Beneath what we see, Max Oettli

Marti Friedlander 
Leonard Bell
Auckland University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9781869404444

What makes Marti Friedlander’s work such compelling viewing? Her work, even she herself, has taken on an iconic presence in the comfortable confines of our islands. And the photographs she took in the last five decades are one of the finest records of the transition of our country from a beautiful, albeit bland and rather puritan, socialist paradise, to the complex, harder-edged and somehow more cosmopolitan land which constitutes New Zealand and its people now.

Leonard Bell’s text for Marti Friedlander emphasises the essential outsider position from which Friedlander worked, as an orphanage child from London and a young woman immigrant. She is one of many photographers and other artists who in the post-war decades shared this lonely and critical standpoint, including Theo Schoon, Simon Buis and Ans Westra. Friedlander shares territory with the latter, and this is something to be more carefully explored by art historians in due course. I was administratively classified as an “alien” myself when I started photographing in the late 1960s.

New Zealand photographers active at the time Friedlander began working were possibly more concerned with reinforcing a stereoptype and showing us as we wanted to be seen, rather than coming from a more subversive point of view as the “foreigners” did. In this category I would place John Pascoe, Brian Brake, Eric Lee Johnson and others whose work was published in magazines, books and reviews.

Friedlander was cautiously subversive. Never pretentious, always questioning, questing, always fine in the visual density and quality of what she needs to show us, her work has had a good deal of exposure this century, with a show at the Auckland City Art Gallery in 2000. Ron Brownson curated and wrote the catalogue. The prints, by Haruhiko Sameshima and Mark Adams, are a beautiful example of state-of-the-art gold-toned black and white silver images. Traditional black and white photography and, more generally, film technique served Friedlander well throughout her professional life. Now, a mere decade on, it is more difficult in its execution, since facilities and materials are harder to find, and darkroom skills are irrelevant or lost to a new digital generation of practitioners of the art.

Bell sensitively and enthusiastically reviewed the exhibition in Art New Zealand (2001), and this book, with an accompanying exhibition at Auckland’s Gus Fisher Gallery, was put together at his initiative.

My initial reaction was to go back and look at Brownson’s catalogue to get a fix on the complementarities and differences between the two publications, to come to grips with the two takes on essentially the same body of work. The cracks that appear here make this an interesting and slightly provocative exercise.

The overlap between the two collections makes the second compilation a tad repetitive, but the most problematic aspect of Bell’s compilation is that the quality of the reproductions is simply not on a par with the Brownson work. The partial explanation for this is that the City Gallery show presented highlights from an art curator’s professional standpoint: Brownson often went back to fuller framings of the pictures. Friedlander herself was brought up shooting square roll film, later supplemented by 35mm negatives, with almost always a re-cropping in view as she worked, something Bell illustrates with a reference to the 1969 Hanly couple. Some of Friedlander’s croppings are quite brutal, the message being more important than any finesse of print quality.

Moreover Brownson and Friedlander worked with two of the finest exponents of gold-toned black and white photography, and the catalogue reproductions were obviously executed with enormous care. (John Turner’s name is among the acknowledgements.) The meticulously calibrated duotone printing reflecting this care and craft gave us rich, fine significant blacks, and a powerful authoritative tonal range, which made classic black and white photography the strong and beautiful signifier it became in the hands of photographers as diverse as Strand, Stieglitz, Sieff and Mapplethorpe elsewhere, and artists like Friedlander’s contemporary John Fields, locally.

Bell, on the other hand, apparently chose to work with Friedlander’s own archive prints, respecting her framing of the pictures, and the slightly coarser, more contrasted rendering she practised from the 1960s on, which was a hallmark of the strongly graphic quality of much of her displayed and published work. Larks in Paradise by James McNeish (1974) showed with what difficulty such prints sat in the rudimentary offset print quality of those times, where a slightly flat print could give a far better result. However, by the time of the later editions of Michael King’s Moko(1992), this particular problem had been overcome, and we were again looking at something close to what we feel author and photographer, and their subjects who were an integral part of the process, wanted.

