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The photographers’ take

Photographers Peter Black, Max Oettli, David Cook, Neil Pardington, Jane Zusters, and Gary Blackman respond to images from <EM>New Zealand Photography Collected</EM>


<P data-associrn="922069"></P> <P><STRONG>Peter Black on Mary Macpherson’s <EM>Featherston</EM> (from the series ‘Urban Landscapes’)</STRONG></P> <P>In Mary Macpherson’s <EM>Featherston</EM> we have a scene that must have presented itself without any obvious possibility to be a photograph. A scene that 99 percent of people would have walked by without a second glance.</P> <P>Of course, noticing something is not the same as photographing it, and for Macpherson that must have been when the difficulties started. She would have had to choose a viewpoint from an infinite number of possibilities, decide what the area of focus should be, and make numerous other technical decisions. Then, perhaps months later, this analogue negative would have gone through many more steps before the photographer could consider it worthy of more time and expense. By then, Macpherson would have been at an extreme disadvantage in assessing its worth for her ‘Urban Landscape’ series, as she was looking at something so changed by the act of photographing it that it would have taken a tremendous act of discipline and self-belief to take it into the printing stage – which brings with it yet more decisions, such as the scale of the print and the colour balance.</P> <P>But the artist held her nerve, and the end result is a photograph that is so perfect in the harmony of its colours and framing that you can almost feel the warmth of a New Zealand summer’s day on your back. It also fools you into thinking that you too could have made this image if you had just been there. But to have done that, you would have had to care enough&nbsp;to know that the ordinary is important. And then, to have the ability and the visual intelligence to turn the mundane into poetry.</P> <P>Peter Black</P> <P>&nbsp;</P> <P><STRONG>Max Oettli on Adrienne Martyn’s <EM>Joanna Paul, painter, Dunedin, Feb ’83</EM></STRONG></P> <P data-associrn="42032"></P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P align=left>Confronted by [her] photo I say to myself: she will die: I shudder confronted by a catastrophe, which has already occurred … every photo has within it this overpowering sign of … death</P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P>—Roland Barthes, <EM>La Chambre Claire</EM> (Camera Lucida), 1980 (translated and freely adapted)</P> <P>In her short life, the artist Joanna Margaret Paul emanated an essence of total calm. She and the photographer Adrienne Martyn are very much in this state of ease in this fraction of time, resulting in a photograph that lets us enter into the dialogue of their private thoughts.</P> <P>The phone rang one sunny June day in 2003, while we were having lunch in our Geneva place. There was a dry click, a pause: long distance, Jane McCartney, her voice choked with tears, announced Joanna’s death. It is impossible to transfer grief to a cheery family at table. I hadn’t seen her since 1972.</P> <P>In 1971 Joanna and I had stood together on a cliff looking out over the Pacific. At Seacliff, near Dunedin, she and her husband Jeffrey Harris shared a brick cottage from the old loony bin’s staff quarters. I’d travelled there on a railcar, meandering over the endless hillocks of that earthquake-troubled landscape with the sea a blue wall to the right. Joanna pointed to the north-east at the deep blue sea, and told me of a tectonic rift that meandered all the way across the Pacific&nbsp; to San Francisco. Later that night, after a supper that did justice to Otago’s legendary potatoes, I read a Guy de Maupassant story aloud. It got a tad raunchy, as Guy often does, and I hesitated; Jeff was giggling, and Joanna looked at me with her clear, beautiful eyes.</P> <P>Adrienne, in this picture, which I had never seen before, opted to allow Joanna her privacy; a very close-up intimacy with lateral lighting, illuminating her beauty and her strong but subtle mysticism, like water in its timeless quiet power of persuasion expressed by her mouth and chin. Death by water is at once completely wrong and somehow tragically appropriate in the context of her fluid and meandering life heading for the great ocean.</P> <P>Max Oettli</P> <P><STRONG></STRONG>&nbsp;</P> <P data-associrn="1390334"></P><P><STRONG>David Cook on Zak’s, <EM>The stranded whale at Lyall Bay</EM></STRONG></P> <P>Whenever I walk along the coastline, I dream of seeing whales. The one time they happened to surface, I was without my camera. Nevertheless the after-image of that pod of orcas is burnt into my memory.</P> <P>A whale is a spectacle, and spectacle always will be fodder for the camera. I can see why an entrepreneurial postcard photographer like Joseph Zachariah would follow the crowds to see this alien from the great unknown. One hundred years ago the whale in Zak’s Lyall Bay photograph was met by a businessman with a camera; today it would be met by dozens of citizen-reporters with smartphones.</P> <P>A beached whale gives occasion for performance, and that’s another thing that camera culture does. The camera appears, and people know to ‘act’. In this case the performance seems to be about conquest, just like photographs of explorers on mountaintops.