The difficult decisive moment, Tom Elliott

I Loved You the Moment I Saw You
Peter Black
Victoria University Press, $60.00,
ISBN 9780864736598

 

The first pages of Peter Black’s I Loved You the Moment I Saw You struck me with their colourful, contemporary design and fine print quality. I was surprised by the book’s similarity to Robin Morrison’s much earlier production, The South Island of New Zealand from the Road (1981). Morrison’s, by content and sales alone, represented a milestone in the history of signature New Zealand photography book production, evolving into a valued collectors’ item. Black’s latest work deserves a similar place.

Both books connect New Zealanders to themselves, Morrison’s being an affable window-style view, shot largely in Otago, while Black’s intimately captures Wellington street scenes, some heart-wrenching. The cover focuses on a stylishly dressed young couple walking the street while holding hands. Her sheer black stockings are accentuated by a fashionably detailed mini-skirt. This is worn with a casual, hip-slung leather belt, cinched with a silver buckle engraved with hearts and curlicues. Young and in love or bonded by less obvious circumstances? This well-chosen cover image rewards close attention.

The book’s first photograph cleverly links with the last. In the first, a guardian figure reaches to uplift a sleeping baby, safely belted into its carrier at a road crossing. In the last image, the child has woken and looked up in the time it took to be moved one or two steps toward a potentially hazardous encounter with a speeding car, implying a protective guardianship of the innocent. The broader implications, including caring for one another – young, elderly or less fortunate – cannot be ignored. The photographer proceeds, as the book unfolds, to confront us with images that alternately tear at you, as they portray the fragile side of society, and prompt a smile, as with the young man clutching at showcased jewellery.

Set between the two landmark beginning and end photographs is a portrayal of the captivating exchange between the surreal life of the well-heeled and the painful acceptance and drudgery of life for others. It’s not just the photographs of street people that challenge us, it’s the plight of the elderly and the disabled; on p20, for instance, note the immediate juxtaposition of, and contrast between, the younger man’s gaze in the background poster, suggesting what might have been for the man strapped to his wheelchair below. The image on the following page shows a dwarf caught between a cluster of stylish female mannequins on one side and a passing figure with his back to us on the other. There is little chance that anything fashionable will ever be worn by this man. Absorbed in his private world and shunned by the outer, he makes his way stoically past the display.

Aided by the precision of digital technology, the photographer becomes the detached observer, skilfully participating as he scans his urban landscape. Essentially, he is saying, “This is how I am seeing right now. This is what I discovered traversing the familiar streets of Wellington, my home.”

His photographs make colourful statements in the style of today, open and forthright. The timing in many is particularly fine. There is a film-like element to a number of them, as if the camera had been pre-set to fire off multiple images per second (entirely possible with digital technology), allowing in post-production, should it be desired, the precise frame at the crest of the event. The decisive moment is never an easy capture in real time, despite Black’s 32-year working background.

These images ask, what has become of New Zealand as a nation? Has the recession hit us harder than we care to admit? Have we been caught offguard while focused on troubling world events? Or have we been in some mind-numbing hiatus, returning to an altered universe to discover a kaleidoscopic nation of haves and have-nots?

Should we be startled or stirred by looking closely at this book? Walker Evans said “photographs speak for themselves”. They certainly do – but who speaks for the people in the photographs, their hearts burdened, the tension in their body language indicating extreme stress? Who is prepared to speak frankly to hearts hardened by the competitiveness of commerce? This is not to imply that Black’s photographs set out to change our society. Photographs seldom act as conscience-raisers or compassion-boosters. To quote Susan Sontag: “In these last decades [the 1960s onward] concerned photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it.”

Pain and societal alienation does not, thankfully, determine all this book has to offer. There is a curious preoccupation with hands. Of the 82 photographs, 76 include hands either as a central feature or an integral component. Was the photographer aware of this when shooting or was it a subconscious inclusion? If feet, the human contact point with the earth, are the means of transporting us to our respective destinations, what do hands represent? They might be considered the vehicle of human will, the point of contact between seemingly impersonal surroundings. Hands are a point of reference for the eye. The re-rolling of cigarette butts, the caressing of a flute, the drink to be consumed, working the ATM machine or the tentative waving gesture to an indifferent passer-by, even hands thrust deep into pockets – all can suggest loneliness or inclusion, a hiding away or a statement that one is comfortably part of the pinstripe-suit club.

Black’s photographs tend to pose more questions than they supply answers to. Is the young man between the two ATM machines, cap in hand, singing for coin or raising his fare for the next available flight to Australia? The blind person reaches for the familiar safety of the non-slip pad, stick touching the spot marking the crossing. Has blindness been a lifelong companion? While, opposite this, is the photograph of someone imprisoned in an office complex by different circumstances.

The juxtaposition of the photographs in this book is exemplary. They rhyme in colour or content, red picking up red; yellow, yellow; content, content. Not one spread has been poorly considered. The book’s title may be a well-practised courtship line, but what does love itself look like? In Saint Augustine’s words, “Love has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has the eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men.” Perhaps Black’s book will help cement this sentiment.

I was sorry when it came to an end. Like Oliver Twist, I wanted more. However, it finishes with an incomprehensible essay by Ian Wedde. Why don’t academia and publishers understand that words the layman cannot grasp, send him in search of a  dictionary and break the flow of intense appreciation? Essays such as this serve to alienate from, rather than encourage further satisfaction with, this skilful photographer’s work.

 

Tom Elliott is a Waitakere photographer and graphic designer.

 
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Posted in Non-fiction, Photography and Review
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