Domestic Architecture (1974-2005)
McNamara Gallery, $49.95,
Light Wine Things
Dunedin Public Art Gallery, $29.95,
Figure in the New Zealand Landscape
OTS Publications, $39.95,
The Terrible Boredom of Paradise
Derek Henderson, $90.00,
Songs of Innocence: Photographs of a New Zealand Childhood
John Pascoe (ed Janet Bayley)
Pacific Press/Mahara Gallery, $39.95, ISBN 0958341826
Contemporary New Zealand Photographers
ed Lara Strongman
Mountain View Publishing, $99.99,
A reviewing assignment that should have called for the “Men in Black”, since the bundle of books delivered by the courier, from the small to the sumptuous, weighed in at well over five kilos. And as the books were all on art photography, the gallery apparatchik dress code would have been sartorially appropriate. But does this cultural cargo tell us anything about the state of photographic publishing and, by extension, the state of art photography in New Zealand?
Half of the six books are in colour and the other three, all published by art galleries, are black and white. The larger and more expensive colour productions are all privately published. That is, if I view Hannah Holm’s (as Mountain View Publishing) commissioning of Contemporary New Zealand Photographers as primarily an individual interest rather than a corporate endeavour.
Attitudes towards writers, poets and photographers self-publishing are mixed. The derogatory term “vanity publishing” suggests that “if it can’t make it in the commercial marketplace obviously it’s not very good.” In some cases this is patently true. However, my own attitude is that self-publishing is entirely commendable. We should look generously on those willing to put up their own money to expose their ideas, talents and abilities to an often-hostile world. It may be that by not going through professional gatekeepers, commercial filters and the hegemony of received opinion that we get the raw, the personal and the quirky – the alternative. Or the results may indeed be as mediocre as even mainstream publications can be.
The smallish black and white Domestic Architecture is described as a catalogue raisonné of Laurence Aberhart’s more than a quarter of a century of photographing houses in New Zealand and several other countries. A catalogue raisonné is usually defined as a descriptive catalogue with explanations or comments. Domestic Architecture doesn’t have many words but relies on its 103 pictures to do the talking. The brief introduction by publisher and gallery owner Paul McNamara refers to international art stars Bernd and Hilla Becher, who have spent many years photographing factories, water towers and industrial buildings in black and white. As Domestic Architecture is also a typology of built forms, it is probably intended that we make a comparison. Aberhart has presented his images in chronological order, down to the time of day in some cases, so there is certainly a Teutonic thoroughness.
The photographs themselves do the work, but, at two to an A5 page, they are rather small. This is a shame, as Aberhart works with a large-format camera and the detail and subtlety in the originals would be marvellous. The function of this book is problematic – its natural meaning would seem to be as a catalogue to accompany an exhibition, and the book does list “exhibitions with particular relevance to this publication”. Individual copies are numbered in an edition of 500, so perhaps it’s intended as much as a “collectable” as a record.
Bill Culbert, sculptor and photographer, has a reputation for cultural weight similar to Aberhart’s. Culbert’s neon sculptures shine in our major cities, and his photographic work also often interrogates light. These first two books are also broadly similar in that they both catalogue things: Aberhart’s topic is houses, and Culbert’s images in Light Wine Things of discarded wheels and bonbonnes (the largish jars the French use for vin ordinaire).
Size as well as subjects makes Light Wine Things a richer and more sensual book than Domestic Architecture. It is also black and white, but larger. Unfortunately, the Culbert has no page numbers. Is this a design affectation or an assertion that each of the images is of equal importance? It does make it harder, though, to use “the picture of a bonbonne that is the sixth plate from the front” as an example of the benefits and complexities that the greater size provides. When I describe this image as being “cosmological as well as very ordinary”, it is easier to agree or argue if the image is both larger and more detailed (and easier to locate).
Curator Justin Paton’s introduction is very useful. Eschewing art jargon, he gives an informative and celebratory opinion that for me, after absorbing the 100 pictures, rings true. Both books reinforce the idea that the very act of regarding or giving consideration to something – ie photographing it – establishes extra meanings. Then, taking this a step further, the act of “collecting” or cataloguing further increases the meanings and provides a mechanism for communication.
Several previous reviewers of Victoria Ginn’s work, quoted at the beginning of Figure in the New Zealand Landscape, comment on its surreal nature or “strangeness”. I also find it so. All the colourful and well-composed images do fly under the banner of “figures in the landscape”, but the mixture of overly contrived shots with costumes and props, shown “on” the landscape, jar against seemingly simpler images of naked or semi-clothed models, who appear to be more “in” or “of” the landscape.
