Photo-sensitive, Mary Macpherson

Eric Lee-Johnson. Artist with a Camera
John B Turner
PhotoForum Inc, $61.95,
ISBN 0 9597818 5 4

Since photography began over 150 years ago, photography, painting and other art media have danced around and with each other. Today, it can be hard to classify players in the art world as belonging to one medium or another.

In the 20th century, artists like Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg have freely incorporated photographs from popular culture into their work. There’s been the 80s phenomenon of “the artist who uses photography”, most famously represented by Cindy Sherman whose work has referred to media such as film. Lately, there’s also been recognition of artists whose work ranges across a variety of media that include photography, like New Zealand’s Ronnie van Hout.

Photography in its turn has absorbed influences from the art world and popular culture, and included people like Henri Cartier-Bresson who began by studying painting and brought different ways of seeing into the photographic world.

In Artist with a Camera, senior photography lecturer John Turner introduces a New Zealand twist with a study on the serious, but largely unrecognised, photography practice of regionalist painter Eric Lee-Johnson. It seems that Lee-Johnson has left a large but unexplored trove of images made for personal and commercial reasons – images that he never publicly acknowledged as part of his artistic work.

Turner treats Lee-Johnson’s life story as a whole career, including his design, painting and other activities. Throughout the narrative he stops to illuminate the artist’s photography and burrows away at its significance and the lost opportunities.

Lee-Johnson was shown early by his mother how to make and print photographs but it was not until he went to England and began working in advertising that his interest in the medium accelerated. Exposure to modernist influences, a friendship with a fellow photography enthusiast and an opportunity to use a high-quality Leica camera, saw rapid growth in his personal work. Lyrical yet graphically tight photographs of London commuters, and street scenes with a hint of moody surrealism, were among the strongest images he made.

Significantly, when he returned to New Zealand, he successfully placed a number of images as a photo essay in the Weekly News, thus beginning a life-long use of photojournalism as an income earner. As John Turner highlights throughout Artist with a Camera, New Zealand’s answers to overseas magazines such as Life and Picture Post were unsophisticated in design and their treatment of photographs. Some of Lee-Johnson’s best photo stories were limited by cramped layouts or poor editing of pictures.

Following a life-changing bout of tuberculosis and a stay in Pukeroa Sanatorium, Lee-Johnson quit advertising and turned to painting as a career. Throughout this career, however, photography continued to be important either as personal work or as the photojournalism which brought him a second income. Perhaps the most widely seen of these photo essays would be the series on Opo the dolphin which was exhibited by the Auckland City Art Gallery in 1994 and published by David Ling as the book Opo: the Hokianga Dolphin.

So, what was his photography like? This is where I began to have problems with Artist with a Camera. With little in the way of an exhibition record, reviews or personal writing about the photography, John Turner has done some important research in identifying the work and placing it in Lee-Johnson’s painting career. To fill in the gaps, Turner analyses and assesses photographs, compares them with overseas work and talks about the technical approaches involved. In contrast, the account of activities like painting and writing is almost over-supported with quotes from Lee-Johnson or people involved in the art scene.

Yet, the whole effect is curiously utilitarian. The closest Turner gets to illuminating Lee-Johnson’s photography is a comment like:

Lee-Johnson was remarkably open to a wide variety of styles in photography, from documentary to formalism, and simply adapted his approach according to his subject matter or personal interests at any given time. While his preference leant toward formal portraiture, for example, he was nonetheless capable of making spontaneous informal portraits as well …

or when he acknowledges that painting provided many more problems to solve than photography.

Questions such as who this person was, what aesthetic problems he was trying to solve and why, whether his personal life influenced his work, whether his photography was driven by the same regionalist goals as his paintings, remain unexplored. As a result, the narrative, however scrupulous, doesn’t really get under the skin of the work or its maker.

Where the book comes alive is in the final section about Lee-Johnson’s marginalisation as a painter at the Auckland City Art Gallery. Here Turner examines the issues in a less distant and cautious way than in previous sections. Ironically, he notes: “Generally speaking, the gallery consigned Lee-Johnson and his painting to a minor historical role, and it was not until his photographs were promoted that some ties on the straitjacket tightened by (Peter) Tomory and his followers were loosened in the 1990s.”

I was curious about the decision to publish only 29 full-size reproductions of Lee-Johnson’s photographs, supported with small reproductions of photo essays or other types of work. Undoubtedly a great deal of care has been lavished on the reproductions. The ink is so glossy it seems to have a life of its own. Yet, with only a few images each from a diverse range of styles, it is hard to pick up the sensibility at work in the photographs. Yes, Lee-Johnson’s work did range across portraits, landscapes, buildings and some inventive night-time pictures, and he seems to have had a strong design sense. But I would have happily traded away a layer or two of ink, or some rather pedestrian text, to see sequences of images that might illuminate the intentions behind them.

Throughout the book Turner notes Lee-Johnson’s increasing reluctance to publicly own his photography, a reluctance that seems to have been driven partly by anxiety that it might damage his reputation as a painter. Although Turner points out that attitudes weren’t quite as fixed as Lee-Johnson suggested, he is sympathetic about the difficult environment for photographers in New Zealand’s fledgling art scene of the 1940s and 50s. Perhaps context, timing and the question of what gets rewarded are forces almost impossible to overcome.

Serious books about New Zealand photography and photographic history are still rare. If this book has some flaws, it is also pioneering work produced to a high standard. John Turner has paved the way for further interest in and exhibitions of Lee-Johnson’s photography – perhaps Te Papa, which holds Lee-Johnson’s photographs, could extend its new-found recognition of art to fuller examination of his work.

Mary Macpherson is a Wellington photographer and poet. Her book The Inland Eye was recently published by Pemmican Press.

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