Stories Untold

Derek Henderson has an extraordinary eye and ability to pick out an ordinary scene or person and make it interesting”, told curator Melanie Roger to RUSSH magazine, a title who has accommodated the work of the New Zealand based photographer for almost five years. Henderson is an artist, a documenter, with the rugged New Zealand terrain in his blood. He is one who sees equal value between all elements of life, from the figure of a woman to the expanse of this landscape. In either case, he is instinctively aware of the emotional response a photograph can engender. Considering himself a portrait photographer, he is better known to the fashion world for his raw and enchanting editorials (which have been featured in an impressive list of titles including RUSSH, Love Want and Oyster) and for his almost telepathic professional relationship with model, Zippora Seven. In collaboration with Seven and illustrator Kelly Thompson, Henderson developed Darkness of Noon, a stunning 112-page book, the images reflecting Henderson’s democratic naturalism and the illustrations serving to complement the project’s broader vision.

Although responses to his practice are fraught with debate, Henderson’s work has garnered a cult following from both the art and fashion spheres. According to Editor-in-Chief of the aforementioned RUSSH, Jess Blanch, there will always exist a certain “dreaminess and a “lack of urgency that sees [Henderson’s] images languish, and yet somehow they are still charged with energy. Interesting then, that he did not endure a formal education, which remains a testament to his ‘walk the walk’ attitude and drive. Intuition rules his practice. And the resulting images are beautiful, dripping in sensuality, and loaded with emotion and energy; a single photograph of Henderson’s holds the potential for an entire story to unfold before your eyes.

Sophie Flecknoe: Firstly, can you tell me a little about yourself? How would you introduce what you do to someone unfamiliar with your work?

Derek Henderson: I’m a portrait photographer who makes a living as a fashion photographer and I have exhibitions at galleries: for the fashion and for the gallery shows.

When did you know that a creative career was for you? Did you study? Or, what necessary steps did you take to get to where you are today?

When I was working in [a] bank, I thought this is not for me. No study. I worked as an assistant in Auckland NZ. Talk the talk and walk the walk!

Can you tell me about your first camera?

It was a Pentax MX 35mm camera.

Do you still have it and use it?


Do you prefer to shoot in colour or black and white? Do you see any conceptual differences between these two colour schemes?

Either really. Yes, black and white tends to isolate emotion better. It’s one step removed from reality as well.

How do you approach shooting the human form?

Straight on mostly, democratically, the same way I photograph all things.

Alternatively, how do you approach shooting landscapes or objects?

Same as the human form, everything has the same value.

It is often thought of a photographer to capture physical beauty, or to recreate beauty for a viewer. So I have to ask, what is your definition of beauty? Do you aim to create and where do you find it?

It’s a personal thing, beauty. What some find ugly others find beautiful. I think it’s about finding it; I’m interested in other peoples’ ideas and personalities as well as [in] the way they look.

On a similar note, what is your idea of romance?

Taking my wife to be, Kate, out on a date to a restaurant that’s not to busy [or] loud, low lighting, great food and wine… [And] waiters that make me look smart!

Do you draw direct inspiration from New Zealand? How have these surroundings influenced your practice?

I do, yes. I think it’s because it’s familiar and I feel connected to the landscape. It’s in my blood.

What are the major considerations for you when taking a photograph? Perhaps colour or texture or message?

Light, form, colour, texture, content, sometimes it can just be one of those things. I try to let things happen intuitively. Thinking about things too much doesn’t help me a lot.

You have shot for some impressive titles, including RUSSH magazine, which is a title we hold in high regard, here at Hall. Can you describe what it was like working with a team like this?

It’s been a great collaboration over the last 5 or 6 years. Editorial is about working with a team and trying to get the best results you can get. It’s fun and hard work at the same time.

How much of your creative control gets filtered when working for different clients or publication?

Traditionally, for me, [an] editorial [shoot] is about having more control over the images, but it’s a common goal that everyone on the team is aiming for. With advertising it’s more about for filling a brief from the agency or [a] client. Most of the time the brief is pretty close to what I’d do anyway. That’s what you want as a photographer, [to be] commissioned because they want your style of photograph.

You’ve worked quite closely with model Zippora Seven on more than one occasion, and most notably on your ‘Darkness of Noon’ publication. Can you explain this professional relationship?

I don’t see a lot of Zippora out of work. When we do work together there is an unspoken understanding [of] what I’m looking for. She seems to understand and responds to that. It’s fantastic [that] we don’t have to say a lot to each other. Zippora just gets on with it.

You have shot some incredibly beautiful fashion editorials and some very noteworthy specimens. What are your opinions on the fashion industry today?

I still find it thrilling to work as a fashion photographer, every day is different and I do like meeting people. I think it’s cathartic for me. It makes me a better person I think, I hope.

Do you aim to tell a story through your shoots? Is there any narrative content behind your images?

Yes sometimes, but not always. I go through stages were I’m more interested in the narrative, then I get sick of that and just try and [get] one good picture at a time for a story.

Is travel a major component of what you do? Where is one place you’ve found particularly stirring? And, alternatively, where is the next destination on your list?

Not really, Helmut Newton said if you can’t find a great location within one kilometer of your house, then you’re shit! He did live in Monte Carlo though. I’m going to Niue, an island in the South Pacific next week, [so I’m] excited about that.

What’s next for you and your practice? Where do you see yourself in a few years time?

I’ll keep taking photographs until I cant do it anymore or no one wants me to do it any more. I have a few personal projects I’m working on. One is a short film about a Yeti living high up in the mountains of New Zealand. I’m just finishing off the script and outline now. I’m [also] working on a project with Douglas Gibson and Robert Gray on a remote island in Fiji that straddles the date line.

Words: Sophie Flecknoe

Images courtesy of Derek Henderson

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