Aberhart Starts Here by Lara Strongman with Laurence Aberhart (Christchurch Art Gallery, 2018), 136 pp., $39.99
This catalogue is based on the Christchurch Art Gallery show of Aberhart’s early work (1975 to 1983 with one picture from 1986), from when he was living in Lyttelton and later working as an instructor at the University of Canterbury School of Fine Art at Ilam.
My initial thought was to wonder: have we got to a point when everything that can be written about Laurence Aberhart has been written? Can we squeeze one more review out of this gigantic stack of beautiful work that he has shored up against the crumbling ruins of our civilisation?
Aberhart’s work contrasts sharply with the fast snaps of contemporary photographers all around him—those instant insights in a Zen-like flash—and our response needs to be rather more contemplative. We study, rather than glimpse, and the pictures reward our patience. They were made slowly; they need time. Do we occasionally have just a tiny smidge of boredom at his repetition of subjects, which, God knows, are pretty seriously limited? We could, in a Borgésian sense, make exhaustive lists of the things Aberhart does NOT photograph. This visual filtering occasionally leads to an element of self-caricature in his approach. Bored? Hardly at all: the shadow of the giant carries us through; watch him raising his fist in a silhouette the size of a elephant on the wall of a cemetery shed. Aotearoa’s biggest photographer messing about with shadow play in Plato’s cave …
This catalogue reminds us that Aberhart started small, and that many of his earlier pictures were shot in 35mm on a Leïca. (We’ll probably have to explain these historical references to young viewers soon, with everyone snapping masterpieces on their smartphones.) I am chuffed to see that his early Penelope was Henri Cartier-Bresson (as for me), but in general their photographs look nothing alike. Aberhart’s ‘decisive moments’ take a little longer, for one thing.
They possibly bear closer relation to the work of other French masters, like Eugène Atget and his pupil Berenice Abbott. His inspiration by Walker Evans has been debated and flogged to death by critics, which does not invalidate it in any way. His approach was, and is formalist, very frontal, very ‘straight’; his time frame almost out of time, his print quality beautiful (I can attest to this as I saw the show in Christchurch).
Aberhart’s transition to larger negative formats came a few years into his career and, considering the timelessness of his work, it is a retrograde dance step of an absolutely unimpeachable logic, in counterpoint to the music of time.
Large format, a step backwards then, to the pirouette around the tripod and the black cloth—that five-legged Cyclops monster. It must have been a mystery, a delight to his lovely little girls, Kamala and Charlotte. We are reminded here that Laurence’s personal life was on a cusp: ‘My marriage was ending,’ he wrote. During this period he fathered his two lively lasses and dropped his teaching career in favour of this lonelier and rather more austere (needier, perhaps) way of life.
A Unesco survey some years ago came up with the information, hardly a surprise, that globally artists and performers are the lowest-paid professions. For every David Hockney, Rhianna, Nina Abramović or Damien Hirst there are hundreds of thousands of the shoestring folk—the ageing art student drawing da Vincis on the pavement in Florence, or the tired Irish lass singing Joni Mitchell songs with an out-of-tune guitar, wheeling a damp baby in a trundler on a Geneva tram.
So there would have been pressure on Aberhart at this time—emotional, social and presumably economic as well, with a mortgage or rent to pay, a car (a rather splendid old Peugeot 203) to keep running, bringing home the bacon.
Nevertheless, large format was his preference and his photos did eventually find a market and realise decent prices. His meeting with Peter McLeavey was an early and fortuitous friendship; the tireless Wellington art dealer was possibly the ideal figure to market Aberhart’s fascinating wares.
Once established as a heavyweight performer, Aberhart was unique in the stable of artistic photographers in our small island. Of course other local photographers also used large format. It seems that J.J. Fields in Auckland put him on to it; John B. Turner often used 4.5”, as did I occasionally (although mainly for architectural work in Europe). Ann Shelton and Fiona Pardington too (the former in her amazing series on the Frederick B. Butler collection); yet none of us made it our exclusive form of expression.
There is a new generation of 4.5” apostles: mostly blokes out of art school. Among these are Thomas Slade of the heartbreakingly beautiful abandoned stadiums and small-town folk (images shown in Wellington, not published yet, he’ll get around to it) and the marginally better known but to my mind less exciting Chris Corson-Scott. His more or less social landscape work owes something to Wayne Barrar, one of Aberhart’s contemporaries.
