Esther Bunning Portrait Artist, Her Story


More than straight shooting photography, Esther Bunning takes you on a spectacular journey with her portraiture and conceptual photographic art. Ethereal, magical, timeless....Esther's portfolio captures the imagination, telling tales of people, families and moments to be treasured. One of New Zealand's leading portrait artists, winner of multiple awards, Grand Master NZIPP and Nikon ambassador for New Zealand, Esther thrives on the challenge of creating, "I love working with colours and textures," she tells me, "I'm fascinated with movement, motion....blurring the lines between photography and mixed media. I can do straight photography then move into the art realm....anywhere along that scale." She pauses, smiling, "but my strengths come out when I make a concept happen, run with an idea and build on it to express a story." Esther is clearly in her element with conceptual photography, as we sit and chat in her Greytown gallery I look around at the works on display, I'm mesmerised...the quality of her work is outstanding.

Working with clients and families to portray their uniqueness, getting below the surface, extracting a story, utilising her extraordinary talent to design a creative concept is where Esther Bunning shines. "Much of the work is done in the camera, shooting through textures at the time," Esther explains, "then if I want to take it further, adding layers in post production. It's about people....getting to know them, discovering how they want to be portrayed....everyone's different" she smiles. Talking to this talented artist, she explains the importance of building relationships as the foundation to her creativity, "finding out what's meaningful to them, then creating a theme around that....it works because it comes from the client, they bring in the idea then I run with it." The variety is huge, and personable, from children through to adults, families, multi-generational shots, every picture tells a story with as many creative variations as you could wish for. There are the uplifting "Celebrate You" women's photo shoots - a total package, hair, makeup, portrait - the concepts are endless, fascinating, inspiring. As I browse Esther's website I'm captivated...this is pure talent. Esther doesn't just colour outside the lines....quite simply there are no lines, no limits on what can be produced. As Esther says, concepts come from the client and using creative license she takes them into the realm of a dreamy, vibrant, whimsical, world.
"The brief was to create a photograph that could almost be three children uplifted from their own living room, curled up reading their favourite books, "Shot on location at Lake Wairarapa, Featherston.


"It's always been my passion.....from a young age, I'm happiest when creating using a variety of mediums." Esther reminisces "My first photography job at age 16 was the Christmas photographer at Farmers, New Plymouth, organised by Dad....my first professional gig!" She did this for two summer holidays. After leaving school, Esther went onto study textile design at the Wellington school of design - photography was a course component, but not the main focus. "Throughout my study there was an emphasis on creative processes, we had New Zealand artists as tutors," Esther cites John Drawbridge, Kate Coolahan, Kate Wells all as strong early influences, and how drawing from their teachings in later years has been of immense value. She didn't consider photography as a career option however until after graduating when she was working with her partner at the time, (a photographer) and was roped in to help with photo shoots, she then moved into photography as a career, focusing mainly on weddings.

"I photographed weddings for 18 years and to be honest, never thought I'd tire of it" Esther tells me. "Then I woke one day and thought.....I can't do this anymore!" Esther felt her work wasn't moving forward, realising she'd reached a creative plateau she embarked on portrait commissions and project work. "My major breakthroughs have been when I've pushed myself out of my comfort zone, I've recognised how important this is to my life in general. It gives me focus, makes me fall in love with photography all over again." Esther describes how project work allows for experimentation, to try new things and how professional enrichment follows, flowing into all areas of her life. "When the work is effortless to produce its a sign I'm on the right path. My 2011 book project, "Children of the Wairarapa" is a good example, this was followed by collaborations with Greytown dance & performace artist Justine Eldred, resulting in two self-published books which I'm super proud of."

As I flick through Esther's copy of "Children of the Wairarapa" it's clear there's a special synergy about her work. These are captivating images of local children, each individual personality shines under Esther's lens, each photo telling a unique story. It's mutually rewarding - not just for the clients, but for her as an artist, Esther explains - "All of these projects have made me grow both personally and professionally, opening doors, resulting in amazing opportunities. The euphoria I get from producing something that resonates with my clients is one of the highlights of my work. There's an enormous personal input - professional expertise, time and energy going into my work, each project incredibly special, unique.....I guess I fall in love a little with each piece!" This talented lady shines when talking about her work, it's clearly her passion, her realm, the place she finds herself.
From the 'The Angel Collection' Project/book 2013 collaboration with Justine Eldred.


After moving from wedding to portrait commissions and project photography, Esther's career has continued to evolve, she's carved a name with her unique style. "My photography directions are less conventional than the norm", she describes how she is drawn to experimentation. "I love happy accidents, double/multiple exposures in camera and the magic that can come from playing with this theme. I confess...I love creating or reflecting beauty - whether in vision, light, relationships or in quietness/stillness, it's a reflection of how I see things, at a photographic level I enjoy seeing people consider what is good in their lives, my goal is portraying that." It's a vision with a purpose, Esther believes photographs become more precious with the passage of time, as heirlooms going into the future, capturing and preserving memories in a different way. "Especially when the lines are blurred between photography and art - it's when I'm at my best." The resulting work a unique and personal reflection of the people she photographs. Themes are widely varied - "Storybook magic","Pippi Longstocking", "Creative Boundaries" and "Nilah...the wishful elephant rider" just a few of the fantastical themes Esther has worked with. There are unconventional family portraits and select projects such as the recent local shave for a cure campaign, captured beautifully by Esther's powerful imagery.

