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A bird’s eye view with aerial photographer Petra Leary

A bird’s eye view with aerial photographer Petra Leary

A love of symmetry and geometry proved the perfect inspiration for photographer Petra Leary when she first picked up a drone. Since then she’s become hooked on the flexibility it offers to reveal intriguing and surprising abstract forms in landscapes.

A bird’s eye view with aerial photographer Petra Leary

Petra Leary is flying high. The aerial photographer has taken the art of drone photography to new levels with recognition at local and international photography awards, standout work on major advertising campaigns and some startling images that challenge viewers to ponder the real nature of what they are actually seeing.

Her talent for taking the mundane and transforming it into something quite extraordinary is exceptional – basketball courts, motorways, a marae or a boardwalk all have the potential to become abstract images and ignite appreciation of another view of the world around us under her aerial gaze. She is the first to admit that she was an unlikely candidate to become a professional photographer.

“I was studying design at university and part of the course was photography. I had no idea how to use a camera and I didn’t have any interest in it,” she says. She got lured by friends experimenting with urban photography and joined in bolstered by the fact she doesn’t have a fear of heights. “You’d go to such crazy extremes just to get a photo. We’d be caught getting up on a roof and even the people who caught us were going, ‘Oh you guys were just taking a photo, you’re not really doing anything wrong and the photos are pretty cool,’” she laughs.

Dot Dot Dot, Hallet, South Australia, photo: Petra Leary

But everything changed when a friend came to take some drone photographs at a place she was working. “When he finished he gave me a turn on it and I thought it was just the coolest thing. I went out and bought one that day after work and I haven’t really touched a regular camera since.”

Leary is attracted by notions of symmetry and geometry so it was serendipitous when on the second or third outing with the new drone she took a photograph of a basketball court.“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s just so cool, so simple, there’s nothing really to it. It’s just a blank surface with lines.’ Having a design background drew me to the courts because of the aesthetic.“Then I realised there are so many of them, they’re super accessible and there are lots of variations. It revealed a whole new perspective.”

Leary manipulates some of the images, enhancing colour and creating surprising juxtapositions of aspects like players and shadows, sometimes stacking photographs to create a montage that is not always immediately evident to the viewer. The element of surprise is in looking at something you feel is familiar only to find it has been skewed slightly to present a fresh frame of reference.

From left, Spring, Gisborne, NZ; Scarlet, Lyttelton, NZ, photo: Petra Leary

Since those early days Leary has held two solo exhibitions, shown her work regularly in group exhibitions and has landed some impressive advertising campaigns with clients ranging from corporates like Ford Australia and New Zealand, to the more boutique such as Jasmax and Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei.

Asked if there’s a dichotomy between her personal and professional work, she is totally upbeat. “For the most part with everything that I’ve done they just say they like my style so do what I think looks good. It depends on whether I’m working with another person or team, or on my own. But 90 per cent of the time it’s just, ‘We like what you do so just go do it’ – I love it.

“My personal style is obviously a big influence on what I do commercially. But I’ve been lucky working with some amazing producers and art directors and I’ve learnt a lot through them and that’s influenced my own work, learning new skills. It goes both ways, it’s a good crossover.” Leary has a talent for interpreting what she is seeing and pushing past the obvious visual cues to emphasise the purity of form.

“It’s weird, there are things I really like and others that I have no interest in whatsoever. But having the drone has really opened my mind to other subjects and interests. Like people dancing – I don’t really have any interest in that but on a drone it looks really awesome because it’s so abstract. It’s the same with cars – I don’t have any interest in them but I love the look of them from that perspective.

Polychrome, Herne Bay, Auckland, photo: Petra Leary

In Australia when I was shooting for Ford we were travelling through incredible landscapes. I was flying the drone to take photos of the cars but then the patterns that emerged from the landscape were so amazing. It lends itself to very different styles.”

In 2019, Leary pushed the boundaries with her Zero Gravity exhibition. “The idea for the show was that I wanted it to be a really immersive projection experience because I think that broadens your audience as well. It was so cool — there were little kids running around in it because the projections were on them, so it was pretty fun for them. Usually people come to exhibitions and stay for about 20 minutes max but people were sitting in that room for three to four hours, just entranced.

“I’d love to do a full immersive exhibition this year but you need four or five projectors going at the same time to feel as if you’re completely walking through it. It’s a big thing to work on. When we were working on Zero Gravity we were working on a documentary at the same time and we got to use the huge photo studio at Flying Fish and that was perfect for working out the projection.

From left, On Route, Gisborne, NZ; Crossroads, South Australia, photo: Petra Leary“It was sort of like a trial, as no one really knew how it was going to work out. It was really interesting to see the results and talk to the guys who helped to set it all up. They’re keen to do something else and it would be great to refine material gathered going forward and change certain things to make it better.

“It was so cool to see how many people loved it and they asked if they were allowed to take selfies. That’s what I wanted – it’s a total 3D experience that gets a life of its own through social media – there’s a crossover so it’s a way of taking advantage of it to show your work.”

Petra and her partner have recently returned from New York where as well as doing some commercial shoots they worked together on a basketball court series which she hopes to exhibit here later in the year.“I’ve been taking photos for four years now and I’ve got something like 15 terrabytes of photos and videos. I’ll take 200 photos in a day, I might not like the photos at the time but then over the next few months I’ll go back and have the ability to really see them and think that I could do something with them.”

She admits the past few years have been“pretty crazy with some big things coming out that I can’t talk about” but there is one thing she is sure of. “I pretty much put down my regular camera as soon as I saw a drone and I don’t use it any more. I love normal photography and I like looking at other people’s work but it’s not my thing. I can’t see myself being earthbound.

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