Most Australians know Andrew Günsberg as a very capable host of Australian Idol, but even before he became a media personality he had a camera in his hands.
Photography has been a lifelong passion, his own form of creative expression. Now he gets the chance to combine two arts in the new ABC series Photo Finish.
Each week, three amateur photographers compete head-to-head in themed photographic challenges. Günsberg is both host / judge alongside Anne Loxley, a curator at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and an expert judge from each genre.
Produced by Southern Star, the series is an original format, which Günsberg says is more Competition than Reality -there is no prize.
“It’s a fairly recognisable language in competition television. Yet the parameters were so wonderfully different. Here’s your brief, here’s a deadline, here’s a camera that none of you have ever touched before,” he says.
“There’s some real jeopardy in there, especially when we start dragging people up to blizzard conditions at the top of Mt. Wellington in Tasmania and it’s a challenge to get the landscape before they lose the light.”
In the first episode, photographers must create a portrait of either actor Vince Colosimo, entrepreneur Dick Smith or performer Christa Hughes. Günsberg gets excited just by the cameras each is given.
“It was like an F18 compared to a Cessna. It was a huge camera with a billion bells and whistles on it. And I’d say ‘Go in there and you’ll find Vince Colosimo.’
“He’s a powerful man, that’s what I’ll say about him. So to be challenged to go in there and get a shot out of him –wow. I was shaking in my boots and I’ve done a lot of photography.
“But we just wanted to be really supportive of everybody and I think that comes across in the way we made it.
“We also wanted it to work on a few different levels, for those who have already worked with photography and who are familiar with famous photographers and styles, but also people whose relationship with photography is through their phone.”
So keen was Günsberg that even he was quizzing the experts about their careers and picking up tips along the way.
“As soon as we stopped rolling I was just in their ears! Tell me about this! Tell me about that! What was it like when you won that prize? What was it like living in that community of Aboriginals for 2 months and how did you gain their trust to take photos of them?” he says.
“Part of the format was trying to replicate what it would be like to be a professional photographer. Just as we did on Idol, replicating what it would be like to be a professional singer with a schedule with flat-out rehearsals and promo all day.
“I’m really excited for Australia to meet Anne Loxley. I think they will really enjoy her. She is a wonderful human being and taught me a lot about what it means to have an opinion on camera.”
Switching from host on Idol to competition judge wasn’t easy. Suddenly he was expected to have an opinion, after years of trying to remain independent.
“Anne grabbed me by the collar and slapped me around and said ‘Come on! This is how you do it!’” he laughs.
“I like to think I’m a nice guy and pretty diplomatic, but Anne was saying ‘That’s not you job! Your job is to tell them what you think!’
“There’s one episode where I get so confronted by a photo that I reacted pretty weirdly. But Anne said ‘If you’re confronted that means it’s doing its job!’”
Günsberg’s love of photography began when he was handed an Kodak instamatic camera for his 7th birthday.
“The idea that I could freeze time, wait a couple of moments and have it appear in my hands just blew my mind. Pretty much after that I learned what layby was and I would go to the toy shop at the Kenmore Village Mall in Brisbane and layby a succession of more and more complex 110 cartridges. Remember those?” he asks.
Years later fellow Channel [V] presenter Yumi Stynes was taking snaps at the Big Day Out, circa 2001, using her own very expensive cameras.
“She taught me so much about what it was to compose a photo. We were so lucky to be in that place at that time to document those things. Yumi really inspired me to get another SLR.”
As well as blogging on photography, he’s even had a solo exhibition sponsored by Canon.
“I’ve shot as a gig, I’ve shot for clients, I’ve shot for private. I don’t make a living taking photos but I take at least one or two cameras with me everywhere I go,” he says.
“I have some behind the scenes photos from Idol that would curl your toes. Stuff from even the first season. I just knew we were doing something really special.”
So he was thrilled to be invited to join Photo Finish, never expecting to work on the ABC.
“The ABC has really crafted me as to what I wanted to be. All my favourite shows when I was 9 or 10 years old until about 14 or 15 were all on the ABC. I’m of the era of racing home to watch Monkey Magic and Doctor Who and The Big Gig which was back to back with The Young Ones. There was something about whoever was curating the ABC at the time just shaped a lot of my (formative years).
“I wasn’t that interested in American television. It’s strange that I’m living here now, but there was something about canned laughter that I never really got.
“But watching the British comedies they had live audiences. I remember staying up late watching The Two Ronnies with my dad. And Dave Allen with the missing finger telling dirty jokes. Both my parents were doctors so they were into smarty pants television.
“To be able to work on the ABC is an absolute thrill. I’ve worked on Foxtel, TEN and ABC now. Only three more and I’ve got a full set.”
Photo Finish airs 8pm Thursdays on ABC1.