PhotoForum at 40: Counterculture, clusters and debate in New Zealand, by Nina Seja (Rim Books 2014, and PhotoForum issue 83, 2014) 300 pp., $65.00
PhotoForum at 40 is a major addition to the annals of photographic history in New Zealand. It’s a handsome volume of 300 pages of generous page size that comfortably displays the numerous, splendidly reproduced photographs that support the text: there is hardly a spread without an image. Thorough, wide-ranging, complex and enriching, it is a credit to its author Nina Seja. And also a credit to the founders and members of PhotoForum who, knowing they were making history, cared for their personal and organisational archives, which reputedly they ‘stored under their beds’.
By its own definition PhotoForum is ‘a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting photography as a means of communication and expression’. That’s a recurring mantra that can only hint at the idea that PhotoForum is an activist organisation of photographers of independent persuasion committed to questioning the nature of the medium and its use for personal expression and documenting our world. PhotoForum was formed as a counterculture. Unlike the established camera clubs and photographic societies, PhotoForum did not adopt an hierarchical academy/salon structure with its focus on competition and loyalty to the pictorialist traditions of art photography.
PhotoForum’s present director, Geoffrey H. Short, claims in a foreword that the society has played a ‘vitally important role’ in the history of New Zealand photography. A bold claim, but this book makes a strong case.
An appraisal of PhotoForum at 40 might just as well start with its cover photograph, an enigmatic image titled ‘Shrouds’ by Barney Brewster that begs explanation. On opening the book and skipping the half title, a puzzling photograph without a caption confronts the reader – a boy wearing a mask stands in bare feet in front of the grill of a somewhat battered Holden, a 1970 photograph by Simon Buis. Nine photographs follow, one per page, none with captions or photographers’ names or dates. The details are given later, but without them there is a temptation to flip these pages impatiently. From different periods, they are noticeably various and unconventional. Is this opening sequence a test of our ability to ‘read’ photographs and to extract meanings without the prop of text? They do invite questions and perhaps that is the challenge. On page xiv, at last there’s the a frontispiece, a compelling 1973 image by Glenn Busch of an old woman standing on a beach with water splashing up her coat and wind blowing her hair sideways. She looks directly at the camera – at us. We sense there is an underlying story but we are denied it.
The make-up of PhotoForum at 40 turns out to be complex. There are two forewords, then a preface, itself a sort of mini-history in which the author, art historian Nina Seja, explains the origin of the book and gives thanks. Then a 12-page Introduction, where Nina Seja really gets under way. Wearing her ‘historiography’ hat, she debates contrary views of how history can be written. It can be ‘a struggle between grand narratives and localised reminiscences, between history and memory, and between institutions and grassroots organisations,’ she says. For her purposes, she rejects history as a solely rational, objective or factual narrative, and argues for the claims of memory, the subjective and emotional content of memoirs, interviews and conversations – the stuff of human life – to create an enriched historical narrative. This underlying thinking clearly guides the book’s planning and organisation. ‘What follows,’ she says ‘is a complex interweaving of PhotoForum members’ recollections, its outputs, its philosophies and objectives, and its intersections with other institutions, funding bodies, and overseas practitioners, among others.’ Importantly, it reveals the human face of PhotoForum and the personalities that have driven its formation.
‘Part One: Roots’ deals, in three chapters, with the story of PhotoForum’s beginnings in the 1970s. To quote co-founder John B. Turner, ‘It was a period of creating something that had not existed before, of doing things that perhaps had not been attempted before.’ It began in Wellington when journalist Bruce Weatherall with Turner, a photographer at the Dominion Museum, and Desmond Kelly, a teacher and lecturer at Wellington Teachers’ College, shared a determination to promote the study of New Zealand historical photography and to protect our historic photo collections from neglect and loss. To this end, Weatherall in 1971 published a newsletter, Photographic Art & History, calling for action. It found a response and, adopting magazine format, was soon renamed New Zealand Photography and eventually PhotoForum. The magazine appealed to photographers who, having experienced the cultural changes of the 1960s, now perceived the ‘heightened social awareness’ of the period as a challenging focus for their photography. When John Turner, the acknowledged ‘face’ of PhotoForum and editor of the magazine, moved to Auckland in 1973, PhotoForum became an incorporated society.
For me living in Dunedin, well away from the action, chapter one of PhotoForum at 40 is fascinating for the light it throws on the personalities involved, and instructive for its well-documented discussion of issues then important to PhotoForum: its identity, its agreed objectives, its desire to publish a high quality journal, its relationship to its Wellington chapter, its differentiation from the camera club ethos, and the question of where photography stands in the art world. There was need of critical discussion about photography and Turner railed against the ‘dank apathy’ of PhotoForum readers for not making the pages of the magazine ‘an effective forum’.
Part One’s chapter two is a personal reminiscence by John B. Turner himself. It is pivotal and essential reading. Perhaps as an act of homage it opens with a full-page ‘messianic’ portrait of a black-bearded Turner. Messianic is not an exaggeration. Turner was the co-founder and driving force of PhotoForum. Much of the energy and drive leading to its formation came from this man devoted to promoting photography, who had early recognised how vulnerable our institutional and private collections of photographs were. Turner’s recollections go a long way to explaining the 40-year evolution and survival of PhotoForum and must be read to gain an insight into his motivation.
