Pictures They Want to Make: Recent Auckland photography, edited by Chris Corson-Scott and Edward Hanfling (Photoforum, Auckland, 2013), 176 pp, $60.
Pictures They Want to Make: Recent Auckland photography is not (always) a book of photos of Auckland, nor is it (often) photography by people living in or hailing from the region. What it is, is a showcase of the documentary-art photographs of twelve established and emerging New Zealand photographers who have various ‘associations’ (ranging from the tangential to the obvious) with Tamaki Makaurau. The book takes pains to show us that these photographers ‘make’ rather than ‘take’ pictures, thus pointing to the agency, point of view and artistry of what could erroneously be perceived as pure document or ‘not art’. (Whether or not the value of this point forgives the unwieldiness of that title is another matter …)
Published by the 38-year-strong non-profit Photoforum and launched at Northart community gallery for the Auckland Festival of Photography earlier this year, it’s made outside the usual university press/Random-Penguin circuit – and is all the more refreshing for that. It’s egalitarian – a book where a recent Elam graduate can receive equal billing with the well-established Mark Adams, among others.
For three decades Adams has worked at the nexus of Pakeha, Maori and Pacific culture, drilling down into New Zealand’s past by training his lens on sites of historical import. His images, mostly in black-and-white and taken with a large-format field camera, hold weight: elegiac, with soft light and long exposures creating a painterly look at once ancient, sacred, atmospheric. The photos of Maori marae overseas – Hinemihi, which sheltered survivors of the Tarawera eruption in 1886 before being moved to the park of an English manor, and Rauru, built in Rotorua in the late 1800s then sold to Germany – are typical of the type of cross-cultural investigation Adams excels at. His landscape of the mouth of the Waitaki River may look unassuming at first glance, but it takes on new significance in light of its context. The area was once a moa-hunting campsite with a permanent fire (continuous fire, or ahi ka, symbolizes right of occupation, a crucial part of Maori land rights).
Like Adams, Fiona Amundsen is interested in culturally loaded sites and sights. Aesthetically, though, the two photographers seem worlds apart, even if they do inhabit the same quality of stillness. In Amundsen’s photographs there’s a ‘sameness’ to Auckland, Hiroshima and Shanghai, portrayed as concrete cities, pale and largely unpopulated in the frail light of early morning. Each looks as generic as the others (a neat comment on globalisation) yet of course they have very different pasts. In Hiroshima, the cherry trees are out, a willow weeps into a river, a hedge is perfectly manicured, a footpath is free of rubbish. It’s an image that shows Amundsen’s interest in the historical/political/economic narratives that overlap and clash in a public site, and how that is rendered in urban planning. What things are expressed? What things are elided? She turns a hard, monotonous, steely gaze on her subjects, and makes photographs that are compelling in their drabness.
Talia Smith’s vistas are largely sans people. Smith photographs in-between zones, the bits of landscapes that reside above, below or beside prettier parts of the landscape, the parts people usually photograph (‘areas of non-place’, she calls it). Think wastelands with overgrown shrubs and patchy grass, places where urban development has failed, nature run rampant (or stifled) in urban areas. She likes remnants of things, objects left behind, disused, broken: a smashed windowpane in an abandoned building, the skeleton of a shipping container overgrown with weeds. The accompanying essay notes that her foregrounds ‘often appear to be full of nothing; we feel that our eye is dragged, reluctant and stumbling, over rough and rocky turf, to the mid-distance where there is something’. That looking into the mid-distance at eye-level lends critical distance. It’s also the way we actually see when walking around; we don’t frame carefully, cutting out empty foreground. The ‘unartful’ framing gives the effect of showing the scene ‘exactly as it was’, as if unmediated. It’s an interesting strategy.
If ‘sorry-looking’ bushes (as the essay deems them) characterise Smith’s work, Ian Macdonald views nature as fertile, prehistoric. He stitches together multiple images of a scene to form a wider view (not panoramic so much as square) so the spectator feels immersed in the space. This detailed foliage has a distinct conservationist bent; he revels in New Zealand’s unique flora, in the lush vegetation.
Geoffrey Short’s section opens with what could be an abstract painting of smudgy blacks and whites – in fact it’s a pyrotechnic explosion he staged with the help of filmcrew friends on Bethells Beach. The images blast onto the page, completely different from the quiet landscapes that come before and after. Shock and awe, terror and the sublime; they’re primal, videogamey-cinematic, bombastic, sexual, harking to both ‘end of the world’ and ‘beginning of the world’ narratives. They also work as comment on the long-fought-against mining of west coast blacksand beaches perhaps. This series is interspersed, somewhat inexplicably, with an earlier series of Short’s, Noirish landscapes taken around dusk of the Kiwi Bacon factory in Kingsland in its twilight days before it shuttered for good.
Chris Corson-Scott takes large-format 8×10 photos, like Mark Adams, but his images are steeped in contemporary life. His prints are as big as three metres wide and I wish I could see these in person – really lose myself in the frame, and examine every bit (there’s an almost ‘Where’s Wally’ level of detail in many). A very bright quality of light is characteristic of Corson-Scott’s work – a hard, glittery summer sun. Nature backed up against civilisation is a recurrent theme: cleared land, subdivisions, reservoirs, drainage ponds, suburban development. His photos of farmland cleared in outer Auckland for suburban development inhabit a strange liminal zone. Not city, not rural. And not established: Corson-Scott is photographing an Auckland in the making.
‘The Neighbour’s Backyard’ on the other hand evokes a high-summer’s day out the back of a very different kind of property: a quintessential Auckland weatherboard bungalow painted the exact shade of sage of a former flat I lived at in Sandringham. It’s a picture of a kind of property that’s becoming more scarce as infill houses and ‘new builds’ that take up almost every square foot of the section become the norm. Living as I do now, in a city where no one has a garden and handkerchief community gardens are cooed over as if they were gold, I have newfound appreciation for all the old, shabby villas I inhabited in Auckland over the years with their (what now seem massive) gardens of semi-tropical lushness – feijoa trees, privet, nasturtiums, flax, hydrangeas, lawns full of tiny daisies. This image is that come to life.
Connew and Benge are the postmodernists of the bunch. Benge notices the oddities in life. A newly planted shrub looks timid in front of overgrowing bushes; in another, an overgrown letterbox is topped by a head of Dr Seussian succulents. He has a childlike interest in the world around him, almost as though he’s playing a game of I Spy. Connew forms a natural pair with Benge so it’s handy he comes after him alphabetically. Connew’s snapshot-style guerilla photos are taken from his recent ‘I Must Behave’ series, which eschews explanatory titles or place identifiers. Where they’re taken, who knows? Thus set adrift from their referent they become untethered from meaning or narrative. The effect is unsettling. ‘I Must Behave 29’ is a portrait, but of what? The bush that takes up almost the entire frame, or the portrait of a priest barely visible behind it, glimpsed through the leaves? It’s an unusual, successful photograph that turns the idea of ‘portraiture’ on its head. The overall effect of the series is disconcerting. Puzzling signifiers stare back at us as we flick over the pages.
Haruhiko Sameshima’s portfolio is gently humorous, full of surreal moments reflecting 21st-century life. He loves a good juxtaposition. A gaudily painted castle surrounded by bushes, at the zoo in Western Springs, deftly captures an uneasy co-existence between the natural and the artificial. In another shot, the eerie light on the Remarkables looms in the background, and a subdivision of identical houses sits in front. The paint on the structures takes from the landscape: greeny-greys meant not to detract from the surroundings (yeah right). In another, Chairman Mao stares out over the New Zealand landscape. It could be China except that it’s actually a set built in Queenstown in the 1980s for a movie that went straight to video.
But it’s the photo of St Lukes shopping mall that makes me homesick. The same old stores, the Just Jeans sign, the familiar ugly flooring – in the centre of it all, one very happy kid absorbed in play. I used to live a stone’s throw from that mall, and worked there too. I hated it and the mums and the kids and the mall-rats and the two-dollar shop tat and the homogenised Kmart offerings and the bad food-court meals, but now, thousands of miles away, it looks kind of beautiful and comforting, these capitalists par excellence in their womblike suburban cocoon of bright new shiny things.
Edith Amituani’s photographs of West Auckland suburban life are some of my favourites. In her portraits of Samoan family and friends, the surrounding mise en scène is as important in telling us about the people as the images of the people themselves. (I love this type of portraiture because, of course, people don’t exist in a vacuum against a white studio background.) There’s one photo of two boys on their way to school together, one riding a bike, the other walking beside him. They have been glimpsed by Amituani at the end of her driveway. The biker has a moment of recognition; he sees the camera and for a fleeting instant he and Amituani acknowledge each other’s existence and humanity. The other boy remains unaware of the camera, head down, walking on. These binary oppositions add tension and interest to the frame. It’s all happening so fast the boy who sees someone taking his photo has no time to tell the boy who does not, to look (does this raise a question of ethics?). The swift movement of the bike adds to the fleetingness of the moment – something only photography can capture. It’s a full use of the medium.
In another image, taken from a series on Samoan rugby players working temporarily for teams in Europe, a player is silhouetted by both the camera flash and the stadium lights. Looming like a giant in the frame he seems alien, just beamed down from space. It’s a fitting metaphor for cultural displacement. My favourite, though, is ‘The Lais’. It is so familiar: the brick state-house unit; the stark New Zealand light. A lack of the things curated that, over time, become a home. It reminds me of a refugee friend from Burundi and her son, about the same age as the boy in the photo, and the house they moved into upon resettlement in Auckland, which had to be furnished with op-shop finds on a minimal budget provided by WINZ. I become so enamoured with the photo, returning to it again and again, that I investigate and discover that Amituanai began working as a volunteer for the refugee resettlement program RMS and, like me, was part of a team involved with the resettlement of a family, the Lais. This is a photo from that series. That Amituanai captured something of the refugee experience in a shot that on surface tropes would seem to say nothing about that – there are certainly no cultural cues – surely speaks to her talent.
Derek Henderson is a fashion photographer working mostly overseas. You can see this influence in his images of rural New Zealand, which have that indefinable but very definite cultural factor, ‘cool’ (aka what is beautiful, what is appropriate to the culture at a point in time). But he doesn’t rest solely on fashion tropes, even if his framing and composition owe a lot to his milieu. I like Henderson’s young people on Great Barrier Island who wear mouthy slogan t-shirts and give the camera the challenging and simultaneously insecurity-laden stares of teenagers. Very Lorde, no?
In the work of Ngahuia Harrison, a recent graduate from Elam, ‘Rocks’ and ‘Leaves’ get their own portraits, as do ‘Harriett’ and ‘Kahu’. Here, land is designated with as much importance as people, in which we might read a specifically Maori perspective. Aesthetically they are like film stills, low depth of field, moody with light as cool and grey as Chris Corson-Scott’s is bright. They have a Kiwi rural gothic flavour about them: see ‘Kahu’, a posed image of a boy wearing the farmer’s classic black singlet, sweaty with perspiration that runs down his face like tears.
By the end I like that part of the title ‘Auckland photography’. I like the fluidity prescribed to the definition. The images are as disparate, disjunctive and hard to pin down as Auckland itself. What is Auckland but a stream of consciousness of odd sights and ironies, a Russian doll of communities within communities, towns within towns, villages within villages, and diasporic lines flung outwards to other lands. A melange of new development, rural outskirts, shopping centres, beaches and suburbs, suburbs, suburbs that stretch out one after the other, all lit under a stark no-ozone sun as dead-eyed as office fluorescents, a sun which, on its best days, sets the sea and sands a-sparkle, as in Chris Corson-Scott’s ‘New Year’s Day’, in sublime splendour.
GEORGINA McWHIRTER is a contributing editor at Interior Design magazine in New York. She grew up in Auckland.