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April 24, 2006 | by  | in Visual Arts | [ssba]


Aspects of New Zealand documentary photography
Photographs of words and books as seen by New Zealand artists.
National Library Gallery
7 April – 16 July

It’s funny how even if things are really boring, if they are old they become important. I work at Archives New Zealand, and we have heaps of old, boring, yet important things there. We have lots of old interesting things as well mind, but we also have things like a big file of correspondence to the Railways board about the qualities of the pies on board trains in New Zealand. And because it’s old (early twentieth century, I think) it has an historical value, even if its content is mind numbingly boring and banal.

‘Within Memory’, one of two new shows at the National Library Gallery, has some boring photographs. There are photos of trains, photos of Hawera residents going about their daily business, photos of a speedway, and photos of construction sites. It seems that hiding some photography under the somewhat shaky heading of ‘documentary’ can forgive the most mundane subject matter and poor photographic techniques. The photographers themselves can take photos of anything if their aim is simply to record, to ‘document’ their environment for future generations. As photographer Paul Hewson says about his photo essay on the goings on in Hawera, “I feel that a valid social and historical record can be made, which will increase in value as time goes by.” Old equals good.

This is problematic particularly because the idea of ‘documenting’ accurately and truthfully through the medium of photography has been so entirely debunked in our post-modern era. In the early days of photography everyone was yahooing about its ability to mirror existence and record the world we see around us, and rightly so, It was an amazing new technology and revolutionized the way images were replicated and transferred. However, it certainly isn’t the transparent, unbiased medium that it was initially vaunted as. Modern commentators have examined photographers’ intentions more closely, particularly photographers who claim work to be ‘documents’ of real life. A photograph, far from being an simple copy of reality, is in fact a complicated series of choices made by the photographer as to what sort of ‘reality’ they choose to represent. Where the photograph is taken, who is included, who is not included, what angle, aperture, and shutter speed are used, how it is cropped, and how it is manipulated in the dark room, all contribute to the outcome of this small piece of ‘truth’.

So, even if Paul Hewson claims to be capturing a truthful and valuable aspect of life in Hawera, it is Paul Hewson’s own ‘truth’ that we are privy to. His photographs capture what he considers to be of important historical value but this can differ from what the next person would perceive of the situations he presents. It’s subjective, and just because photographers claim that their work is faithful documentation, that does not mean that it is in any way the final truth.

I’m being a little facetious here though. I don’t mean to lambaste the ordinary. We all get on with real life and representation of this is often the most compelling and engaging art work to be seen. And in this exhibition we are shown small town New Zealand, the life of the mentally ill, and the goings on in New Zealand post shops. This side of the show is far and away more interesting than the tedious photographs of some of New Zealand’s long held clichés. There are images of the iconic New Zealand batch, our ‘clean green’ environment – complete with snow capped peaks – and, in Glenn Busch’s series, we are shown the working New Zealand man, reduced in all his glory to a series of stereotypes.

This show is large, and contains an interesting mix of photographers. Some, such as Anne Noble and Bruce Foster, are clearly working as ‘artists’, working within the discourse of contemporary art, whereas there are others who photograph with a clear desire simply to record. This difference isn’t adequately addressed in the wall plates and creates problematic currents in the show as many of the artists are working with such differing intentions. I think it is superficial to group them all under the heading ‘Aspects of New Zealand documentary photography’.

Accompanying Within Memory is the atrociously named show VERBATIM….. REVELATION TO OBLIVION: Photographs of words and books as seen by New Zealand artists. This is a touring show from the McNamara Gallery in Wanganui, and contains images taken by New Zealand photographers of text, words, and books. As discussed in the catalogue essay by Peter Simpson, the use of text in the work of New Zealand painters, such as Colin McCahon and Ralph Hotere, has been oft commented on and been the topic of much scholarly debate. Particularly since the 1980s, with the popularity of post-structural and semiotic theory, the relationship between word and image has been widely examined, and became a focus for many artists, both in New Zealand and internationally.

Representing words is tricky because words are already representations in themselves. This means that photos of words are two whole steps removed from the original object. Photos in the exhibition play on this. What do words really mean when they are removed from their original context? Are they then simply reduced to their material qualities, the shape of line on paper? In Peter Peryer’s photograph Next Attraction shown here, the orderly words are divorced – by the cropping of the image – from any conventional meaning. Although we are perhaps able to discern that it is an advertisement of some kind, the more appealing aspect of the photograph I find is the aesthetic quality of the thick, black words and their pleasingly symmetrical arrangement. Peryer messes with our need to create meaning by limiting the information we are given, and focuses instead on the material quality of language.

The intentions of the photographers in this show are again disparate. Other artists use words as a way of examining historical and political issues in their work. Ben Cauchi, for example, looks at labeling, colonialism and the effects of word association. In his work Loaded Palm for instance Cauchi ironically places the word ‘Pakeha’ on a white palm, thereby questioning the origins of this word; how and why this word came to associated with white skin, and what does it necessarily mean to use a Maori word to describe a non-Maori person? The word appears to be written directly onto the skin of the hand, like a tattoo, so one thinks of the practice of branding cattle or livestock, or even Jews with a concentration camp number during the holocaust. Names, once accepted and used by the majority of society, are indelible. We can’t escape the label we are given, and, as Cauchi is suggesting here, your name or your noun can often define and shape who you are and what position you acquire within society.

Some of the show is hung strangely, with photographers grouped together who don’t appear to have much in common. This photograph by Ben Cauchi is hung with another by Fiona Pardington along with two more straight up documentary photographs by Ans Westra and Bruce Connew. This muddled group shows clearly the distinction between photographers who intentionally incorporate words in their work to complicate and examine their usage, and others whose photographs incorporate them for less analytical purposes and more for the sake of a good, ‘truthful’ image.

Under its curatorial intention this show therefore combines a fairly disparate group of photographers, and I’m not sure if this really works for me. Choosing works for a show based on their solely subject matter is quite tricky – and here I found the selection of some of the photographs a little contrived. That said, these shows are both worth a look, and do contain some moving, witty, and startlingly familiar images of New Zealand.


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