From Dublin to Dubai, and beyond: The Journey of Gerry O’Leary, Award-winning Architectural Photographer

hospitality and hotel photography

Most people have seen at least iconic image taken by Gerry O’Leary, as he has undertaken building photography for some of the world’s most amazing buildings. Those who have met him have high praise for his attention to detail and mastery of light, however few know about his fascinating pathway to photography or his inspirations. Over a series of interviews, the following story was collated to learn more about the man behind the camera, Gerry O’Leary.

When I was eight years old, I came across my mother’s Box Brownie Kodak camera. It was the first of its kind, a 6cm x 6cm square device that made photography accessible to a wider audience. One roll of film could capture just 12 frames and, in our house, the camera was only brought out on special occasions. That meant a roll of film could last an entire year! In a house that contained one grandparent, two parents and twelve children, that was an impressive feat, especially when you compare it with the proliferation of family photos now.

Gerry’s first camera

It was rare for a household to have a camera then, let alone a rural farmhouse in County Kerry, Ireland. I was mesmerised by our prized possession. I was lucky enough to receive my first camera as a gift aged 12 and bought my first DSL camera when I was 19. Photography was a fantastic hobby, but I didn’t dream of making it my career. It wasn’t a profession for a young lad in Ireland. There were a handful of wedding photographers in Kerry, but my parents had set their sights on me becoming an engineer.

Both my parents had finished their education after primary school (around 12 years old), which was normal at the time. However, they were eager for their 12 children to have more opportunities in life by gaining third-level qualifications. There weren’t any photography courses in Ireland at the time, but I was excited about ‘fleeing the nest’ for Dublin, where I studied geo-surveying.

Keeping the passion for photography alive

Throughout university, I retained a keen interest in photography, both solo and through clubs. It wasn’t until I started working in construction management in London that I embarked on night courses to further my passion. I set up my own darkroom and devoured weekly photography magazines. I was smitten.

My first architectural photography shoot was a lucky break. While working for Walter Llewellyn & Sons, the building contractor, I was approached to capture project images of a construction site in Battersea, London for ‘Grapevine’ magazine. The Contracts Manager hired me because of my enthusiasm and devotion to photography. It was the first time my work had been published, which was exciting.

A budding photography business

When I was 30, I decided it was time to quit the day job and pursue a career in photography. This was devastating news to my family. I opened an office in Dublin and began working from there.

Initially, I took any photography project I was offered – I photographed portraits, PR shots, weddings, industrial, commercial and architectural subjects. I was hungry for knowledge and learned as much as I could about light, a topic which continues to inspire me. I spent hours in my darkroom, perfecting the art of creating images.

Having spent almost a decade in construction, my understanding of the built environment stood to me. It became apparent that I had an eye for architectural photography as I received more assignments to shoot construction projects. I decided to specialise and rebrand myself as an architectural photographer, a strategic move that I have since celebrated.

Becoming an award-winning photographer in Europe

I first joined IPPA (now IPPVA), the Irish Professional Photographer’s Association, in 1993, where I benefited from the advice of many established photographers. I learned a great deal about competition entry and entered my own images to be scored and critiqued by the most respected photographers in Europe. It was a rare moment to receive a Gold score, but I gained hundreds of these over 15 years and eventually was awarded a solid gold pen for this unique achievement. Later, I became President of IPPA, which was a great honour.

I picked up the award for Irish Architectural Photographer of the Year for four consecutive years, then I began to submit to international photography competitions. In 2007, I was named European Master Photographer of the Year. I am also one of only two people to hold the title of MQEP, Master Qualified European Photographer (for Architecture). Press coverage in the UK, Europe and USA followed, as well as continuous bookings for projects in Ireland and further afield.

Dubai as a photographic landscape

Although my calendar was regularly booked solid, I found the Irish weather constricting. Rain and cloud would often obscure the light I needed to create amazing images of architecture. I began researching other places where the conditions were less frustrating.

My first visit to Dubai was in April 2007. I was mesmerised by the architecture and construction projects unfolding across the UAE, and the prospect of capturing modern architecture at this exciting juncture. Favourable weather conditions (hardly any rain!) were another positive and I knew I had to open an office here. This meant shuttling the 8-hour intercity flight between Dublin and Dubai twice per month for work commitments and to see my family.

Difficult decisions amid a global crisis

In 2008/2009, the global recession hit with Ireland firmly in its grasp. Most of my architectural and developer clients went bankrupt, which felt like turning off a tap for me. It was a desperate time and I had to be ruthless to survive, which meant closing the Dublin office and letting go of four brilliant, loyal staff – Anne, Barbara, Joanne and Patryk.

I retained one member of staff, Radka, who is my fulltime photo re-toucher and has been with Gerry O’Leary for almost 20 years. She is awesome and I couldn’t function without her brilliant assistance after every single shoot. I made the decision to move to Dubai fulltime, which was difficult with my teenagers Kate and Sean still in private secondary education in Dublin. I am grateful for their love, support and patience throughout an extremely challenging time.

Despite difficult times, I managed to grow my business, gaining a superb client list[1]  throughout the Middle East. I’ve fulfilled some career goals, including publishing three architectural photography books – Contemporary Irish Architecture, Burj Al Arab and 18 Degrees, a book on Capital Gate, the remarkable leaning tower of Abu Dhabi, published in 2015.

Trusted for architectural and interiors photography

Being a respected architectural photographer has been key to seeing the world too. I’ve travelled to 67 countries across five continents with a few more on the bucket list. The Middle East is a fantastic base for buildings photographers, and I’m fascinated by recent architectural projects in Saudi Arabia, where I’ve been shooting regularly.

Being self-employed and truly committed to photography career hasn’t given me the best work-life balance. Days can start before dawn (to get the best light for architecture) and shooting can last over 10 hours. I’m always on the go – hustling for a coveted project, quoting or invoicing on days when I’m not shooting. There’s always something new to learn – at the moment it’s AI, which is bound to change the future of photography.

However, I usually fit in some exercise, meditation and maybe a glass of ‘grape juice’ to wind down. When I get a  day off, I like to catch up on GAA or rugby. Though I’m in the ‘winter’ of my playing days, I love to watch GAA (Gaelic football and hurling) or follow the number 1 rugby team in the World (currently Ireland).

After 27 years in business, I call myself experienced, though some may say old! Photography is not a job, it’s a vocation. I aspire to emulate the legendary Julius Shulman, a renowned American architectural photographer who continued taking photos well into his nineties. As an image-maker who has captured Burj Al Arab, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and Dubai Airport T3, I’m continuously looking for the best angle and to create a balanced image of artistic merit for the world’s most incredible architecture.