In 2021 former press photographer Geoff Dale took on an assignment that was different to anything he had done before. Using a 110-year-old camera – a Graflex – he photographed the breakneck America’s Cup action on the Waitematā Harbour. An exhibition of his photographs, Light on the Water, is on now at the New Zealand Maritime Museum.

15 June 2022

What was the inspiration for this project?

I was looking at the work of photographer Joshua Paul, who shot a series of Formula One images with a Graflex camera. I thought, ‘that's the sort of stuff I want to get – what about Formula One yacht racing?’  I knew the America’s Cup was coming to New Zealand and so I started getting ready. Planning this assignment was a lot of fun and a lot of expense. It would have been nice to have got a feel for the action on board; handling sails and stuff was what I was hoping to see. But there wasn’t even room [on board] for a sail designer. So my option was just to shoot it as a press man. It was a real highlight of 2021 – for me personally, and for a lot of New Zealanders.

What was the biggest challenge in this project?

The challenge was really in covering the latest technology in yacht racing, on equipment that is 110 years old. Although a lot of the picture may not actually be sharp, you're trying to put people there. The interesting thing about the human eye is that whatever it's looking at is sharp, everything else is superfluous.  So that's what you can do with these old cameras that you can't really do with an iPhone. You can get a similar effect with your phone if you switch it to portrait – that blurs the background, but it’s not as dramatic. You can also work with filters afterwards, but as a purist I like to think you do it all in the camera.

When you take a picture you are letting a viewer get a sense of what it was you experienced: the smell of the sea in the spray, the heat of the sun on your back.

When did you realise you wanted to be a photographer?

As a schoolboy I was a keen rugby player. But after a knee injury I couldn’t play so my family brought around a friend who introduced me to stamp collecting. However, the jump from front row prop to stamp collecting was too great and it wasn’t a hit. So, then he brought his camera around and showed me how to develop photographs. I fell in love with photography and built a darkroom under the house. I’d work listening to the Beatles. It was a magical time. 

When you were working as a full-time press photographer how did you approach an assignment?

Before you leave the office you should have a couple of ideas [of what] you're going to try and achieve. So you think about the lens and make sure you've got all the equipment you need. Then when you get there, if it works out, you'll get something good even if it's not the idea you had before you started.

How is the Graflex different to modern cameras?

With the Graflex I had just one frame to tell the best story every time that boat came past. Whereas the guys beside me were shooting 20 frames a second. So they got 400 frames to choose from. But have they told the story? Have they captured it? I think my pictures say at least as much theirs.

Unlike most other photographers covering the America’s Cup you shot in black and white. Why?

Most of my photographic career has been in black and white. It avoids the distraction of ‘how blue was the sky that day?’ sort of thing.

What’s it like working with a Graflex on water?

You'll see from the pictures that there aren’t a lot of straight horizons because the problem is that you look through a mirror – what's called a single lens reflex. And although you see the picture the right way up, the drama is [that] the boats are traveling from the wrong direction in the mirror. So if you’re trying to follow them and they're coming into frame from the left it's very disconcerting because you need to keep in mind that they're actually going to be coming from the right.

Then you've already chosen your exposure and cocked the camera and here comes the boat. You're trying to think ‘Don't shoot too soon, I've got to wait till they're about here.’ And then try and get that horizon straightened out. But it was charming, just thinking you're using something so well designed.

Is it like backing a trailer?

It’s very much like backing a trailer. You do get used to it. But it's just practice.

How long does it take to get ready for the next frame?

The fastest you could probably do it is probably two, three minutes. Cock the camera, get it rewound, take the film out, put the film back the other way and then uncover the film. The boats are gone so fast. You might get the second boat if you're lucky, if it’s far enough back, but otherwise you're waiting for the next time round. So you just need to calm down and think: ‘Let's get this one right.’ And then put it away properly before the boats come back again.

What did you learn from the project?

It was very humbling actually. I reckon I probably threw away about 50 percent of everything I shot. And it wasn't necessarily the technique and using the camera. It could have been swapping from this camera to the other camera, a different technique or, or just loading the film so that it touched the other film and the next thing you've lost the frame that hasn't got any developer on it. The experience made you aware of how difficult photography was. If I was trying to get front page tomorrow with that sort of equipment I’d need a lot more practice.

What equipment will people be using to take photographs in 10 years time?

I don't know how many people will be shooting stills in 10 years, it'll all be moving images, and they'll just pluck out a frame and say that's the one. Most of the guys covering the America’s Cup were using mirrorless cameras. They were looking at little TV screens to shoot the pictures. So that's totally different. For me, photographs are more than a snap, more than a recording. They tell a story. And that's what I've always done is told stories. To tell the story in one picture is a lost art.

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