Wellingtonian Mark Gee meets me at Princess Bay, the southern-most point of Wellington, around sundown. It is fittingly one of his favourite places in Poneke.
In case you have been living with the seals at Red Rocks in the last few years, you've likely heard of Mark Gee aka The Art of Night. With almost half a million followers on Facebook and 37,000 on Instagram, it is safe to say Mark's work is popular the world over. On the night we meet for the first time in person, the golden sun is pouring over the rocks around from Lyall Bay. It feels like custard, so thick you can touch the light.
I am personally incredibly excited to meet Mark, having been a fan of his work for several years. I feel like I am being introduced to Wellington photographic/artistic/film/scientific royalty. Nevertheless, I hold in my gushiness remaining as cool as ever (and deep concern he'll sense my lack of photographic prowess - which normally for me goes 'Point and press the button').
Mark, his son Ethan and I head from here to Spruce Goose for a quick coffee and chinwag about what it means to be a resident of Wellington. "Every now and then I have to pinch myself and remind myself I am doing something wonderful in a wonderful place," Mark says.
WHO IS MARK GEE?
Father, visual effects supervisor and all around nice dude, Mark is New Zealand's the best-known astrophotographer. Besides winning a truck-load of awards, in December 2016, his work was featured in the Wondrous Wellington Advent Calendar alongside that of Jeff McEwan (who I interviewed here). Mark not only seems like one of the gentlest and thoughtful chaps I've met in a long time (thanks for liking all my Instagram photos, Mark - I'll pay you later) but also is without a doubt a highly inspiring Wellingtonian. However, astrophotography is a style which Mark only discovered and fell madly in love with around 2008. So how did he start and why does he stay by Wellington's rocky shores?
HOW DID HE GET HERE?
Despite being a true blue Wellingtonian, Mark is not a native Kiwi. He was born on the Gold Coast and grew up living a surf lifestyle. "My parents were at differing stages differing jobs: electrician, hotelier, publican, teacher. I used to work in pubs in my teenage years. I got into the surf and beach lifestyle - had a go at school and studied graphic design. I started as a graphic designer and photography was always a part of it. I worked my way into film and TV." At age 13 his uncle took young Mark to an auction where he bought his first camera. Mark studied photography at school but after that time his photographic skills, particularly night photography skills, have been all self-taught.
After the company Mark was working for on the Gold Coast went broke, he decided to have a punt at the biggest thing out there at the time 'The Lord of the Rings'. Mark 'tried his luck' and got an interview. He moved from the Gold Coast in Australia to New Zealand in 2003. Mark had started out as a surf photographer. On his first day in Wellington, he came down to Lyall Bay and noticed some good surf. He thought he could keep it up - except there was no good surf for the next four months. Over this time, he started to shoot the landscape. He became intrigued by night time photography after his first trip to Castle Point and admiring the sky. There he took his first photos "They probably came out black" Mark laughs. It was the start of an obsession.
Around 2008 he started a Facebook page for his night photography. It was from 2009 Mark's work started to get noticed. "It went from there" he says. He started getting into shooting the night sky more and more, even when it meant late nights. "I'd set the back of the car up to make sure I got a sleep in. And then I would just stay up anyway marvelling at the night sky" Mark explains.
In 2012 Mark noticed the moon rising when he was out in Courtenay Place. He thought it would be cool to take a video of it. It took about a year to get the photo perfect. "I lined up the shot and it all came together," he says. The video was first posted on Vimeo and has gained around 6 Million likes and over 400,000 YouTube. "I woke up the day after I first posted it and there were all these tweets and a dude calling me from CNN. It was insane!" Mark admits.
Now, the astrophotography scene has exploded with more and more people finding an interest in astrophotography. "It used to be just myself and some fisherman at Red Rocks at night," says Mark. "Now the beach has little red lights shining from all the photographers trying their hand at astrophotography."
Naturally Mark likes Wellington as a place to shoot his night time photos. One of Mark's favourite places to shoot is Cape Palliser in Wellington, the scene of one of his most famous photographs that won him Astrophotographer of the Year 2013.
"One evening I was waiting for a particular shot. I took that and it turned out really nicely. Around 5 AM when I woke up I saw a scene in front of me. It had the milky way extending in front of the Lighthouse. I thought: 'Holy Crap, I've gotta shoot this'. But my gear was actually at the top of the lighthouse. I bolted up 280 steps to go and get my gear. It was a panic because it was getting lighter. I took a panoramic photo and it was that photo that won astronomy photo of the year. Sometimes there's a photo you can't plan for."
WHAT DOES HE LIKE?
Outside of photography Mark enjoys surfing and kite surfing and generally being active outdoors, as well as spending time with his son. He loved music and is constantly looking for music to go with his self-made time lapse films. When it comes to photography, Mark is self-professed obsessed with composition. "I grew obsessed with the positioning of the night sky and how it relates to the landscape. You might only have one chance a year to take a certain shot."
WHY SHOULD I CARE ABOUT MARK'S PHOTOGRAPHY?
First - it's fricken' stunning. Check it out here (I'm keeping his photos off my page for fear they will out-swag my own by a country mile so you'll have to click through ya hear?!).
Second, he's inspired a new generation of photographers to pick up their cameras and head into the night, often staying up for hours to capture that perfect shot.
I saw Mark for the first time speaking at TEDxChristchurch where he delivered a speech about his craft, explaining his phenomenally successful short film 'Full moon silhouettes', a talk you can watch here below.
HOW WOULD I KNOW HIM OUTSIDE HIS ASTROPHOTOGRAPHY?
During his days Mark can be found at Weta Digital as a visual effects supervisor. He's worked on many of Weta Digital's best and most exciting productions.
Mark admits that procrastination and perfectionism are his weaknesses. "You have to have a thick skin in this internet age because people are always trying to knock you" he shrugs.
"I ended up in Wellington for work but I have grown to fall in love with it. It's a small compact city. It's a small drive to the sea from the city. I've thought about going back to Australia and I wouldn't want to live in a big city anymore. I'm staying here for the moment" Mark smiles.