</P> <P>I’ve worked as a museum photographer, and this postcard reminds me that museum archives are saturated with spectacle and performance. It can be really hard for a historical researcher to find photographs of everyday life. But I believe the rare images of those unspectacular moments, the moments in between the strandings, are the ones that will one day stand in magnificent splendour. </P> <P>David Cook</P> <P>&nbsp;</P> <P data-associrn="651083"></P> <P><STRONG>Neil Pardington on Marie Shannon’s <EM>The shark museum</EM></STRONG></P> <P>A visit to a museum is such a familiar scene. In her photograph <EM>The shark museum</EM> (1992), Marie Shannon illustrates a moment – perhaps the decisive moment of a documentary-style photograph – during such a visit, as a couple view two out-of-scale sharks, helpfully labeled ‘2’ and ‘3’. The taller figure (perhaps a man) leans back to take in the exhibit at its full height. A protective barrier of stanchions and rope divide the figures from the sharks, but in this scene it is doubtful that the exhibits are the ones in danger.</P> <P>The museum is a favorite haunt of photographers. I think part of the attraction is that museums are a bit like three-dimensional cameras – freezing moments of time, allowing people to revisit the past and past lives. They are also spaces of animation and interaction, with visitors reacting to exhibits and enjoying shared experiences – as we see in Shannon’s photograph.</P> <P>The trick here is that Shannon has constructed this scene with pipe cleaners, matchsticks, and string. Even the sharks, we realise on closer inspection, are only there as a photograph within the photograph. With these modest materials, plus a camera, she has delivered a fully realised moment laced with her trademark wit and insight.</P> <P>Neil Pardington </P> <P>&nbsp;</P> <P data-associrn="556682"></P> <P><STRONG>Jane Zusters on Brian Brake’s <EM>Motorcamp picnic, Lake Wanaka</EM></STRONG></P> <P>Digital photos and smartphones make it so easy to capture moments in colour as they zip past. But this casual motor camp picnic is a very special colour snapshot from 56 years ago. </P> <P>Three women and two girls in colourful sundresses, one man with a bare chest and another with the strap of a white singlet showing, are gathered around a red folding picnic table in Brake’s photograph. There are cups of tea and plates of cakes; people are eating and drinking. In the background, in dappled sunlight, are tents and lines of towels. It’s a narrative of mundane reality, typical of camping culture from the 1960s, but the colour and light transforms this into a transcendent moment. I remember scenes like this from my childhood, but no colour slides from those days exist in my family’s memorabilia. Brake’s image transports me back to my 9-year-old self. I could be the girl in pink. I love the seemingly artless composition, the colour and light, and the evocation of an age gone by. </P> <P>Jane Zusters</P> <P>&nbsp;</P> <P data-associrn="358373"></P> <P><STRONG>Gary Blackman on Eric Lee-Johnson’s <EM>Mrs Goodson&nbsp;and Opo</EM></STRONG></P> <P>This once very popular 1956 photograph of a woman called Mrs Goodson with the beloved Opononi dolphin known as Opo interests me because, for nearly 40 years after its publication in the <EM>Weekly News</EM>, the author was unknown. When eventually named, the photographer turned out to be the well-known painter Eric Lee-Johnson. Why had he remained anonymous? The simple answer is he believed his reputation as a painter would suffer if he was known to be the photographer. In the local art world of the day, photography was not thought to be a serious expressive medium worthy of an artist. But perhaps more importantly to him, the <EM>Weekly News</EM> style of layout did his photographs no favours. </P> <P>Lee-Johnson had trained at Elam School of Art and worked in design and advertising in Auckland before travelling to London where in a leading agency he adopted modernist approaches to photography and typographic design. After eight years he returned to New Zealand and, following an illness, determined to pursue painting fulltime. He nevertheless continued his photography, freelancing anonymously for the <EM>Weekly News</EM> and making telling photo essays on, for example, the country library service, aerial top-dressing, and notably the ‘Opo’ dolphin series. He independently explored the expressive potential of photography, drawing on his understanding of modernism. He is now recognised as an important contributor to 20th-century New Zealand photography.<SUP><FONT size=2>1</FONT></SUP></P> <P>Gary Blackman</P> <P>&nbsp;</P> <P><FONT size=2>Endnote</FONT></P> <OL> <LI><FONT size=2>John B Turner, <EM>Eric Lee-Johnson, Artist with a Camera</EM>, Auckland: PhotoForum, 1999.</FONT> <P>&nbsp;</P></LI></OL>
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Mary Macpherson, Featherston. From the series: Urban landscapes, March 1986, colour photography, type C print,
Purchased 2009.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Eric Lee-Johnson, Mrs Goodson and Opo, February 1956, Black and white photograph, gelatin silver print,
Purchased 1997 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Joseph Zachariah, The stranded whale at Lyall Bay, 1912, black and white photographic postcard,
Purchased 2013.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Adrienne Martyn, Joanna Paul, painter, Dunedin. Feb.'83., 1983, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print,
Purchased 1985 with New Zealand Lottery Board funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Marie Shannon, The shark museum, 1992, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print,
Purchased 2004.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Brian Brake, Motorcamp picnic, Lake Wanaka, 1960, colour transparency,
Gift of Mr Raymond Wai-Man Lau, 2001.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz