Bird’s eye view: NZ’s Petra Leary’s drone photography gaining global attention
Before Petra Leary got her first drone camera, she used to have to climb to the top of tall things to get the pictures she wanted. Sometimes, this involved a little trespassing. Leary and her flatmate would scope out buildings in downtown Auckland that looked like they might have accessible rooftops and off they would go (it’s called “rooftopping” – it’s a thing). “We lived in the city, so it was easy to be like, ‘where should we go tonight?'”
She used to climb cranes, too, but ended up getting caught and arrested. “The police were going to let us go but then they looked at our record and were like, ‘You guys have been trespassed six times so we’re going to have to arrest you.’ We didn’t get convicted or anything, which was cool.”
Then a friend gave Leary a go with his drone and with that, her rooftopping days were over. She was immediately hooked and bought herself one that afternoon. “I thought, ‘This is the coolest thing ever’. It feels like this strange combination of playing a video game, and the ability to almost fly. I love the surprise of what you discover and how different the world looks – this fresh perspective to play with.”
In just a few short years, the self-taught Leary, 28, has become an award-winning aerial photographer with a growing international reputation. Earlier this year hers was among seven names on the shortlist in the Sony World Photography Awards – a big deal in the photography world.
The day before our interview, she’d just been awarded “Best Photographer” at the NZ Webstar Magazine Media awards. And in between interviewing Leary and this story going to print, she was announced as a finalist in the New Zealand Geographic Photographer of the Year. The Guardian has featured her work many times and her pictures have been included in photography books and on magazine covers. Plus, an ever-growing list of commercial clients – including Ford, T-Mobile and Virgin Australia – means she can make a decent living.
In May, Leary held a solo exhibition called Zero Gravity, which comprised a series of her favourite things to photograph; outdoor sports courts. “It’s something about the symmetry and simplicity that I love, the shapes and lines combined with the different surfaces and colours.”
She reckons over the past two to three years she’s probably photographed around 90 per cent of Auckland’s outdoor courts. And while the images may appear simple at first glance, look a little more closely and you’ll see things are not quite as they should be. Leary manipulates her images in post-production, sometimes masking out shadows and putting them back in different places. “I like the idea that people look at it and they don’t really notice it straight away. Then, oh wait, something looks weird about that.”
Leary was born in the Auckland suburb of Grey Lynn and spent most of her childhood there. She likes to say she grew up in a barn, which is kind of true. Before her parents bought the property, it was a warehouse that produced funeral clothing for the dead. Her parents separated when she was young and her mother bought the house next door, which shared a connecting garden, so she and her brother could continue to be close to both parents.
Leary says she has been surrounded by art her whole life. Her mother is an artist – “our kitchen and dining room table was covered in mosaics for years.” Her father taught at Elam School of Fine Arts in the 1980s and had a passion for photography and sculpture. Also, sailing ships.
“When I was 8, he bought this 60-foot wooden sailing ship, it was like, 101 years old and he restored it himself. It was just before the America’s Cup in 2000. He turned it into a pirate ship and painted it black with gold trims. 0800Pirate was the phone number he chose to have as the chartering contact, so we used to get heaps of funny prank calls. He made this giant slingshot out of a bungee cord and we would sail along and shoot water bombs at all the fancy boats during the America’s Cup. He was pretty wild.”
She says this last bit with great pride.
Leary hated school. She found it hard to concentrate and – apart from art class, which she excelled at – she was bored much of the time. She recalls doing “stupid things” like the time she made a trip wire in class thinking another kid would trip over it, but instead her teacher did. She ended up being asked to leave at the end of fifth form.
She had been diagnosed with ADHD at the beginning of high school. “When I was officially diagnosed, it wasn’t much of a surprise. I was a real tomboy and spent a lot of time climbing trees and all that sort of stuff.”
There are times, she says, when living with ADHD is hard: “If someone’s trying to have a conversation with me and there’s something else going on, it’s the most impossible thing. I’m listening to you, but I don’t actually know what you’re saying. Or, in a situation where you’re supposed to stay really still and act like a professional, then it can be bad.”
But it can be good, too. She enjoys having lots of energy and can become hyper-focused on something if it interests her. “I’ll start doing something and then all of a sudden it will be five hours later and I’m still doing it, which is super good – especially because I love what I do.”
After leaving school, Leary spent the next few years making art, playing video games and skateboarding. At 18, she was living at home with her dad, who was helping her prepare for her first exhibition, when he died suddenly of a heart attack. He was just 54.
“It was pretty crazy,” she says blinking away the tears. They were close.
“He always just wanted to have fun and not get caught up in worrying about things. Life was all about joking and enjoying it. I think I’m similar in that way. He had this attitude like, if you want to do something, or make something, it’s possible. I came home one day and he had made this giant hot air balloon in the lounge. And once, when I was a kid, I told him I wanted a hut that looked like a monster I drew, and the next day he had built one. Me and him were like best friends. All my siblings would always say I’m his golden girl, his favourite.”
Leary’s dad left behind six children. Petra and one brother share the same mother, and her other three brothers and sister all have different mothers. Although they range in age from 21 to 45, they are all very close and see each other often. “I think because we never all lived together, we’re closer.”
Recently, Leary was the subject of a short documentary called Bird’s Eye, one of eight selected to be part of Loading Docs, an annual New Zealand short documentary initiative. This year’s theme was power; loosely exploring how unlikely characters can become the heroes of a story. Among the other documentary subjects were revered celestial navigator Sir Hector Busby; world champion freediver William Trubridge; and activist and leader of the protest at Ihumātao, Pania Newton. That’s some pretty hefty company to be in.
“I was really stoked to be asked. It was never something I imagined I would be featuring in, especially alongside the other subjects of the docos. These people have done some amazing things and made some big changes in New Zealand – and I’m just flying my drone.”
Leary has received tonnes of feedback since Bird’s Eye launched. “I’ve had so many people message me in the last few weeks thanking me for being so open about my life and ADHD, and how much they can relate and respect it. And others, who have also lost parents at a young age.”
The documentary has been selected to screen at the DOC NY 2019 film festival, the biggest film festival in the US, and she’s heading over there next month.
And in the meantime? More courts, of course. “Because I’ve run out of the basketball courts, I’m now working on a tennis series.” Plans are under way for another exhibition. And in the meantime, she’ll continue spending her days skateboarding around with her dog Kodak, looking for the next thing to photograph – so long as it’s looking down from up high. “I’m pretty sure something has switched in my brain after flying drones. It’s impossible for me not to think in a bird’s-eye perspective now.”