Industrial light and magic – a profile of architectural photographer George Apostolidis

Atrium, Mandarin Oriental Barcelona. Photograph: George Apostolidis.

George Apostolidis is just about to head to Bangkok when I catch up with the award-winning photographer at his home in the prosperous Melbourne suburb of Kew. A two-week shoot in Thailand will be followed by work in Paris and then Barcelona, all for the same client: Mandarin Oriental – the five-star luxury hotel group for whom Apostolidis has worked for over twenty years. He will spend three months away with his producer-stylist, who just happens to also be his wife Cathy.

The inconvenience of their extended trip is somewhat mitigated by the fact that they’ll be put up and pampered at Mandarin’s fabulously luxurious hotels at each location. “I never bother telling people the job is hard,” says Apostolidis, “because they’d never believe me, so I tell people it’s easy.” Is it? “No,” he says emphatically.

Apostolidis was born in 1956 in Laimos, a village cornered by Greece’s border with Albania and what is now the Former Yugolsavian Republic of Macedonia. “I’m a hundred per cent Greek,” exclaims Apostolidis with a chuckle: he laughs easily and often. With a reputation for professional integrity that matches his artistic prowess, Apostolidis exudes the quiet confidence of a man at the summit of success, but this naturally modest artist is anything but ostentatious.

He talks with a quiet passion about his family’s story. “My grandfather had a general store in Laimos which was doing very well until the Communists closed the borders. Then they lost eighty per cent of their trade. Those villages became ghost towns.”

Apostolidis describes his background as that of “a typical migrant family”. “My parents married in Greece and took an incredible gamble. Dad came to Australia in 1960. We came out in 1963,  joined the railways as a labourer, worked for two years, then bought a house in Carlton, and then brought the family over. Mum worked as a fabrics machinist. “The goal for my parents was for their sons to succeed. They worked day-in, day-out to finance our education.”

Apostolidis says he was first fascinated with the photographic process as a child. “My aunt Anastasia gave me a camera when I was eleven years-old. I loved animals, and I remember the first thing I tried to photograph was a canary. It was a point and shoot camera in those days.” With the canary in the can, so to speak, Apostolidis’ passion for photography was sealed.

After leaving school, he completed a BA in Photography at Melbourne’s RMIT University, the period during which he met Cathy, who was studying ceramics. They’ve been married thirty years and have three twenty-something daughters: Anastasia – a jeweller, Christina – who works at Melbourne’s Centre for Contemporary Photography, and Alexandra – who is in her final year studying fashion design.

Soon after his own graduation in 1979, Apostolidis was working as an assistant for a leading Melbourne studio and won the Australian Institute of Photography’s award for Professional Photographer of the Year. It would be the first of many accolades:  from that point on he never looked back. Soon after setting up on his own business, big-budget clients, from luxury-end tourism to multinational mining corporations, lined up to hire him for the extraordinary images he could create.

Apostolidis describes commercial photography as the art of creating a mood, “reflecting a place where someone would yearn to be, creating drama.” He specialises in big projects. As corporate photographer for Mandarin Oriental, he spends up to six months of the year photographing the hotels’ remarkable properties in Asia, Europe and the Americas.

Is there a formula for working with a brand like Mandarin Oriental? “The formula is all about service and quality. There’s an ongoing brief to maintain the look that we have. Every property is different. Barcelona is contemporary: hard, modern. Patricia Urquiola did the interior design. Then you’ll go to an Asian property which will be very culturally distinct.”

For those interested in the technical side, Apostolidis uses a Nikon 35mm camera with 24 mega pixel image, and a medium-format Hasselblad that produces a whopping 40MB picture. Capturing the essence of natural and man-made environments is his forte. For ten years Apostolidis shot for Tourism Tasmania. He’s just back from Peru, where he photographed the operations of a massive zinc mine for global metals conglomerate Nyrstar. Epic industrial environments, luxurious locations and breathtaking landscapes are Apostolidis’ signature dishes. “I like vast spaces,” says Apostolidis, “I look at everything as a shape, whether it’s a drill, a diamond, the Taj Mahal or Ayers Rock.”

Bold compositions, dramatic lines and a painterly approach to using light, both natural and artificial, are the hallmarks of his art. “It’s all about lighting. You have to shoot at the right time of day. “First you find your location, an angle that you like, then you analyse how that angle is going to work in better light. Late afternoon is my favourite time for shooting exteriors – you can watch the light go down and make the picture, whereas at sunrise the light’s getting stronger.” For someone who grew up in the days of film, darkrooms and developing trays, George feels that digital technology has changed photography, and not for the better. “People aren’t lighting a subject to get the detail, because they know they can drag the detail out digitally. Too often today it’s just digital illustration.

“I don’t miss the chemicals, but I miss the slow process of developing something, just watching it form from nothing. In those days you had to construct in front of the camera, make it happen. You had to make sure it was pristine, from start to finish. “Something’s been lost in the craft. It’s like looking at beautiful old furniture that used to be made by hand, but now it’s made by robot. The robot makes great furniture, but it’s never as good as the handmade piece. Because it’s never a one off.”

After Bangkok, Barcelona and Paris, Apostolidis’ Frequent Flyer status isn’t in any danger of a downgrade: the calendar is as full as ever, with projects in Honduras, Chile, Canada and Macau to complete by year’s end. He and Cathy will squeeze in a holiday too, in the foothills of the Himalayas. “That’ll clear the head,” says Apostolidis.

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