Available now in bookshops nationwide.
‘You are a camera. Your eye is a lens. You open your eyes and images register inside you. Some images remain there a long time. Some might even stay with you for the rest of your life.’
If See What I Can See can be considered a guidebook to New Zealand photography, then Gregory O’Brien is our knowledgeable tour guide. He takes us through the many photographs in the book and teaches us how to see them. As well as being a painter, literary critic, and art curator, O’Brien has written many books of poetry, fiction, and essays. This is not his first book about art aimed at the ‘young and curious’; he has also written Welcome to the South Seas (2004) and Back and Beyond (2008). Both of those books won the Non-Fiction Prize at the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young People. There is arguably no better arts writer in New Zealand, and in See What I Can See, O’Brien draws on his long term experience to showcase an extraordinary range of images made by New Zealand photo-artists.
See What I Can See may be pitched as being for younger people (I would say ages 9 – 15), but this book would make an excellent introduction for anyone interested in the subject. O’Brien’s approach is funny, anecdotal, and intimate: he’s a story-teller and we are drawn to the images by his stories. The history of photography features lightly in the book, and includes the construction of cameras such as Darren Glass’s ingenious Frisbee camera and the rise of the selfie. What is particularly special about O’Brien’s approach is the way he not only shows us how photography captures what is there, but how it captures what the photo-artist feels. So while photography can be historical, abstract, beautiful, mysterious, and documentary, it is also a individual’s perception of the world.
Such beautifully produced non-fiction books are a specialty for Auckland University Press. It is obvious that care has been take to reproduce images from many of New Zealand’s great photo-artists: Laurence Aberhart, Peter Peryer, Marti Friedlander, Ans Westra, and Brian Brake. The text states, ‘Great photographs can often take us to places where words can’t follow them,’ and it is an idea played out in the sections on hands and faces, and also the surreal studio dreamscapes. In the acknowledgements O’Brien states, ‘I have been lucky, over the years, to spend time with some great photographers. More than anything else, what I’ve learned from them is a state of attentiveness, of looking closely and working intuitively.’ The same praise can be given to O’Brien: he asks us to be attentive and to look closely, and through that attentiveness to see his idea of beauty.
Reviewed by Sarah Jane Barnett
See What I Can See: New Zealand Photography for the Young and Curious
by Gregory O’Brien
Published by Auckland University Press, RRP: $34.99