Life story: Inquisitive photographer Leonard Wesney 'marched to his own drum'
OBITUARY: Leonard Wesney's photographs grace international galleries and illustrate news stories – but they often raise more questions than they answer.
Negatives of his shots were kept tucked away in plastic folders under his bed at his small Cashel St home, in central Christchurch. His prints were on display throughout the country, including at the Auckland Art Gallery, Te Papa and the Christchurch Art Gallery.
A "typical photographer", he never liked having his own photo taken, his sister Brenda Abbott said. But he was never far away, usually with a camera slung around his neck scouting out the next shot.
The inquisitive southern man, who had an eye for detail, would shoot dozens of frames them select the perfect one. Each time, he slightly adjusted the lighting, composition and angle, capturing a story through the lens.
Often going unnoticed, the private and humble man would capture portraits of neighbours, strangers and striking black-and-white landscapes. Wesney, 71, died in a fire in his home on August 14.
A founder of modern photography in New Zealand, he was skilled beyond his years even as an amateur.
His "tantalising" shot of an inconspicuous man dozing on the Cook Strait ferry under a photograph of the Queen, was acclaimed for its "absurd juxtapositions", Te Papa photography curator Athol McCredie said.
It took 23 frames to perfect while his subject adjusted his position on the bench, unaware he was being photographed.
"Someone is simply trying to relieve the tedium of the voyage by taking a nap but Wesney was alert to the contrast in direction of faces . . .and the bizarre image of the industrial quality barrier deemed necessary to protect the sovereign," McCredie said.
"Even when I had finished, he did not stir from his slumber. I think Her Majesty was more aware of the proceedings," Wesney recalled in an article he later wrote about the shoot.
Born in 1946 in Invercargill, he was a member of the Southland Photographic Society as a teenager. He studied painting at the Canterbury School of Fine Arts for a year, then moved to the United Kingdom and studied photography at the Guildford School of Art until 1967.
The following year, as a 21-year-old, he had his first solo show at London's Qantas Galleries.
Leading photographers applauded his work and he soon secured pages in prestigious publications such as Creative Camera, Photography Year Book, and the British Journal of Photography Annual, as well as freelance magazine work.
McCredie said Wesney was a "strong believer in the expressive potential of photography" and had said photography meant so much to him it would be "difficult to apply it professionally".
"But it makes hard living worthwhile."
The accomplished photographer returned to New Zealand and started a decade-long role with The Christchurch Star in the early 70s. Former colleague John McCombe said Wesney was one of six staff photographers at the paper and could "certainly produce the goods".
"He was a photographer who marched to his own drum," he said.
While there, he ventured into journalism and wrote a monthly column on contemporary photography and reviews of photography books and exhibitions. He showed in his only solo exhibition in the country at Whanganui's McNamara Gallery in 2004.
Paul McNamara, the gallery owner, recalled Wesney as a "very fine photographer and a pleasure to work with".
"I will miss his enthusiasm for photography."
Wesney was the "treasured brother" and only son in a family of six. He is survived by four sisters and many nieces and nephews. His funeral was held on August 18 at the Canterbury Crematorium Chapel.
Negatives of his photographs that escaped smoke damage were treated and preserved.