View from the Road: Exploring New Zealand from State Highway 1, by Arno Gasteiger, with an essay by Kennedy Warne (Penguin, 2014), 208 pp., $65; Te Atatu Me: Photographs of an urban New Zealand village, by John B. Turner, with an essay by Grant Cole (PhotoForum and Turner PhotoBooks, 2015), 176 pp., $60; Meet Me in the Square: Christchurch 1983–1987, by David Cook (Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu, 2014), 180 pp., $49.95; Frozen, by Peter Black, with an essay by Andrew Johnston (Peter Black Photos, 2015), 68 pp., $130; Creamy Psychology: Yvonne Todd, with essays by Anthony Byrt, Justin Clements, Megan Dunn, Misha Kavka, Robert Leonard, Justin Paton, Claire Regnault and Yvonne Todd (Victoria University Press, 2014), 260 pp., $60; See What I Can See: New Zealand photography for the young and curious, by Gregory O’Brien (Auckland University Press, 2015), 112 pp., $34.99
Beginning with a sunshine-gilded empty street in the township of Bluff, and finishing in front of the lit-up lighthouse at Cape Reinga/Te Rerenga Wairua as darkness falls, the sequence of photographs by Arno Gasteiger in View from the Road: Exploring New Zealand from State Highway 1 traverses the 2047 kilometres of State Highway 1 in search of prospects, vistas, panoramas, landmarks. State Highway 1 is, Kennedy Warne argues in his introductory essay, ‘a road of history’, one offering ‘sites of memory’ and ‘a repository of stories’. Warne gives us some of the chronological history and a sense of the road’s heritage, but the stories are mainly implicit in Gasteiger’s distinctive and expansive images.
As previous photo-books by him prove, Gasteiger invariably captures the given scene with poise, balance and grace, sucking up the details with his tripod-mounted camera. This is because he is evangelising on behalf of the landscape, always looking to render some sense of its power, with the classical pastoral mode of the landscape tradition his anchor point. He’s a transcendentalist at heart; beauty is always nigh or imminent. The bends and curves of the road are made to appear as seductive or mesmeric: glory might be just around the corner. In following the promise of the open road, this photographer poeticises the crystalline light, whether sparkling with sea-salt at mid-morning, or dry and clear in the afternoon, or subdued at evening. The Sublime hovers in the distance in the form of a jagged line of snow-covered mountains, or is implicit in the dying light of the ocean horizon, or in the big wide-angle skies and the lush foliage.
Nevertheless, Gasteiger’s Arcadian vision is also imbued with a kind of melancholy – with that nostalgia and yearning that characterises the Romantic pastoral mode. The folds and disappearances of the bluestone-chip surface and the serpentine wriggle of the bitumen acknowledge a symbolic journey as much as a literal one. The road is a ribbon tying places together, but to follow the ribbon is to embark on a quest of sorts and become caught up by wanderlust.
State Highway 1 hugs the east coast in the South Island and runs up the centre of the North Island, skipping along from one small town to the next. Gasteiger’s images block it out as chunks of views within a continuum: the flux of this trip takes place beneath moody skies, by turns turquoise, navy, steely-grey and pink-pastel-hued. Human beings, when they appear, are either small anonymous figures, there to measure the epic scale of the topography, or they are seen close-up as characters of the road: a grizzled local identity ‘enjoying a beer at the Puhoi pub; a singleted, frowning truck-driver with hefty arms gripping a pump handle as he stands ‘filling up his logging truck’. Mostly, as you would expect, Gasteiger is out to avoid scenic clichés, or else he wants to refresh them, as in his photograph of the Moeraki Boulders which makes them look like wet-backed turtles coming ashore.
Elsewhere, he dwells on the fabled public toilets facility designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser at Kawakawa, which, with its bulging, crooked walls covered in small silvery mirrors and shiny, multi-coloured tiles, is the epitome of cheerful ceramic sanitation.
