We first met Peter Peryer in 1976. It was through his images of course. We’d seen his portfolio ‘Mars Hotel’, and when we found out he was in Wellington at a workshop we went to ask if we could get a copy of it for ourselves. We did. Since then we’ve become close friends: in the early days staying with Peter and his wife Erika in Devonport, and later having Peter as a regular visitor to Wellington.
This interview was recorded in our living room over two sessions. During the break Peter went into the kitchen to take a quick iPhone snap of a magnet stuck to the fridge. He never stops thinking or doing photography but over all the years we’ve known him we’ve only seen him take two images that became ‘keepers’, as Peter calls his printed work. One was of Erika in our kitchen in Lower Hutt which became Erika with knives (1977) and the other was Marlborough daisy (1985).
We knew Peter had been mulling over this second photograph as he’d mentioned it many times over a couple of years. He’s a huge fan of the Otari Native Botanic Garden and we would often stroll around it, talking and looking, when he was visiting Wellington. One day, rather close to the entrance of Otari, Peter suddenly jumped up onto a bed of Marlborough daisies and five seconds later it was all over. So, a decisive moment if not one of the legendary Henri Cartier-Bresson kind.
Peter tends to think out his moments in advance and hunt them down. Even his visit to Wellington on the weekend of this interview included the search for a location. He was after an industrial basement with a concrete floor. The question now is whether or not it will be a keeper.
Jim & Mary: How do you select what you’re going to photograph? Has it changed at all over the years?
Peter: I’m scanning all the time. It’s like having a built-in Geiger counter. Sometimes things just come to my attention and sometimes I feel there’s something there, and I take a photograph to see what it will look like as a photograph.
Jim & Mary: Do you know in advance what you are after? Do you have some idea of how the photo will turn out?
Peter: I think that, roughly speaking, there are two approaches in my work, two kinds of photos.
The first is if I’m travelling and I come across something. It might not be anywhere grand; I might just be walking along and come across something. I’ve been photographing for so long that I know pretty well straightaway whether it might work or not. There’s a fairly high hit ratio. And sometimes pictures are just handed to me on a plate. Like the time I was out trout fishing on Lake Taupo. I’m not really a fisherman but I was with two friends and one of them caught a trout. The other friend held it up, and I took the shot. I only took one frame and it became Trout, Lake Taupo (1987). I remember that well because it was one of the few photographs I got that whole year.
The other kind of the photographs I take are the ones that I construct.
Jim & Mary: So the second kind would be something like After Rembrandt (1995). What would be the process that went towards making that photograph?
Peter: The process started when I was in an art museum in Frankfurt and I saw postcards of the 1650 Rembrandt etching.
Jim & Mary: That would be his etching The shell.
Peter: Yes. Then just a few days later I was at a market and there at one of the stalls they had one of the same Conus shells for sale. So I brought it back to New Zealand and photographed it, this time on a sheet of white paper marked with pencil lines to somehow replicate the etching feel.
Jim & Mary: Did you want the scale to be ambiguous or did that come as part of the shooting?
Peter: I know I often seem to be drawn to pictures where scale is ambiguous but I don’t do it deliberately. I don’t get up in the morning and say, ‘Today I’m going to take a picture where the scale is ambiguous.’ I never do it deliberately. I just can’t help it.
Jim & Mary: Is that the same way you select images from your proof sheets? Is the decision about which is the final image also an intuitive one?
Peter: It’s a visceral decision. It’s not really an intellectual one. I decide by seeing if I can feel something going on . . . it is a feeling.
Jim & Mary: If you look at your old proof sheets do you ever see images that you hadn’t thought were of interest but that you think are now of interest?
Peter: I can answer this with some certainty because recently I’ve had an inventory done of all my work. And the answer is that there aren’t many changes I’d make. I think I found two or three that I might have missed but I don’t seem to have overlooked many.
Jim & Mary: When you started photographing in the 1970s were you trying to create a particular feeling, or were you just taking what you could get?
Peter: I know that a lot of my earlier work, in particular, was painful looking. But it wasn’t something I set out to do.
Jim & Mary: I’m thinking of say your Self-portrait with rooster (1977), with you wearing that very European-style suit. It’s hard, looking at that image, to not feel you had a strong idea about what it represented.
Peter: I think in those, it’s true, I had a pretty clear idea.
Jim & Mary: So how much would you have thought about religion in those days, on a day-to-day basis?
Peter: Oh. I would have thought a lot about what damage it did me. But I was well and truly over being a believer.
Jim & Mary: Was the Roman Catholic upbringing still playing an important part in your life, at that time, or had you drifted?
Peter: It probably still does even now, because you are indoctrinated from the time you’re a tiny child. Some of my wiring was probably put in place way back then. I can’t say that I’m completely over the effect of it. Some of the effect was good, of course, because I was exposed to beautiful poetry. The Latin was just wonderful. And the beautiful vestments that you often see. And men dressing in these soft garments. And being exposed to these most revered men, who had devoted their lives to a non-material goal. That’s the good side of it. I mean it’s a pretty amazing thing just to take a vow of poverty. And these people were revered.
Jim & Mary: Perhaps this would be a good time to ask about any big influences on you when you got started.
Peter: I know I was influenced by Edward Weston, as a lot of my generation of photographers were, but I was influenced not by the images so much as by the fact that he quit everything to pursue a life as a photographer. And what’s more he wrote most eloquently about it.
Jim & Mary: So you read his writings early on?
