When experienced Auckland-based photographer Phillip Simpson got his hands on the new Sony α7R III, he decided to test it out by shooting a personal series in the lower North Island. “After a year of doing commercial work, I relished the opportunity to shoot a simple, low-key road trip series, with the windows wound down, the sun on my face, and no specific expectations from anyone other than myself,” Phillip explains.
He decided that he’d capture all of his photographs in the Horowhenua district, north of Wellington. Phillip spent the period between Christmas and New Year driving around the area, documenting his findings while he was tiki touring.
“I was struck by the dryness of the land after several months of drought, the relative absence of people and the number of curious, closed-up buildings at the side of the road. The landscape felt like something between No Country for Old Men and The Walking Dead,” Phillip said. “It was sometimes difficult to tell which buildings were shut up for the festive season and which were shut up permanently, and I liked that ambiguity.”
The fact that Phillip was also aiming for this series to be the antithesis of the aspirational travel locations you often see in summer road trip photographs, meant that the places he ended up in were, in his eyes, ideal. “The trip took in such distinctly non-exotic locations as Levin, Shannon, and the mighty Palmerston North. I decided to document the empty spaces I encountered and link the series together with images of the road itself. The challenge was to create an overall feeling of movement throughout a series of images which portray complete stillness and absence,” Phillip explains.
He also decided that the photographs would involve minimal retouching and feature no people at all. “In fact, the only sign of life in this series is a lone cat sleeping in a quiet corner of one of the pictures.”
Phillip appears to thrive on restrictions, even placing them on himself when it comes to his personal projects. For this series, he took the eight final photographs recommendation to heart, and welcomed the limitation. He says that the more restrictions he puts on himself for his personal projects, the more coherent the series becomes; “So I further limited myself to the wider focal lengths on the Sony 24–70mm f/2.8 G-Master zoom lens, and determined that each shot should include a roadway in some form.”
In the commercial world, Phillip says he’s best known for his lit location portraits, so shooting no people and carrying barely any equipment was liberating for him. He says his usual personal landscape work tends to draw on the American documentary tradition of the 1970s and earlier, but he was conscious of making this series feel recognisably from New Zealand, reflecting the places as he experienced them during the summer — and doing so using the latest digital technology to boot.