Magazine review

Photoforum : Number 48

Reviewed by BRUCE WEATHERALL

The magazine PhotoForum goes one step better than the dancing dog about which Dr Samuel Johnson said the remarkable thing was not that it danced so badly but that it danced at all.

PhotoForum makes no effort to be 'popular'; it is not commerical; it is not even very trendy. The publishers struggle to get it out at all, let alone on time (this June issue arrived early in September). But the quality of the paper, the printing and the photographic reproduction are superior: it is of a standard reached by only a very few photographic magazines published elsewhere in the world and by very few New Zealand publications of any sort.

ANS WESTRA Blocking the roads out of the city, the day of the Test in Wellington 1981 
Reproduced in PhotoForum, number 49, from the exhibition at Real Pictures.

This production quality is a reflection of the fiercely held and uncompromising ideals of its publishers, the voluntary society, PhotoForum Incorporated. These ideals make considerations of circulation' figures or profit and loss almost irrelevant, and ensure the continued existence of PhotoForum where such commercial considerations might have killed it off long ago.

The magazine has been published in one form or another for over ten years now. It began as a very modest publication called Photographic Art and History, which soon became New Zealand Photography. The magazine was transformed into PhotoForum by the present co-editor, John B. Turner, in 1974.

Issue Number 48 is an appropriate one for review because it signals at least some fulfilment of the goals held by the tiny group of people who started the magazine and have kept it going. An article by Turner, 'On Collecting', and accompanying piece, 'On Collectors', by Diane Quin and Janneke Vandenberg, inter alia list the large number of libraries, museums, dealers and above all public, private and cooperative art galleries which now collect, exhibit and/or buy and sell the work of contemporary New Zealand photographers and historical photographs. The growth of this activity has roughly parallelled the development of PhotoForum whose supporting organisation, incidentally, runs its own gallery in Wellington.

This degree of acceptance of serious photography was undreamed of in 1970, when for most people photography beyond the family snapshot meant either being a Professional Photographer - doing it as a job or a business or an Amateur Photographer - a member of one of the warm little social circles of the Camera Clubs or Photographic Societies, whose approach to photography had ossified some time around 1920.

The widespread gallery interest in photography, and the presence of PhotoForum, have provided outlets for the work of the best of New Zealand's expressive photographers, amongst which can be numbered lane Zusters and Clive Stone, contributors of portfolios to this latest PhotoForum.

Jane Zusters has mastered the use of colour photography as a medium of personal expression. Until now, serious photographers have tended to stick to black-&-white: with colour photography tending to get bogged down in colour for its own sake. Zusters used colour with great delicacy to help her explore the boundaries between abstraction and reality. Her photographs can stand a lot of looking at without exhausting their potential to say something to the viewer.

Compared with Jane Zusters, Clive Stone is an old hand by PhotoForum standards: almost an Establishment figure in fact. However, his work retains a vitality and crispness which complements his mature and confident seeing and technique. His portfolio The Hibiscus Coast (see Art New Zealand 21) is of a genre which seems to be establishing itself as one of the major streams of contemporary New Zealand photography: direct but informal portraits of a wide variety of people in their own environments. Stone's approach is bold and unaffected, and he is not afraid to include considerable background detail which in the work of a lesser photographer would distract from the human subjects but which in his work tell us so much about those subjects if we take the time to study his photographs.

What PhotoForum needs now is more and better critical writing on photography. The articles in PhotoForum Number 48, for example, tend to devote themselves to the philosophy, psychology and / or ideology of photographs. What is still needed is adequate critical analysis of the photographs themselves. For instance, Janet Bayly's article 'Photograph as lcon' is a worthwhile exploration of the social and personal functions of the photograph: but it assumes that the photograph itself is known and understood.

A letter from Britain by Alistair Crawford, reviewing a recent exhibition and book of photographs by Don McCullin, seems to be mostly about what Crawford thinks about what other people think about the! photographer. McCullin's dense and powerful images of the dark sides of human existence deserve something more profound from a reviewer.

As the McCullin review indicates, PhotoForum is international rather than parochial in its outlook. It places New Zealand photography in a worldwide context and judges it by international standards. John Turner's article, 'On Collecting', referred to earlier, looks at the new 'big business' of buying and selling photographs overseas as well as in New Zealand, as does his smaller piece on a new photographic gallery in London. A review of a new Cecil Beaton book is also published, along with a quite inadequate review of an exhibition held in Christchurch late last year.

You won't find PhotoForum in your local bookshop amongst all the glossy overseas photographic magazines. In very many ways, it would be out of place there. A few selected bookshops sell it: but sales are mainly by subscription.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 22 Summer 1981-2