The most important distancing of all of these younger practitioners from Aberhart’s work is the fact that they are working in colour. To my mind, Aberhart’s most worthwhile work is in black and white, but we’ll get back to this question later.
So he lumbers up with his camera the size of an accordion on a massive tripod. He is tall and gets a high viewpoint without trying. (The anti-example would be Diane Arbus, a tiny woman with a Rolleiflex at navel level). Daughters Charlotte and Kamala are vividly aware of the length of his exposures (often measured in minutes!) and quickly adapt to making blurred performances in the time/space frame of this curious ritual. The grandfather in the back of Hop Yick Cheong’s shop in Christchurch is blissfully unaware of the process and wanders about the room with his whiskey glass (Aberhart says we can see it four times) without letting us see what he looks like. Note a double political icon above the door in this picture, Sun Yat Sen and, yes, Norman Kirk: a punctum which leads us off on a tangential course of reasoning, as Uncle Roland Barthes said it should.
Aberhart’s final result is a contact print, using a technology that’s been around a century and a half unmatched in the clarity and directness of the result. The process, although technically demanding, is minimal.1 He wants to lose as little of what he sees as he can on the way through. He works in a tonal scale as old as drawing because ‘colour does not last’. Moreover, he confesses that he is ‘ego driven’ to make an image that will ‘last as long as it is possible for a photographic image to last’.
All of this makes the selection of experimental colour Polaroid pictures in the middle of this book all the more interesting. The technology here is staggering, involving a mains-powered electric processor for the 8.10” prints, which in turn compelled Aberhart to schlep a small generator around with him in his van. We’re back to the large-format wet-plate process that had the likes of Roger Fenton, Timothy O’Sullivan and Alexander Gardner carting around horse-drawn darkrooms on battlefields and frontiers in the mid-nineteenth century.
Lawrence cheerfully admits: ‘It was frustrating. I wasn’t a colour photographer.’ And this small selection mercilessly bears this out. Robin Morrison travelling light with a 35mm Nikon and a couple of lenses consistently out-photographs him. What makes it worse is that the original prints (the process was never very good and I doubt seriously if it is still much in use) were pretty lousy, fragile and archivally unstable. Everything seems to play in shades of blue and cyan and Aberhart’s theory about the film being made for American light and badly suited to the unique light of Aotearoa seems to me a little drawn out of the hat, to put it mildly. There are two halfway decent shots. One is the cover image, which sets off the somewhat weird typeface and has a German austerity. The other, typographically less messy, is Toomey’s shopfront in Aberhart’s beloved Ferry Road in Christchurch. This shows a kind of crown of cheap chairs at quaint angles like gargoyles waiting to see the bugger-all that the sinners get up to in the street below. They might have looked even better in black and white. I assume he was relieved, as we are when the experiment was over. Let us say in the context of the show that most of these colour images might be of academic interest.
My favourite? I wonder whether the least typical one might hit the spot for me. It is the beautiful steamy composition in 50 shades of photographic grey at the Hanmer Springs thermal pools. It plays on our imagination at many levels: there is the weird foreshortened bloke in the foreground, his legs reduced by the aquean perspective, the whole made mysterious by the soupy warm water. It is difficult to decode these very ordinary, supremely relaxed people. We want no excitement, won’t poison the woman next door or batter a taxi driver to death; possibly a bit of telly on Friday night and a hot bath at bedtime. We are also gloriously, angelically sexless. Yet there is something sinister in such unreal calm, and it makes me think, perversely, that New Zealand’s favourite weekend past time must be murder.
I fast-forward from 1981 to 2012. When the shaken, bedraggled residents of Christchurch were coming up to the Hanmer hotpools to get over the shock of the destruction of their city. You could tell who they were: they were usually couples or families and they spoke rather less than other tourists, as escapees from the crumbling ruins. Aberhart will go on recording and curating his beautiful photographs, and the atmosphere his oeuvre builds up speaks for these silent folk. In its own distant way, his work whispers of love, and death.
1. See my review of Laurence Aberhart’s Taranaki work, LRO, August 2012.
Born in Switzerland in 1947, MAX OETTLI was an immigrant child who benefited from a New Zealand education, which culminated in a humanities degree. A photograper since 1966, he has widely exhibited and published his work, taught at various institutions in New Zealand and Switzerland (Geneva and Lausanne). He and his wife Simone Oettli seem to be on a seasonal migration pattern between Geneva and Wellington, where they are both working on various research projects.
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