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Paul Moon is a Professor of History at Auckland University of Technology. He is also a prolific writer of non-fiction, with twenty five published New Zealand histories and biographies to his name. This background meant that he was well placed to undertake a “rare survey of the diversity of talent that contributes to the character of our country.” Following Moon once he had interviewed each of twelve remarkable New Zealanders in situ was Jane Ussher, long regarded as one of this country’s foremost portrait photographers. With this publication, the stars of both Ussher and Moon have risen even higher.
If a thousand New Zealanders were chosen at random and asked to compile a list of twelve remarkable living New Zealanders, they would possibly come up with a hundred names in common. It would be curious to see if the twelve in this book would feature consistently. Here is a quick list of the surnames, which is itself an experiment: do readers recognise the subject just from a surname? Jones, Hadlee, Grace, Gluckman, Harawira, Chen, Houston, Warren, Holst, Geering, Finn, Pardington. How did you get on? And who would you turn to first?
There are a dozen interviews and the publication runs to 270 pages. These are deep and lengthy conversations. Paul Moon’s historical bent ensures that each conversation is contextualised by the personal, social, cultural and sometimes political history that has shaped the world of each subject. The reader is able to orientate herself quite swiftly to the thoughts, words and deeds of the speaker. Moon’s contextual knowledge is evidently coupled with a human warmth that has encouraged his subjects to open up. The interviews are (as the back cover publicity suggests) “stimulating, humorous, sometimes controversial and always revealing.”
Revelations are also called forth by the seeing and photographic process of Jane Ussher. Faces and other relevant features emerge with startling clarity out of blurred or inky black backdrops. Hadlee’s moustache, Houston’s fingers, Jones’s eyelids, Gluckman’s lips, Grace’s irises, Holst’s cheekbones, Pardington’s tattoes: they leap out at you and speak of personality and tendency. Blotches! Pates! Liverspots! Eye pouches and nose lumps! The images speak of life and time, and how the individual human form responds to these twin imperatives.
The main contributors to these interviews are of course the interviewees themselves. Through their words, it is possible to gain an impression of their thinking, their methods, their aspirations and their perceptions of their own achievements. Some of these New Zealanders are remarkable for their deeds rather than their words — Hadlee’s ‘genius’ lay in the performance of his ‘art’, and there is not too much to be freshly learnt from his utterances here. On the other hand, someone like Bob Jones gets your attention with such pronouncements as “the best way to get rich is to lie in bed and think,” and with an account of his infamous assault case, where he was fined $1000 for hitting a journalist, which had him asking the judge if he could pay another $1000 and hit the journalist again.
There is a steady flow of wonderful quotes and insights throughout Face to Face.
Lloyd Geering: “If you worship an idol, the likelihood is that it’s going to be broken.”
Tim Finn: “You’re looking for beauty, but not always in beautiful places.”
With its blend of historical context, personal anecdote and pictorial revelation, Face to Face succeeds wildly in its intention to convey the essence of each of the individuals. Inevitably perhaps, a wider objective is also approached. These thoughtful portraits of twelve remarkable New Zealanders work together to illuminate what it may mean to be a human, here, there and everywhere. And if you handed Face to Face to a migrant stepping off a boat, she might think, New Zealand — I wouldn’t mind living here.
Review by Aaron Blaker
Face to Face: Conversations with Remarkable New Zealanders
By Paul Moon, photographed by Jane Ussher
Published by Penguin Random House NZ