“Peter Rossi’s images transcend that of the most creative and talented portrait photographers. He is intuitive, innovative and a clear leader in his field, a portrait photographer who goes beyond expressing the obvious, imbedding deeper narratives into the images he creates, through the mastery of classic and contemporary photographic techniques, and an instinctive control of light. Embedded layers of meaning and context invite the viewer to discover more than the obvious, and the final image is always an example of the finest of photographic craft. Peter is a Grand Master in every sense of the word and through the AIPP Awards system he has deservedly been recognised as such.”– Tony Hewitt, APPLM GMPhotogI HonFAIPP FNZIPP.
In this series, we look to celebrate AIPP’s Grand Masters: eleven photographers who have been recognised by the Institute for being at the pinnacle of their professional and creative practice. In the first post, we talk to Peter Rossi, two time AIPP Australian Professional Photographer of the Year about his journey to becoming a Grand Master, what inspires his work, and his photographic legacy.
Two-time AIPP Australian Professional Photographer of the Year (2001 and 2016)
Seven-time AIPP Australian Portrait Photographer of the Year (2001, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2014, and 2016).
Four-time AIPP Australian Creative Photographer of the Year (2010, 2013, 2015, and 2019).
Life’s Precious Gifts (2004)
How did you get your start in photography?
The initial spark was a backpacking holiday in NZ when I was twenty years old. A forest ranger played a slideshow of his images – pictures of fungi, birds, trees, general nature shots – and I’d never seen the bush captured in quite this way. The photographer had isolated little things like the details of the fungi or dew drops on a cobweb, and instantly it was like “I want to do that.”
I bought some gear for a little Russian camera I had bought for the trip and when I got back to Australia I started hanging out in the bush, taking images of nature and building my own little set of slides. I joined a camera club, kicked along there for a year or two as an amateur, and then slowly friends and family started asking if I could shoot portraits or weddings. After doing this for a short time I realised I needed to step up to more professional gear, so I invested in a Hasselblad and Nikon gear, which was the best gear you could get at the time. Because I had to justify the cost of the gear, I had to start charging for my work and things grew from there.
It was around this time of deciding to take it seriously that I found the AIPP and my shift to professionalism accelerated. While I was taking pretty pictures before, the AIPP and its awards encouraged me to pursue making more serious and meaningful pictures. I wanted to take pictures that people get involved with, where people were drawn in to the story of; pictures that would make people cross the room because of their intrigue or mystery. And I wanted to improve with every year that I submitted to the awards.
Tell us a little about your journey to becoming a Grandmaster.
I started off with a few bronze awards, but the whole time I was looking at what the silvers and golds were doing to achieve their results. Much of what I learned was from magazines and experimenting. I developed a style that was idiosyncratic because I was learning from my own process, from making mistakes and trying not to make them again. I got into a pattern of having a different style and coming from a different place.
When I first entered awards it was just to get more feedback. The only feedback Charmaine and I were getting before that was from our customers. The awards gave us an opportunity to get feedback from other photographers, and you soon found out whether your work was any good.
Once we knew how the awards worked, we became really interested in being present for the feedback, and we became involved as judges. Since we started, we’ve entered every year since.
The Shooter (2010)
Bless This House (2011)
When I look back, the entries that have done best were often the ones that were more fully planned with the client, where there was a lot of involvement on both sides. They were often the ones where the client really wanted to say something.
As I constructed these images, I found myself hiding clues for the viewer to find, hoping that these clues would draw them in. It became important to me to think about how I could build the subject or the client’s personality into the image in significant ways; for example, how could I put a person’s dreams or their fears into the picture. This would only deepen their involvement, and also the involvement of the viewer.
Jugding Mini Me (2012)
Finding Calm Amongst The Chaos (2013)
How much does Charmaine contribute to your work and vice versa?
We’re both great sounding boards for each other, but we’re also quite different in our approaches. When we are putting submissions together for awards, we often discuss our intentions and check on the progress of an image, but in the long run, it is an individual effort.
Life in a Month (2013)
What do you think makes your work stand out from the crowd?
I think a lot of it has to do with your approach. To begin with, if I feel there could be an award shot in the subject matter, I will consider how I can make an image that will work for the customer, an award and that I will be happy with, all at the same time. It does depend on the origin of an image – sometimes a direction comes from speaking with a customer. Other times I’ll have an idea and need to find a character to wear it.
Then I ask myself, usually before I take the image and while I am crafting it, what do I want to say? How do I feel when I see this image? Emotion is central. We want to do the most honourable thing for that subject by capturing their true self; their truest love, or dream, or sometimes anguish. I collect information from the client or the subject at every meeting to help me build the storyworld of their image. Being on the same wavelength as they are is really important.
Birds Will Fly (2014)
Obviously making sure the capture is great is important too, but post-production is also where I can amplify the storytelling and emotion at the heart of the image. It’s a really exciting process, building layers into the image so that someone who sees it can make their own story. In post-production, you have the time to play, take a few risks, make some mistakes, and experiment. Sometimes those detours work and sometimes they don’t, but this sense of play is vital.
Sometimes you can just feel the vibrations coming from the image. And nine out of ten times that image will do well because I can immediately feel the emotion it is generating.
Mother’s Nature (2014)
A Lifetime Love (2015)
What would you like your legacy as a photographer / image-maker to be?
I’d like my legacy to be that of a bloke who told stories in pictures. I’m proud that I dealt with issues that are important to me and my clients, and that I was open enough to listen to people and hear their stories. I hope that my imagery has helped strengthen people, helped lift them up – I think part of listening to people is finding ways to celebrate them or empower them.
Our Little Saint (2015)
Our View (2015)
Child’s Play (2016)
I’m also proud that my work was multifaceted, and that I was adaptable to the moment and the subject. Whatever was the strongest way to tell the story, that’s the technique or style I would choose.
Finally, I hope that there is something in my images and the way I have constructed the stories within that will communicate an idea or generate a feeling or an emotion, or trigger a memory, or activate other’s imaginations. This I feel makes it all worthwhile.
Exploration Man (2016)
Keep the Gate Open (2016)
What about the future?
I am proud of my previous wins of Australian Professional Photographer of the Year in 2001 and 2016; and my eleven national category wins. I still have award aspirations though, and still have a passion for crafting images and I’m excited to enter this year’s APPA and pursue my third APY.
Railroad Man (2016)
Standing Strong (2019)