Bold Centuries: A Photographic History Album, by Haruhiko Sameshima (Rim Books, Auckland, 2009, $60.00); Alan Miller — New Zealand Photographs, by Alan Miller (Anglesea house, 2009, $70.00); A Man Walks Out of a Bar: New Zealand Photographs 1979—1982, by Lucien Rizos (Rim Books, Auckland, 2011).
‘The camera sits alongside the axe, the gun, the Bible and the specimen jar as colonial tools of preservation’ suggests Aaron Lister in his essay included in Haruhiko Sameshima’s kaleidoscopic Bold Centuries: A Photographic History Album. Sameshima’s Album is an ambitious project, almost a history of New Zealand photography, but presented in a non-chronological and thematic way. Enlisting a number of commentators to provide short texts, he’s gathered together a number of his photographic preoccupations from the past two decades or so, mingling his own photographs (colour, and black and white) with historical photographs, and assembled it all into meticulous arrangements according to subject matter.
The result is an idiosyncratic enquiry into ‘New Zealandness’, with the unit of the photograph as an identifier, a form of measurement, a way of mapping — and perhaps claiming. Sameshima tells us he emigrated from Japan with his family in 1973 when he was fourteen: ‘Why exactly my father made the decision to leave Japan and settle his family in New Zealand remains a mystery to me, but the project seemed like an exciting adventure . . .’. In a way, Bold Centuries reflects that sense of excitement and wide-eyed wonder: he lays out his images as a seductive mosaic of pictorial souvenirs — as a scrapbook, reminiscent of the kind that many of us, as Kyla McFarlane points out in her essay, may have assembled as children.
Except that Sameshima is also, by his juxtapositions, implicitly subjecting what he shows us to quizzical examination, rather than merely positioning them as objects of reminiscence. Making historical comparisons — placing found postcards and found cigarette cards alongside photographs by mid-twentieth century National Publicity Studio photographers, and late nineteenth-century scenic photography firms such as Muir and Moodie, and the Burton Brothers, as well as beside topographic photographs by expeditionary colonial photographers — Sameshima highlights the utopian quest behind New Zealand’s settlement.
Sameshima’s ‘album’, with its consideration of the epic, with its taxonomies that group various photographs by subject, from ‘beautiful’ waterfalls to beautiful photographs of the ‘visual pollution’ of twenty-first-century wind farms, Sameshima challenges us to look again at how we arrive at our visual conventions — how we ‘see’.
Bold Centuries — journeying from close-ups of the antique wallpaper in the Kerikeri Mission House, to dioramas in the Auckland war Memorial Museum, to the Cook Strait Ferry Terminal to ‘picturesque Lake Manapouri’ — is imbued with a doubting sceptical quality about touristic ‘image factories’ of all kinds. Is the photographer essentially an unreliable witness? Do cameras make good liars? On the cover of the book, a wide river swirls and foams and then cascades as a cataract into a cauldron of froth. This might stand for today’s image torrent, at once powerful, threatening, evanescent and disorientating, which we must navigate.
Active in many areas of New Zealand photography, Sameshima reveals himself here as a broad-spectrum searcher of our accumulated nationalist photographic depictions — from the clichéd iconic tropes of the lone kowhai flower or crowded sheep run, to the repackaged eco-friendly landscape-as-theme-park experience — for what they might reveal, playing different photographic traditions off against one another.
Sameshima shows how that the mysterious and rarefied Sublime of landscape art rhetoric has become the ‘sublime’ of galloping consumption, to be ordered from a catalogue. But if capitalist advertising now ‘owns’ much of this imagery, making it contentious, even untrustworthy, adept use of photographic technologies also allows that ownership to be contested, critiqued and even subverted.
Sameshima’s witty archives of imagery relish the paradoxes and complexities of the photograph. A photograph can be at once realistic and illusionistic, superficial and profound — a veneer, or surface, invested with emotional depth. The photographer as collector, he employs repetition and monotony to tease us with the scrapbook as scrapheap — photographs of obsolescent industrial objects gathering dust — and destroys the notion of uniqueness by producing, in his ‘typologies’, images interchangeable with those of Wayne Barrar, David Cook and Mark Adams by way of ‘quotation’. Yet, examined carefully, Sameshima retains his own signature touches, and perhaps most characteristically a certain complex mood: gentle longing undercut by wry self-awareness; a delicate, even sweet, hovering melancholy.
If Sameshima’s methodology resembles that of scientific enquiry, Allan Miller’s photographic stance in Allan Miller — New Zealand Photographs is that of a nature mystic. As Martin Edmond puts it in a short accompanying essay, Miller’s photographs of the landscape ‘seem to raise the quotidian to another power’ . . . his photographs ‘marvel’ at the world and its numinous mysteries, its ‘true face’.
Technically, Miller is old school: for these images he’s used a classic Leica camera and Kodak black-and-white film. So, in a way, he is a magician of the darkroom, emphasising the alchemical, his camera’s black vault a progenitor of dreamy musings. The prints have a granular quality, at times a sticky-as-tar quality. They are, design-wise, painterly; in an interview in the book with Kriselle Baker Miller invokes Colin McCahon as a force for revelation of what landscape might be — an exemplary visionary.
Miller works then with the primal, with shadows and radiance. His is the rhapsody of things as they are, but his wish is to push on past that recognition, seeking the mystery at the heart of rhapsody. Put simply, his subjects are the seasons, as in the shrouded, autumnal aura of ‘Full moon, Bay of Islands, April 2002’, and the organic, as in the close-up of a seed-pod in ‘Nikau, Punakaiki, 2004’.