The emphasis, then, is on variations of vernacular architecture: a signage-festooned ‘mobile coffee cart … in a rest area’, or a giant corrugated iron gumboot designed by sculptor Jeff Thomson in a paddock. An insistent note of Kiwiana is sounded with the regular featuring of corrugated-iron buildings, fences and sculptures. And if vegetation and verdure dominate the views between built-up areas, cities are often represented by a single urban image, as in Auckland’s ‘spaghetti junction’, made up of several roads flowing together under Karangahape Road. Another fine example of road architecture is uncovered in panoramic rhythm of the six concrete bowstring arches of the Balclutha Bridge, spanning the metallic sheen of the Clutha River in the misty early morning.
In his essay, Warne tells us State Highway 1 ‘… was not established by a fiat from a state designer’s office. It grew by natural selection on the part of its users … One reason for this was … railways. Initially at least, roads took a back seat in government thinking about national transportation.’ Warne goes on to outline the complex history of State Highway 1 from the mid-nineteenth century as separately built roads gradually joined up, becoming a network in the late 1950s and finally the national State Highway in the 1970s.
Warne also reminds us that once the main road represented for Pākehā the frontier, but for Māori it represented the prelude to land-grabs. The book includes a historic photograph by William Temple showing the Royal Artillery triumphantly at work constructing a road to the Waikato, but not another photograph by Temple that shows Waikato Māori practising passive resistance by standing and sitting in front of the advancing Pākehā army and their axes. All landscapes are cultural spaces, nowadays subject to careful bureaucratic planning and ordering, and in probing for ‘wilderness’ Gasteiger is also a latter-day ‘explorer’, offering a kind of elegiac ‘survey’ with the landscape measured, and its segmented distances neatly compressed into a book.
Famously, Henri Cartier-Bresson declared in 1952: ‘the decisive moment’ in documentary photography – perhaps in all photography – is the ‘one moment at which the elements in motion are in balance … Photography must seize upon this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it.’
In his Te Atatu Me: Photographs of an urban New Zealand village, John B. Turner is the photographer glancing about as he walks around, and then responding decisively to something – some potential shot, some visual epiphany – glimpsed or spotted with his camera. Each the result of a ‘decisive moment’, the images in his book have been chosen, he tells us, from over 20,000 made over a seven-year period between 2005 and 2012: ‘These are photographs more or less of and from the street.’ They are centred on the neighbourhood in which he lived at the time, the suburb of Te Atatu North (or ‘Tat Norf’), on the Te Atatu Peninsula in West Auckland, bounded by Henderson Creek and by the Waitemata Harbour.
Turner began systematically walking around the suburb in 2005 for the sake of his health. About the same time, he switched from analogue photography and black-and-white film to digital photography and colour film. This book, printed in China, where Turner now lives, with its superlative production values and its burnished images of the humble and the homely, undoubtedly constitutes a master class in how to take a picture, from a maestro of the camera, one steeped in the history of photography.
The punning title of his book derives from the sun-bleached sign on the Te Atatu Meats butcher shop, with the photograph cropped so as to lose the last three letters from ‘Meats’. Turner’s harvest or bounty of images similarly radiates warmth, empathy and wit. He’s a sort of suburban ethnographer, but one with an outstanding grasp of visual composition. He documents people at assorted rituals, festivals and events, including Anzac Day commemorations, Christmas Parades, Te Atatu Pony Club meetings, the Saturday market, garage sales, shops closing down, a sausage sizzle, takeaway shops before and after renovations, the annual Mud Run, ‘Miss Brittan mowing her neighbour’s lawn’, and so on, all dated with the month, so that each caption gives us the season and a feeling for the weather, while the social and political climate, too, is invoked in subtle ways. There’s a game of Tongan touch rugby viewed from behind a trophy-laden table and opening out onto the surrounding buildings; while another photograph shows Rupert Murdoch’s stubby super-yacht, newly built at the local shipyards, being towed down Henderson’s Creek and out towards the harbour. Turner’s subjects in other hands would remain hackneyed; he always transforms them in this carefully pieced-together collection.
