A fair portrait, Max Oettli

Brian Brake: Lens on the World
Athol McCredie (ed)
Te Papa Press, $99.99,
ISBN 9781877385643


This is a remarkable book, beautifully produced and meticulously researched to give a careful and fair portrait of the one landmark international photographer this country produced in the 20th century, Brian Brake. Te Papa’s photography curator Athol McCredie is to be congratulated on his careful editorial work and a very good choice of contributors. They have delivered articles that situate Brake in the currents of 20th-century photographic activity, notably photo-journalism, of which he was a master and which virtually died with his generation.

The book is definitely worthy of the golden age of “coffee table”. The quality of the reproductions is variable, but at its best it is very good indeed, worthy of a craftsman photographer who cared and followed through the nuts-and-bolts side of getting his work to fully express his meaning on the page, or occasionally in an exhibition context.

Brake is primarily known here through his major picture book, New Zealand, Gift of the Sea (1964), in collaboration with Maurice Shadbolt, which went through many editions and a revision a decade later. It sold 100,000 copies, which I imagine puts Brake in the same bracket as A W Reed and Barry Crump. His international reputation had been established four years earlier with the photo essay on India, “Monsoon”, widely published, notably in Life Magazine in 1961. Gael Newton of the National Gallery of Australia carefully unravels the ins and outs of that major project.

Cognoscenti will also know that Brake was fortunate to be admitted to the prestigious picture co-operative Magnum at a very early age, and John Turner writes about this in some detail. He is particularly interesting on Brake’s work in China, and draws on the considerable research he did on Tom Hutchins, another Kiwi who went there. New Zealand was one of the few Western countries to have diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic.

Lens on The World’s cover image sets the tone: two warriors pass one another. One is a Yemeni lancer on his camel, a disdainful soldier crowned with an amazing turban of more than oriental splendour, his haughty profile as though carved in ebony. Behind him a pilot in his fighter jet, a kind of bemused Joe Kiwi figure (he is a Brit, actually), his hand adjusting his helmet in what looks like a military salute. A couple of millennia of militarism in one frame, one split second.

Without a doubt, one of the two informing streams in Brake’s work is a good old-worldly Orientalist approach. When he descends from Arthur’s Pass and starts work with Spencer Digby, he is fascinated by the capital population’s ethnic variety, and focuses on the young Chinese man among his tea boxes, Kenneth Lau. This informs the second stream: the competition photo-club print.

The whole ethos of camera club work favoured the exotic, the pictorial, the narrative. A photo accompanying Lissa Mitchell’s contribution shows young Brian peering at the usual “salon” offering with that camera club dinosaur F Leonard Casbolt ( FRPS, FPSNZ etc). At a very deep level, notwithstanding his denials, Brake’s work would also go on being informed by “pictorialism” in its many later morphs.

It is interesting to read in Damian Skinner’s chapter how Brake’s iconic 1980s work for the Pacific art and Maori exhibitions was criticised by a Maori reviewer. In a balanced and thoughtful essay in Te Kaea, from which I slightly unfairly draw this quote, Graham Wiremu concludes: “Although I appreciated the way in which the clever lighting has emphasised the rich mellow quality of [a work] I felt cheated – it was as though the thing itself had been broken, that there was something to hide.”

We take the point; much of Brake’s fine photographic work in Egypt, Thailand and elsewhere also showed a distorted and decontextualised view of significant artefacts, with dramatic lighting making them into choice objects of cultural consumption for a western audience, without always respecting their iconic resonance. Not quite eye candy, but pictures meticulously produced to seduce us, nevertheless.

Brake seems now to be in that sonic boom period where a posthumous debate casts doubt on his fame, and we have to accept that he was, after all, a simple photographer with his limitations. A recent Dominion Post review by Mark Amery is not atypical: “I was surprised by how often I found … individual images unsatisfying in their connection to their subject or the lack of music in their composition.” Amery makes an unfavourable comparison between Brake’s work and that of, say, Friedlander and Westra, who were both working to a different agenda. Brake’s work stands firm, a little dated, perhaps, and needing a slightly different understanding than more contemporary art-informed work might command.