Peter: I did. And then when I got a Fulbright Scholarship in 1985 I was able to spend a couple of weeks at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, which has one of the biggest collections of photography in the world. I remember on the last day they asked me what I’d like to see, and I said, ‘I’d like to see Weston’s original notebooks.’ It was amazing.
What was particularly interesting was that later in his life Weston became worried about the names of some of the people, women really, who he’d been involved with being made public so he got a razor and he cut them out of his exercise books. I’d heard about it, but I’d never seen it before! There’s also a wonderful quote by Weston about this period: ‘He entered the middle-aged saturnalia of the early deprived.’ [laughs]
Jim & Mary: And what about other New Zealand photographers? Were you collegial? Did you talk a lot?
Peter: Yes, we were. And, of course, there was PhotoForum, the photographic society started by John Turner in 1974 that also published the magazine PhotoForum. I was very fortunate that I came into photography in the early seventies when it was very, very active.
Jim & Mary: It’s fairly well known that you didn’t take up serious photography until you were in your early thirties.
Peter: I must have been about 33 or something like that but it kicked in pretty quickly. Within a year or so I must have been exhibiting – because of my age and experience I had something in the image bank. A big help was my English degree from Auckland University. I do believe that there is a connection between the poem and the photograph. Rhythm, rhyme, balance, structure, metaphor. People have written about this relationship and I think it’s an interesting argument. They are close. The relationship may be closer than that with other visual media. It comes from perhaps a different part of the brain. I’ve an idea Paul Thompson’s written an essay about this,1 and I’m sure others have too.
And I’ve always been very, very interested in science and I’d done a bit of science at university so that side of photography held no fear for me. I loved the microscope. I think I often use the camera in a similar way. I used to love looking through the microscope and drawing. Look and draw.
Jim & Mary: And read.
Peter: Yes, I’m always reading. Getting ideas. I can get ideas for photos just from watching TV. It’s a question of focusing softly, making sure I don’t get too rigid about what my next photo’s going to be.
Jim & Mary: Can we talk about your first contact with the photographic process.
Peter: My father always had a darkroom. So I was no stranger to it. But I would never have worked in there alongside my father. I never touched his darkroom.
Back then I was very undecided about what I wanted to do with my life. I was interested in the arts and I finally bought my first camera in the early seventies when my family was staying in Fiji. When we came back I needed to make some money so I rang the education board and got a job as a relief teacher at Otahuhu Intermediate. They had a photography club with a tiny darkroom off the school hall. A couple of schoolboys taught me how to print in that darkroom.
Sometime later I was on Great Barrier Island and I ran into the photographer Paul Hewson who, on seeing the camera over my shoulder, got talking. He said there was a workshop being run at Elam, starting in about a week. I somehow got through on the phone to John Turner, who I think said it was full, but I told him about my own primitive darkroom at home and he said, ‘Oh, seeing as you’ve got your own darkroom, we’ll let you come to the workshop.’ And that’s when I started.
And then I moved to Devonport where I had a better darkroom. I was working solely in black and white. I might have been infected with the idea that black and white photography was more arty. It wasn’t until the early seventies that colour photography started becoming more seen. Of course, colour was very expensive to work with, but then gradually over the years I started to see works that needed to be in colour to succeed. If they were black and white they wouldn’t work. So I started shooting in colour.
After Devonport I lived in Ponsonby, and later had a darkroom in the old, ex-medical Lister Building, on Victoria Street in Auckland. Film people were there. Karen Walker was there in the early days. Then there were several people like me with their studios. It was cheap rent.
Jim & Mary: So at this time every print of yours went through your own hands?
Jim & Mary: It was a big job, wasn’t it?
Peter: Huge. One of the things I remember that was most hideous was all the spotting.
Jim & Mary: You mean painting out all the little imperfections and dust marks that invariably end up on the finished prints?
Peter: That’s right. You spent hours and days spotting. Edward Weston writes about it in his diaries.
Jim & Mary: Some people think that photographs are in endless editions, but of course the editions are limited by the amount of time you’ve got. Are we right in thinking that for a while you still made silver prints from your digital photographs?
Peter: Absolutely. I got into digital photography pretty early. But digital printing wasn’t of such good quality at the beginning. You know, the inks and the papers and so forth. And also, there was such resistance to it. Huge resistance. So to be on the safe side, yes, I would shoot something digitally and make the best-quality digital print that I could. That would then be rephotographed and turned into a negative, and then I would make silver gelatin prints. Isabella (2001) is an example. I had more confidence in the permanence of the print. And clients had more confidence in buying them.
Jim & Mary: And do you miss the darkness of the darkroom?
Peter: No, I don’t miss anything about the darkroom, really. I mean it’s magical; I see the magic in it. But I’ve served my time. And it’s smelly. It is wonderful seeing prints come up. But I don’t miss it.
Jim & Mary: One thing the digital process has allowed you to do is increase the scale of your works.
Peter: Yes. I’m not sure how many big photographs I’ve got. Maybe 10. Many people don’t know that I take big pictures. I find the question of scale a very interesting one because there seems to be an optimum size for the photographs that I take.
Jim & Mary: Do you think you lose any serendipity with the digital process? We’re thinking about the early photographs you took with what was really a toy camera known as the Diana. They really did benefit from technical frailty, rather than technical precision.
Peter: Yes, you do lose something. You might have had the odd lucky unexpected accident, but I can live without that.
Jim & Mary: Unexpected accidents aren’t big in your photography are they?
Peter: No, they aren’t. [laughs]
- Paul Thompson (comp.). Shards of Silver, Wellington, Steele Roberts, c. 2006.