Three New Zealand Photographers: Fiona Clark, Laurence Aberhart, Peter Peryer

As far as I know, only five public galleries have active collections of work by New Zealand photographers - the Auckland City Art Gallery, the Waikato Art Museum, the Manawatu Art Gallery, the National Art Gallery, and the Dowse Gallery in Lower Hutt. Of these, the Auckland collection is the major enterprise in both size and scope.

LAURENCE ABERHART Lodge Clinton 183 1979
gold/selenium toned photograph

The major exhibiting effort, however, remains The Active Eye, organised by the Manawatu Art Gallery some years ago - a genuine national survey at the time.

Some of the publicity for the current Three New Zealand Photographers show by the Auckland City Art Gallery refers to it as the 'first of a series of survey exhibitions'. But 'survey' seems a bit too ambitious. The word 'sampling' might be better. Although I'm part of the 'establishment' in this case (as honorary consultant along with John Turner to the initiating gallery) I think it might be useful to give a little 'infra-establishment' background to this show. The gallery is quite openly sympathetic to the medium; but economic restraints ruled out anything like the scope of The Active Eye. (Incidentally, The Active Eye wasn't shown in the Auckland gallery, although the prints were actually hanging on the walls when the opening was cancelled by a censorship threat which the then administration wouldn't confront.) Andrew Bogle, Senior Curator, suggested instead a more modest show to begin a regular series, perhaps two years apart, of different worthwhile photographers. The three of us decided it would be a three-person show. Andrew and I selected three people whose styles and concerns were quite different, with approval from John, who was busy with other things. Our little 'establishment' felt it was still a useful idea to get across to a wider public the notion that personal style is as possible and visible in photography as any other medium. But at the same time we wanted to show serious and significant work to the growing audience already looking at photography as a fine art.

We set no other requirements on the three photographers. We just waited to see what they would produce and select for themselves. Peter Peryer hung his eleven prints in his own prescribed order. Laurence Aberhart had some discussion with Andrew Bogle about a few images which were of lesser interest to the photographer, but he didn't prescribe any hanging order. Fiona Clark showed all prints she selected, as agreed. Apart from the initial idea and selection of photographers, John Turner and I had no dealings with the photographers - to complete the 'infraestablishment' picture.

PETER PERYER Ann Noble Easter 1979
black-and-white photograph

Thirteen of Fiona Clark's twenty images (all in colour) are of transvestites and transsexuals, in the gaudy theatrical colours of the Drag Queen Ball or Mojo's nightclub. Here the photographer has brought to culmination the series on transvestites that she began in black-and-white and which were the focus of the censorship fuss around the Active Eye show: but with much more explicit and conventionally 'shocking' imagery. As expected, the one image which has drawn attention in this regard is Diana, 1975, a completely nude performer at Mojo's nightclub. It recalls the image Man Being a Woman by Diane Arbus - the man posing in a shabby apartment room, still so obviously made that we are moved to sympathy by the compulsion behind his pretence. But Fiona Clark has here a factually more complex image, which shatters the conventional dichotomy of sexual identity. 'Diana' is on stage, at the end of a strip act, with red garments on the floor, high platform red shoes supporting shapely legs which go up to loins where the male genitals have been pulled back under a body that is graceful enough to be a woman's, especially as it has two well-shaped breasts of normal womanly size. The high hair-do, show-business collar and heavy red bangles support the pout of the open mouth in the final sexist pose.

The pose is part of the act; the act is part of a kind of theatre; and the context is the conventions of sexploitive show business - all done with colour and detail in photography that can only be called 'beautiful'. The small size of the figure relative to the whole setting gives a quality of modesty until one looks at the factuality of the image. And the colour, tones, delicacy of details of surfaces of skin, silver lame, stage and fabric, all dissolve like a strange sugar around a medicine one would prefer not to swallow, but which one does - believing, or rather hoping, that some voice beyond oneself will say it's all right, it's all for the best, no harm will come from what's happening. . . But behind the masquerade, like the genitals tucked away, the facts of a human life contradict the image. And tough questions arise, like: Why? Why such blatant self-display? Why for money? Which medico helps out with feminising hormone injections? Is this a disguise, or is it a proclamation? Is the audacity a defense against vulnerability?

Fiona Clark's images typically deal with some degree of masquerade. Even the orchids she has photographed 'in the Auckland Domain seem unreal, somehow waxy and brazen. Her preoccupations are strong enough to surmount an occasional lapse into colour casts that I feel must be unintended. But not all are blatant or brazen. Lions Club Member, New Plymouth is a quiet but inescapable reminder of how easily New Zealanders become culturally colonised: a friendly, nice, middle-aged man in a yellow cowboy hat and floral apron, cooking neat machine-made sausages in a neat barbecue outside neat small shops - the image of an American. And as if we have to be reminded the real world is somewhere else, there is a large sign behind him on a shop which says 'Continental'. He pretends to be a New Zealander, when the main references of the image are foreign.

FIONA CLARK Boy with Mask holding Frisbee 1979
colour photograph

Eight of Laurence Aberhart's images are of lodges, each with the Masonic sign of dividers and carpenter's square. He uses a large format camera, 8x10 inches, set up to confront facades face on. His images have immaculate surfaces, an authority of substance - plaster, concrete, brick, wood, the occasional marble slab - and power lines cut across the neoclassical shapes, in a way saying, 'if that's the way it is, that's how it should be seen'. The detail (of which photography can record more than any other visual medium) adds impeccable evidence of an aspect of our national history. It reminds us how close we still are to the frontier years that have grown into the modest town-based comfort of conformist functional ideology.

Lodge Aparima 77 is, to me, the strongest facade. It has the strong fluting and dark linear shadows of the low triangle of the pediment. The Masonic symbol is large and bold in its rise, centre. Even the full-stop at the end of the lodge's name is square and bold, a proclamation of the group. The richly toned print satisfies our need to find the smallest detail - fragile weeds growing up against curved decorative ventilation grills; a most subtle glow behind a dark window from a reflection within the dark interior; the power line coming from space outside the frame to connect in a final playful little loop high up on the facade; and its shadow playfully straggling across the building to connect up with a disconnected stove neatly placed in a corner of the portico.

But, as in a few other prints, defects of toning have created streaks in the sky. And in this image there is also an unfortunate blob in the sky tone within the strategic angles of the facade's top right, strictly geometric. These technical faults are all the more inexplicable because they go against the very intention and mode of the communication.

A circular theme comes into Aberhart's prints, and appears in one of the lodge prints, ARA Lodge, Auckland. Here, as in others, a lens with inadequate covering power forms a dark vignetting, to stretch the view of the building and its forecourt to the limits of peripheral vision. This same effect is used to give a highly personal and powerfully 'localised' vision of children playing in several shots. The ARA lodge is compressed by the violent perspective and a glowing edge between roof and sky dramatises the ritual quality of this temple- mausoleum structure.

The circle motif is found in several other images: tyre-marks on a darkening country road have some ritual quality in their circling; the end of a large metal cylinder turns into a mirror as the photographer and his camera tripod are shadowed against it in spite of his attempt to escape from the picture; large eroded rocks have globular presence in some dry landscape. And a more restrained circular sense is seen in Kamala and Maggie, Mornington, where two children are posed, playing under four tall strange memorial pillars in a cemetery. The flower-topped pillars loom over the children, in an unsettling blend of the innocence of childhood and the extravagant concern to be remembered after death: embodied in the memorial pillars which have been surrounded with a fine glowing aura by masking and dodging during printing.

PETER PERYER Alligator 1979

Laurence Aberhart's images highly respectful documentation: the subjective and single- eyed seeing of small dramas in children's play; and playful wry observations: as in a park seat being eaten by the huge mouth of a tree which has grown over it, watched by a duck-like play rocker in the park. It is a pity that the streaky prints mar such strong work.

Peter Peryer's prints are all black/white, and from body; the pearls suggest an artificial choking by conventional culture. For me, this 'idea' works against the 'feeling'.

Peter Peryer has also photographed various animals at the zoo: pelican, ibis, peacock, alligator, monitor lizard, kingfisher. They have all been turned into icons. Each creature is seen by itself, with evidence, often in shadows, of being enclosed. But their powerful archaic presences survive. Alligator is a dark scaly head, just out of range of a slash of bright bleached light on a concrete floor. The head is a dark area in which we have to deduce an eye looking back at us, in inescapable reptilian regard. The 'grin' is there, showing the beginning of the opening of the jaws, a larger tooth revealed and several smaller ones. The head seems ready, prepared to snap or attack, but held back by millions of years of life in that unpredictable pause between apparent lethargy and ferocious lunge. Tiny circular scales and craters pit its skin; the lower jaw magically transforms itself into an insect's wing - the image moves between real animal and magical icon. Here we have all the signs of the struggle of art to transform one reality into another; not only to add a magical significance, but also to witness the process itself.

Arranged as a kind of final 'centre piece' is the only horizontal image: Anne Noble, Easter. This is a bold, grainy, downward view of a female nude, lying as if in some sacrificial rite, offering up her body in a contradictory gesture that gives a sense of willing participation. Below a plain bangle, a hand is relaxed and ready. The head is turned away, as if averting the threat which the body challenges or even welcomes. There is a fluidly-patterned drape under the body, partly like tiger/skin, or dark dappled water. The whole is a private theatre, a ritual of interplay of tensions, of superordination, submission and acceptance, acted out - making accessible its strange significance far beyond the initial transaction of the two participants. Even so, the dominant presence of the glowing pearl necklace separating the head from the body, seems an unnecessary extravagance or overstatement. Without it, the feeling swings to a more primal level. With it, there is a concern with conventional notions of female sexual adornment which are, to my mind, already sufficiently presented in the other objects. The turned head separates mind large by local standards. They are all strongly grainy and have higher than normal tonal contrast.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 126 Autumn 2008