14 Apr 2024

Prominent portrait photographer Jae Frew shifts focus

From Culture 101, 1:07 pm on 14 April 2024
Jae Frew

Photographer Jae Frew. Photo: Supplied

If you’ve ever opened a magazine in Aotearoa New Zealand, you’ve almost certainly seen Jae Frew’s work. 

Frew’s commercial career spans three decades and he’s gained particular recognition for portraiture. He’s photographed the likes of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Dame Jacinda Arden, Bill English, countless television show campaigns, TV personalities, news and current affairs campaigns, along with fashion and food. 

But the pandemic and lockdowns gave the artist time and space to begin to explore a different route, for which he drew inspiration from his childhood. Frew’s latest exhibition, Manu Kōingo – Birds of Yearning at Parnell Gallery in Auckland, sees him shifting focus to a different subject - endangered, extinct and treasured bird life. 

Manu Kōingo - Jae Frew

Manu Kōingo - Jae Frew Photo: Supplied

The title of the exhibition is a story in itself. It happened after a chance meeting with Emeritus professor Ngahuia Te Awekotuku whom he met while taking her portrait during the filming of Waharoa - Art of the Pacific.

The two hit it off and it was Te Awekotuku who came up with the name Manu Kōingo for the exhibition. An encounter Frew considers very special. 

Frew has always had a love of birds and had an aviary at home as a child. He went knocking on Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa’s door and gained access to the national taxidermied bird collection. The artist spent hours observing and studying the birds from every angle.

Manu Kōingo - Jae Frew

Manu Kōingo - Jae Frew Photo: Supplied

The taxidermied aspect allowed him more control. Frew was shown the extensive temperature-controlled bird store at Te Papa and was able to select from cabinets and load up a trolley with his chosen species. 

“I wanted to reanimate the birds. And I think that sets me apart from other people that have photographed birds. My birds are more about creating an image that you look at and go that looks like an ancestor or an old friend. They almost look alive again,” Frew told Perlina Lau.

While Manu Kōingo combines Frew’s love of photography and birds, it's also been a chance for him to pay homage to his furniture maker father. Each bespoke framed portrait of the bird has been carefully crafted. The thick frames are made from native and recycled timber, evoking feelings of Rembrandt, Goldie and Lindauer - creating an old-school feel. 

“I recently went into a Sydney art gallery and was looking at frames, the dark frames…really old, almost cracked, they weren't all perfect, and had quite thick frames.

“My frames are all made from endangered species of timber, which is a nice tie-in to the endangered species of birds. It's all recycled timber, repurposed out of old houses,” he says.

Manu Kōingo - Jae Frew

Manu Kōingo - Jae Frew Photo: Supplied

Beyond combining his passion and skills, he says the exhibition is an expression of hope for our remaining native birds and raising awareness of conservation and the treasures they are. Frew wants to put the spotlight on the fragile and diminishing forest life. 

Manu Kōingo – Birds of Yearning will be at Parnell Gallery in Auckland until 21 April.