The continuing debate about the lead picture of the “Monsoon” essay is a case in point. One of my friends was recently adamant that Brake, who apparently posed a Bollywood actress on a veranda and sprinkled her from a watering can, had betrayed the whole principle of photography’s integrity, its mystical umbilical link to the pure, the unadulterated. Gael Newton, however, cites Bruce Connew’s conversation with Aparna Gupta/Sen, the woman in question, and makes it clear that Brake was acting as an art director and thinking specifically of a Life cover image. He insisted that the young woman’s nose-stud be green rather than the red she would have preferred. It is precisely this rather fussy insistence on detail, on mise en scène, that distinguishes Brake from more reality-informed photographers.

A number of things are striking in Brake’s body of work, some more readily visible to those who worked as photographers in the generation following his. One is his simple mastery of quite complex compositions. A title from a 1950s article in US Camera by David Vestal could refer to much of Brake’s work: “35mm spoken here, with a slight 4 by 5 accent.” It means that we are miles removed from the mainstream Soviet or German approach to 35mm photography, where everything is essentially reduced to dramatic contrasts and bold compositions.

In his black-and-white work, Brake is a master of finely detailed images with a strong narrative or “subject” content, and at ease with making formal compositions based on complex dynamic three-dimensional situations. He used a variety of lenses and angles, and (as his contact sheets, alas not shown in the book, attest) did not hesitate to cover the subject pretty widely before selecting the usable or eloquent image. Turner points to Cartier-Bresson as one of Brake’s mentors, and Brake’s best certainly had some of Cartier-Bresson’s components, although he uses looser and more spontaneous compositions than the French master to keep his narrative moving.

As a film maker (not a great one by all accounts), he would work with an establishment shot and telling close-ups, usually shifting to a longer lens when required, something Cartier Bresson was loath to do. The sheep-on-the-hill shot, from Gift of the Sea, is one of the few which is not razor-sharp; it must have been taken using a very long lens, hand-held, Brake having realised that the impact of the composition’s verticality was worth a bit of movement blur.

It is in his colour work that Brake’s real strength shows. There is a sobriety, a purity of palette, translating into a limited but eloquent chromatic exuberance in his photos of the dyers in India and of the Chinese man looking at a wall poster, which are as fine as colour magazine photography ever got. The story of the green nose-stud shows we are working with someone whose sensibility to that difficult and demanding medium is remarkable. Turner reminds us that Brake usually worked without an exposure meter on trusty Ilford HP3, but in handling the far more “fragile” colour sensitivity responses of early 35mm colour transparency film, he was a master. He shows a capacity for capturing movement by blurs, or by an immobilisation or controlled movement of his camera, worthy of a yogi. His weird and very effective colour distortions due to available-light colour variation and impossibly long exposures become part of his style. The picture of the Okayama winter festival’s 8000 writhing young men is iconic in its surreal orgiastic palate, making one think of Fellini and possibly Goya.

Eight thousand writhing young men, hmm. It is in looking closely at some of this work that we start to feel the book has a chapter missing. That Brake was homosexual is never explicated, yet it seems to me one of the central strands of his creative life. I use the old word to allude to a time when the law, blackmail and other consequences forever threatened. Homosexuality was only taken off the law books in 1986, and although Chris Brickell’s 2008 Mates and Lovers shows that the 1940s-1960s scene was interesting and lively, it was also difficult, and possibly ill-suited to someone of Brake’s temperament.

There is room for more work here, as there is in other aspects. This book makes a good and incisive start, summarising what is known and to some extent marking out fields worth a closer look by future researchers.


Max Oettli is a Dunedin-based photographer and writer, and Principal Lecturer in Photography at Dunedin School of Art.

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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Photography, Review
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