How photographer Rohan Hutchinson captured the Arctic in an art book.
Since completing a Bachelor of Visual Arts (2010) at La Trobe’s Bendigo campus, fine art photographer Rohan Hutchinson has taken his camera to the world. He’s shot skateboarders in Melbourne, snapped snow up-close in Canada and documented architecture across Asia.
When one of his self-published books was shortlisted for 2016 Australian Photobook of the Year, Rohan realised he could not only shoot overseas, but distribute his books there, too.
He spoke with us ahead of the New York Art Book Fair to share what it’s like as an exhibitor – and how the artistic techniques you learn during your degree can have profound career applications.
My interest in photography started back in high school, during the mid-90s. My local school was lucky enough to have its own black and white darkroom. Learning the basics and seeing a negative develop was a real buzz. Experiment with light and seeing how it transforms as a photograph kept me wanting to know more about the medium.
In my final years of high school it was quite obvious that I’d be going into a creative field. I looked around at a few universities based in Melbourne, as well as the visual arts program at La Trobe in Bendigo. La Trobe focused on the more practical side, which is what I was looking for. The printmaking, painting and photographic disciplines ran quite closely with each other, which definitely drew me in.
One of the biggest impacts of studying at La Trobe was learning how to photograph an artwork. With a series of studio flashes and filters, you can remove all reflection from framed works. It seems obvious to teach this at university, but through my years of working as an artist, photographer and publisher I’ve come to realise just how rarely known this technique is. I consistently use it to document my and others’ work in a realistic way. In terms of theory, La Trobe also helped me refine how to look at an idea and research it; how to look at the work others who’ve applied simular concepts; and how to analyse what they’ve produced. It taught me to really question my work and execute it in a more sophisticated way.
My early career was working as a skateboarding photographer, which I was doing in my final years at La Trobe. I started out photographing friends and learning how to use flashes in an open area and within the sport context. After refining my skills and posting on blogs, I was approached by a few skateboarding companies to produce photographs for their advertising material. This led to jobs in other photographic fields and, after a few years, I settled on the fine art side of photography. The fine art approach meant I could produce research-based work from my concepts. And from there, I shifted into publishing. In the past three years, I’ve participated in 15 art book fairs in Australia and overseas.
Art books range from handmade artist books to larger print runs created by a commercial publisher. An art book fair is an exhibition of this published work, usually in book form and in a gallery setting. People exhibiting at an art book fair tend to be artists and photographers with self-published works, or works commissioned by a larger publisher, as well as galleries presenting their artist catalogues. At each fair, they present their books to the public, arts and cultural institutions and commercial buyers. Sitting alongside this is a program of public events to present new ideas in art, design and publishing.
Throughout the fair, people come to your stand, inspect your publications and ask questions about the work. This is a part I really enjoy, the interactions with people. I’m exhibiting at NY Art Book Fair in September and a typical day will be around 12 hours, with a consistent flow of people. The Melbourne Art Book Fair averages around 16,000 attendees over three days – New York doubles that. I love it, but it’s hard work.
One of the reasons I started publishing was to gain exposure for my work overseas. My first book, A brief stroll while inspecting architecture, allowed my work to exist in a physical form outside Australian galleries, rather than just online. It helped me break into the international market. And, while on this journey, I really fell in love with publishing as a medium. I’ve now published 10 art books of my own. After having success with my first few books, publishers contacted me to ask whether I’d be interested in working with them. This led to collaborative publishing ventures and more audience development, locally and internationally.
My biggest career achievement so far is my latest project, An Error Has Occurred, which I shot in the Arctic. This body of work is a protest art project that looks at the impact of climate change on the Arctic landscape, tying in how actions in Australia affect the landscape at the other end of our earth. Having this published by a world-renowned publisher (Perimeter Editions) was a dream come true. I got to collaborate with my favourite design studio, Daly & Lyon, to produce the book and the publication now has global distribution.
The Arctic work took me to unchartered photographic terrain. To see the impact of climate change in person, I travelled across remote ice, fjords and glaciers by snowmobile. And while I’d learnt how to use a large format film camera at La Trobe – something that’s had a profound impact on my photographic practice to date – this style of photography became extremely difficult in that landscape.
Large format photography teaches you to slow everything down and operate in a more focused state, questioning every shot you take. When you’re working -30 to -40 degree temperatures and on constant alert for polar bears, it’s a major practical and mental challenge. The severe temperatures really affected my camera gear. Not only did light meter not work, but the condensation left all my gear soaking wet, including my film. At the end of each day, I’d enter my polar bear-proofed cabin and have to wait three hours to be able to change film.
As most of my series are multi-year projects, another big challenge is to stay motivated through the projects’ different stages. I find though that, although my idea stays the same, over time my ideas of how to present the work change, whether in a gallery setting or as a publication, or both. This is when things really get interesting, in the last few stages.
I’d encourage someone starting out in their photography career to learn all aspects of photography, including how to apply different techniques to a variety of photographic jobs. Along with this, look at as much photographic work as possible – historic, contemporary and by international artists. It’s always great to see what is happening in different places, and how geographic location influences work. And as a final tip, use a specialist arts accountant for tax purposes.
Last updated: 7th May 2019