ANZAC: Photographs by Laurence Aberhart has been published to coincide with a major touring exhibition by Dunedin Public Art Gallery, and with the 100 year anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. Aberhart is one of New Zealand’s most recognised and admired photographers, and his photographs have been exhibited in New Zealand and internationally including major solo exhibitions in Amsterdam, Melbourne, Wellington, and Dunedin.
Photographing almost solely in black and white, and using traditional darkroom processing, Aberhart uses his technical expertise to create images with a strong sense of stillness and light. Many of his series document the effects of time and urbanisation on the buildings and culture of small town New Zealand, but he has also created work about Antarctica, museology, and the Southern USA. As Aberhart stated, ‘I’m trying to make, in as gentle a way as possible, people in our society look at stuff in the social landscape.’
Aberhart has been photographing ANZAC war memorials throughout his career. The seventy photographs that appear in ANZAC were taken between 1980 and 2013, and document memorials in both New Zealand and Australia that were built to honour those who were killed in the Great War of 1914–1918.
The full page photographs are grouped into sections, based on the inscriptions that appear on the memorials: The Great War, Lest We Forget, Roll of Honour, ANZAC, The Glorious Dead, Their Name Liveth, and In Memory. In the introduction, historian Jock Phillips explains that the memorials were some of the first in New Zealand. Their erection created a sense of national pride and a grounding of public spaces, but were also expressions of private grief and experience. The memorials, usually a lone soldier standing on top of an obelisk, served as a place where families could grieve for loved ones buried on the other side of the world.
Aberhart’s startling and beautiful photographs show how a “slow loss of community consciousness” have changed these memorials. Over the last 100 years they have became forgotten objects, often lost in the process of urban change. Some memorials are squashed in the middle of a main street roundabout, whereas others become the fronts for schools or public toilets. As Phillips states, the soldiers “stare aimlessly into the distance, ignored, slightly sad, timeless, peculiarly inactive … the overwhelming sense is of figures who have been forgotten.” Apart from the odd passer-by, there are no people in these photographs. Trees grow up around the memorials and shadows fall across the men’s faces. One photograph is taken from the back of the memorial so we see the soldier’s view: the empty countryside spreads out before him.
There is nothing quite like an original silver gelatin print. Seen in person, Aberhart’s photographs have a quiet intensity. They are like rectangles of light on the gallery wall. The reproductions in ANZAC have managed to capture the depth and subtleties of the silvery greys. Most of us live in a town with an ANZAC memorial. They are ubiquitous and hidden, part of our daily lives and national identity. The effect of page after page of memorials is that of reminder through repetition. Aberhart allows us to see them once again.
Reviewed by Sarah Jane Barnett
by Laurence Aberhart
Introduction by Jock Phillips.
Published by Victoria University Press & Dunedin Public Art Gallery, 2014
108 pp. Hardback with dustjacket.