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A life behind the lens

Photography has been in Julia Rae's life since childhood. At 12 years old, just down the road from her family home, Rae looked down the lens through her father's box Brownie camera and took her first photo of a horse standing in a paddock.

Several years later, after winning the Photographic Society of New Zealand's portrait trophy earlier this year, Rae's exhibition, Worlds of Wonder, is currently on display at Tairawhiti Museum.

The art in the exhibition was her way of coping with the uncertainty of lockdowns.

“It's about escaping and looking at the world a little bit differently,” Rae says.

She got into photography, partly because she had a wannabe photographer dad who could never quite stick to it.

“He thought he'd like to get into it. He's done it a couple of times, bought cameras, but then never really done anything with them.”

At 15, Rae headed off to Adelaide in South Australia for a school exchange and lived with a family where the father worked for a film imaging company, Agfa.

“The father gave me a camera, and of course it was film back then, so I could have as many rolls of film as I liked because he worked for Agfa, so I guess that got me enthused.”

After returning to New Zealand, Rae studied art and film at high school in Whangarei before travelling around the world with a camera by her side.

“Then I thought, ‘What am I going to do with all my photos when I come back from overseas?' ”

When she came back to New Zealand she moved to Tauranga and joined the local camera club in 2001 before she moved to Gisborne and joined the Gisborne branch in 2008.

Although she had a life of experience behind the camera, Rae says something was missing.

“I did lots of photography but could never really find my genre until lockdown last year,” Rae says.

Stuck inside, she started to play around on her computer using editing software on her images.

“I got into creating in Photoshop because I had the time — I couldn't leave the house. I did a couple of online courses to up my skills.

“I had never really used it to its full capacity, and I don't think I ever will because there's so much to it . . . But I've got a bit of a better hand on the layering and masking. I've had more time to look at the intricacies.”

Now, instead of taking photos of the world, Rae dreams the image and photographs it after.

“I normally sketch out an idea or the concept, and I'll go and collect items to build that image.

“I get a prompt, sometimes when I'm going for a walk, and I think of an idea. Or I see a prop and think, ‘how can I use this?' ”

At other times the images come from thoughts or feelings.

Her image, Caged in Covid, was one of the earlier pieces Rae created when she was feeling hemmed in by the lockdown. She wanted to express that feeling of claustrophobia visually.

Once she comes up with a concept, finding the props to create the image can prove tricky.

“I might get halfway through an image and think, ‘Ah, I need a crown for a frog'. And then the image has to go on hold while I find something to fit a frog.”

Her exhibition at Tairawhiti Museum is called Worlds of Wonder, which alludes to the wandering in her head, outside of reality, while the real world is messy.

“It's a little bit of my escapism. The art follows that sort of theme. I wanted to travel and go to a photography festival, but it got cancelled so I decided I would have to read more and travel in my mind.”

During the Alert Level 4 lockdown, the only way she could get out of the house was to go to the supermarket, so in her kitchen, looking at her broom, she wanted to fly away like a witch.

For those wanting to develop their photography skills, Rae recommends joining a camera club.

“That's where you really learn with enthusiastic, like-minded people — that's what kept me going.

“You're getting your images evaluated by someone who is outside of the area who has no idea who you are. You're getting honest, clear, constructive criticism, which is invaluable.

“Otherwise you mostly only get feedback from your clients . . . and they love them because they are in them.”

Worlds of Wonder, Tairawhiti Museum until November 21. Artist Julia Rae's self-portrait morphs into a character of dreams creating imagined worlds and illustrating ideas through photographic images.

LOCKDOWN INSPIRED: Julia Rae's work titled Realms Beyond, from her lockdown-inspired exhibition, which is on now at Tairawhiti Museum. Picture supplied