The little kid from Milton Keynes who was memorising and naming cars from the time he was tall enough to look out of the window is now combining his passions for cars and photography in Whanganui.

But it's not all car-drool and snapshots; this is a serious business.

Lewis Gardner, a self-confessed "petrolhead", has set up New Zealand's second-largest cyclorama in a former woolstore in Bedford Ave, sharing the space with artist Glen Hutchins and surrounded by other artists' studios.

Gardner says it's difficult for people who are not familiar with the concept to understand the cyclorama.


"The hardest thing is trying to explain it to people, especially if they don't do photography or haven't seen a cyclorama. So I needed to build it, photograph it and create my marketing material before anyone could understand what I've tried to build."

A cyclorama used in photography is a curved white backdrop with a roof that diffuses light. Photographing items within the cyclorama ensures there is no reflection or shadow - perfect for a photographer who is car-crazy.

Once you understand the scale of the cyclorama, the woolstore location makes sense. Built from timber framing with plaster and plasterboard sculpted to smooth, even curves, it is eight metres deep, nine metres wide and nearly four metres tall. The huge white space, which plays tricks with your mind having no reference points or depth perception, is Gardner's pride and joy.

"I bought it from Parkside Media in Auckland," Gardner said.

"I've done some work for them for their NZV8 and Classic Car magazines. They were shifting premises and wanted to get rid of it so I said I'd buy it.

"It was a big job to move it. I went up to Auckland with my father-in-law and his two brothers. We left at 5am on a Wednesday and got back at midnight on Thursday. It took two trucks and two trailers to get it back to Whanganui."

As an aside while we're talking petrolheads, Gardner's companions on the journey were the Huijs brothers, well-known in midget car racing and jetsprint circles. Gardner is married to Rachel (nee Huijs) which is a whole other story about adventures on the high seas, working on cruise ships.

Back to the cyclorama.

It was a four-month project to purchase the cyclorama, with Gardner funding its move to Whanganui with the assistance of a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. He's been driven to make a success of the business partly due to his best mate who contributed to the Kickstarter fund.

"He died the day before we went to Auckland to pick up the cyclorama so I was under a lot of pressure. But he believed in me and wanted me to succeed so that's pushed me on. A lot of nice people in the community also contributed to the campaign because it was something different for Whanganui and there is lots that people are able to do with it."

It's the second biggest cyclorama in New Zealand, the only one outside Wellington and Auckland and one of the few with drive-in access.

Once the car is in Gardner's studio, it goes into the cyclorama and vehicle positioning jacks are placed on the wheels so he can rotate the car without having to start it up or move it too much.

While Gardner is mad on car photography, he is using the cyclorama for other work as well.

"I've photographed bathtubs and a table and chairs in the cyclorama. Bathtubs are notoriously difficult to photograph. They are so reflective that you can see everything reflected when you photograph them in other settings.

"I recently had a football team come in and took team photos and individual portraits.

"The cyclorama can be used for all sorts of things, it just depends on people's imagination about what they want to do. I want to make it available to other photographers in Whanganui who may have creative ideas. There may be all manner of ideas that haven't occurred to me.

"I'm now developing my marketing and will be visiting other potential clients. It would be great for video and design courses to use the cyclorama facility. I have some friends in car dealerships who think they may be able to use the service for their special models.

"Whanganui has a lot of classic, muscle and race cars but we don't have a lot of performance cars. They do have quite a lot of performance cars in Palmerston North so I'm hoping to show photographers there my place and see if they want to use it."

Gardner recently invited Mayor Hamish McDouall to visit the studio and says he was particularly enthusiastic about one of Gardner's ideas for the venue.

"I could use it for drive-in movies. You could project the film on the cyclorama and have three or four cars lined up inside the studio for people to sit in. When Hamish came to visit he said he wanted to be at the first screening."

The studio is also being set up for other photography and video work, both for Gardner's own projects and for hire.

"I'm intending to set up a roller system along one wall of the space for black, white and green rollers for backgrounds. The green screen will be able to be used for video purposes.

"I have a light table where products can be photographed. I've tried to make it so I can photograph any product someone wants. I do a lot of photography of commercial products as well as automotive photography. I've tried to make a one-stop shop."

Gardner does draw the line at some photography work.

"Weddings are the only thing I refuse to photograph. I like to take my time for a shoot I'm doing properly. With a car, I can line it up properly and set it up where I want it. A full shoot, including exterior, engine bay, interior etc, would be an all-day affair and then there's editing after that."

So who is Lewis Gardner and where did this obsession with cars come from?

"I'm from Milton Keynes and I've loved cars ever since I was a kid. As soon as I was tall enough to look out of the window I started memorising and naming cars. I have a particular obsession with Minis and have subscribed to a Mini magazine since I was 12. I was picking car parts and coming up with car designs before I could even get a driver's licence.

Ah, Milton Keynes, "the new town"...

In Buckinghamshire, about 72km from London, Milton Keynes is often mocked as having the most boring urban design of any place in England. However, to Gardner it's the capital of cool as it's near the Silverstone motor racing circuit, home of the British Grand Prix, and is the base for some Formula 1 teams.

"I'm a petrolhead so I love photographing cars," says Gardner.

"When the Fast and Furious films came out in England there was a huge surge of interest in cars. I did film and television studies at the University of Northampton and photography was a big part of that. It's hard to get into photography as a career. You have to come from rich parents who will support you or you have to just grind away at it."

Grinding away at it meant taking a job with Argos, a British catalogue retailer, which made him unhappy. He quit and went to work as a photographer on cruise ships where he met now-wife Rachel. That eventually led to a move to her hometown of Whanganui.

"After we moved to Whanganui I started freelancing for the Chronicle and doing some commercial work for Brethren companies in town. After working for them, and doing some car photography while out and about, I decided to take it to the next level and start up a company."

Lewis Gardner Photography was born and seems right at home in Whanganui.

"Rachel told me her family was interested in cars but I didn't realise the extent of that until I got to Whanganui. I've been to quite a few events with them and try to help them at races.

"Whanganui is such a mecca of cool car stuff and there are all sorts of things tucked away in sheds here. Pulse Performance Race Engineering (PPRE) in Whanganui are performance specialists and make cars for Mad Mike who is a well-known drifter. I know there are a lot more nice cars in Whanganui and I'm trying to do my bit to get them out there."

And now we go full circle: Whanganui kick started the journey to the cyclorama.

"When I moved to Whanganui I met Bruce Hodge who has a really nice blue Mustang. He let me photograph his car and I sent the pictures to a magazine. They loved the photographs but didn't need them as they had others. However, they asked me to do some other work for them and I've done three feature shoots and various events and written a few stories for them."

The work was for Parkside Media's NZV8 and Classic Car magazines. That's the same Parkside Media that used to own the cyclorama which is now giving Gardner more opportunities to perfect his automotive photography.

"Nothing makes me happier than photographing cars. I love Whanganui. It's been good to me."

Photos / Stuart Munro.
Photos / Stuart Munro.