Our Wellington

News | 14 June 2021

20 Twenty One: Neil Price

He’s observed a town transform into a city, worked alongside seven mayors, and snapped images of the Queen – Neil Price has seen it all and has four million or more photos to prove it. Meet Wellington city’s official photographer who's been on the job for 34 years and counting.

A portrait of Neil Price wearing black-framed glasses, and a dark shirt with small white flowers, in a polaroid frame that has the words 20 Twenty One, Celebrating Our People.

If anyone’s work portfolio could be described as a ‘portrait of Wellington city’, it would be Neil Price’s collection of images. They pack an entire wall of boxes stacked floor to ceiling at the City Archive and fill 30 Terabytes of digital working space under his desk.
 
“There’s a lot of material,” laughs Neil, who began work as the Wellington City Council photographer in 1987.

He was in his early 30s, with a young family at home, and Aotearoa’s capital city was not what it is today.
 
“When I started there was no stadium. There was no Te Papa. No Events Centre at Queens Wharf. For me as a youngster Wellington was just a town. All those big facilities have been built during my time, and I’ve seen the city grow to the impressive scale it is now – transition into what is widely considered the ‘coolest little capital’.”
 
As the city photographer, Neil and his small team of two capture everything from construction projects and openings, to ceremonies, official portraits, and marketing material.
 
Neil lived his first few years in Thorndon, before moving to Porirua where he lived until he was 17. He went on to become a mechanic, working for the Wellington Harbour Board.
 
He then did a brief stint as a bus driver for Wellington City Transport, and then spent a decade on nightshift driving cabs through dark urban streets.

Photographer Neil Price in an orange high vis holding camera while standing on the roof of a car, looking out over Wellington harbour, with Eastbourne, Oriental Bay, and the CBD beyond.
Neil taking it to new heights to get the shot.

“At that point I hadn’t picked up a camera,” he says. “I’d always had a really strong interest in world religion and culture, so I applied for a university degree – I only lasted a year as my undiagnosed dyslexia proved to be a problem.
 
“But while I was there, the Head of Religious Studies organised a trip to Asia. My father had died and left me some money, so I decided to go along to India for five weeks.
 
“I bought a camera and when I came back I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do as a job!’. At that time I had a friend working at Downstage Theatre who began teaching me black and white photography.”
  
Neil submitted his work to Wellington Polytech and was among the 13 people selected that year into a 12-month photography course. During the programme he helped produce a 16mm film documenting a farming setup at Rimutaka Prison.
 
“Another one of my assignments was to go out to Ōtari-Wilton’s Bush where I took a series of photographs. Then this job at the City Council came up and I thought, ‘That sounds like me’. The person interviewing me happened, by chance, to have some of my photographs on his desk.”
 
Neil says that revealing this point may have helped him land the job.

A wide yellow graphic with the words 20 twenty one, celebrating our people, in black.

Now 34 years later, he’s still happy in his work, even though he could retire if he wanted to, having recently celebrated his 65th birthday.
 
“The great thing about being a photographer is the joy that comes from meeting people and getting great shots.
  
“I didn’t meet the Queen, but I did photograph her.  I’ve gone from photographing our city’s rough sleepers to high-profile people. It all keeps the level of thrill up.
 
“The things that excite me most are the long projects like the Town Hall. I have a real connection to the building because I’ve seen it go through so many transitions. I photographed the building of Civic Square, Te Papa, the stadium – all amazing building developments in the city and the impact has been huge.”
 
Of course, over time, there have been big changes to Neil’s craft too.
 
“I’d go through a roll of 36 shots  per assignment during the film years. There are about two million images on film, and two-to-three million more since we went digital.

Five men in suits standing in front of four framed images of Wellington. The images were selected by photographer Neil Price, who is pictured second from right, as part of an exhibition showcasing Wellington in the Japanese city of Sakai.
Neil, second from right, while on a mayoral delegation to Wellington's sister city, Sakai, Japan, where 50 of his favourite photographs of Pōneke were exhibited.

“In my time here I’ve gone from working in black and white in a dark room, processing the film myself and drying it on an old clothes dryer, then making the prints.
 
“We went from shooting to producing the images and having them ready a week later, to now taking images and them being on the other side of the world within hours, even minutes.
  
“There’s a real sense of immediacy, which is frightening and exciting at the same time.”
 
After three-and-a-half decades at Council, Neil says if it wasn’t for the fabulous people, he’d probably have another job.
  
“Most people come to work at Council with good intentions and a focus on public service – they really want to do what’s right for the city they love, and its residents.” 

Neil, a keen gardener, says he never tires of Wellington’s scenery, and he takes great pride in the knowledge that he has made a massive contribution to the City Archive, with a detailed documentation over many years that will inform future generations.
  
“I know that of the millions of images I have taken, there’s so many gems that have never been seen. Hopefully people will get a chance to see them one day.”

It’s 2021, so we’re sharing stories about 21 of our people who have worked at Council for 20 years or more. Find out more about the series in this story