Friedlander’s skills at darkroom printing are exceptional – she did after all spend nine years doing little else for the London-based New Zealand photographer Robert Glass before launching into photography herself. So I feel it is a pity the reproductions in this book could not go the extra mile. Moreover her reliance on quite heavy retouching (another skill she would have picked up in her London days, when it was an integral studio practice) makes some of the photos a little hard to look at closely.

But look closely at them we must, and will. There is not space here, and it would be well beyond my competence, to comment at length on the pinnacle of her work, the Moko Series, done in collaboration with Michael King. These are unbelievably precious and moving documents of a passing, doing exactly what one dreams photography might occasionally do, by putting us in the presence of witnesses to distant and dark currents of history. They resonate in infinite ways.

Apart from that amazing performance, Friedlander is generally unusually subtle and happy to use an interactive force of character in her confrontations with people. Respect and courtesy tempered with firmness occasionally bear fruit in such studies as the “Selwyn Village Pensioner”. “I’ve always been fascinated by windows and the inner world hidden behind them,” Leonard quotes Friedlander as saying. The reflection-speckled glass here acts in an almost taxonomic way. “Semi veiled and distant psychologically while physically close”, as he points out in a fine commentary.

I often saw Friedlander at work, and was always struck by her compact, high-energy presence, and by her patience in getting the result she required. I personally worked more quickly, usually with an edge of anger or sorrow to my work, and looking at another ageing-man picture, I feel her approach to “grabbed” shots doesn’t always reach the heights of her best work. So the possibly drunk man leaning against the Ponsonby lamp-post seems inconclusive. The print, a re-creation of a grey day, is mediocre. The lack of sharpness betrays camera shake, and probably a pretty drastic reframing to allow the repeated architectural forms to make a statement about authority and integrity, here to some extent undermined. We might, I suppose, read Strand’s 1916 “White Fence” as an ironic reference in the foreground.

But Friedlander’s finest “street” work, often in the context of political demonstrations, again transcends and goes beyond the signifiers that a news photograph might convey. One that sticks in my mind is the barely in-focus and tense-looking old cleric, sunlit in extreme closeup, with a poster and a crowd obliquely behind him. To learn he had been Auckland’s bishop for four decades is to add another layer to the photo’s already rich semantic load.

Friedlander’s portraits of suburban couples teeter a little uncomfortably in the territory between the satirical and the humane, Bell’s reference to the Depression and war background of these lives notwithstanding. Clive Stone’s portraits of roughly that time, and the straight, deadpan work of Glen Busch in the decade following this, come to my mind, although Busch went beyond New Zealand to August Sander to reference his work. Resonances here need exploring, and Bell, I feel, wears his art historian’s cap rather lightly here.

If Bell, in reference to another double portrait, draws in the provocative nature of painter Michael Illingworth’s work at that time, we surely should also have been made aware of the early realistic work of Richard Killeen and Ian Scott, which represented the artist’s more “photographic” and questioning position in the face of suburbia. Or is my nagging feeling that New Zealand photography is not fully integrated into our history of visual art justified?

This said, the two representations of Michael and Dene Illingworth say as much about absence as about presence. Particularly the one of Dene with the birdcage, a hauntingly lonely photo ironically referencing Henri Cartier-Bresson’s classic 1964 portrait of Matisse. The latter has a profound and cloistered melancholy built into it. Matisse at the end of his life is bathed in light in a hard space; in Friedlander’s photo the artist’s wife is in a dank, dark room in a remote and forgotten place looking out into the middle distance.

Friedlander has a well-defined place in the context of New Zealand photography, and merits our respect as an honest and committed practitioner with a carefully reflected and articulated social-political and artistic agenda. We shall have to wait a few decades to see exactly where her work sits outside existing archives and publications, and whether her contribution as an artist is part of a major canon. Bell’s appraisal goes some way in this direction but the conclusion is yet to come.

In the meantime this is a fine contemporary book on Friedlander’s work, and a welcome and timely reminder of what fine traditional photography can, in the hands of a master, contribute to our cultural and visual history.

 

Max Oettli is a Dunedin photographer and reviewer.

 

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Posted in Non-fiction, Photography and Review
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