He captures a way of life: the etiquette, manners and customs of a multicultural community. As he tells it, ‘When noticed, and asked why I was taking their picture, rather than get into a dialogue and risk totally disrupting the nature of the situation … I handed strangers a little booklet of my pictures … Almost invariably, when they recognised familiar characters and places in my booklet, they responded with a nod of approval for me to continue photographing.’ This, then, is photography as a profound form of social communion, with the photographer’s glance alert to fellow-feeling, the magic of the moment.
David Cook’s photo-book Meet Me in the Square: Christchurch 1893–1987 is also a kind of social anatomy, an exhilarating exercise in ethnography as well as a historic document, put together as a personal response to the devastations caused by the earthquake season of 2010–12. A return to his hometown of Christchurch from Hamilton in the aftermath of the February 22 earthquake of 2011, and the sight of the city centre cordoned off into the red zone, half-buried under an accumulation of rubble and fallen brickwork, spurred him into going through his archive of black-and-white photographs, made as a project to document the city when he was an art student at Ilam in the 1980s. He sought to ‘rebuild’ his version of the city from his long-shelved negatives, proof-sheets and prints. This resulting book was produced by Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu, in conjunction with a gallery exhibition of the photographs in Christchurch in early 2015.
Centred on Cathedral Square, David Cook’s book functions as a time-machine, transporting us back to the royal visit by the Prince and Princess of Wales – Charles and Diana – and to the Cold War era, when New Zealand was about to declare itself nuclear-free and when anxiety about irradiation from French nuclear-testing in the South Pacific was at its peak.
The photographs, with their emphasis on people – on crowd scenes and public gatherings, on youth culture – are filled with a sense of urgency and agitation. People mill in the streets in front of the grand façades of the city: its hotels, office blocks and monuments. The Square functions as a crossroads, where citizens of all stripes mingle, from office workers and mothers pushing prams to cherubic choirboys and malcontented punks.
Cook doesn’t altogether avoid the self-conscious artiness of the try-hard student, but there’s also a visceral excitement as he closes in on menacing skinheads in bovver boots, with studded belts and jackets, or on music fans at an Unemployed Rights Centre dance where, in photographs crepuscular and stark, androgynous young people caper about and act up, a gleam of reflected interest in their eyes staring back at the camera.
Photographing cathedral bell-ringers, the Christ’s College cadet corps on parade, an Anglican nun heading out from her Barbadoes Street convent on a racing bike, Cook gives us the faux-English city of yore and its class-bound demarcations, an implied old Establishment, as if illustrating a history book of the period by Stevan Eldred-Grigg.
The photographs, enlarged and often bled to the edge of the page, are jumbled together, so evoking something of the giddy or turbulent emotions of a long-gone decade. There’s the high-tide mark of crushed beer cans after a rugby game on the concrete terraces at Lancaster Park, the scuffed and dented exterior of an automatic photo-booth, the vanished tile rooftops of old Christchurch. As seen here, pre-earthquake Christchurch is now a mythical city, a dissolved concrete jungle, a citadel of settler values at a time when they had barely been updated for a hundred years. Photographing the youth of the town as overgrown children – skylarking adolescents puffing on cigarettes, or glowering in boot-boy regalia at his approaching camera – David Cook delivers a scrapbook elegy to the fag-end of the atomic age, its exuberance framed and edged by shadows and darkness.
In Peter Black’s photo-book Frozen, there’s something voodoo-like or juju-like about its colour photographs taken on the fly, as if Black is a witchdoctor with a camera, engaged in psychic healing, or at least psychic assessment. Henri Cartier-Bresson spoke of the need for a documentary photographer in pursuit of a clinching image to have ‘a velvet hand and a hawk’s eye’. Black is one of the gifted few who have both attributes: he knows how to obtain the maximum effect with artistic finesse. He knows how to render the soul of an image.
The 56 images in Frozen are the result of vigilant noticing. Peter Black, springy and fleet-footed, possesses a thumb-prickling alertness. He’s a shutterbug who prowls, then scrutinises, then presses the button – or clicks the trigger – placing his ‘capture’ within the frame and cranking up the intensity. His subjects are necessarily taken by surprise, before they can compose themselves. He’s a photographer in pursuit of dark truths – about the stings of existence, about individual isolation. His street photographs are angled so as to give the circumstances, the surroundings, and in the centre the subject, as often as not presented as a blank or withdrawn daydreamer.
