In Conversation with Photographer Pier Carthew

Pier Carthew’s photography conjures atmospheres that feel light upon the skin of the world. Simultaneously warm and softly luminous, he captures moments of poise and pause which evoke an engagement equally languorous. In a world of fast everything, his architectural and lifestyle work feels like a palette cleanser, an invitation to slow down for a moment and gather focus inwards. We spoke with Pier about how his aesthetic has emerged and what makes it so resonant.

Open Journal (OJ) | Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you based? What drew you to photography? How does your work sit apart from other Architecture & Design and lifestyle photographers?

Pier Carthew (PC) | I’m based in Melbourne. I moved here from Adelaide in my early 20s to pursue a career in acting and performance. I’d always mucked around with photography in the background but had a bit of a light bulb moment while I was touring Canada and the US with a theatre production in my early 30s. I was taking a lot of street photos during that time and realised I was enjoying that more than the performance work I was doing in the evenings. I decided it was time to make the switch from one highly competitive creative pursuit to another. Fortunately, I’ve had a bit more luck with a camera. I tried a bunch of different styles but eventually came back to an aesthetic that felt most natural to me. I think every photographer has some kind of innate aesthetic that is ultimately inescapable. I would say mine is minimal and serene with a good dose of atmosphere.

OJ | There is a strong storytelling quality to your commissioned work. How do you cultivate this? Is it through creative direction from you? Are you drawn to engagements that foster a sense of narrative (such as recent work with other narrative maestros like Marsha Golemac and Jess Kneebone?)

PC | I don't consciously try to create a sense of narrative but I think this naturally emerges through my approach of avoiding exposition and instead shooting ‘around’ the object, concept or space. I’m more interested in what emerges from the margins rather than capturing what we already know. I enjoy working by myself in this way but one of the joys of photography is that it can also be very collaborative. It’s a particular delight to work with Art Directors such as Marsha and Jess who skilfully build the overall form and style of a project around the photographers aesthetic. Working to their briefs, while having permission to insert my own voice, is very satisfying.

OJ | How integral is post-production to your processes? I wonder because there is a tangible produced quality to your work. It’s beautiful! It’s not so much documentary as conjuring an atmosphere, a presence. I’d love to know how this is created through lighting, composition, editing etc.

PC | I definitely draw on some techniques to create a kind of ethereal atmosphere for certain briefs. When shooting outdoors, often architecture, I’m looking for a quality of light that is very fleeting, usually just before sunrise or just after sunset when the light has a special kind of glow to it. It’s soft and warm, and the tones are relatively even throughout the image. It’s often quite dark at these times, but a long exposure can bring this hidden light to life.When shooting in the studio I’m trying to create these moments artificially with lighting - I can get quite obsessive and particular about it. I also spend a lot of time in post-production. Although many of my images are shot on film, a lot of work happens digitally in post-production to accentuate certain qualities. Compositionally, I’m always looking for less and despite my work desk being in a perpetual state of chaos, when it comes to my images, I’m always trying to strip them back and remove any sign of busy-ness or disorder.

OJ | If you weren’t a photographer, what would you be?

PC | A bitter, jaded actor or maybe some kind of designer.

OJ | How do you feel about the rise of AI within the image production landscape?

PC | I was really excited by it for about 5 minutes but the initial thrill wore off pretty quickly. At least for now it feels a bit like everyone all of sudden took acid for the first time and posted their experiences on the internet. Having said that, I’ve seen some beautiful work produced with the assistance of AI and I’ll no doubt be using it myself for retouching.

OJ | What would be your dream commission and why?

PC | I think the best commissions are the ones you could never have conceived of so I’d like to be sent off to a country I know nothing about, to photograph a kind of architecture I never knew existed.

OJ | What are you currently working on / what’s next?

PC | I’ve recently been commissioned by a company in South Australia to document the process of producing their sustainable cement. I’m really looking forward to turning my eye to a world that is often presented in quite a masculine, hard-hatted-blokey kind of a way.

Interview compiled by Tiffany Jade. Photography by Pier Carthew