Frank Film: Andris Apse, one of New Zealand’s foremost landscape photographers

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Andris Apse endured hardship as a wartime refugee and a lonely upbringing in New Zealand. Despite this, he became one of our most famous landscape photographers. Video / Franck Film

Andris Apse is one of New Zealand’s greatest landscape photographers, but his personal story reminds us that life itself can sometimes match the beauty and weirdness of our finest art.

At the age of 5, Apse arrived in this country from Latvia with his mother Kamilla – refugees fleeing the chaotic aftermath of World War II. The family had been separated and Voldemars – Kamilla’s beloved husband and Andris’ father – was presumed dead.

Some 45 years later, Apse remembers receiving an urgent phone call from his mother. She had received a handwritten letter that she recognized instantly.

Speaking candidly to Frank Film, Apse describes a lifetime of experiences from hunger and hardship to the eventual rewards of a career capturing the sublime beauty and ambiance of his beloved New Zealand landscapes.

The defining moment for Apse came when a job with Forest Research first took him to Fiordland.

“We traveled miles and miles of country where there was no one, just the sound of birds, the sound of water and the sound of vegetation being blown away.

“I didn’t own a camera at the time, but I thought to myself, ‘I have to go back and buy a camera and come back to Fiordland, and show people what we have here.’

“I became obsessed with it, really.”

The quality and distinctiveness of his photographs, along with timely sponsorship, enabled Apse to eventually become a full-time landscape photographer.

That clear sense of purpose had been a long time coming. During the war, Apse’s parents and their infant son faced an uncertain future in frightening times.

“They were in their twenties when they met and fell in love. Then I was born, and he had to leave for the Front.

“They were physically torn. And he only saw me once.”

The deep love between Apse’s father, Voldemars (Valdis) and his mother Kamilla (Millija), is eloquently expressed in Voldermars’ letters and diary entries, excerpts of which Apse generously shares on camera.

Dear Millija, I want you. Whenever you’re not with me, everything seems dark and gloomy.

After almost five years in a refugee camp in Germany, with hunger as an ever-present companion, Apse and her mother were able to embark on a new life in New Zealand.

“We only had what my mother could carry, which was her bag of letters and me.”

“We were kind of a lonely partnership, mother and son. It was a very lonely existence for us. It was really terrible.”

After Kamilla’s remarriage, Apse was not welcomed home by his father-in-law, so he flew to Nelson Forestry School. He describes the harsh reality of his loneliness when, at vacation time, his classmates went home, one by one, to their families.

“I pretended I had family and friends because I didn’t want to be seen as a lone wolf.

“I watched them all leave, and I was [always]Gonna get the next bus out, the next bus…”

Andris Apse is one of New Zealand's leading landscape photographers.  Photo / Frank Film
Andris Apse is one of New Zealand’s leading landscape photographers. Photo / Frank Film

Ironically, there is a connection between Apse’s New Zealand odyssey and his work methodology. The ability to isolate and concentrate served his art well.

Ninety percent of his work, he tells Frank Film, is spent planning and exploring.

“I only take 20 photos a year, really. But I spend days researching locations and trying to figure out exactly where I should be standing – whether it’s here, over there or a yard away.”

The letter his mother received unexpectedly from her dear Valdis changed everything.

“There was great joy. At the beginning.

“But 45 years is a lifetime, isn’t it. We knew it was a lifetime when we faced off after the initial greetings and cheers.

“We realized there was…a life between us, which was pretty sad.”

However, we can all be grateful for the life’s work that Apse has created, regardless.

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