Photographer captures natural NZ

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Wanaka photographer, veterinarian and conservationist Gilbert van Reenen has traversed New Zealand by foot and plane and captured many landscapes with his camera.

He developed an interest in photography and the natural world from a young age, after emigrating to New Zealand from Indonesia with his family as a 4-year-old.

He only spoke Dutch at the time, but one of his neighbours had served in the Boer War and had picked up Afrikaans during his time in Africa.

“He could communicate with me.

“This guy was really into natural history and folklore – he had an amazing knowledge of Maori history.

“We were surrounded by native bush – he used to take me into the natural forest.”

Early on he developed an interest in photography, having been given the German equivalent of a Box Brownie when he was about 10. A family friend nurtured his interest and he went on to join the photography club at high school.

Attending James Hargest College in Invercargill nurtured an interest in tramping.

One of his teachers, Phil Dorizac, was one of the first rangers in Fiordland National Park, and in summer 1966-67, Mr van Reenen joined an expedition led by Mr Dorizac which took them to Tuatapere, Te Waewae Bay, Puysegur Point, Preservation Inlet and Lake Monk, just south of Dusky Sound.

“I needed a camera to record all the amazing places we went to.

“It’s a trip that’s only just been repeated in the last few years.

“We had just very basic equipment. Boy, we actually lived off the land. It’s an experience very few people would be able to have now.”

Mr van Reenen’s interest in photography and botany led to a summer job in what was then the Forest Research Institute, where he was charged with monitoring and managing natural non-production forest lands.

“In the course of that I got to walk over most of the South Island high country alpine grasslands.

“We used a photography technique to work out the ground cover of plant species and biodiversity.”

At the time, the photographic technique was “leading edge”, involving taking photos from an array of points. Back in the lab, photos were then projected on to a glass screen, making them appear 3-D.

“That expanded my photographic knowledge quite extensively.”

He continued to be a keen tramper throughout his university studies, and also edited the Massey University’s Massif magazine.

Following his graduation, he became a veterinarian and later went on to specialise in deer medicine and management then reproduction technology and research.

He practised for 30 years, and used his own plane to reach some of his more remote clients.

But he continued to pursue photography, and honed his skills by listening to professionals who tutored at Wanaka’s Autumn Arts School, organised by his wife Robyn for the past 28 years.

In 2013 he was commissioned by the NZ Centre for Art Research at Auckland University to locate and photograph the southern locations of the drawings, sketches and paintings of 19th century scientific illustrator naturalist and artist John Buchanan.

“That was a huge buzz.

“One of the highlights was .. finding a rare plant named after him.

Mr van Reenen was the 2014 Whare Kea/Kenneth Myer Artist in Residence at the Whare Kea Chalet on the Albert Burn Saddle above the East Branch of the Matukituki valley near Mt Aspiring National Park.

He has published several of his own books and also collaborated with other authors, including New Zealand Poet Laureate Brian Turner.

His first book, Central Otago, sold more than 12,000 copies and has been reprinted for the fourth time.

He describes himself as a “staunch” member of the Royal Society’s Wanaka branch, and is also a member of Forest & Bird and Wise Response.