Petra Leary was born in a barn in Grey Lynn, a central suburb of New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland. As a kid she was drawn to climbing: trees, bridges, water towers, anywhere she could perch for a view from on high.
As a teenager, Leary got into skateboarding. She would capture her friends with a point-and-shoot camera, but still craved the flat, geometric perspective of high-angle photos. When the DJI Phantom 3 drone came out, she bought one, and aerial photography quickly became her central passion and full-time career.
An image she captured of people cooling off during a hot summer day at her local pool made it onto the cover of Paperboy, a local guidebook of sorts. From there, area businesses began offering her jobs, and soon major brands like Condé Nast, T-Mobile, and Ford came calling. In 2017, she won DJI’s SkyPixel contest in the Portrait category. You can find more of her work on her Instagram and at her website.
So where does your love of drone photography come from?
A lot of it has to do with having a graphic design background. I was super anal about composition. I’ve always been drawn to clean lines, interlocking shapes – something about it can please the eye.
So climbing up was a way to try and get things centered and symmetrical. I’m a skater, and I love video games. I played a ton of Tony Hawk. The game itself had this isometric perspective, kind of up and above the shoulder. But the maps of the levels had all the pathways gridded out. I loved looking at those.
When I won the Skypixel contest I got a Phantom 4 Pro, and that is still my main tool for capturing commercial work. I had the original Mavic Pro as well, but I must have broken the gimbal or camera on there at least four times. I just got the Mavic Pro 2 and I took that with me on my most recent trip to Japan.
You seem really drawn to the way built environments layer on top of the natural world. What do you think draws you to this style?
Growing up I was always surrounded by architecture and design. My dad was a keen builder and actually built our house, which was based on a Sante Fe villa. I spent a lot of time around the whole process of building, from the handmade 3D models and technical drawing side to the actual labor and building. Living in the midst of this definitely rubbed off on me. It opened my eye to the style and form of buildings and gave me a real interest in looking at the shapes of structures and hidden patterns.
I think that translated not only to architecture but to everyday environments, basketball courts, sporting arenas, skateparks, etc. I look at them from eye level but my mind thinks about the shapes you would see if you were viewing them from a top-down perspective, almost like a technical drawing or blueprint.
Aside from your geometric work, what other styles have you been experimenting with?
Some of my favorite artists when I was learning the craft of graphic design were folks like The Design Surgery, really into the illustrative side of graphics – vectors, Kelli Anderson, very cool typography. I also loved paper architecture, specifically the work of Ingrid Siliakus. Her super-intricate structures cut from one piece of paper or card create the most amazing surreal works.
https://ingrid-siliakus.exto.org http://kellianderson.com https://www.surgeryredcow.com/infographics
So I have been playing around at the intersection of the geometric and the surreal. I like to add 3D renders to things sometimes. To introduce an element where you’re not sure if it’s real or not. I’ve also always been into art and illustration, which I like to add as elements into some of my photos.
Like the shark in the hotel pool?
Exactly. Drones are everywhere, but I don’t want people to just be able to repeat my shots. I add my own 3D renders and illustrations to add offbeat quirks. I think I’m moving towards adding Pop Art to photography.
If a location has some great composition, but maybe it doesn’t jump out at you, then sometimes I will add another element, in the real world or the digital world. I painted over a local basketball court, and actually that artwork has stayed up. Another time I took a court, but I used Photoshop to add in some astral images I had captured.
I want people to do a double take when they see my work. I like it when people have to ask me how I did it.