Brian Brake: Lens on the World, edited by Athol McCredie (Te Papa Press, 2010) 352 pp., $99.99
Brian Brake: Lens on the World, edited by Athol McCredie (Te Papa Press, 2010) 352 pp., $99.99
Photojournalism is politics by other means, a form of persuasion, a type of propaganda, where photographs might proselytise on behalf of a world-view. Brian Brake (1927–88) was, as this book tells us, ‘New Zealand’s best-known photographer’, certainly during the latter part of his lifetime. But, as Athol McCredie, the book’s general editor, goes on to point out in his lucid and succinct introduction, though Brake had a successful international career and was a media legend in New Zealand, ‘the generation of “art” photographers who had emerged during his absence overseas largely ignored him’ — there is no School of Brian Brake, and meanwhile his images which once featured so prominently in international anthologies, such as Helmut and Alison Gernsheim’s Thames and Hudson survey A Concise History of Photography, have disappeared from more recent authoritative publications, such as 2004’s Magnum Stories: Sixty-One Photographers (edited by Chris Booth for Phaidon).
The Te Papa Brian Brake project, which combines this book selection of over 300 photographs and six essays – ranging from McCredie’s overview, to Lissa Mitchell’s examination of his early years, to Peter Ireland’s assessment of the best-seller New Zealand: Gift of the Sea (1963, revised edition 1973, new version 1990), to Damian Skinner’s revisionist reading of his museum and gallery object photographs — with a 2010 major retrospective exhibition at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, also extends to include an ongoing online cataloguing of selected Brake images in an attempt to do justice to the critical mass of around 115,000 photographs that were donated by Brake’s partner Wai-man Raymond (Amau) Lau to the Museum in 2001. That donated collection in turn doesn’t quite encompass Brake’s entire oeuvre — things have gone missing over time. (Various originals of a number of key colour images are also missing from the book, represented instead by barely adequate magazine reproductions.)
Brian Brake: Lens on the World, a tome with the heft of a small tombstone, ends up being a scrapbook really, in visual terms, as it attempts to assemble his heterogeneous subject matter into a resonant pattern. It’s the sequence of essays that actually traces a narrative arc and makes sense of his distinctive personal odyssey.
Brake’s shaping influences were Pictorialism — the atmospheric soft-focus style that dominated New Zealand camera club rule-books when he was a boy — and studio portrait photography of the 1940s (Brake became a photographic assistant to the highly-esteemed Spencer Digby Portrait Studio in Wellington at the age of eighteen). Pictorialism gave Brake a good grasp of the formal geometries of best-practice picture-taking: foreground, middle-ground, background; golden thirds; perspectival vectors to lead the eye through the image and consolidate the image’s meaning. Working as a studio portraitist, on the other hand, gave him a good grasp of sculptural form and the ways to achieve it — how to sculpt the head, for example, through strategic lighting.
His grounding, then, was in mood photography, created with technique, tradition and light. The ability to ‘paint with light’ is central to Brake’s distinctiveness; his tendency was to beautify or prettify. When it came to the moral conundrums of photojournalism — its humanist agenda — he wasn’t as interested in war zones and zones of conflict and distress as he was in cataloguing the more positive emotions. Not for him the piercing gaze into the heart of darkness, rather he sought the star of brightness — the razzle-dazzle of jewel-like colour, a sense of joyous engagement with the daily business of life.
Australia-based photo-historian Gael Newton, writing about the big photojournalism magazines of the 1950s and early 1960s, such as Life, Paris Match and National Geographic, shows how Brake was crimped and constrained by formats, deadlines and commercial imperatives. But also, paradoxically, how he thrived under this kind of pressure. Magazines wanted images that celebrated similarities, not differences. They wanted bright, cheerful, optimistic photos showing that ‘people are people the world over’. This accorded with Brake’s own sensibility, or perhaps his own preoccupations. He was himself drawn to pageantry, to the exotic theatricality of people in far-away places, to photojournalism’s raison d’être of enabling armchair travellers to find out about others through amazing photographs — photographs which in Brake’s case always aimed to be empathetic rather than voyeuristic or triumphant.
