Fiat Lux: 51 Photographs
Victoria University Press, $50.00,
Hinterland: Rick Alexander’s New Zealand Photographs
First Edition, $75.00,
A Short History of Photography
Harvey Benge with Gerry Badger
Even in the age of the internet, the history of photography is still being told in book form. So it’s pleasing to see a much greater number of New Zealand, or New Zealand co-production, photography books in recent years – including these three titles. It also might remind New Zealanders that stories are told through images as much as through text, and possibly help New Zealand photography to penetrate a worldwide dialogue.
If Fiat Lux were a film, it would be a European movie about the imminent extinction of society as we know it. Andrew Ross would be the dogged hero, leading a band of survivors through tunnels, backyards and derelict buildings where the remnants of a humane but vanishing civilisation clung on. In movies, the narrative usually tips towards a resolution or even optimism – if the survivors learn how to deal to the forces of darkness. But in photography the plot can’t be continued beyond an image, so the role of documentarians like Ross is to frame a reality and bear witness to what is happening.
In Ross’s case, he’s focused his traditional view camera on subjects like the last of Wellington’s small-scale engineering workshops, the former buildings of the city’s motorway bypass route and their inhabitants, and other marginal existences. Curator Emma Budgen, who contributes a short but penetrating overview, quotes Ross as saying: “I’m interested in the effects of time. And as well, I’m interested in improvised lifestyles … homemade things and people who live outside consumer culture.”
To record this world, Ross has used the strengths of the view camera – the ability to frame space and record the detail of large views, so the overall effect is one of quiet steady “looking”. The images sit comfortably in the documentary tradition – to the point where you feel you’ve seen them all before – but the engine room of the work lies in the choice of what to photograph and the ability to create narrative through sequence.
Although much is made of Ross’s ability to record light, the prevalence of a rather grey tonal range in the images works against this thesis. It is one thing to record a light source and the way light falls, but another to create prints that illuminate this feature. The insistence of the work doesn’t lie in “let there be light” but rather in the vision of the alternative, the shabby, the life that exists at the margins of a city before the developers of apartments, office and parking buildings move in.
The book is designed as a classic photography publication, missing only the-one-photo-with-a-blank-facing-page aesthetic. The design fits its subject well, as does the division of the work into five short chapters where writers provide overviews of the photographs they collaborated with Ross in choosing.
The Concise Oxford defines hinterland as “the remote areas of a country away from the coast” or “an area lying beyond what is visible or known”. In the introduction to Hinterland: Rick Alexander’s New Zealand Photographs, Peter Ireland suggests that Alexander’s territory is really psychological – “a country of the mind”. Many of the images, particularly the Diana camera’s and the polaroid’s, do have a dreamlike or hallucinatory quality. Add to this a subject matter of wild coastlines, isolated natural forms and solitary buildings, and the work references gothic New Zealand mixed with formal concerns reminiscent of American modernist Edward Weston.
The book feels like a survey of Alexander’s work through the 1980s and 1990s, mixing jewel-like polaroids and blurred or vignetted black and whites with more formal views of buildings and interiors. What is consistent throughout is a focus on isolated, largely rural subject matter and a sense of intense concentration by the photographer. Whether it’s a rock in the surf, a woolshed wall hung with tools or a fairytale image of a water tower, the photographs strip away social context. The New Zealand portrayed is a landscape of fragments.
Ireland suggests the images mysteriously “offer a critique of the utopian project of European settlement” suspended “between colonialism and globalisation”, but in photographs without a strong sense of social history this is quite a leap of faith. The overall feeling could equally well add up to a “photographer-alone” aesthetic. The work is reminiscent of its time in New Zealand photographic history, and there are some strong images.
Where I paused was over the question of narrative shape. Obvious care has been taken with the sequencing of images and with mixing different camera formats and media. But a sense of overall story or “point to be made” is missing. Perhaps a tighter selection of images or the division of work into sections might have helped or it could be that successive images of isolation just don’t hold hands terribly strongly.
The reproduction by Printlink’s Martin Schanzel serves the pictures well, offering a good tonal range in the black and whites, and rich yet muted colour for the polaroids. In a quiet way this book offers an elliptical and challenging view of the New Zealand countryside.
In a book of lectures titled The End of the Poem Irish poet Paul Muldoon explores the idea that poetry is inextricably bound up with other influences – such as the writer’s life and times or other literature. The same can be said about influences in photography, in fact about most art. In selecting his images by their ability to remind one of the works of other famous photographers, Harvey Benge has taken the idea of influence and worn it on his sleeve. More sophisticated and worldly than the two previous books, A Short History of Photography offers global subject matter and claims a dizzying number of significant international practitioners. The intention seems less a postmodern foray into “appropriation land” than a world tour of photographic style.
However, by setting up this premise and proclaiming it loudly on the front cover, Benge immediately sets the viewer off on an unfortunate “guess the photographer” trip. Those images that do “match”, like the William Eggleston tricycle or the Martin Parr-style couple, are lesser versions of the originals, and often the matter of whose style we are looking at is obscure.
This is a pity because loosed from the straitjacket of the central thesis the images offer some urbane pleasures. Benge particularly excels at overviews of city scenes where small-scale people are positioned among buildings, road markings and plants. The views are at once pleasing in their balance and design but also provide a chilly reminder of the ubiquitous global world we inhabit.
The real treat of this book is the fluent introduction by veteran UK photography historian and critic Gerry Badger who meditates on style. After identifying a trend for photographers with half an eye on gallery success “to create a rigid and narrow formal consistency between every photograph or group of images”, Badger goes on to identify the reason to be interested in style – “to learn about style is to learn about form, and as photography, at root, is a formal business, it is necessary to think about it and understand it in order to progress.”
Mary Macpherson is a Wellington photographer and poet.