Paul Gilbert has been taking photographs since he was at school. His first job as a professional photographer was with the D.S.I.R., as a photographic technician in 1972. The position left him well-provided with a technical experience that has influenced his work (directly or indirectly) ever since. To be specific, the demands of the D.S.I.R. were for clear, visual records - photographs of subjects ranging from cracks in gantry cranes to the glowworms of the Waitomo caves.
This 'scientific' emphasis on lighting and the faithful reproduction of detail stood Gilbert in good stead when he joined the Auckland City Art Gallery staff in 1977. The happiest issue of this move was the change of subject matter - from cold scientific materials to aesthetically-satisfying works of art.
Gilbert's experience as a professional photographer, among other things, fostered a concern for faithfulness in colour reproduction. The importance of this with photography of works of art is self-evident; and Gilbert's desire to obtain good quality facsimiles of the paintings and drawings and sculptures he photographed was largely frustrated until the advent of Real Pictures studio. (Though up until then most of Gilbert's personal photography had been in black-and-white, where he was able to have total control of the process right through to printing.)
Since early in 1979, Paul Gilbert has been engaged in photographing 'The Road People' - a mutually supportive group of artists and entertainers travelling the country in brightly-decorated vehicles, putting on shows wherever they stop.
This phenomenon has few precedents in New Zealand. Red Mole and the Mommba theatre groups had perhaps a similar orientation: but 'permanent transients' have not really been seen here since the last Depression. Gilbert sees the recurrence of the phenomenon now as an indication that we are once again suffering some sort of a depression. He points out that Government assistance in the form of grants merely confirms this symptom. It perhaps suggests an unconscious desire on their part to divert the people from the fundamental problem. 'In hard times artists do well - for a time!', says Gilbert.
The group with whom he has been travelling is known as The Original Travelling Road Show. Rather than travel alone the members decided to combine in order to unite their individual talents and tour shows from town to town during summer. The show helps alleviate any antipathy that traditional communities might feel towards the presence of 'gypsies' and intinerants in their midst.
The Roadshow was initially formed to perform at the first Nambassa Festival. They have been together (with many changes of membership) ever since. The members combine many diverse talents - musicians, actors, clowns, fire-eaters - to form a very strong and talented company. (Some of these skills were shown during Paul Gilbert's opening of Road People of Aoteraroa at Real Pictures.)
As the limitations inherent in the work at the Auckland City Art Gallery grew apparent, Paul Gilbert searched around for a project of his own into which he could put his creative energy. The lifestyle of the Road People was novel and exciting. He started to live with them. Abandoning, like them, the security of a regular income, he immersed himself in their way of life. It soon became clear that this lifestyle provided a vivid litmus-paper of social change in this country - and particularly of the effects of economic hardship.
It suited Gilbert that he had to become one of them in order to photograph the Road People. He likes to be unobtrusive, a recorder of visual facts (he rarely stages a photograph). He made friends in the group and simply photographed their activities, concentrating on their more colourful aspects.
Some of these photographs include members of the audience as part of an attempt to convey the whole atmosphere of the milieu rather than individual components of it.
Photography is a means of mass communication for Paul Gilbert: he wants everyone to know about the lifestyle of the Road People. Work at the D.S.I.R. and Auckland City Art Gallery gave him a facility with photographic tools which has allowed them to become his means of personal expression. His work is very spontaneous - intended to capture a moment of group feeling or some manifestation of atmosphere - but an overall goal is always in mind. Spontaneity also allows for objectivity as it precludes the subjective arrangement of images that is the way of working of some photographers.
The tremendous consumption of natural resources in photography (it is the world's greatest silver drain) is a matter that disturbs Paul Gilbert. Accordingly, he concentrates on a single subject-matter, feeling that 'neither I nor photography can afford to wander around using up resources by snapping away at anything'.
The exhibition Road People of Aotearoa is part of a continuing process which it is hoped will document in colour and without text, every aspect of the life of the Road People. Now that he has recorded them as show-people Gilbert hopes to move on to portraits, photographing the people at a deeper, more personal level. Individualised records of these very individual people are called for.
Gilbert sees the project as taking two or three years to complete. An Arts Council Grant (to enable him to spend last winter photographing the Road People while they were stationary) came too late for this to be possible. Now he is at the stage where his work provides a good overview of the flamboyant side of Aotearoa's Road People. With a record of the more quotidian aspects of their lifestyle he will have the material for a fully rounded chronicle of one of the more unusual avenues of life in New Zealand.
Originally published in Art New Zealand 15 Autumn 1980