John B. Turner, writing about Brake as a globe-trotting shutterbug in the 1950s, captures something of the velocity of Brake’s rise to the status of celebrity freelance photojournalist after he sailed for London in 1954. Acquiring a 35 mm lightweight Leica camera, he unshackled himself from the static viewpoint of the camera on a tripod and developing a quick trigger finger demonstrated an athletic ability to shoot on the move. He turned into a snatch and grab merchant in London, prowling about the streets looking to snatch, or perhaps pluck, the newsworthy image — debutantes arriving at Buckingham Palace, fine art experts conferring at Sotheby’s — which he might sell to the popular illustrated magazines. In 1955 he was invited to join the Magnum Photo Agency — a cooperative organisation designed to ensure that the best photographers were free to choose their own assignments and retain copyright of their images.
Now silver-heeled, Brake darted behind the Iron Curtain to capture life in the USSR and ventured behind the Bamboo Curtain to record May Day celebrations in Red China. Like his fellow Magnum members, who included colleagues Henri Cartier-Bresson and Eve Arnold, he’d become an heroic snapper, grabbing the decisive moment by the scruff of the neck; he was a Johnny-on-the-spot, for example, during the Suez Crisis of 1956 — which resulted in the book’s cover image, typically not registering a moment of crisis but a moment of surreal comedy: a camel rider of the Aden Protectorate Levies seems to be keeping pace with a pilot in an RAF jet plane, in living colour.
Post-World War II, through the 1950s, technological advances in photography meant that colour film equated with the modern age. During that decade or two when Kodachrome was King, Brake was one of its chief envoys, documenting the way the globe teemed, from India to Egypt, Nigeria to Japan.
The book reminds us of one commentator’s estimate that Brake had a ‘gentle’ lens rather than a cruel one. And so he did; sometimes indeed there’s a sweetness in the use of colour where the lyricism threatens to turn sugary and syrupy, but it never quite does, controlled by Brake’s delicate painterly touch and his formal rigour. However, intimations of a camp aesthetic, of a possible fondness for beefcake, hover and flicker, lit by the flare of votive candles, the glow of paper lanterns, dressing room lightbulbs in Sydney’s King’s Cross, sunlight on naked skin on a crowded Wellington beach.
Returning to photograph ‘New Zealand and New Zealandness’ in 1960, Brake plays down the descriptive power of colour in favour, for the most part, of the tension and expressiveness of black and white — as if New Zealand was a land of absolutes, stark and raw. (He returned on commission from National Geographic, but he was disappointed with the images chosen for the resulting colour photo-essay published in the magazine, and resolved to produce his own book.)
Brake’s 1963 photo-book New Zealand: Gift of the Sea, the result of that 1960 trip, is one of the great classics of New Zealand photography (though not the later editions). Having learnt to move with the balletic grace of a dancer, Brake brings back home that knack — for the hunch, the gamble, the intuition —that he had refined overseas and adds to it local knowledge. Here’s the nationalist eye polished to a sparkle, peering and peeking and staring with the nervy energy of engagement to uncover an authentic theatre of human interaction and reveal it, unfurling in a ribbon of imagery, page after page. Brake on home turf moves through a crowd with the smooth professionalism of the glad-handing politician, knowing when to pause, when to make contact, when to make the unseen visible.
Winnowed from sheaves of contact sheets, Brian Brake: Lens on the World arrives, not altogether convincingly, at an anthology intended to evoke the iconography of the panoptic explorer from the era of Sir Edmund Hillary: have camera, will travel. On photo-safari around the world Brake has been the intrepid snapshooter bagging big game — Pablo Picasso, Chairman Mao, the British Royals, assorted film stars — but flung together like this it’s all a bit of a mishmash. Perhaps the single most cohesive eyewitness testament to his life and times — to his vision — remains that first, self-produced edition of New Zealand: Gift of the Sea, by turns moody and brooding, sharp-witted and irreverent, even as the photographer melts back into the crowd. Peter Ireland’s essay quotes the telling response at the time of Spencer Digby, sent in the form of a post office telegram to Brake, then living in Hong Kong, which echoes from 1963 down the years: ‘Snap book beaut all the jokers in the pub say bonza …’.
DAVID EGGLETON is a critic, poet and non-fiction writer and the editor of Landfall and Landfall Review Online. His most recent book is a volume of new poems, Time of the Icebergs (Otago University Press, 2010).
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