Old-school documentary photographer Andrew Ross still develops film by hand

by Sharon Stephenson / 30 December, 2017

Andrew Ross at work.

Daily bread

You might have seen him driving around Wellington – wild, orange locks escaping from his helmet, a 100-year-old large-format camera strapped to the back of his vintage scooter.

Most likely, Andrew Ross would have been on his way to photograph the capital’s urban landscape, something he’s been doing since the early 1990s. “So many of our old buildings are lost to development,” says Ross. “I want my photos to pay homage to those buildings, to raise awareness of them and the people who live and work in them, before they are lost forever.”


The former Newtown bakery and corner shop that’s served as Andrew's home and darkroom for the past 16 years.

The 51-year-old works mainly in black and white for his documentary photography, preferring the subtlety of the medium to tell a story. “Black and white is much simpler, it strips away the artifice.”

Ross has been using bulky, vintage cameras since he bought his first model, a 1940s medium-format that cost $5 at a garage sale in 1988. “In my work, I’m after a certain tone, level of detail and print quality. The only way to get that is with an old manual camera.”

The film he likes to use has to be imported from the US, working out at about $7 per photo, “so I have to make sure I get the best shot the first time around”. Then it’s back to the darkroom Ross developed at the front of the former Newtown bakery/corner shop he converted into his home 16 years ago. “I enjoy the process of hand-developing negatives; it gives each individual print a unique quality.”


“New Zealand’s oldest working light bulb, Masterton”

For his latest project, Ross turned his lens onto Masterton, the Wairarapa town where he was born and raised. His exhibition, Portrait of a House (Photospace Gallery, Wellington, December 1–January 27), features images of a house and garden where one of his childhood friends lived, and which was Ross’s “second home” from the age of nine. “The subject is very ordinary, but it’s a place and people I have a lot of affection for. I shot this series mainly as a gift to the family.”

As we chat in the kitchen of his house, where a wood-fired oven once turned out 300 loaves of bread a day, Ross points to one of his photos, which depicts an empty field near his family home in Masterton, where three generations of his family have lived. This is the spot where his old primary school stood before it was demolished. “I hear they’re going to turn it into a carpark, but I hope they keep the trees.”


“Back yard, Masterton”.

Although Ross has held exhibitions all over New Zealand, sold works to Te Papa and had his evocative prints reproduced in literary publications such as Sport, and the New Zealand Journal of Photography, he isn’t able to make a living from photography – working as a self-employed builder when he’s not behind the lens. However, he has no intention of putting down his camera.

“Documenting places before they’re lost to capitalism is important and I’ll keep doing it as long as I’m able.” 

This was published in the December 2017 issue of North & South.


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