A Good Keen Camera, Paul Thompson

Les Cleveland, Six Decades. Message from the Exterior
City Gallery Wellington / Victoria University Press
ISBN 0 86473355 0

It is instructive to look at this book as a “package” that raises the now hoary debate about whether photography is an art. But often what is meant by the question is really, “how like or unlike painting is photography?” If the answer is “not very”, then the extension of that particular line of inquiry might well be, “does it belong on the [art] gallery wall?” It does, but its qualities – such as the possible confusion between the usual uniqueness of art objects and the infinitely reproducible nature of photography – may indicate that its strong natural form, when of a convenient size, is as a multiple, manifesting in editions, folios, books.

Les Cleveland, Six Decades is a very cogent example or even an exemplar of this argument. The text by Lawrence McDonald, Peter Turner, Laurence Simmons and Les Cleveland himself, with its information, opinions and perspectives, elucidates without explaining the images. The images in turn expand on the text and open up the space for the imagination to start working, to foster that fruitful reading between the lines.

Les Cleveland has had a lifelong interest in popular culture. His work on the songs of the army and the bush, even his choice of academic specialty – political science rather than (say) philosophy – plus his own stated pedigree as a bush contractor and occasional welder bear this out. From this perspective photography would seem to be the ideal medium for him. French cultural theory has posited photography as a “middlebrow” form of expression. If we take “middlebrow” to mean capable of complexity but not to the point of needing specialised language or knowledge to access, then Cleveland’s photographs fit well. This aesthetic and intellectual ranking is borne out by the popularity of photography shows at art galleries, which is the genesis of this particular publication. It was produced as the catalogue for a show of Cleveland’s work at the Wellington City Art Gallery where he was the local lad in a pantheon that featured Ansel Adams and Lee Miller, both now generally acknowledged as American masters. Positioning Cleveland in this trio is relatively easy. He is more closely aligned with the aesthetically informed photo-journalism of Miller, than with the transcendence of Adams.

Cleveland, throughout the book, is compared to another great American photographer, Walker Evans, and Cleveland’s photos are certainly similar to Evans’ work. Both elevate the ordinary, the worn and the neglected to mythic or at least aesthetic status. But the images of New Zealand in the 1950s and 60s, which are the strongest of the 56 in the book and do contain a lot of Walkeresque weathered wood, are best described as being like Les Cleveland’s. Rather than trying to position Cleveland internationally, it may be more useful to look at what was happening photographically in New Zealand in those decades just after the war.

There were a lot of photographers or people who had an informed interest in photography as a hobby. As a way of sharing their interest and showing their work, they often belonged to photographic societies and camera clubs. However, many of these organisations clung to the style of “beautiful picture” called Pictorialism. Based on a late 19th-century movement that was trying to claim art status for photography by making it look like art (ie, mezzotints, etchings, drawings), practitioners philosophised that a photograph should be “made” not merely “taken”.

They attempted to escape the mechanistic and technological aspects of photography by introducing hand-working and extensive darkroom manipulation. Subject matter was also often made formulaic and tended to be resolutely “picturesque”. Viewed through the Pictorialist lens, much of New Zealand ended up looking decidedly English. We can now see that Pictorialists were mistaken because all photographs – even the most rigorously documentary or the most naive snapshots – are subjective. A human eye and brain decide, select and frame before the shutter is pressed.

The images that came from Cleveland’s camera – or more correctly from Cleveland – were certainly not in this prevailing mode. They were more in the journalistic style developed and used by the photographers in the pre-television era of picture magazines. There were of course limited outlets for pursuing this sort of work at an advanced level in New Zealand. Some photographers, such as Brian Brake, even had to leave the country to practise their art and craft. But although Cleveland’s more recent images from America show he is up with international practices, it is the seductiveness of the familiar that creates the stronger response to his more local work.

Cleveland’s pictures, then, are a sort of reportage that is more than a straightforward recording of a scene or event. It incorporates the heightened intellectual and pictorial awareness of the committed photographer. Making use of more easily manipulated equipment and faster film, these pictures in a way carry on the work started by the Burton Bros, those now iconic Victorian chroniclers of the development of New Zealand.

Their work, informed by the technical and stylistic considerations of the day, did the same sort of job for future generations as Cleveland’s best pictures do – creating a perception of the past. The Burtons observed and recorded the boom and the building. Cleveland’s images completed the cycle with the bust and the breakdown. There are, however, major differences apart from those imposed by the different technologies and aesthetics of their times. Contemporary viewers have stronger connections to Cleveland’s version of the past because it is so recent. His is also a self- consciously nationalistic approach that many can subscribe to. Also in the period since the Burtons, ideas and histories have developed on how a photograph should look, and Cleveland is aware of these. So his pictures are informed by a visual sophistication that was unavailable to most 19th century photographers.

Much history is about how the present uses the past. Many of the pictures in this book demonstrate this: not only in the old buildings but even those well-observed images of people that seem to be placed in the past without the prompt of captions. As Debra S Singer says, “the stories we tell and the images we make, produce rather than reflect our sense of identity and understanding of what constitutes history”. Her thoughts could stand as a good summation of Cleveland’s work.

Paul Thompson is Curator of History at Te Papa. His book, New Zealand. A Century of Images was published in August by Te Papa Press.

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Posted in Non-fiction, Photography, Review
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