Talking to Maggie Gould is like catching up with an old friend with way more stories than you. The 48-year-old Kiwi photographer has had so many fascinating experiences it's a wonder her AUT photography students don't pester her constantly with questions. From photographing the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square to getting break-up advice from the Dalai Lama, to making Audrey Hepburn laugh and hanging out with Paul and Linda McCartney, Gould has an almost mystical ability to be in the right place at the right time. When she lived in London she "put it out there" that she wanted to photograph Bill Nighy; not long afterwards she spotted the angular actor across the road.
That's not to say serendipity entirely orchestrates her encounters.
"All my work is self-initiated, it's not been handed to me," says Gould, sitting on the couch at the Antoinette Godkin Gallery in Parnell, where her exhibition Vedere is being held.
Portraits by Maggie Gould. Dame Whina Cooper, Johnny Cash and the Dalai Lama.
Among the icons, snapped over the course of 25 years, are striking images of Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, Nina Simone, Oscar Peterson, Clint Eastwood, Nelson Mandela and Johnny Cash. Gould is also a trained jazz singer who likes to seek out her heroes. "I love musicians. I don't chase them down. I could never be a paparazzo."
But she is steely. She started out at Wellington's Dominion Post where she battled for recognition in a male-dominated industry. Hungry for the thrill of hard news, she moved to Hong Kong and worked for the South China Morning Post. For three years she covered the riots, told stories of the underprivileged and exposed corruption.
"I wanted to help. I was naive and young. I was very keen. But you see things you possibly shouldn't photograph: repatriation, protests, a lot of violence. It's a tough working environment, 12 hours a day. A lot of people cope by drinking. I came home instead."
She didn't last long here before getting a scholarship that would allow her to study for three months in New York, where she trained her lens on a family from the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. It was an enriching experience but a wake-up call for the fearless shutterbug. One night she was mugged on the subway. "I've never run so fast in my life. But all I could think was, 'I don't want to lose the footage!'"
Intent on maintaining her autonomy, Gould has worked as a freelancer ever since, gaining access to people through her natural charm. "Humour is a good approach because then people trust you."
When she turned up to photograph Dame Whina Cooper (Gould's portrait hangs in Te Papa), she struck up a conversation about their shared brand of washing machine. The revered Maori leader gave her some advice. "She said, 'Don't just take from people, try and give them something.'"
This morning, for example, she has brought home-made banana cake for Godkin.
She's never worked as a photographer for the money, she says, but for the artistic satisfaction, the chance to capture true beauty. When Audrey Hepburn flew into the country for Unicef in 1990, Gould could see she was tired and overwhelmed; her partner Robert Wolders didn't look happy either.
"I said, 'I'd love to make an image of you but we don't need him, he's a bit too gorgeous.' She burst out laughing and told me, 'Nobody's ever spoken to him like that. It'll do him good.'"
Gould was just as cool meeting Paul and Linda McCartney after tracking them to Kaikoura, where they were whale-watching with their family during the star's 1993 tour. After getting along famously with fellow photographer Linda, Gould hitchhiked back to Auckland in time for the show - where she was promptly turned away at the gate.
"I was about to walk away when I thought, 'no, don't give up.' Then Linda came out: 'Let her in, she's our guest.' What are the chances? It's bizarre."
Backstage, it was Linda's idea for Gould to pretend she didn't want to photograph Paul, who, unused to being ignored, started jumping around, trying to make himself obvious.
"I was dying to shoot him because I knew he'd start the concert soon. Next thing he grabbed the camera and starts photographing Linda and me. Eventually he said, 'Don't you want to get a photo of me?' I said, 'Actually, your wife's more interesting.'"
But Gould's most profound meeting was with the Dalai Lama, who was addressing a media breakfast during his New Zealand tour. Preoccupied by grief, Gould was shocked when His Holiness made a beeline for her.
"I blurted out, 'My marriage has just broken up.' I don't know what I was thinking.
"He just held my hand and said, 'Do nothing. Don't react out of ego. Don't get angry. What makes you smile?' 'Music and baking.' He said, 'You sing, go bake a cake.'"
She took his advice seriously and started gigging, partly for fun but also to help pay the bills. At 40 she threw herself into a full-time jazz degree in Wellington while raising her daughter, Olivia (now 20). Gould has since sung at B.B. King's Manhattan jazz club and now has a weekly Thursday night gig at Shanghai Lil's on Ponsonby Rd with guitarist partner Lance Su'a and percussionist Miguel Fuentes.
"I truly believe that if anyone is going through any sadness, be it illness, a break-up, loneliness, creativity is the way through.
"Not sitting on a counselling couch or dwelling on things or drinking. Creativity gives other people pleasure too."
What: Vedere by photographer Maggie Gould
Where and when: Antoinette Godkin Gallery, Apt Y32, 30 York St, Parnell, November 22-December 13