Behind the passionate eye, Peter Calder

Marti Friedlander with Hugo Manson
Auckland University Press, $60.00,
ISBN 9781869407841

One day we will all be just a photograph, Marti Friedlander tells us in the closing pages of this entertaining and readable memoir. Coming as it does from such a consummate practitioner of the form, the observation is food for serious thought. She tosses it off (“I once remarked that …”) as the introduction to a passage about the power of photography to activate memory. Sometimes, she says:

people will bring out an album and they’ll show you photographs of … an aunt or their mother and I always ask, what do you remember about them? … If you’re given the opportunity to talk about what you remember from childhood, what emerges is often a clue to the person you’ve become.


The power of photography to bring the past into the present and make a connection between eras is everywhere on show in this handsomely produced book. Readers born before the 1960s will exult in the memory shocks its pages give off: the 1977 session with “the Three Musketeers” – Tony Fomison, Philip Clairmont and Allen Maddox – in whom Friedlander detected “a terrible sadness”; the impossibly young Donna Awatere and Sue Kedgley; Norman Kirk addressing a street-corner meeting in Mt Eden in 1969 in support of the campaign of Keith Sinclair.

There is also the joy of seeing with fresh eyes photographs that have become embedded in our iconography. There’s a 1968 shot of Walter Nash, in three-piece wool suit with a champagne coupe in one hand and the other raised in an elegant wave that looks almost like a benediction. It doesn’t matter that he hadn’t been PM for eight years and had stepped down as Labour leader in 1963; it is the definitive picture. (It also doesn’t matter that it was a jack-up; Friedlander missed his entrance and asked him to come into the room again, she says.)

A mere four years after Auckland University Press published Marti Friedlander, Leonard Bell’s scholarly review of her work, a new book may seem to be overdoing it. But this is special because it’s a project of the New Zealand Oral History Archive (now the Oral History Centre at the Alexander Turnbull Library), and it is a testament to the value of the work of that institution, established by Hugo Manson and Judith Fyfe less than a quarter-century ago.

Friedlander, who describes herself in an afterword as “strangely inhibited when it comes to writing down my thoughts and recollections”, submitted to “a series of unforgettable interviews” conducted in her study over many weeks in 2011 and 2012.

Very occasionally, the cracks in the process show, in the repetition of certain observations and in the interviewer’s failure to follow up an answer (what was it, one wonders, that meant her first meeting with Michael King was “not a meeting of souls”?). And to observe that the book is never a bravura piece of writing is no criticism, because it was never intended to be. It is, rather, a sustained and pleasantly vernacular reminiscence which also functions as a caption to a life of work.

This is by way of saying that the text is, as it should be, led by the images. It is easy to imagine Friedlander in conversation with Manson, being handed an image and, either explicitly or implicitly, invited to discuss it. The result, as Friedlander herself foreshadows, is that “what emerges is a clue to the person you’ve become”.

The story of Martha Gordon, born in Bethnal Green, London, in February 1928, is the story of someone who has not often felt at home here. “I love the hopefulness of migration,” she tells us, “of people trying to better themselves” – and yet her migration was fraught. She had grown up in an orphanage – her parents, poor Jewish refugees had fled the pogroms of Kiev for reasons that Friedlander now either doesn’t know or doesn’t care to disclose – but her memories of childhood are far happier than those of the boilerplate orphan.

By a stroke of luck she got a job in photography – as a print retoucher at the age of 17 – and there’s a strong sense her professional future was sealed instantly. But then she fell in love with a New Zealander whose German Jewish parents had emigrated in 1937. His name was Gerrard Friedlander – there are dizzyingly romantic pictures of their European tours, two-up on a small motor scooter and camping in fields – and he brought her here.

It was culture shock on a grand scale: “[I felt] I was in some sort of nightmare from which I would awake and be once again in London”. Her experience was the obverse of that of a New Zealander on an OE who discovers a wealth of cosmopolitan culture in Europe; Friedlander remembers coming to a cultural desert where “I had never seen so many sheep”.

These were “the hardest [years] of my life,” she says. “I slowly began to lose my identity – that positiveness, that optimism, that certainty of knowing who I was.” A three-month trip to London, with a week in Greenwich Village en route, eased her pain somewhat and on her return she began to befriend people – artists, writers, the pioneer Dalmatian winemakers of West Auckland – with whom she felt something in common.

Thus it is no accident that such people have always caught her eye and been among the more prominent subjects of her work. The book is divided into chapters documenting her recurring preoccupations as a photographer, and what documentary filmmaker Shirley Horrocks called Friedlander’s “passionate eye” is apparent early on. A 1964 portrait of Don Binney at Te Henga shows the artist standing in what looks like a Don Binney painting.

But a stronger thread is her early interest in Maori. Taken to Parihaka by Dick Scott in 1968 and invited by Michael King the next year to shoot for his landmark Moko, Friedlander was at the cutting edge of Pakeha awareness about te ao Maori: “I knew that the photographs I was taking [of the kuia with their moko] were not visible … and things that are not visible need to be seen at the right time.”

It’s hard to think of a better description of the role of a photographer. In the 55 years that she has been here, Friedlander has shown ourselves to ourselves in a way that few others have done. And it’s hard not to conclude that part of her success has been because she has turned the view of an immigrant on us: “I am not a Kiwi,” she insists.

The book is refreshingly free of false modesty: professing herself no fan of “the New Zealand thing [of] not skiting”, she is happy to tell us when a photograph succeeds and why. And she leaves us in no doubt of her opinion about various people: Hamish Keith, C K Stead, Kedgley and John Minto all get serves of greater or lesser ferocity.

Yet when she sings her praises, she is really singing the praises of her subjects, seeing something in her photographs that might have eluded us. She teaches us to be grateful for that passionate eye and that slightly detached gaze. And she reminds us of the importance to a photographer of Mark Twain’s comment that you must never let your imagination be out of focus.


Peter Calder is an Auckland journalist and reviewer. His She’s Got Breast Cancer is published by the Breast Cancer Foundation. 


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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Photography
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