In chapter three, Athol McCredie, curator of photography at Te Papa, gives a full account of the Wellington sister branch of PhotoForum. As PhotoForum/Wellington, it developed an energetic programme of lectures and workshops and notably held regular innovative exhibitions in its own gallery which, with a library and office and meeting space, functioned as a photography centre and gave local members a valued sense of community. A Wellington newsletter was published with regional reports and transformed into the magazine PhotoForum Review for national distribution. Witness to Change: Life in New Zealand was a notable 1975 publication that accompanied a very successful nationwide exhibition. Despite such achievements PhotoForum/Wellington wound up in 1992.
Documentary photography has been a dominant language of PhotoForum photography, often focused on social and political issues. Photographers, sometimes risking antagonism, hostility or accusations of invasion of privacy, have documented political unrest, public protest and conflict, social injustice, and the life of minority communities. Some members complained that such ‘socially engaged documentary photography’ limited the space given in the magazine to photography practised as a personal expressive medium: photojournalistic images could stand on their own outside PhotoForum. Nevertheless, documentary photography continues to hold its place as a potent and enlightening medium of record and comment despite the ethical dilemmas that its invasive potential can incur.
The cultural and monetary value of New Zealand photography is a question discussed in ‘Part Two: Philosophies’ in chapter four, the opening chapter of the section. The establishment of the photographer as artist, dealer galleries, collectors (both private and institutional), and art auctions of historical and contemporary photographs, all reflect increasing acceptance of photography by the art world. Today photography is exhibited and collected with the critical discernment accorded other art forms.
Throughout its 40-year history, publications have been a central focus for PhotoForum. The magazine format adopted in 1971 was rapidly enhanced with improving production standards as it evolved into Photo-Forum (later PhotoForum) in 1974. A PhotoForum Supplement launched for summer 1977–78 was a tabloid-style paper carrying a welcome range of articles, interviews and reviews. Surprisingly, in two issues before it ceased in 1981, the supplement carried a comic strip by photographer Graham Kirk about Dick Sargeson Photographer that was successfully continued in another guise in the New Zealand Listener until 1987.
After Turner’s resignation as editor in 1984 PhotoForum magazine faltered and was replaced by the publication of books, often of individual photographers’ portfolios or of exhibitions, produced to a high standard and sometimes experimental in character. Book publication continues and allows photographers to develop a theme in depth. Collaborative production linked to an exhibition enables substantial books to appear in print, such as Ans Westra’s Handboek (2004). Nina Seja concludes that the society’s publications have made ‘valuable contributions to New Zealand art and art history’. This present volume maintains the exemplary publishing standard of previous books.
Exhibitions have been a mainstay of the PhotoForum agenda. The 1975 ‘Active Eye’ exhibition was the first survey of contemporary New Zealand photography to be toured nationwide in art galleries and was an important first for PhotoForum. Organised jointly by PhotoForum and the Manawatu Art Gallery it affirmed, despite some controversy, the art status of serious photography.
PhotoForum’s website has become its main public face and carries online gallery presentations that are to be maintained as a digitised legacy of images. Perhaps so, but archivists say there is nothing like hard copy. Photographers nowadays can draw on digital technology to publish their work in limited edition book form, or to create large-format prints to compete on gallery walls. It is significant that to accompany this book, PhotoForum’s fortieth year was celebrated in the ‘History in the Taking’ exhibition at the Gus Fisher Gallery with original photographs and archival documents. See: http://eyecontactsite.com/2014/07/photoforum-survey#ixzz3Rr12o0xS
‘Part Four’, the final and perhaps most engaging section of the book, is sub-titled ‘People’ and comprises personal statements and lively interviews with long-standing members of PhotoForum. Those who speak are Murray Cammick, Peter Peryer, Rhondda Bosworth, Max Oettli, Clive Stone, Peter Black, Mary Macpherson, Bruce Connew, Glenn Busch – all are active today. Also there are obituaries to Larry Schustak, John Fields, Robert (Tom) Hutchens, Simon Buis and Sally Symes.
The book ends with full notes, a selected bibliography, index, and ultimately winds up with ‘Chronology’, a remarkable encyclopaedic section of 11 pages of fine print set out in two columns. One column lists comprehensively all PhotoForum publications with thumbnail images in colour of all covers and posters, and the other in parallel is a chronology of New Zealand photography from 1950 to 2014, each column a treasure trove of information.
I end this review with a quotation that goes right back to the beginnings of PhotoForum. Bruce Weatherall in New Zealand Photography (Oct/Nov 1971) reviewing Hardwicke Knight’s Photography in New Zealand began with the statement, ‘Until now, photography in New Zealand had a past. Now it has a history, in the sense of a systematic, coherent body of knowledge about the past, collected, analysed and interpreted by rigorous study of source material rather than by the uncritical repetition of myth, rumour, and tradition.’ If that was true in 1971, it is true in far greater measure in 2014 when applied to PhotoForum at 40.
GARY BLACKMAN of Dunedin is a retired university teacher and scientist who is a longstanding member of PhotoForum. Examples of his photographs are held in the principal public art galleries. In 2003 he was the subject of a 50-year retrospective exhibition at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery.