People and Places

Helen Bankers’ beautiful floral works and tips for aspiring photographers

Photographer, artist and flower fan Helen Bankers finds inspiration in everything from centuries-old artwork and celebrity portraits to the delicate details of our natural world

Helen Bankers is part of the Your Home & Garden family – she’s one of our favourite photographers as well as an amazing artist. Over her 20-plus years in the business, she’s photographed people, celebrities, artists and homes in locations all over the world, while also refining her skill as a botanical photographer. We spoke to Helen about the genesis of her career and why there was never any doubt she’d spend her working life behind the lens.

How did you become interested in photography?

As a kid, I often had a Kodak Instamatic in my hand. Looking through the viewfinder seemed to be natural for me. I loved photography at high school and, in my teenage years, my sister’s boyfriend was assisting for advertising and commercial photographers. The ever-changing nature of this creative process was something I was drawn to. I definitely had romantic notions of film photography, the emerging image and the alchemy of it all. It was magic to me.

How did you get started as a professional photographer?

I did a pre-foundation art course and built up a portfolio – I even won a few awards. Then I went to study a Bachelor of Visual Arts at AIT (now AUT, Auckland University of Technology) with a major in photography and lithography. I left early because I wanted to jump into the world of photography and see the reality of the business. So I started cold-calling Auckland’s advertising and commercial photographers, asking if they needed an assistant. I kept ringing and showing my work until someone gave me a break.

For four years I freelanced, working for high-profile photographers such as [world-famous baby photographer] Anne Geddes as well as food, fashion, celebrity and advertising photographers. It was such an amazing insight into the commercial reality of running a successful business. Around 2004, I started to break away to do my own work.

What have been a few of your favourite photography projects?

There have been some cool projects that I’m very thankful to have worked on – amazing editorial travel shoots in Europe, Asia and the Pacific, for instance. I had the most incredible adventures travelling with the UN and Australian Women’s Weekly magazine in Papua New Guinea, capturing the devastation the HIV/Aids epidemic was wreaking on the people and the country. I shot a well-known portrait photographer’s final family portraits before she passed away; that was very special and emotional.

I shot a floral wall installation at Britomart for H&M x Erdem with the floral stylist Sue Cameron, and I’ve captured some of New Zealand’s most incredible spaces, homes and personalities. A huge part of the fun is the people I get to meet. I love seeing how they live their creative lives, and they’re so generous about sharing that. Some of them are now my good friends.

Where did your interest in floral photography come from?

I was brought up around forests and farms, and my family were always in the garden. My grandparents had market gardens, and even in their retirement continued to sow and grow everything they needed as well as beautiful flowers. I also have a strong family connection to the Netherlands and I reference a lot of my work from the Dutch Golden Age and Renaissance painters. It’s become a bit of an obsession!

What made you decide to turn your floral images into prints and fabric products?

Two reasons: creatively I needed another outlet other than just my commercial work, and I also wanted to challenge myself to look at the world in a more detailed way. In the past I have struggled with depression and anxiety and found that looking at the intricacy of botanicals and our innate connection to nature was cathartic. Doing this work has been amazing for my mind; it gives me focus and brings me peace.

What are your favourite flowers to work with?

Where do I begin! Lisianthus, hellebores, dahlias, delphiniums, eucalyptus, poppies, nigella, peonies, wild roses, magnolia, dried hydrangea, thistles… the list goes on.

How did you develop your floral photography style?

I research and look at old paintings by the Dutch Masters such as Willem van Aelst, studying how they used light and textures. I go to the flower markets, hit the local florist shops and visit gardens. I love working on still-life projects and find beauty in the process of experimentation, play and repetition.

What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your work?

Walking in blind, wanting to manufacture fabric items with zero knowledge about the industry – it has been a steep learning curve! Being willing to make mistakes and problem-solve has been really important. It can be tricky to manufacture locally but it’s worth it.

What projects do you have coming up?

I’m heading to Australia to develop a new printed range of specialised fabrics. And I am constantly working on new imagery for limited-edition artworks; there will be a release of prints dropping at the end of March. A new range of fabric and object pieces will also be available in mid 2019. They’re all limited-edition, bespoke and made with a conscience.

What advice would you give someone who’s starting out in photography?

Get hands-on, real-life experience. Running a business requires a whole other skill set to being a photographer. Talk to people in the industry, and value yourself, your time and your knowledge. Don’t sell yourself short. Ask questions. And step outside the box.

Words by: Sally Conor. Photography by: Todd Eyre.

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