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Fiona Wolf on girls, cars and assisting

Following her Head On Portrait Prize win in 2010, Fiona Wolf is back in the festival showing her series Girls N Cars at Paddington’s Global Gallery from June 1-12. Her May 15 seminar, The Art of Delegation, will chronicle her rise from assistant to award winning photographer and is a must see for anyone asking the question: is being a photographer’s assistant the right path for me?

Cars and girls are both classic themes. What inspired you to attempt this series and what did you hope to achieve?

I wanted to try a female approach to a male cliché without losing the sexiness of cars or women. I was inspired by Australian muscle cars which I discovered when I started travelling to Australia and again when living here. The female nude is an inspiration in itself — it just evolved.

When did you start shooting girls in their undies?

I started this early on in my career as a photographer, about 2006. I finally had a camera that I loved and found inspiration in Marc Baptiste’s book Nudes and similar photographers who I discovered in long reading sessions at Ariel Bookstore.

How do you choose a location?

If it’s not their home – and trust me, every home has a quirky corner with natural light – it’s a location I have been to which offers beautiful window light, is plain but might have a little accessory or attribute to add to the girl’s shape, curve or character.

What do you look for in a car?

I don’t care about them being in good condition or not. Classic cars are relicts of their time and have beautiful curves and shapes, bumps and scratches. They are full of character.

What interests you about cars?

From a visual perspective mostly their rear — I like them broad and wide like a real car should be. Not flimsy and petite. Loud and fast from a driving perspective.

Why do you think cars and girls go well together?

When I started puzzling around with my images and found they had a similar mood and sensuality. For some reason I was shooting them the same way and it just matched. Once that was discovered I just kept working on the concept.

How did you start out as a photographer’s assistant?

Knowing nothing: totally green and very lucky to have met great photographers who were patient and shared with me so I could learn.

What’s your advice to others who are interested in becoming an assistant? 

Set your mind to it. It’s a profession not a part-time fun thing you can do on the side. If you are serious about becoming a photographer, start by being a brilliant assistant.

What were the most important things you did right as an assistant?

Being persistent and motivated – doing the hard yards with a smile on your face. I was never late and I never let anyone down as far as I know so you earn people’s trust. Once they start sharing with you your knowledge and network grows.

Was it hard to branch out on your own?

Yes it is hard: no doubt about that. And after the years of beans on toast as an assistant you actually start again at the bottom as a photographer. You have to be patient, believe in yourself, be clever with your business and your network and keep going!

When do you know the time is right to do that?

To assistants I would give the advice to move on as soon as they are bored on a shoot and couldn’t care less, or when they start feeling impatient because they would shoot differently or better. I knew the time was right because my gut feeling and the energy around me was pushing me. Before you know it you are growing out of the assistant’s shoes.

What did it mean to you to win a prize at last year’s Head On portrait prize?

I was blown away and so proud. I have known about this portrait prize since volunteering five years ago at the Australian Centre for Photography, helping to hang the show. I really wanted to be on the walls of the ACP some day too. It also meant recognition of my work, standing in the limelight of both good and bad criticism. And it meant that I had finally cracked one of the photography prizes after years of entering without success!

How did winning affect your career?

It was a great push forward as the publicity for the prize is immense and the prize is very reputable in the photographic industry. I was very happy to shoot a portrait campaign for the Australian Arts Council as a result, commissioned by a design agency that saw my work at Head On. All the gear and prizes obviously helped and it has opened even more doors in the industry for me.

What have you been working on since?

The funny thing is when I started shooting I declared myself a non-people photographer. How things can change! I have a couple of pots on the stove in terms of personal work. I would love to keep exhibiting and discovering photography more as an art form and maybe step away from portraits when it comes to exhibition pieces. I do however love portraits and telling stories so this will be continued in personal and also commercial work.

Fiona Wolf                                            Seminar: The Art of Delegation                                                     Girls N Cars

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Head On Photo Awards 2024

Entries to the Head On Photo Awards 2024 open in May/June.

Image detail: Gary Ramage