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Seeing the light: Inside New Zealand photographer Cody Ellingham's love affair with Tokyo

Cody Ellingham is an architectural photographer and art director who grew up in Hawkes Bay, but now spends his days capturing the beauty of Tokyo’s otherworldly buildings. His new exhibition, Future Cities, uses sophisticated photography and editing techniques to explore what a city of the future could look like. Here, he shares his take on the intersection between technology, architecture and art.

How would you describe your photography style?

If I was to describe my photographs, I would say they show quiet moments, late at night or in a weary twilight. They’re places that exist in reality, but I show them with only the slightest hint of humanity, giving them an otherworldly feel.

Do you think you perceive the world differently to other people? If so, what is your unique perspective that you bring?

I grew up as a country kid in Hawkes Bay. I spent a lot of time wandering around the country roads and mountains and rivers of the North Island and I got used to spending time alone in places, really, just staring into space sometimes. I guess when I explore cities I see them in the same kind of way, mountains of concrete and steel, rivers of light – symbols from some language that I do not fully understand.

How did you wind up in Tokyo?

I was 20 years old and I felt stuck in my hometown. I knew that I wanted to take my creative work to the world stage, but I did not have any idea of what path I should take to get there. I was doing some freelance design projects by day and cleaning office buildings by night (reverse moonlighting). My eyes were wide open for any hint of opportunity, though. One night while vacuuming an old building on Karamu Road in Hastings, the crazy idea hit me to just go to Tokyo. Before I did that though, I knew I had work to do: I got myself down to Vic University in Wellington to get my bachelor’s degree (essential for working in Japan) and I studied like a madman to get a scholarship that would take me to Tokyo. The rest is history.

What is it about this particular city that inspires you creatively?

My creative career was really born in Tokyo. There is so many layers of history and culture here. The city itself is a sprawl that is almost impossible to imagine, stretching beyond the horizon. You can walk past neighbourhoods of old wooden houses overgrown with moss and 10 minutes later, you are surrounded by skyscrapers and neon lights.

Can you explain the idea behind your Future Cities installation? What will it be exploring?

My recent projects have been mostly about exploring the past in a very static way, but I have always been interested in the other side of that – so, questions of the future. I teamed up with a few of my creative friends in Tokyo with the bare theme of 'What would the city of the future look like?' and we just started jamming. We realised we could never truly predict the future because we would always get it wrong (no flying cars yet, Mr Jetson) but we wondered 'What if we could convey the feeling of the future?' Over a few weeks and long weekends, we developed technology for scanning the city as it is with special 360 degree cameras, and bringing it into the computer where we can manipulate it and create and interactive real-time experience.

What’s the most challenging part of being in the architectural photography and art direction business?

The creative industry is constantly changing. Old paradigms die hard in this world, so you got to keep on your feet but at the same time not lose the 'spark' that got you here. Keep curious, be prolific.

What’s been your favourite project you’ve worked on so far?

I had the chance to shoot the Architecture of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics recently as a retrospective for Pen Magazine International, where I was able to explore the work of one of my favourite architects, Kenzo Tange.

Where to next with your craft? What are you most excited about for the future?

2018 has been a crazy year for me. Honestly, I have jetted from Shanghai to Hong Kong, Taiwan to Tokyo, and all over for my work and I so next thing is to make a full circle and head back to New Zealand for a little while. I will be working on a yet-to-be-announced project where I am hoping to go back to my roots in the mountains for a few months.

  • Find Cody on Instagram here

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