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On looking inside

Lissa Mitchell on <EM>Letting Us In</EM> and the domestic interior in photography


<P data-associrn="116418"></P> <P>Photographs of the interiors of homes give us remarkable insight into the generally unseen parts of other people’s lives. Photographing private spaces grants us access to them and makes them into social spaces that we can discuss and critique. A link between many of the photographs in the exhibition <EM>Letting Us In</EM> is the commonality of the interior spaces &#8211; aspects of lived intimacy that are familiar because we, too, have lived them or because we have seen this kind of photograph before. Taking Ann Shelton’s work as a starting point, <EM>Letting Us In</EM> arranges into pairs photographs by New Zealand and American photographers that share common subject matter across different time periods, cultures, and geographical locations.</P> <P><STRONG>A simple life</STRONG></P> <P>During the 1930s, many American photographers focused particular attention on documentary images of working-class people and the worlds they inhabit &#8211; family and social groups, homes and places of work. One of the most prominent of these photographers was Walker Evans, who was known for his bold images of everyday sights and people. Evans tried to take photographs that showed the simple realities of life &#8211; images that did not pretend that living in America was grander than it really was. By showing people living in poverty, the photographs Evans and others, such as Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee, took for the Farm Security Administration during the 1930s politicised the domestic interior. </P> <P>Evans’s book <EM>American Photographs</EM>, published in 1938, showed a selection of his work to a wider audience and inspired many photographers, especially Robert Frank. Evans’s friendship influenced Frank’s style of photography, and his support helped Frank win a grant to produce his own landmark book, <EM>The Americans</EM>, published in 1958.</P> <P>Unlike the many photographs Evans took of people he didn’t know, his photograph of Robert Frank’s stove records a visit to his friend’s house, a remote fishing shack in Nova Scotia. The stove stands commandingly on the floor as a gleaming machine of household function and industry. This is a sparse scene of controlled domesticity: only a kettle sits on the stovetop and we catch a glimpse of clothing hanging above to dry. Evans’s energetic depiction of Frank’s stove makes a good analogy for the relationship between the two men &#8211; one of ideas ‘cooked up’ and shared.</P> <P data-associrn="37836"></P> <P>Richard Wotton’s photograph of Fred and Deborah Frederikse’s stove was taken six years after Evans’s and mimics his title, but rather than artistic influence it is an homage to the Frederikses’ alternative lifestyle. The stove sits inside a circular-shaped house that the couple built themselves in the mid-1970s at the settlement of &#256;tene on the Whanganui River. The Frederikses’ Shacklock Orion sits on a wooden base&nbsp; in a surrounding support made of bricks. Paper intended for burning on the fire sits to the side and the crowded stovetop holds a kettle, frying pan, and cooking pot. The strong contrast of black and white in the image helps to show it as a hardy, ‘make do’ area of a humble living space. The stove is celebrated as the domestic workhorse at the centre of a comfortable existence, which requires only the simple luxuries of life &#8211; hot water, cooked food, a warm house, and dry clothes.</P> <P data-associrn="893272"></P> <P><STRONG>Colour arrives</STRONG></P> <P>Some photographs are about photography. As well as recording people and places, they record other photographs. The effect of including (or even reprinting) the work of other photographers is to create an image that instructs us on how things are meant to look. </P> <P>Ann Shelton has incorporated a replica into her diptych <EM>The living room</EM> (2005) as an homage to architect and photographer James Chapman-Taylor. There is a long tradition of photographers printing photographs from other photographers’ negatives. Negatives were a valuable part of the assets of photographers’ studios. Since the 19th century photographers have acquired, and reprinted from, other photographers’ negatives as part of standard business practice. The new owner gained the right to use the photographs as their own and was not expected to credit the original photographer. </P> <P>Shelton’s art work presents a colour photograph alongside a modern black-and-white print from one of Chapman-Taylor’s negatives. The images show the living room of the Wilkinson House in Taranaki, designed by Chapman-Taylor and built around 1929&#8211;30. Physical changes to the house have been minimal, given that the owners have followed Chapman-Taylor’s guidelines for preserving his design &#8211; something his own photographs of the house were meant to demonstrate. Shelton’s work shows how photography records the passing of time, marking not only changes in the physical world but also technological developments. The manufacture of colour film on a single base during the 1930s, not long after Chapman-Taylor took his photograph, made