Regan Cameron is one of New Zealand’s most successful exports, yet most of us don’t even know his name. Rebecca Barry discovers how he went from wannabe fashion photographer in Paris to photographing the world’s biggest celebrities in New York.
Madonna. Kate Moss. Cameron Diaz. The digital photo display blinks through a who's who of supermodels, pop stars and film stars. The man who photographed them all is Regan Cameron. Leaning over a desk in his Manhattan office, the affable Kiwi flicks through the December issue of Teen Vogue, for which he shot the cover image of Glee stars Lea Michele and Cory Monteith. This week he's busy working on the next Victoria's Secret campaign, a job that has meant he's spent the past day staring through a lens at lingerie-clad supermodel Alessandra Ambrosio. Next he'll get stuck into a fragrance campaign for Donna Karan. As well as the celebrities he photographs for Vogue, he regularly shoots campaigns for brands such as Ralph Lauren, Estee Lauder and Elle Macpherson. Along the way he's photographed Gisele Bundchen, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Nicole Kidman, Scarlett Johansson, Christy Turlington, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow - the list goes on.
"In the studio, shooting is where I like to be," says Cameron.
For now though, the 45-year-old's doing admin in the office down the road from the studio, parked between art galleries in the Chelsea district of New York City. Two doors down, bizarre green figures glare from an austere white space. To get to Cameron's office you have to take the world's slowest lift, which leads to a small labyrinth of creative spaces. Cameron and his Australian wife, Kate, built their Manhattan townhouse two streets away.
If that's not enough evidence of success, there are plenty of images to choose from, including one of Madonna and Missy Elliott in the True Blue jeans commercial for Gap sitting in his office.
As a teen growing up in New Zealand, Cameron didn't have New York in his sights, nor fashion. But he did have a strong ambition.
Art was his strong suit at Auckland's Marcellin College; he was drawn to the photographic imagery of painters such as landscape artist Robin White, which fuelled his dream to work as a wildlife photographer for National Geographic. Cameron got a job at a local supermarket to fund his first camera, bought on hire purchase. His first gig: shooting sports day for the school magazine.
Determined to get stuck in, he bypassed studying photography and instead threw himself into finding work in Auckland.
He is hugely grateful to the late, great Kiwi photojournalist Brian Brake. They met when Cameron was working in a photo lab processing film. Brake encouraged the budding photographer to develop his composition skills, and took Cameron under his wing, arranging for him to attend a week-long photography workshop in Queenstown with leading photographers such as National Geographic's Chris Rainer, who had worked for a legend of American photography, Ansel Adams.
"I was this sponge and sponged up a whole lot of stuff because of Brian. I owe everything I have to people like him. That was a huge break."
Cameron also credits Ngila Dickson (now an Oscar-winning film costume designer), for giving him a leg up and giving him work when she was editor at street rag ChaCha, an incubator for the creative talent emerging in the 1980s.
Cameron relished the chance to take strange images, "and that's where the bug started," he says with an Aussie twang he credits to his wife. In between training on the job and playing space invaders, Cameron fondly remembers a youth spent in bookstores, poring over the photography books with his equally obssesive photography mates.
"We soaked that up all day long."
For his 21st birthday present his parents bought him a ticket to Sydney.He arrived there armed with pictures he'd taken of the Fijian boxing team in a local gym. An Aussie mag liked what they saw, and Cameron was asked to return to New Zealand to shoot fashion. Before long, Cameron found he had one thing on his mind: he was going to Paris to become a fashion photographer.
Paris, however, had other ideas.
"I did get a couple of jobs but it became quite clear I didn't know what I was doing at that stage," he laughs.
The biggest lesson?
"How to become anorexic. I was just broke and knew I had a return ticket for 12 months, so I bailed out of there after a long year. It was shocking because I was so determined to make things work but it was so obvious that nothing was going to happen to keep me going. Unless I became an assistant. But assisting was never in my plan. I just wanted to be a photographer and working in Paris. I was pretty driven."
After a short spell in New Zealand, he returned to Sydney. Humbled by his European rejection, he hunkered down and set out to learn as much as he could about fashion photography. After a couple of years, aged 26, he was ready for London.
By then his admiration had shifted to prolific English photographer David Bailey, whose portraits of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and supermodel Jean Shrimpton had adorned posters and the pages of British Vogue.
Cameron also set his sights on the famous fashion magazine, noticing its tendency to employ only the British social elite as writers but its photographers were of a different breed. Many, like Bailey, came from working class backgrounds.
"They were East End boys who weren't exactly part of the British [upper classes]. And I was just this weird little Kiwi with a strange accent from the colonies. There was no stigma attached to who or what you were and suddenly you're allowed in this door with a whole lot of posh people."
Vogue allowed him creative licence to do some way-out things: on a couple of shoots he stuck the photographs on cardboard and submitted them; they were printed that way too.
"We didn't quite know what we were doing. I was young and trying to work it out."
It was a wild and experimental time, both in the studio and on the social scene.
"It was mental, there was a lot of partying going on. You do party with celebrities but usually they leave and go with someone groovier than you. It's a bit like being a dentist to a certain degree. You're working with stars and then they go, 'right, bye!' It's a job, you know. I'm not hanging out with Victoria's Secret models tonight, I'm a bit old for that now. But I've been to some good parties over the years. You drop your jaw and go, 'am I really at this?"'
The turning point, the moment when Cameron really knew he'd made it, was when he shot Madonna for InStyle magazine in 2001. Madge liked one of his images so much she used it on her tour posters.
"To me you couldn't get anyone more famous. The Pope maybe. You lifted up the camera, and suddenly they're in your camera and it's quite odd."
Despite his predictions otherwise, the star let Cameron direct the shoot.
"It was really interesting because I was quite nervous, thinking, 'she's not going to listen to a word I say' but she was totally, 'what do you want me to do?' Obviously that's why she's at the top - she works with people she trusts. A big part of [this job] is working that trust level up as fast as possible, otherwise if they think you're going to make them look like a sack of potatoes, it's not going to work."
Another surreal gauge of success came when a movie star came knocking on the door of his "funny old" Mt Pleasant studio.
He and his assistant, Aaron Ward, had organised a photographic protest against the French government's nuclear testing in Mururoa. Several high-profile stars had already put their names and faces to the project, including Kate Moss and Paul McCartney.
Then one day the doorbell rang and in walked his next subject.
"And the next minute I'm taking Johnny Depp's photo. He's a pretty cool dude."
Over the years, Cameron found himself increasingly called to assignments in New York.
He fell for the city's "mad chaos", intoxicated by its history of photography and its abundance of opportunity. It's such a photography town it's incredible that Cameron has managed to make his mark.
"You gotta wonder don't you? It just amazes me it keeps going every year, because there's just so much competition. Somehow I've beaten the pack. I'm a bit more established, I guess. I must be doing something right."
He now lives two streets away with his Australian wife, former top model Kate McGurgan, (he met her on a photo shoot for Vogue Australia), and their two boys, aged 12 and 6. How does she cope with a husband who spends many an hour staring at Victoria's Secret models?
"I think it helps that she's worked in the biz. She's pretty confident in herself and she's fine with it. She's just happy I'm making the rent."
His kids have since become global citizens, whose accents change depending on which country they visit. Every year the family travels home to New Zealand (and Australia) to see family, diving back into Kiwi life.
As for his own connections, Cameron says he'll never abandon his "Kiwiness", suggesting it's New Zealand practicality, coupled with our burgeoning creative scene, that has allowed so many successful Kiwis - such as good friend Karen Walker - to operate from home.
"I think there's a definite practicality to [us] ... There are so many overseas doing so well but it's a lot easier now to stay in New Zealand and do all this. Now when I come back, there are so many more opportunities."