Old New World: Photographs by Mary Macpherson
Lopdell House Gallery, $50.00,
Published as PhotoForum issue 81, in collaboration with PhotoForum Inc,
In the interview with Gregory O’Brien that prefaces Old New World, a large-format book carrying the image of a moa on the front cover, artist and poet Mary Macpherson makes a strong disclaimer: “One of the things I especially didn’t want to do was to make a statement about quintessential New Zealand.”
This steering away – and the need for it – is unsurprising. “Being aware,” she says, “of the image-making that’s been done about New Zealand, whether commercially or in the art world, I wanted to navigate right away from the ‘heartland’ community, eccentricity, a sense of isolation, or big statements about the colonial past.” Each image, therefore, as the photographer steers away also from the cliché that’s hardest to avoid – the flat, broad picturing involved in landscape (as opposed to portrait) format – is a fresh, witty and intentional fiction.
The cover picture, for instance, (Queenstown, Otago, 2010, with moa-sculpture by Robin Coleman) is not only suggestive of story, but positively theatrical: the moa appears to move into the scene – a neon-lit Queenstown street at night – to get a bit of the action. The flash catches, in the foreground, the bird’s sculpted feathers, coincidentally the same texture as the bole of a cabbage-tree, which is also highlighted, though less prominently than its one dead flower and raffish split-ends leaves. The cyclorama-sky glows lurid red, behind stage-flat silhouettes.
As the bird is “captured”, forever about to move, forever stuck to the spot, we read this as movie freeze-frame rather than one-off portrait. The sense of potential movement – and potential meaning – is what distinguishes it from blandly sufficient landscape/townscape. Its difference lies also in its partialness: we see only bits of the cabbage-tree; the head, neck and back of the bird; the top of a few shop-windows, and a sliver of car-roof; a tiny stop sign, and few words (OPEN, BOMBAY PALACE) on other signage. This makes the image suggestive rather than explanatory, with hints of times and places other than those which fix it on the page. The play seems about to begin, but we don’t know how long it will be or when it will end; the movie is in train, but the next picture will be from a different movie or play.
While each image stands alone, the series charts the changes (development, decline, sometimes reinvention) that have happened in provincial New Zealand since Macpherson grew up in a small Maniototo town with “general store, monument, big trees, community hall and domain” – memory of which forms an “invisible centre for the work”. The artist acknowledges she is and is not influenced by Moving Pictures, partner Peter Black’s photographs “about the reality of driving through” the country. The difference in her method is a “slowness of looking and letting things come to you in the viewfinder”. Seven years’ travelling included many stops, detours and explorations down side-roads. As well as the journeying in thought (as she says, “photography is a form of thinking”), there is the standing still: these images “are the result of intense concentration and paying attention.”
Macpherson is interested in the naive, brazen statements made by small-town buildings – Twizel’s five chalets spelling out M-O-T-E-L, Kaikoura’s takeaway with fish sign – but also in “the contradictions and side conversations that buildings have with their streets and surroundings”. The left-side wall of the Kaikoura takeaway speaks to the same lime green in a patch of grass at right, as a woman seated outside with a cigarette holds a conversation on her phone; behind her, a diagonal shadow also tunes in with the diagonal barber-stripes on the shop corner. Contrasts abound: a New World supermarket borders the old (or old people’s) bowling-green in Winton, Southland; high-rise development at Mt Maunganui ignores the bush-shrouded hilltop behind; Queenstown buildings obscure what a history-board calls “a view too beautiful to describe”.
A roadside water-tank on iron legs in Hampden, Otago, is set among a jumble of grass, weeds, fences, and attempts at garden and lawn. It seems as if nothing is happening. But I perceive a silent conversation here, between the maroon iron uprights and dark-pink bricks surrounding the makeshift gardens with their unpruned roses, which happen to be the same dark pink. Next door there’s a pale pink shed with maroon door and roof, and next door again, a house with maroon roofing-iron. You’d never see this picture on a calendar. It’s not smooth, it’s not bold, but it sings with human significance, with irony but also an understated respect for a place that someone calls home.
Helen Watson White is a Dunedin writer and photographer.