zealand’s North Island.

UCOL was founded in 1902 as a technical institute. It now has three campuses and provides a wide range of diploma and degree courses to international and local students. Paul’s department, which has a photographic imaging program, offers highly regarded courses to aspiring photographers and designers.

While the primary focus of UCOL’s photography program is on establishing the sound technical and business skills modern photographers must have to succeed, the artistic and creative dimensions of their practice are also nurtured.

‘In my teaching, I use the analogy of journalism and poetry,’ Paul explained. ‘Journalism is very factual. It takes you there, you get the information and it’s all great. But usually once you’ve read it, you don’t really want to read the story a second time – and certainly not a fourth or fi fth time. But poetry you can read a hundred times and you never quite understand it fully and every time you see something different. There’s an enduring quality about it.’

That may not sound like the sort of sentiment you’d necessarily expect to hear in the cut-and-dried world of technical education, but then Paul Gummer isn’t your typical technical education senior lecturer either. Prior to joining UCOL, Paul worked as a freelance photographer in the UK where he specialised in architectural work. A fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Professional Photographers and a Master of the Australian Institute of Professional   Photographers, Paul was named the NZIPP Creative Photographer of the Year in 2008, then the NZIPP Landscape Photographer of the Year in 2009 along with the New Zealand Professional Photographer of the Year. Giving the local competition a rest, in 2010 he crossed the ditch to win the AIPP’s Australian Landscape Photographer of the Year award.


Tui, New Zealand

Although he was born and grew up in England, Paul’s mother is Australian and it was here that he undertook his formal photographic training during the 1980s. He attended the Photography Studies College in Melbourne, a private college run by practicing professional photographers.

‘They just got to the heart of the matter and talked about pictures and good ways to make them,’ Paul said. ‘They exposed us to lots of great photographers – mostly Americans actually. I once asked my tutor why they didn’t show any English photographers. He just looked at me and said, “Paul, there aren’t many”. In his view you got to Bill Brandt in the ’30s and then it kind of dried up until the ’70s.

‘So I discovered people like Wright Morris, Walker Evans and landscape photographers like Eliot Porter and the obvious ones like Edward Weston and Ansel Adams.’

Like most photography students, he started out with a 35mm camera and a few lenses but, ‘during my first year, one of my tutors noticed I liked landscape and asked if I’d ever thought of buying a field camera. I said, “what’s that?” having never heard of them. In the end I got a 5×4 wood and brass camera. Pretty soon after that, all my camera gear was stolen, The police got the 5×4 back because you can’t sell wooden view cameras for drugs money in a pub, apparently.’

‘I couldn’t afford another 35mm kit, so I did everything on 5×4. From there I started to develop an approach to shooting landscapes. And then someone asked if I’d ever thought of doing architecture for a living.’ While he hadn’t considered architecture before then, he was happy to try his hand and he began taking pictures at the famous artists’ colony of Montsalvat.

Inspired by the work of the great English photographer of cathedrals, Frederick Evans, Paul soon became a regular visitor to Montsalvat with his 5×4. So frequently did he appear, that eventually ‘the people there said “would you like a key and let yourself in?”.’


Glastonbury Abbey, England

Frederick Evans, said Paul, ‘described himself as a photographer of shadows and I saw myself the same way.’ To achieve the extremely long scale look of Evans’ platinum prints, Paul soon found himself having to learn the art of the very long exposure (10-20 minutes, typically) and its companion discipline, pull development in highly diluted developer.

Although it’s been years since he worked in the darkroom, Paul’s style still retains a strong connection with analog photographic techniques. Burning and dodging in the darkroom has been replaced with layers and curves in Photoshop, but the intention remains the same.

‘It’s about trying to express some sort of feeling in the picture – as opposed to just recording the subject,’ he said. ‘I think that’s what the darkroom could do for me; pull me away from record shots and into something emotive. But I didn’t realise I was doing it for years – I just did it. In two words, it’s about intuition on the part of the photographer and about conveying feeling.’

With his landscape photographs, Paul said, ”I’m trying to take people on a journey to another place. I want them to see something they recognise ““ yet to feel transported to another world, in a sense. It looks recognisable, but somehow it’s not. I think that’s where long exposures and water came in. I’ve always had an attraction to water,’ he explained, ‘and to the whole thing of long exposures making it look dreamy and misty and other-worldly and yet at the same time retaining a sense of accessibility so that it’s not surreal.’



 ‘I look for good light,’ he added. ‘I look at the long-range weather forecast and if I’ve got a day or two off, I’ll book the time when I think the weather’s interesting. Otherwise I photograph when it’s fl at light because I can do things with it. If I’ve got a fl at image, I can do a lot with that. I can add all sorts of things, burn, dodge and so on and tweak colour. But strong sunshine just kills it for me.

‘I always recommend people photograph in flat light if they can. I have a third year student who has some really nice architectural stuff. He went out the other week, shot in strong sunshine and while he got some good pictures, they just weren’t working together. Yesterday at tea time I said “you’ve got an hour and a half before the sun goes down, why don’t you rush out and get them done again?”. He did – and they just look so much better. He can manipulate them, push them and pull them around to make them fi t together.’

When it comes to landscape composition, ‘I’ve always tended to put a strong foreground in the picture,’ Paul said. ‘I love the idea of trying to draw the viewer into the image. There’s generally something you can almost feel that you can touch because it’s so close – and then you go into the background of the scene [for] the context.’

As you look through Paul’s landscape work, you can’t help but notice how important the skies are. ‘I think the sky itself becomes symbolic of another world, of its mystery. Everything else is tangible but I think the sky becomes symbolic because it is intangible and that starts to imbue the mystery into things.’


Hill Village, Italy

His images more generally have an intensity that comes about, in part, through his employing one of the oldest photographic techniques of all. ‘In every darkroom print I ever made and in fact in every digital one, I’ve always used some kind of edgeburning or vignette.

‘If it’s for a magazine, there is a vignette there but you’d never know if you weren’t looking for it. But for some of the awards pictures, because the AIPP and NZIPP judges have basically 30 seconds to look at a picture, make up their mind, and give a score, you want to have impact, to draw them in straight away and try and wow them in a few seconds. The vignette became popular for that reason. It just drags you straight to the subject.

‘I guess the basic secret is burning and dodging. It’s been around for a century or more, but at the end of the day, if you don’t burn and dodge, you’re really restricting the expression of mood in a picture. The irony is that it’s not quicker with inkjet printing procedures, it’s actually longer. It’s quicker to do a darkroom burn and dodge. But because you can do so much during post-processing some my pictures took four or five days to complete.


Kapiti Coast, New Zealand

‘The painters always had total control of colour and composition,’ Paul observed. ‘No one’s ever questioned that, whereas in photography there’s this kind of unwritten rule that what the lens sees is what must go on the print.

‘But no one’s ever questioned the painter and they never question movie makers. Peter Jackson creates these unbelievable effects and everyone just goes “wow”.

‘If you do this with a still picture, inevitably the response is “oh you can’t do that, it wasn’t like that”. So, in some ways I’m trying to break that mould and just say it’s how you imagine it.

‘It’s like a good novel, it’s like a piece of music, it’s like a movie, a painting – it’s an expression of your imagination.’

To see more of Paul Gummer’s work, visit


This is an excerpt from Photo Review Issue 52.

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