From Middle-earth to Vietnam

TOM CARDY
Last updated 05:00 15/06/2012
photo
CHRIS SKELTON/Fairfax NZ

WAR ROOM: Dean O'Gorman in his makeshift photography studio in Wellington's Seatoun while filming continues on The Hobbit.

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For Dean O'Gorman, 2012 is a watershed year for two reasons. The first is well known. The Kiwi actor, whose career spans more than 20 years, is one of the 13 dwarfs in Sir Peter Jackson's The Hobbit.

O'Gorman was a late entry in the two-part film, after British actor Rob Kizinsky, who had been cast to play the dwarf Fili, had to return home. Jackson then cast O'Gorman. The director even accommodated O'Gorman's commitments to television series The Almighty Johnsons, where he plays the god-like Anders.

Dwarfs may be diminutive in size, but playing Fili is likely to have a big impact on O'Gorman's profile - especially overseas, where he was based for seven years.

But the second reason for the watershed year is one that few people know - O'Gorman is also an artist. He has been a painter and photographer for years, but until now has never publicly exhibited his work. His first show opens in Wellington next week.

O'Gorman says for the past five years he's spent almost as much time on photography and painting as acting. He's aware that, for some, "Dean O'Gorman - artist" will raise eyebrows. "You can be a musician and become an actor or you can be a painter and become an actor. But actor to something else is always greeted with a fair amount of scepticism."

When O'Gorman can talk it's during a rare few hours off from filming The Hobbit. He's staying in a rented house in Wellington's Seatoun, close to Jackson's Miramar studios - and the house's garage has served as a makeshift photography studio.

At first glance, a viewer could believe that all the photographs O'Gorman will have on show - most are in colour and a few in black and white - were actually taken of American forces in the Vietnam War. Several appear to be candid shots, caught in the moment of battle or on patrol, and are as mesmerising as any of the great photo journalism from the time. There's also a series of posed portrait shots of soldiers, some who look as if they've just come off a battlefield.

O'Gorman wasn't even born until after American forces left Vietnam, so he obviously wasn't there. The next assumption is that he took them on the set of a war movie. But the Vietnam-era United States Army helmets stacked in a corner of his garage, along with bits of uniforms and heavy flak jackets provide a clue. The military items - some sourced cheaply from Trade Me, some more expensive items from collectors - have been essential for what he's created.

Almost like a movie director, O'Gorman dressed and set up the shots himself. He roped in friends to play the soldiers, and fellow cast members from The Hobbit. (One photograph features British actor Adam Brown who plays the dwarf Ori, and another has Luke Evans, who plays Bard the Bowman).

O'Gorman, who fell in love with photography at school, was a big fan of Vietnam War photographers including Larry Burrows and Don McCullin, as well as other war photographers such as the legendary Robert Capa.

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"They were beautiful images and I loved how they made me feel. I loved the rawness and the humanness that was captured. I thought wouldn't it be cool to try and stage something that could allow you to potentially feel something similar, but wasn't actually real?

"I'm not trying to trick anybody, but I'm just trying to play with the idea of how do you feel about something that is not real but is made to seem real?. Movies do it all the time, but a lot of times in photography I find it's approached with quite an obvious parody, or quite an obvious irony, and I wanted to try to be a bit more sincere."

The results are impressive and it's difficult to be anything but captivated and moved by O'Gorman's images. They look real. Some were taken in Auckland, but appear to be the depths of a Vietnamese jungle or in a half- destroyed building. The latter features a firefight and an injured soldier being rushed away on a makeshift stretcher. It was one of the trickiest shots for O'Gorman to get right.

"I do like that theatrical element to it. The weird thing is that I wanted it to not look staged and I found that it had to be more staged in order to look less staged."

He discovered that accuracy was very important. "I found that the overall effect was achieved through a quite meticulous eye for detail - what they are wearing, how muddy they are or aren't, what the background looks like."

To do so, he sought advice from a New Zealand Vietnam veteran, who later posed for O'Gorman in his sun- faded old uniform.

'He was really enthusiastic and really very interested in it. For him it was almost like he felt happy that someone would take an interest in something that he did."

O'Gorman liked having control behind a camera, but also appreciated the different demands from acting in front of one. "Some days I had six people and a smoke machine, some lights and a hired camera - and I got the sweats. I'd turn up and I'd think I don't know what the hell I'm doing. Then I look at Peter Jackson, who is doing these massive movies and that's an amazing amount of juggling to do."

He doesn't see his work as a statement about the Vietnam War, or war in general. "To me, the aesthetic of the Vietnam War conveys a lot of humanity. The Vietnam War was a great stage for drama - as opposed to trying to talk about the war and whether it was right. There's an interesting mix between the structure and austerity of the military and the vulnerability and humanity of these young men in that situation. They are very unguarded moments. New Zealand men can find it difficult to be open. These photojournalism photos by their nature are quite open."

Art has always been a part of O'Gorman's life. His father, Lance O'Gorman, is a long established and respected New Zealand landscape painter. But O'Gorman, who returned to New Zealand three years ago, says he began to focus more on producing his own paintings and photography while overseas. It included a stint in Los Angeles. "During the first year [there] I got little bits and pieces of work, but nothing to pay the bills. I was quite broke. I started painting for the hell of it. Then my friend's agent saw my work and she liked it, so I sold a few pieces. Then I met this guy and he liked my work and he used it in [television sitcom] Curb Your Enthusiasm. It was in [star] Larry David's bedroom. So I got a little bit more work."

And, yes, to come this far to the public premiere of his art is similar to the unveiling of a new movie or television show. "I haven't dwelt on anything, but I am nervous. It's a relief to finally have the exhibition because if you just take photos and don't do anything with it, it's kind of like 'What is it?' I'm excited. I'm interested in seeing how people take it. Will they agree with what I think about it or will they not? You are in the arena to be judged."

The Detail

Dean O'Gorman, PageBlackie Gallery, Wellington, June 19-23

- The Dominion Post

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