ANZAC: Photographs by Laurence Aberhart, with an introduction by Jock Phillips (Victoria University Press, 2014), 108 pp., $60
What are the implications of cultural remembrance? As theorist Marita Sturken points out in her book Tangled Memories, the ‘process of cultural memory is bound up in complex political stakes and meanings.’ The output of publications devoted to one cataclysmic conflict in cultural memory increased substantially this year as we entered into a period of centennial commemoration for the Great War of 1914–18.
As a nation New Zealand suffered tremendous losses on the frontline, and the impact of war was felt almost equally strongly back at home, psychologically, economically, physically. One hundred years offers distance to reflect on the War’s legacy, but also an opportunity to see what types of official narratives have emerged, persisted, been revised. And beyond these historic or bureaucratic interpretations, how might artists reframe a culture remembering? Esteemed photographer Laurence Aberhart’s body of work entitled ANZAC offers one artist’s nuanced view of the event called ‘World War One’ that is at once personal and universal in its quiet critique of war and in its depiction of how memorials construct, or are invested with, the sanctity of the past. ANZAC is both a touring exhibition and a publication supported by the Dunedin Public Art Gallery and Victoria University Press. The printed version consists of seventy exquisite photographs of ANZAC memorials from Aberhart’s wanderings through New Zealand and Australia between 1980 and 2013. While war memorials are diverse – obelisks, cupolas, windows – here it is the digger that Aberhart privileges. While these soldier figures represent only 8 per cent of all memorials, they offer the most human depiction of the cost of war. Aberhart acknowledges that this form invariably speaks to a diversity of people. Of national – or nation-building – significance, ANZAC is also a testament to the faded days of empire. The photographer turns his attention to Australian monuments as well, believing and acknowledging that one cannot reflect on the ANZAC tradition without including Australia.
The challenge of releasing a war commemoration project is that form can be overshadowed by discussion of content. Aberhart has commented, however, that the ‘subject dominates’ – that the public reception would be ‘inescapably and appropriately about subject’. The sociological focus has included the photographs’ depictions of statues in disregard and disrepair. Aberhart’s scope includes the gleaming white of a carefully tended figure in Papakura, Auckland, but weather- and time-burnished memorials predominate. Others show the gradual decline of the statues’ importance or their transformation from a vaulting valour into an everyday context. In Beaudesert, Queensland, a memorial, weighted with a long list of names, is visually cramped by a nearby KFC and the banality of storefronts. Where once these sites were public places to grieve, they are now exiled to the far shores of memory.
Aberhart’s tom(b)e to these fallen soldiers is elegantly structured, regimented by historian Jock Phillips’ call to the past, and Karina McLeod’s insertion of chapter sections. ANZAC could provoke a dreamy nostalgia, particularly in the current climate of international commemorations, but the sectioning imposes formality and a cool remove. ‘The Great War’; ‘Lest We Forget’; ‘Roll of Honour’; ‘ANZAC’; ‘The Glorious Dead’; ‘Their Name Liveth’; ‘In Memory’: the weighty intertitles throughout the book remind us that memory and memorialising are also how we structure the past.
It is difficult to comprehend the magnitude of lives lost in our New Zealand context – the mathematical sublime. Over 18,000 dead, 40,000 wounded, and whole communities irrevocably changed. Is it possible to fully grasp the scale of the Great War’s impact on our nation? Aberhart’s photographs punctuate this question. The repeated iconography of the soldier figure reiterates again, again, again the fallen bodies. They restate the sacrifice of young men at service to the empire. However, it is through this recurring focus on the diggers that we can begin to understand the individual in the masses. The book’s dedication to Aberhart’s father – Private Harold Ernest Aberhart – also reminds the reader of the individual, familial cost.
Aberhart’s line of sight is a meditative one shaped, in part, by the camera he uses. The large nineteenth-century camera requires a persistence of vision. In a Radio New Zealand interview for ANZAC’s promotion, Aberhart emphasises the way the camera slows down the photographing process, requiring him to stay attentive as the image is taken. This slow release emerges in ANZAC. As the book unfolds into a roll call of frozen soldiers, it is remarkable how individual the statues appear. There is the reflective Inglewood figure, head downcast towards the names below. Two brothers in arms, eerily truncated at the waist, sit atop companion plinths in New South Wales’ Merewether. The Kaiapoi digger has an ambiguous expression – is he in a moment of respite, or of bewilderment?
And while the broader sociological impact provokes the first discussion about cultural recall, it is vital to remember these images are Aberhart’s vision of the Great War. If they serve to document memorials, they are also more than a functional accounting of statues. Some of the strongest photographs in the book assert Aberhart’s characteristic oeuvre of haunted landscapes. Gateways figure strongly – stone structures arch bleakly against the gloom of an overcast sky. Otago Peninsula’s The Lonely Soldier recedes into the far distance, protected (or diminished) by the rough-hewn farm fence at the perimeter. An Alexandra, Central Otago, photograph from 1980 positions the viewer centre-frame to meet the glowing upward path to the soldier. The sacred has been restored.
The most powerful is a pair of images from Tikitiki, East Coast, which offer two views: one looking up to the soldier, and one from behind. From the latter position, we see the soldier’s vantage point – a stony gaze out across the vast landscape. The pairing calls up the past and the future; the soldier is both commemoration and caution to war and sacrifice. As we fall in behind the Māori soldier, we gain both the local and international bonds of war. He surveys Tikitiki, and beyond that he looks east toward the Pacific Ocean. These figures then, are imbued with a moral authority – both to the warnings of war, and to the care of memory.
NINA SEJA is a writer and historian. Her photographic history book PhotoForum at 40: Counterculture, clusters, and debate in New Zealand was released in 2014 by Rim Books. She is a doctoral candidate at New York University, and a senior lecturer in communication studies at Unitec, Auckland. Her writing has also been published in JAAM, Landfall, Afterimage and Trout, among other journals.