colour processing much more accessible. The recent addition of red carpet to the room works in tandem with the process of colour photography to show a contemporary vision of the house. </P> <P data-associrn="39152"></P> <P><STRONG>Living images</STRONG></P> <P>Although quite simple, some photographs of private spaces can lead us to ponder bigger ideas and questions. The remarkable presence and significance of portrait photography as a subject within photographs of domestic interiors asks us to think about how portraits are displayed and used in private homes. After a person is gone, photographs and memories can be all that remain. </P> <P>Laurence Aberhart’s photograph of Taiaroa, the Ellison house, shows a personal living space where a series of photographic portraits of different formats and types hangs haphazardly on an ornately patterned wall. The point is not how they are arranged as much as that they are there: images of ancestors set within the time and space of the present day. The house is the home of a Maori family at the fishing settlement of Taumutu, on the coastal side of Lake Ellesmere, south of Christchurch. Of all the images in this exhibition, this one is perhaps the most imbued with the weight of permission and responsibility for the making and distribution of the image &#8211; an agreement made between the photographer and the family.</P> <P data-associrn="43894"></P> <P>By contrast, Jerry Uelsmann’s <EM>Untitled </EM>was made by image manipulation prior to digital technology. A cloudy sky, masking the sun, has replaced the ceiling, and the empty dress and shoes sitting on the chair invoke the supernatural departure of a physical body. As in Aberhart’s image, the human body appears only as a photograph within the photograph. The young man in the large portrait on the wall (which resembles an enlarged ambrotype or other cased portrait photograph) defies his status as a photographic object or picture; he appears to be trying to engage the viewer, as if he were the true subject of the image. The effect of this is to switch the accepted reality in the room: the photograph on the wall seems more real than the supernatural event occurring in the room. His dominance is substantiated by other examples of photographic portraiture: the 19th-century family photograph albums sitting closed on both tables, and a small pile of mounted prints lying on the large table.</P> <P data-associrn="706553"></P> <P data-associrn="1312566"></P> <P><STRONG>Transient spaces</STRONG></P> <P>There are well-established rules about what makes acceptable domestic dwellings. Rooms have specific names and functions that fit a defined purpose. To mix these uses up and to encounter unfamiliar terms can be confusing and unsettling. Two photographs by Gary Blackman and Gordon Brown show transient domestic spaces that the same people return to for short periods of time, or that many people live in for short phases of their lives.</P> <P>Through the process of recording a scene and titling a photograph, Gary Blackman’s interior of a crib captures an example of a regional dialect and carries it into the present. ‘Crib’ is a lower South Island term for a bach or holiday home. This crib is at Waipuna Bay, on the coast near Aramoana, north of the Otago Peninsula. Objects in the image reveal a certain time of year: the old-style festive Christmas lights hanging above the fireplace and the calendar showing the last two months of 1975. This is the place of Christmases past &#8211; a place people return to and find unchanged since their last visit.</P> <P>The room in Gordon Brown’s image is both a lounge and a bedroom &#8211; the piece of furniture on the right both a bed and a couch. On the bookshelf the most prominent title &#8211; <EM>Art Now</EM> &#8211; becomes a caption for the resident’s life at the time. The room in the photograph, part of a residence run by a notorious Christchurch landlady known as ‘Ma’ Clifford, was Brown’s home for a time while studying at the Canterbury School of Art during the 1950s. Brown went on to become a prominent curator and historian of New Zealand art. Like the photographs by Evans and Wotton, the spaces have a worn simplicity that offers a sense of the day-to-day minutiae of the occupants’ lives. Human life can appear transient, or temporary, in spaces like these.</P> <P data-associrn="18810"></P> <P><STRONG>Private places</STRONG></P> <P>Bedrooms are private places, and in 1901 when Muir &amp; Moodie and C. P. Parkerson took photographs it would have been considered objectionable to photograph an unmade bed. However, both these beds are made and there is a sense of expectation &#8211; of someone about to see the rooms. </P> <P>The Muir &amp; Moodie photograph shows the bedroom at the Fernhill Club in Dunedin where the Duchess of York stayed in 1901. The Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York (the future King George V and Queen Mary) came to the Southern Hemisphere to thank Commonwealth countries, such as New Zealand, for supporting the British Empire by sending troops to fight in the South African War (1899&#8211;1902).<SUP><FONT size=2>1</FONT></SUP></P> <P>The bedroom for the Duchess was one of three rooms on the second floor of the building, which ‘command[ed] magnificent views of the city and harbour’, and were converted to bedrooms especially for the visit. Her room was reported as being ‘papered pale green. The bedstead is of solid brass, the sofa a Chesterfield in French chintz with chair to match, the carpet a very fine seamless Persian square; the cheval duchesse table, the washstand, and wardrobe are in walnut and mottled kauri.’<SUP><FONT size=2>2</FONT></SUP></P> <P>As well as visiting Dunedin, the Duke and Duchess were given a tour of the Rotorua tourist destination, Whakarewarewa, by Makereti Papakura, better known as Guide Maggie. C. P. Parkerson’s photograph of Maggie’s house, Tuhoromatakaka, shows the bedroom of the famous guide in the Whakarewarewa village. Maggie hosted tourists and dignitaries on tours of the village and geysers under the management of the Tourist Department. The house was regarded as part of her persona and her way of sharing Maori life and customs. In an interesting link with Fernhill, Maggie’s house was dismantled and travelled with her to the Festival of Empire at the Crystal Palace in London in 1911, part of the celebrations for the coronation of King George V.<SUP><FONT size=2>3</FONT></SUP></P> <P>Despite their cultural differences, the rooms in these two photographs have much in common. By chance the beds and some of the furniture, as well as the angle at which the photographs were taken, are virtually the same. Pictures feature strongly on the walls of both rooms. Scenic New Zealand and European landscapes adorn the Duchess’s bedroom, while in Maggie’s bedroom the pictures on the walls are mostly photographic portraits of ancestors and friends.</P> <P>We may feel slightly uneasy about looking into someone’s bedroom; however, as these photographs attest, neither bedroom was a completely private space. Both photographs were made to fulfil public curiosity about the dwellings of well-known people. Images of Maggie’s house appeared in illustrated newspapers of the time. Despite their seemingly vast cultural differences both rooms were strongly tied to tourism and cultural diplomacy.</P> <P>Regardless of the intentions of photographers, images also have a life of their own. Photographs are interpreted by viewers in different ways, and this is especially apparent when the subjects are familiar everyday sights. Inadvertently, photographs can capture supposedly private spaces and reveal their connections to the nation state, political system, and colonial empire. Images of private places raise the question of what privacy means and what we want to keep private in our own lives. Laurence Aberhart’s photograph of the room adorned with ancestors in Taiaroa, the home of the Ellison family, is a strong reminder of the power of photography to present the personal as a familiar shared experience.</P> <P><BR><STRONG><FONT size=2>Endnotes</FONT></STRONG></P> <OL> <LI><FONT size=2>The travel arrangements for the 1901 Royal Tour were managed by T E Donne, chief of the Tourist Department.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>‘The Royal Residence’, <EM>Otago Witness</EM>, 26 June 1901, p. 29.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Diamond, Paul, <EM>Makereti: Taking Maori to the World.</EM> Auckland: Random House, 2007, pp. 97-125.</FONT></LI></OL> <P>&nbsp;</P>
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C P Parkerson, Tuhoromatakaka (Maggie Papakura's house), circa 1910, black and white gelatin glass negative
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Richard Wotton, Fred Frederikse's stove, Atene, Wanganui, c1977., circa 1977, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print,
Gift of an anonymous donor, 1986.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Ann Shelton, The living room (The 'great living room' with open timber roof. The dining room to left. The great table 5' 6 x 9' with top cut from a single rimu log originally 6' through. The bay window looks across the Bight to Egmont in the distance - A view seldom equalled), 2005, diptych of a colour and a black and white photograph: type C print and modern gelatin silver print made from a negative by JW Chapman-Taylor,
Purchased 2008.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Laurence Aberhart, Interior number 1. Taiaroa, Ellison house, Taumutu, Canterbury, March 1983, 1983, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print,
Gift of Laurence Aberhart, 1985.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Jerry Uelsmann, Untitled (Victorian room and clouds), 1975, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print,
Purchased 1982 with New Zealand Lottery Board funds.
© Jerry N. Uelsmann
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Gary Blackman, Crib interior, Waipuna Bay, 1975, 1975, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print,
Purchased 2006.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Gordon Harold Brown, Single room flat, cnr Montreal and Worcester Streets - in 'Ma' Clifford house, 1954, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print,
Purchased 2012.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Muir & Moodie studio, The Duchess of Yorks State Room, Fernhill, 1901, black and white gelatin glass negative,
Purchased 1943.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz