Full steam ahead for ex-photojournalism veteran

Legendary photographer Peter Bush tracks down an old friend to talk about jumping tracks from photojournalist to locomotive engineer in The Photographer's Mail I would like to introduce photojournalist Andrew Gorrie, who embodies every quality I admire about the new age of photographers.

He’s a tall, unassuming, highly talented man who enjoys talking shop about his favourite images created by photojournalists of past years, like Cartier-Bresson, as well as some of the up-and-coming younger photogs of the new age. Andrew is still very passionate about all aspects of photography and, until recently, he was a top photojournalist on Wellington’s Dom Post, the capital’s daily newspaper. Now, however, he is a locomotive engineer, driving the trains that deliver the daily paper he once worked on to readers throughout the Wellington region.

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Now, before anyone starts asking if he was fired or became bored with life, this was a decision he made after careful consideration with his Brazilian-born wife, Ceci. And, yes, he still loves photography.

To leave a secure newspaper job like that is a challenge I could imagine a young teenager reaching out for, but Andrew Gorrie was already in his early 40s, and despite the pleas of fellow workers, both photographers and journalists, and a heart-to-heart with management, off he went down into the vast rail yards of Wellington Station. There he began a rigorous training programme that saw him sitting in classrooms with an ex-accountant, an engineer and other men seeking a change of career — for most a mid-life change of direction.

When Andrew came round to my home for an interview I instantly reached for the 5D Mark II with the 70–200mm f/2.8 for some casual shots during the friendly chat, but a very firm “No thanks” from Andrew saw the camera replaced by a pen and pad.

The photographer grew up and went to school in Nelson, and while at school he acquired his first camera, a 110 Kodak. When working after school at a butcher shop he progressed to a Russian Zenith 35mm film camera. “Heavy, it weighed a ton — but always reliable,” Andrew says.

From school he went to work in a one-hour Nelson lab for about a year-and-a-half. Then, in the early ’90s, he crossed the Tasman and quickly found work at Pro Labs. The big Sydney lab specialized in really huge murals, many over six metres wide, printed by an enlarger set on light rail tracks with the paper held by magnets on a metal wall. Ten-minute exposures were the norm. Best of all for a budding photographer, the mural firm allowed employees to print as much of their own work as they liked, which Andrew said allowed you to pick up on faulty focus and exposure.

“It was still some time before the world of digital took over.”

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In his spare time he joined a parachute school, where he made over 800 jumps and met Ceci, his wife-to-be. After this he did a stint at suburban newspaper Wentworth Courier, a job he landed first by shooting weekend sport with a Nikon 801 and 300mm lens before later joining the regular staff.

Finally, the family returned to New Zealand, and, as Andrew put it, he walked into a job on the Whakatane Beacon. From Whakatane the next move was to the Waikato Times, where he would be sent on one of his most memorable assignments, a couple of weeks in Timor with New Zealand troops policing the province.

“I even ended up driving one of the AP carriers and went on a night patrol with a squad,” he says with some relish.

His next and final move was to Wellington’s Dom Post, where he spent 12 years covering a wide range of daily assignments, and established his reputation as a photographer who could stamp his individual identity on many routine jobs.

One feature pic he shot of a helicopter crossing a full moon was taken from Seatoun, Wellington harbour entrance, and came about after many long months of cancelled shoots because of high winds and weather. Taken on a Canon 1D Mark IV clipped on to a 600mm lens with a 2x extender, it was run on the front page and won a prestigious Australasian aviation award. It was one among a number of awards he has won.

Picture story essays became one of his strong points, and a number of them were of NZ Rail — late-night loading of freight trains at Picton onto the Cook Strait ferries, or riding in the cab of an up-country train.

Which brings this story full circle, to the point he finally made the decision at age 42 to leave the media world and re-train as a locomotive engineer.

To many of his colleagues and friends this was a brave move. Some thought he was joking, and wondered if he had thought it through but, as he says, “You only live once, so why not give it a go?”

After undergoing a rigorous physical and mental check, including a psychometric test, he joined a group of trainee drivers. Among them were a former concrete plant manager, accountant and lino carpet layer — the youngest 26 years old and the oldest being early 40s. After four weeks in the classroom followed by three- to four-hour exams with an 80-per-cent pass rate, he started on six months of guided training.

He is now one of 100 locomotive engineers based in the Wellington district, and on the afternoon of our interview he was due to start work on the late shift driving passenger units to Upper Hutt and other parts of the Wellington region.

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His only camera now is a point-and-shoot Leica D-Lux 4 that Leica agent Lacklands in Auckland gave to him via a contra deal a couple of years back. He picked it up a day before he left for Brazil with his family for an extended stay, and while there shot some enduring essays of people in the workplace. From Sao Paulo he uploaded the images to a website on a daily basis, which proved a hit with the public (and Lacklands).

He feels the discreetness of the Leica D-Lux was one of the reasons he was able to shoot such stunning photo essays while in Brazil. At one sawmill the workers could not believe it was a camera until he presented them with a set of enlarged prints. Perhaps it also helped that while in Brazil he worked hard on learning Portuguese, and he is now quite fluent in the language.

In time I am sure we will see a book or three shot by this talented all-rounder.