Self-Portrait, by Marti Friedlander with Hugo Manson, (Auckland University Press, 2013) 264 pp., $59.99
‘I don’t mind explaining [my work],’ writes Marti Friedlander at the end of her autobiography Self-Portrait. ‘But I also don’t want people to know too much. Even now, writing this book, I wonder if I’m giving too much away. It’s a self-protection thing. You are vulnerable. It’s matter of where you place the barrier.’ Now entering her 86th year, Friedlander, the very private person behind many of New Zealand’s most well-known photographs, is clear about where that barrier should be.
She was born, we are told, Martha Gordon in Bethnal Green, London, on 19 February 1928, one of two daughters of Jewish refugee parents (‘as far as I know, from Kiev in Russia’). Any more about her parents: ‘I don’t want to talk about them further, because I value them too much. I want anything I say about them to be a validation rather than anything else.’
Nor does she dwell on her years first in a wretched public orphanage then in a Jewish institution, the Norwood Orphan Aid Asylum: ‘It saved my life.’ Although there were ‘terrible moments of sadness and grief’, she focuses instead on the security, the companionship, the laughter. ‘My life was very difficult,’ she writes, ‘but we all have tragedy in our lives … it’s how you cope with it.’
Self-portraits, writes Guardian arts commentator Laura Cumming, offer ‘a special class of inner truth, a pressure from within that determines what appears without, how an artist chooses to picture himself both in and as a work of art’. The ‘special class of truth’ that Friedlander offers in this book is mediated through her work. With the required doors of her personal – or at least more troublesome – past firmly shut, and any potential slides into sentimentality or self-pity nipped in the bud, she walks us through a retrospective of 50 years of her work, pausing at this photo, then at that, describing the subject, the context, the techniques and a critical appraisal.
The black and white photographs reproduced in this book – there are no colour images – are grouped loosely around certain themes: childhood, being Jewish, protest, New Zealand, other couples, writers and artists. Some were commissioned for publications, including Jim and Mary Barr’s landmark book Contemporary New Zealand Painters: Volume One, A–M and its second projected but never-published volume. Some have never seen the light of day.
So we see a rare image of Toss Woollaston, perched comfortably on a rock above an inlet, paintbrush in hand. We see Philip Clairmont and Tony Fomison sharing a smoke on the floor of their Christchurch flat. We see Allen Maddox, Pat and Gil Hanly, Ralph Hotere and Bill Culbert, Don Binney, Joanna Paul, Robin White and, in one of the most recognisable of images, Rita Angus, gazing inquisitively at the photographer in the gloom of her studio, paintbrushes held like swords or a shield.
‘I’ve always had this thing for painters, I don’t know why. I’ve always recognised their struggle, whether it is in a tiny room or a big studio. It’s a lonely life, and you can’t help being affected by it when you’re allowed entry to that world.’
We see, too, Kiri Te Kanawa, wrapped in a cloak of ermine fur on a beach in Northland; Yehudi Menuhin, eyes shut in concentration as his plays the violin at the Auckland Town Hall; and Tim Shadbolt – long hair, paisley shirt, background LOVE sign. And writers: Karl Stead (hands in pockets, relaxed, laughing); Maurice Duggan (a ‘kind of Hemingway figure’); Maurice Shadbolt (glasses, pipe); Dan Davin (pub table, a pint); a young, bearded Hamish Keith (‘He’s even smoking. Terrific.’). Many were friends, part of a ‘subversive underground’ in a country struggling to mash together its own creative identity: ‘We enjoyed each other’s talent, we believed in and encouraged each other.’
Such encouragement was hugely important to the emerging photographer. Arriving in New Zealand in 1958 with her new husband Gerrard, she suffered her first acute bout of homesickness. For a young woman training to be a photographic assistant at the age of 14, attending Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts at 15 and living independently in London by the age of 16, she found New Zealand desperately quiet, empty. For the first time, she writes, ‘I experienced loneliness. It wasn’t a feeling I enjoyed.’