That subject, as he roams New Zealand snapping away, is essentially the solitary town-dweller, seen as one of the walking wounded; they are people wrapped up in themselves, alienated from nature. He zooms in on those who seem almost comically mutilated – sporting sticking plasters or bandages – or else seem uneasily suspended in some limbo: solo diners poised over food that they appear to have little appetite for. If they are figures lost in their own dreamtime however, they also suggest the universal condition of our common humanity. Whether at bus shelters, in shop doorways, in clubs, in fast-food restaurants, they seem held in a trance, spellbound, eyes averted, inhabitants of a fallen Eden – frozen indeed, and closer to Hell than to Heaven.
In a way, the photographs portray these characters as inhabitants of mean streets: streets controlled by unseen authorities or corporate interests. And these places also appear slightly demonic, as if inhabited by malign unseen spirits as well.
Entranceways glitter and dazzle, light glints and bounces off slick glass and metal surfaces, walls and pavements are hard and abrasive. Black’s photographs don’t just capture and condense subject matter, they embody feelings through the expressionist use of colour, in particular red: shifting and splashing crimson, like floating drops or pools of blood – and there are also hot yellows, cool emerald greens. Using colour combined with patterning, he orchestrates a kind of musical blare, and choreographs movement to rhyme with that. Thus, his selected characters have a touch of the operatic and take on overtones of prophetic dreamers, or religious obsessives, or foot soldiers in life’s daily struggles. And every so often, the gritty engagement uncovers violence, possibly the work of invisible poltergeists, as in the smashed glass and broken timbers lying in a car park. Diving down and into the heart of the matter, he uncovers passion, existential crisis and drama pulsing just below the surface of things.
Nobody packs more commodity fetishism into a photograph than Yvonne Todd – or has more fun with it. Based on satirical deviations from the cosmetic glamour of ‘product’ photography, her pastel-coloured images might be skewed photo-opportunities for aspirational types: young women, older males, various sub-cultural groupings. Now that the encomiums of corporate slogans – ‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ – have replaced the directives of the biblical ten commandments as a binding social force, we are teased and tantalised by perfect-looking role models, placed on pedestals (or digital platforms) as idols of consumption to worship and emulate. One result has been the advent of those three brow-furrowing n-words – narcissism, neuroticism and nausea – as a kind of default mode for anyone inhabiting today’s media-saturated environment. In other words, all of us.
Creamy Psychology: Yvonne Todd was published to accompany a mid-career retrospective of Todd’s photographic images at Wellington City Art Gallery earlier in 2015. Just as Todd’s images suggest plausible psychological states, possible modes of being, wish-fulfillment alter-egos – ever-so-slightly tweaked into grotesqueness – so are they rich pickings in this book for analysis by a posse of art critics and art historians – Anthony Byrt, Megan Dunn, Robert Leonard, Justin Paton, Claire Regnault – who tease out the depictions of afflictions and addictions in the manner of tick-box therapists.
Creamy Psychology’s deadpan stagey portraits of wannabes suggest an idealised world of plenty, of surfeit, its core pharmaceutically medicated, and where what matters is our desirability – or rather what desirable image to present or suggest. Todd’s caricatures assert that personal authority now stems from self-esteem endorsed by a demographic, or perhaps by art historians. In a way, Todd’s thesis parallels that of Peter Black, though where he photographs ‘losers’, she photographs ‘winners’. Certainly there is a peculiar sort of intensity and an underlying impression of stress as her subjects ransack the dressing-up box and emerge with a make-believe wardrobe of wigs, dresses and prosthetics, like the driven eager-beavers of am-dram theatrics hiding from their own disorders.
