The mantra 'keep calm and carry on' captures the character of photographer Tony Drayton. Time constraints, budget constraints, below zero temperatures, blazing sun, amateur models are all just part of the challenge for this successful international photographer. His ability to just get on and work with whatever he has in front of him to create his seductive images, has ensured that he is still very much in demand in the fashion and beauty industry in New Zealand and abroad.
Born in Palmerston North, Tony immersed himself in photography in his teens when he received a hand-me-down camera from his photographer father, igniting a career that today spans more than 30 years.
"My father had a big studio in Palmerston North and I got to go in there and develop my images. I wanted to do interesting things and printing photos was pretty cool."
Tony was interested in getting into the advertising world and a year after leaving school at aged 17, an opportunity came up with Vahry Photography in Parnell, Auckland. Douglas Vahry had been a wartime photographer and had worked for Sparrow Industrial Pictures before setting up his own studio with his two sons Peter and Paul. It was there that Tony hit his straps. While they encouraged him to attended night school at ATI (now AUT) Tony says he learned more on the job than he did at the institute so he soon dropped out."These guys were super technical commercial photographers so I got vast knowledge from them."
It was while working there that Tony became interested in fashion. Buying and pouring over fashion magazines like Vogue and Harpers Bazaar he came to the conclusion that this was something he’d really like to do. "I liked the beauty of it, the fantasy."
Tony began experimenting; shooting with models and doing tests with people who "had the potential to look good" that he met on the street. His first fashion commission came from Dolly magazine, a shoot on location in Hawai’i.
"At the time I thought, this is going to be great. In actuality it was super challenging. I had to shoot three editorials. As it turned out the so called 'models' were just two girls who won a modelling competition and knew absolutely nothing about modelling."
The magazine had arranged a contra deal with the hotel in Hawai’i - promotion of the hotel in exchange for accommodation. There was no additional budget to pay for anything, even a rental car to go somewhere else, so everything just had to be done around the hotel. Then the fashion editor got sick and couldn’t leave her room so Tony was on his own. But the commission was completed and from that bumpy start Tony’s fashion photography career took off.
Commissions from prestigious local titles like Fashion Quarterly, More magazine, andMore Fashion magazine saw him going on to shoot editorial all around the world "in beautiful environments" even if they were not always easy. An editorial shoot he recalls doing for More Fashion magazine saw him creating 30-40 pages of images working in sub-zero degree temperatures in Austria and Germany while he himself was sick.
"We’d gone over there to shoot in winter and no one shoots there at that time of year because it’s just ridiculously cold. But it ended up being a good result."
A move to Australia led to editorial work for magazine titles there such as Vogue and Marie Claire. Over his career Tony has worked for many different magazines and creative agencies throughout Europe, America, Asia and Australasia. He is a very technical photographer and is a master of light, natural or artificial which he manipulates to create images with a strong cinematic feel that captures the viewer and draws them into the world he has created.
While most of Tony’s work today is advertising photography, he says fashion is at the heart of all his work. Whether it’s a beauty shoot, a commercial job, or an alcohol ad the client wants the people to look beautiful and the story to have a contemporary edge. His fashion photography background means that he is sought after for these projects.
Tony says he loves photography because it’s "creating something out of nothing". A creative image can conjure up a fantasy and can launch a career. In the early 1990s at the beginning of his career Tony shot 'super model' in the making, Kylie Bax at the beginning of her career.
"She was very young and inexperienced, then she went away and became really huge. When she came back I shot her again and the transformation was huge. She was just fantastic and great to shoot."
Tony notes that because a photographer "works with humans" each shoot is a challenge and there can be no guarantees as to the success of the final product. "People are completely unpredictable. You’ve got personalities and egos. The models have to relate to each other and then you’ve got everything else that brings it together; the art department, the set, the weather. It’s a pressure pot environment. You can’t help but grow from those experiences."
Tony has shared his experiences, knowledge and expertise with a stream of assistants some of whom have gone on to forge successful careers of their own such as Toaki Okano and Swen Carlin.
In developing his own style, Tony wanted to compete internationally and didn’t think the homegrown, Kiwi look was something that was sought after, so set out to look much more polished. From early on he loved the work of fashion photographer Peter Lindbergh, who "made his imagery look effortless". He also admired Herb Ritts, whose portraits are credited with launching the concept of the 'super model' in the 1990s. David LaChapelle who is noted for his surreal, unique style that often references art history is a more recent inspiration.
When he gets the opportunity Tony says he still gets a huge thrill from fashion photography. His early experience working with labels like Bendon and Elle Macpherson made him an ideal choice as the swimwear photographer for the second and third cycle of New Zealand’s Next Top Model. When Remix magazine launched its Luxe edition, Tony delivered the international glamour editorial they were after. His portfolio includes international and local fashion clients who come to him to create beautiful and distinctive campaigns for their brand.
A great image is achieved when all the elements in a shoot and in the post production come together. A good model can make any garment look incredible by the way she presents herself and moves. The photographer directs those two elements in an environment created to communicate the look and feel he is trying to achieve. "Whether it’s Gucci, Louis Vuitton or H&M it doesn’t really make any difference. It’s more when it all comes together, that’s what’s exciting."
Text by Belinda Nash.
Last published December 2017.