Andris Apse is one of New Zealand’s greatest photographers, yet his personal story reminds us that life itself can be as dramatic and challenging as the landscape that inspires him

As a five-year-old, Apse came to this country from Latvia with his mother Kamilla – refugees fleeing the chaotic aftermath of WW II. The family had been separated, and Voldemars – Kamilla’s beloved husband and Andris’ father – was presumed dead. Some 45 years later, Apse recalls getting an urgent phone call from his mother. She had received a letter in handwriting she instantly recognised.

Apse describes a life of experiences ranging from hunger and hardship to the eventual rewards of a career capturing the sublime beauty and mood of his beloved New Zealand landscapes.

The career-defining moment for Apse came about when a job with Forest Research first took him into Fiordland.

“We went over miles and miles of country where there were no people, just the sound of the birds, sound of the water and the sound of the vegetation blowing in the wind.

“I didn’t own a camera then, but I thought, ‘I’ve got to go back and buy a camera and come back to Fiordland, and show people what we’ve got here.’

“I became obsessed with it, really.”

The quality and distinctiveness of his photographs, and some timely sponsorship, meant Apse was ultimately able to become a full-time landscape photographer.

This 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 early 20s when they met and fell in love. Then I was born, and he had to go off to the Front.”

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

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

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

After nearly five years in a refugee camp in Germany, with hunger as an ever-present companion, Apse and his 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 a solitary sort of partnership, mother and son. It was a very lonely existence for us. It was terrible really.”

After Kamilla remarried, Apse was not welcome by his stepfather at home, so he took himself off to forestry school in Nelson. He describes the stark reality of his alone-ness when, come holiday time, classmates were heading home, one by one, to their families.

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

“I’d watch them all go, and I was [always] going to get the next bus out, the next bus out…”

Ironically, there’s a link between Apse’s odyssey to New Zealand and his working methodology. The capacity for isolation and concentration has served his art well.

Ninety percent of his work, he tells Frank Film, goes into planning and exploring.

“I only take 20 photos a year, really. But I spend days researching locations, and trying to narrow down exactly where I have to stand – whether it’s here, there or a metre over there.”

The letter his mother received out of the blue from her dear Valdis changed everything.

“There was great joy. Initially.

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

“We realised that there was… a lifetime between us, which was quite sad.”

We can all be grateful though, for the life’s work Apse has created, regardless.

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