Her photographs are a form of forensic examination of psychopathologies. It’s as if Todd sees into the mind of mass individualism, the paradox of mass non-conformity. The failure of the attempt to be the flawless freak designed in a scientific laboratory by a perfectionist may elicit our ironic chuckles and smiles, but that irony is also reflexively defensive. The absolutely vacuous expression that bespeaks the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind provokes philosophical questions about normative states, humanism, and a smorgasbord of global ideologies that nowadays seem less a wealth of opportunities than a crushing weight of emotional baggage. Todd’s ‘eldritch others’ may oftentimes be corpse-like, but there’s an unmistakable galvanic twitch as here our ‘ordinary’ behaviours get characterised as reductive and freighted with body-horror.
Open the lid-like cover of Gregory O’Brien’s compendium See What I can See: New Zealand photography for the young and curious and you discover a selection of photographs that snap, crackle and fizz like a little box of fireworks. Here, O’Brien is the curator as connoisseur, his short paragraphs of sparky writing establishing a personal relationship with each image. Whereas the other books discussed in this review present thematic images serially arranged in visual essay form, O’Brien takes idiosyncratic images from hither and yon – but all made by New Zealand photographers – and, cooing like a jeweller unveiling gemstones, appraises each with enthusiasm and authority, confirming again and again the talismanic power of the single photograph. Paraphrasing Henri Cartier-Bresson, he tells us: ‘Good photographers sense what might be about to happen.’
O’Brien, well versed in surrealist poetry, is alert to the power of photography to make the ordinary seem strange. A camera, he points out, is a ‘dream machine’. Or, as Susan Sontag puts it, ‘Photographs are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation and fantasy.’ In See What I Can See, the photographs are framed by O’Brien’s own amusing anecdotes and small stories which often have larger associations and references, as in the ‘camera obscura’ mode – a dark sea-fog and the darker island hatched out of the sea – that marks photographs by Jason O’Hara and Robin White. These photographs were taken during a recent artistic expedition to the Kermadec Islands of which O’Brien was also a part.
Then there are photographs by early eminences – Margaret Matilda White. Leslie Adkin – but rather than po-faced Victorians, O’Brien’s sleight-of-hand conjures forth ‘high spirited’ jokey images: women fooling around on bicycles and men fooling around high up on an electricity transmission pole. Other photographs deliver weird geological formations, or odd objects such as a dropped ice-cream cone or a gigantic hand detached from a roadside billboard.
O’Brien tells us, ‘A camera is a magnet which attracts unusual things or characters or events.’ Photographs can also become votive relics. O’Brien retells the story of the mystery of the cut-out head in one photograph being solved as the image clipped out for a keepsake locket taken overseas by a soldier.
There are photographs of cameras, and photographs of photographers holding up photographs, to illustrate O’Brien’s remarks about the photograph as an act of preservation, an act of witness, and – in the placing of one photograph inside another – as a memory of a memory. There’s also the rhapsodic colour of Greta Anderson, whose work feature several times, and the eerie luminosity of Sam Hartnett’s ‘Black Light, Mini Golf’ (2009). Work by Deborah Smith figures strongly, and there’s something beatific, a reverberant innocence implied, in her colour photograph of a girl holding a small turtle up while standing in an big, empty, concrete swimming pool. In a throwaway aside, designed to get children chattering, O’Brien comments, ‘Maybe she had to drain the pool so she could recover her lost turtle.’ It’s out of such playfulness that he re-installs a sense of novelty, and negates the jaded or numbed looking that has become an occupational hazard for all of us in the age of the smartphone, when constant photographing seems to be at the centre of our twenty-first-century modernity. The automatic taking and sending of photographs with our digital devices with barely a pause to look at them is what we do.
So the photographs in this book allow O’Brien opportunities to catechise about possible meanings, and thus his photographic curio cabinet enriches our appreciation. Rather like Friedensreich Hundertwasser’s ceramic installation at Kawakawa, as shown by Arno Gasteiger, O’Brien’s book is a colourful and cheerful mosaic – or perhaps a bowerbird’s joyful nest of bright bits and pieces.
DAVID EGGLETON is the editor of Landfall Review Online.
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