The discussion then is not about the success of the individual images but about the purpose of the book. Ginn’s stated intention was to break out of the polite conformity of 1970s New Zealand aesthetic culture. If you can remember back that far, her images were certainly perceived as having that effect, but I’m unsure how younger viewers will see them now. So at the very least this is a record, and may well be more. It is also a deliberate attempt to humanise a land with too few lovers. Again, some of the “naturalistic” shots do this more effectively than the “constructed” images. However, as Ginn is well-known for her strong interest in costume, ritual and drama, in addition to her competence in photography, this may merely be a disjunction between her aesthetic and mine.
If Ginn is attempting to populate an empty landscape, Derek Henderson, with The Terrible Boredom of Paradise, is content just to visit. His is a large handsome book minus Aberhart’s problems with smallness, even though, as far as some of the architecture is concerned, there is a similar eye at work. Paradise also references other New Zealand photographers, such as the late Robin Morrison, as Hannah Scott makes clear in the introduction. Boredom, in this case, refers to the lack of people and activities in shots of small-town streets and rural landscapes depicting a rundown, deserted and nostalgia-soaked country. The quality of boredom may or may not be proven but what is made evident is the shaky premise of “photographic truth”. If Henderson had waited for the shops to open instead of photographing half an hour or even five minutes before or after, if he had paused until a car billowing dust barrelled along the quiet country road, if he hadn’t used such a wide angle on his surfers at Mangamaunu, reducing them to black dots in a vast ocean … then we would be shown a land that while still thinly-populated had purpose, action, life.
Paradise has a romantic and slightly dated approach. A more contemporary explication of the central thesis could be Fiona Amundsen’s recent series of empty scenes that show the cities, malls, parks and plazas where most of us live, not the apparent stasis of the hinterland. Many of the scenes in Paradise would have been familiar to mountaineer and photographer John Pascoe (1908-1972), the subject of Janet Bayley’s Songs of Innocence: Photographs of a New Zealand Childhood, but, of course, Pascoe photographed in black and white not colour. He recorded his daughters growing up during the 40s and 50s, and Bayley has edited these evocations of our recent past into a thoughtful book, with the addition of comments from the family and her own observations.
She demonstrates an awareness of the issues involved: that these images and her carrying out the tasks of selecting, editing and commenting are loaded. Her remarks, such as “the past is fictionalised from the present”, show insight into the complexities behind any so-called “documentary” project. The book does communicate a mood of innocence and joy, perhaps enhanced by the automatic nostalgia that black and white photographs engender. Modern psychology may question this positive view of childhood, but it is the reality that is usually projected in family photographs. They are a visual shorthand of the past and are about celebration, not normally compiled as evidence of dysfunction.
The well-reasoned supposition at the end of Songs of Innocence, that there is a strong theme of childhood running through Pascoe’s official work as a government photographer taking propaganda pictures, may be true, but Bayley’s assertion that he brought the same rigour to his domestic work is questionable. The family photographs have a more casual approach. The same may be said of this book. It is quiet and affectionate, and, while it doesn’t shout, it repays careful attention.
At times, in the use of the term “contemporary”, we transpose the practice and the practitioners. Some of the photographers in Contemporary New Zealand Photographers, while not quite of John Pascoe’s generation, are what are referred to as “senior practitioners”. With the inclusion of younger up-and-coming photographers, or “artists working in and/or with photography”, as some prefer to be called, this book surveys recent New Zealand photographic history as well as the current scene.
Contemporary New Zealand Photographers takes the pragmatic and commendable stance that, as art photography has many manifestations, a book that is “argumentative, discursive and at times mutually contradictory” is an appropriate approach. It’s a strategy that works, and the result encompasses a gamut of images, with some located firmly in these islands and others as much about current international practice as anything else.
The usual suspects (not only the photographers but the designer, editors and writers) have been rounded up in this quality production. It’s a worthy roll call and will contribute to establishing a canon. Of course a different group of participants would establish a slightly different received history. This one is, as Gregory O’Brien states in his opening essay, that of “The Long March towards Fine Art Status” which has different goals and verities than those of the possibly more restrictive genre “Photography”.
When these half-dozen books are added to other recent photographic publications, such as Bruce Connew’s almost-handmade book on mutton birding or Harvey Benge’s glossy international-style productions on colour, juxtapositions and urbanism, we see that approaches to New Zealand photography are plentiful. Overall, we are busy building a deeper body of images that serve purposes ranging from those of observation, reflection and illumination to intellectual inquiry and emotional introspection. Thank you, photographers and their allies.
Paul Thompson is a Wellington-based photographer whose Shards of Silver, investigating the connections between poetry and photography, will be published this year.