While Chris Sisarich is modest about his place in the New Zealand fashion story he cites his early career in fashion as the springboard to a successful career as multi-award-winning international photographer.
Chris’ fashion career began in front of the camera as a model in the late 1980s travelling internationally from bases in London and Sydney. His life had begun modestly in 1971 and the Eastbourne lad, recalls an idyllic childhood, and one which in hindsight very much influenced his path to become a fashion photographer, if unknown to him at the time.
"My aunty always had an incredible sense of design, and used to design wedding dresses. She used to model in beauty pageant in the 50s and 60s, and my mum did a bit of modelling in the 60s. I remember going through photo albums and seeing the photos of my auntie and my mum modelling."
Chris recalls that as a little kid, he had a strong sense of his own style despite it being the era of homemade and hand-knitted or expensive and conservative offerings in shops. "In the 70s it was pretty limited, but I do remember vividly having a pair of black and white chequered pants. I remember thinking how super cool they were and that no one else had anything like them."
Chris bought his first camera, an Olympus Mju, in 1985. "I was late developer in terms of getting behind the camera," he says. "When I was about 24 I was at a loose end in Australia and my sister suggested I do a mindmap. Out of that came photography, and it was obvious to me that fashion photography was the thing."
A determined Chris returned to New Zealand having enrolled in Wellington Design School "completely obsessed with becoming the world’s greatest fashion photographer".
It was during this year of study that Chris secured assistance work with some of New Zealand’s most prominent fashion photographers, and became impatient to start his own photography career. "I was assisting photographers like Craig Owen, Monty Adams, Cindy Wilson (now Kavanagh), Jonathan Broadbent, and doing a little bit with Tony Drayton. I just wanted to get amongst it as soon as possible."
Fortune smiled on Chris and he secured regular weekly work fresh out of art school with former Woman’s Day fashion editor, Pauline Paget. "It was a big deal for me," he says. "Pauline was instrumental in giving my career the break it needed, and it was where I honed my look, skill and confidence."
Chris sees fashion photography as the perfect coming together of freedom and creativity. "It was a dance between me and the model and I loved it. It was that interaction between my vision and personal creativity and the model’s personality and what they brought to it. Then the clothes became the character. Those three things determined the story. I loved those three things and I still love them when I photograph now."
For four years, Chris gave fashion photography his full attention with few New Zealand magazines title left off his portfolio, shooting for Pulp, She, Cleo, Fashion Quarterly, Style, and early 2000 titles, Flash and Grace magazine, as well as Remix, for which he still shoots the occasional editorial today.
While he shifted focus to advertising photography in 2002, he says his work today is influenced by his having been a fashion photographer. "My style hasn’t changed even now in the way that I shoot lifestyle. I’ve never been interested in the dark side of fashion or life, I am more interested in the more upbeat, beautiful reflections of life."
Light has always been a signature and important contributor to his images. "Once we’d got the personalities and the story, it always became about the light. I’m probably known for my lighting. My style is very backlit or sun-flared."
Chris tries to shoot in natural light, especially the soft light of the morning and evenings. He is also captivated by live action, with location shoots being his preference over studio work.
Having worked closely with some of New Zealand’s preeminent fashion photographers, one stands out to Chris even today. "One of the most inspiring New Zealand guys was Craig Owen. I was always amazed by his eye. He always seem to come at his work from a different perspective, it was unexpected, especially the way he lit shots."
Chris adds that some international photographers creatively inspired his approach, including mid-20th century American photographers Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, and contemporary UK fashion photographer and now film director based in New York, Glen Luchford.
Although Chris photographed a 17-year-old Miranda Kerr, and worked with many other names in fashion, including the contestants in the television series, New Zealand’s Next Top Model, he cites Penny Pickard as one of his favourites. "I loved the way she could turn up and be completely herself, and then she’d become something else in front of the camera."
With the whole world visible and at our fingertips with Instagram and the internet Chris is no longer convinced of New Zealand’s instantly recognisable, unique fashion photography aesthetic. He believes that our geographical isolation and the fact that we weren’t as connected generated our unique and dark aesthetic. Brands such as Workshop, Standard Issue, NOM*d and Zambesi were influential on photography and our whole fashion scene through the 1990s. And the work of photographers like Greg Semu and Derek Henderson were significant in constructing that identity.
Today Chris works primarily as a commercial photographer and has twice been selected for inclusion in Luerzer’s Archive Top 200 Advertising Photographers. He has also been the recipient of the Grand Prize PDN Curator Awards in 2010 and his personal work has been exhibited in galleries in New Zealand, Australia and America.
Text by Belinda Nash. Banner image © Chris Sisarich.
Last published May 2017.