Esther has continued to go from strength to strength in her creative direction - a passion which has given her immense personal and professional satisfaction. After moving to the Wairarapa from Wellington in 2001, Esther was based in Greytown living in a relocated church. "We moved to Featherston when i was pregnant with Theo: so twelve years ago now. We realised the relocated church wasn't going to work in raising a family, and running a business, so hence the move!" Esther explains how moving to Appleshaw in Featherston was the perfect combo for the years when Theo was little, with a separate self-contained cottage with studio for work. "We sold this property a year ago and moved into the Greytown 'hub' in November 2015.

Two years ago Nikon approached Esther to be a New Zealand ambassador for the company (one of only three nationwide) she describes this as a huge honour. Esther is also an ambassador for Asukabooks and works within these roles around New Zealand and Australia. There are some public speaking requirements which can be difficult for Esther who describes herself as suffering from lack of confidence. "I've always suffered from this, shyness holds me back in life, with people and in general...alas, to my detriment, I've always doubted myself and the way I do things." Despite a tendency to be her own harshest critic, Esther has challenged the limitations of her shy nature and pushed through to overcome and work around this. "When I'm creating, working with people it falls away, that's when I'm in my element." There have been many awards and accolades for Esther, her take on this? "I'm lucky enough to be doing what I love."


Now firmly established in Greytown, Wairarapa, Esther is artist in residence at "The Gallery at The Hub", with partner Wref (Terry) Hann and guest exhibiting artists . Esther, Wref and son Theo (11) have a busy lifestyle. "We've set up a working gallery", Esther tells me " apart from location shoots everything happens onsite, we are here working 6 days a week". Theo is often the subject of Esther's work, "He inspired me back into colour," she smiles "I used to prefer to work in black & white, especially for portraiture, then Theo came along with his red hair and everything changed. Black and white simply didn't do him justice." She shows me some examples…."as a result, i'm probably recognised more for my colour work now and i'm drawn to colour in general."

Theo's a creative thinker also" - Esther says he prefers to create three dimensionally rather than two, adding "I'd be lost without Terry - he's my sounding board, and number one supporter." Her "lads" as she calls them, are integral to Esther's creative inspiration. It seems things are just as they should be in Esther's world, a realistic balance of confidence (or lack of), creativity and exceptional portraiture. There's a reason for every rhyme and I feel certain that what Esther may lack in confidence is more than well compensated for in her creative skills.

Future directions? "I've more collaborations with Justine Eldred in the pipeline, including a book project "The Patron Saint of Depression and other survival stories" and a major childrens photographic project about to be launched, entitled "Children of Aotearoa". On the side, I have a love of textiles and adore photographic surface pattern design - I need to explore this to satisfy my soul, and the gallery is the perfect vehicle to explore new products and lines." There's no shortage of ideas, "I never have difficulty filling my time" Esther describes how in her dream world she could totally immerse herself in experimenting with layered imagery and forget the world exists. "I feel like I've gone full circle back to my textile days, but being able to draw on all the influences that have taken place in between." We look forward to the future and what Esther will bring, confident it will be inspiring and influential, we are incredibly fortunate to have an artist of this calibre in our region.

"Greytown park, Autumn. From the filming/photography of Autumn angels, collaboration with Justine Eldred"


So there you have a small insight into the story of Esther Bunning and her incredible career. It's been fascinating, rewarding and a huge privilege to explore Esther's world. I feel enriched and creatively inspired - beyond expectation. There is more to every story than meets the eye....even more so with this inspirational woman who is at the top of her game while continuing to push herself creatively and personally.

Over the last few weeks we've shared coffee, emails, conversations, taken photos, it's taken time but layer by layer I've seen inside Esther's creativity, witnessed her exceptional talent, learnt about her lack of confidence,. how she works to overcome this. Esther's shown me how important it is for us to push ourselves, overcome barriers, stay true to your inner drive and follow your dreams, to think outside the square - a truly exceptional inspirational woman and artist.

The Gallery at The Hub is open 7 days per week at the Hub in Greytown, Wairarapa.
Esther cell: 021 378 350 The Gallery at The Hub 021 378 350
Visit Esther's website here:Esther Bunning Creative or Esther Bunning Photography
"Fire and Water - book/project collaboration 2014"
Trish Higginson & Karina Hailwood
Creative Directors Martinborough Village
"Let us show you the magic of our region"

Photos -Simon Murcott & Esther Bunning
enquiries to karina@martinborough-village.co.nz
Copyright MV 2016


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