Her camera provided a way of entry into this buttoned-up reserve. Her earliest New Zealand work, taken in 1960, is a black and white photograph of an anti-South Africa rugby tour protest at Myers Park in Auckland, a disparate group of mostly men, Maori and European, clustered around a simple large banner claiming ‘I’M ALL WHITE, JACK.’ She was drawn, she says, to protests – the camaraderie, the hope, the collective annexation of the street in the name of feminism, gay rights, anti-war demonstrations and the anti-apartheid movement culminating in the 1981 Springbok tour: ‘I remember thinking afterwards, will New Zealand ever settle down to the quiet life again? But of course, it did.’
She also photographed politicians: Norman Kirk addressing a street-corner meeting in Mt Eden, Robert Muldoon grinning over a barbecue apron, a young Helen Clark staring unflinchingly at the camera, all sharing these pages with cardiganed housewives, arms folded and unsmiling; shearers; children; and, most famously, a flock of sheep on a sun-stippled country road in Eglington Valley. These are simple works, trapped in often exquisite light (she only uses natural light), already indicative of an earlier age. ‘I knew things would change, and that I needed to photograph the people and the country so that the next generation and the one afterwards would have a glimpse into “Godzone” as it was then.’
In 1968, while on a job for Wine Review magazine, she was taken to Parihaka. It was a formative moment – the light, the landscape, the calm confidence of kuia Rauwha Tamaiparea, shown here sitting on a concrete block in her garden as a chicken forages around her feet.
Her experience at Parihaka, she writes, changed her relationship with New Zealand. With Tamaiparea she found an affinity, a stability that ‘reminded me of the matriarchs of my Jewish youth … I knew that the photographs I was taking of Rauwha were significant, because women like her were not visible to wider society at the time. And things that are invisible need to be revealed at the right time. I had patience … But I do remember thinking: New Zealanders are not seeing this yet.’ (This was 1968 – four years after the Ministry of Education recalled and shredded uncirculated copies of Ans Westra’s Washday at the Pa.)
Two years later she began working with Michael King for his book Moko: Maori tattooing in the 20th century. For this she photographed women on the remote East Cape. Again she found these kuia strong, certain in their identity. From this series we see Karu Mohiti, barefoot, an aged hand fine in its detail clasping her knee; Rangi Waitatao sitting inside her whare in a high-contrast pool of light; and Kirikino Kohitu in her newsprint-lined bedroom, contemplating the photographer with a clear, direct gaze – all extraordinary moments of silence and contemplation.
Friedlander’s Self-Portrait is an intimate conversation, informal, chatty (the book is based in part on interviews with oral historian Hugo Manson) and only vaguely chronological. While protective of her own story she is frank in her assessment of her subjects: Gordon Walters – gentle, gracious; Toss Woollaston – ‘quite narcissistic’; Karl Stead – ‘cooperates fully and he’s vain enough to want a good photograph’; John Key – ‘quite a bland person – bland in a nice sense of the word’.
But it is through the cracks in this commentary that we glimpse her past: her regret over not being a mother, her inability to imagine the Holocaust, (‘I want to imagine it, because I feel by imagining it I might feel it more. But it’s totally incomprehensible …’), her abhorrence of ‘moral righteousness’, her confidence in her Jewishness: ‘It is an identity which enables me to have a certain viewpoint, a questioning viewpoint.’
But if, as she says, her self-portraits ‘are my letters to myself’, they tend to be guarded letters. Her first, the cover photograph of this book taken in 1961, shows a young woman with a fashionably boyish haircut, looking into her twin-lens Rolleicord, eyes down, serious, shielded from the curious gaze of the viewer. There are more self-portraits but equally, if not more revealing are the photographs taken of her: a young adolescent, diligently touching up a photographic print at the Bloomsbury Technical School in 1942; a working photographer, directing a subject on a West Coast beach in 1970; and, near the end of the book, in a 2007 portrait by Kaz Strankowski, a middle-aged woman, still with her Rolleiflex, gazing directly at the photographer, her face open, curious, good-humoured.
Her sister Anne, writes Friedlander, ‘likes to go back into the past, but I don’t. I’m not ready (even though I’m doing it now, and I ask myself, how have I been persuaded?)’. In succumbing to that persuasion Friedlander (and Manson) has delivered a fine and beautifully produced record of her work. The voice is blunt, opinionated, at times repetitive or out of sequence but it is purely her own. No frills, no leaps of metaphor – a clear-eyed description of her journey through New Zealand through the lens of her camera.
SALLY BLUNDELL is a freelance writer and journalist who lives in Christchurch.