We think of photography as a fast medium. Miller’s self-appointed task is to slow it down, and then examine the edges of perception thereby made visible. His weighty images offer a sense of estrangement from the everyday; his skewed shadowplay seeks evocations of spookiness and spirit-beings, traces of the Gothic sublime, the consideration of a Romantic poet’s eye-view, where everything is a metaphor for time and decay, collapse and entropy, transcendence and eternity.
Light, here, is a material substance: smearing and streaking, glistening on the sea, muffled by mist, veiled by condensation, twinkling through rain from a sunshower that steams off a corrugated iron roof in the backcountry. A charred-looking tree set starkly against the winter snows of Mount Ngauruhoe and slithery surfaces of a Rotorua mudpool forming ominous whorls suggest a world of portents and messages.
Broody and moody, but also exhilarating, Miller is the photographer as believer. Showing us ragged plumes of toe-toe blending harmoniously with travelling clouds, or taking us deeper into the mottled chiaroscuro of a chrysalis, or tree bole, and promising resurrection of a kind, or at least regeneration, he makes you a believer too.
In French critic Roland Barthes’ book Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Barthes describes early cameras with their wooden cabinets as ‘clocks for seeing’. You could apply the same metaphor to the retro-vision offered by Lucien Rizos’s photo-book A Man Walks Out of a Bar: New Zealand Photographs, 1979—1982. Its sixty-six black-and-white photographs, selected from an accumulation of thousands made while Rizos was a violinist on tour with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, offer the sensation of time travel, and also something of the sensation of their instantaneous making. Essays by Damian Skinner and Ian Wedde ruminate on lost time recovered in these photographs. What once was urgent has been locked into the permanent Now of yesterday.
This book, a homage of sorts, as Ian Wedde points out, to Robert Frank’s famous 1959 road trip selection of photographs The Americans, and steeped philosophically in the climate of post-World War Two existentialism, has transferred its analogue images into the digital age by smoothing them seamlessly into grey-on-grey. Thus Rizos’s New Zealand is rendered in an atmospheric Parisian grisaille. But in this artful rendering of time lost, arranged loosely into a narrative of riffs and sequences and ‘movements’ that imply the flicker of moving film, of a road movie, what we miss, or what our attention is drawn to, is the absent soundtrack, and how it is signified visually.
The title offers the first droll signpost. It implies, perhaps, the beginning of a shaggy dog story, to be followed by appreciative chuckles, as well as being a literal description of the cover photograph, but a second look at that photograph suggests that the missing noise is not bar chatter, but some interior music, to the beat of which the man in question is skipping along, with a sway in his step, his pace quickening, his tempo accelerando, in keeping with the images inside the book. The photograph also implies the snatched glimpse of the passer-by, a consequence of the good hand-eye coordination and reflex actions of the alert snapper.
It signals, too, the scope of the project. Rizos is photographing the rhythms of daily existence in the form of chance encounters. He photographs people caught unaware, or barely aware, or else surprised and curious. Moments of exposure made on the fly taken together constitute a sustained momentum, a series of punctuation points, the sensation of movement confirmed, for example, by the way the man walking out of a bar meets the photographer’s sideways glance, his gaze, as if to mirror his curiosity.
Rizos, meanwhile, hurries on in search of more arrested moments, in search of the spirit of New Zealand, hoping to make something of consequence from the inconsequential. If Haruhiko Sameshima is interested in examining what varnished photography might consist of, Rizos aims to be the unvarnished photographer, reacting to strangers.
A study of the lull before the watershed, the last of the Muldoon Years, AMWOOAB forms an interesting counterpoint to Ans Westra’s photo-book of a decade earlier, Notes on the Country I Live In (1972), which presents us as New Zealanders as static, hieratic, often heroic figures. By comparison, Rizos has photographed people who look boxed-in, squeezed into their small British cars, or peering out of a tea-room window disconsolately; they are the grey ghosts and pale doubles of Westra’s people — the same people, perhaps, at the fag-end of a decade of euphoria. In these studies of small-town settings, even the outdoors seems claustrophobic; the skies are permanently overcast — this is Fortress New Zealand.
Editorial choices are made so that Rizos avoids flashpoints such as political protest rallies, instead his wanderings and his body language diagnoses imply a country locked in space and time, whose scruffy and scrubby surroundings convey a sense of imprisonment, with the Great Escape taking the form of mass exodus to Australia.
Improvising like a jazz musician, Rizos plays an air upon the theme of emotional repression. It’s as if he’s gone looking for crowds, for camaraderie, and found mostly solitaries wrapped in gloom, like a nation of professional mourners. He’s trying to make a sense of isolation palpable, trying to make anxiety palpable, scenting it in petrol fumes and scorched rubber, in beery but mostly deserted lounge bars, and in smoky tea-rooms, where over the formica table-tops, with their freight of metal ashtrays, individuals are engaged in sour tea-swilling and irritable newspaper-rustling interludes. This is period-era comedy or drama which could have found its inspiration in the writings of Samuel Beckett.
Pedestrians trot or shuffle, pushchairs squeak. All is locomotion. The mutton-chopped long-hair in his white woolly cardigan drives by, glowering, his elbow plonked on the sill of the open car window. Everyone is preoccupied, solipsistic, oblivious. This is a corpus of imagery with a single-minded conviction.
Then Rizos, too, moves on — down a state highway, photographing through the car window a house almost by accident. He snatches the moment and renders it as sensation. The subject is the sandblasted leaping gazelles on the glass front doors. Clouds lour and the hills are bare and stark. The doors are caught centre-frame, but they are emphatically shut.
DAVID EGGLETON is the editor of Landfall and The Landfall Review Online.