Book Review: See What I Can See: New Zealand Photography for the Young and Curious, by Greg O’Brien

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.’

cv_see_what_i_can_seeIf 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
ISBN 9781869408435

Book Review: Anzac: Photographs, by Laurence Aberhart

cv_anzac

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.

pp_laurence_aberhart_anzac

Laurence Aberhart at the launch of his Anzac collection, Dunedin Public Art Gallery

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

ANZAC: Photographs
by Laurence Aberhart
Introduction by Jock Phillips.
Published by Victoria University Press & Dunedin Public Art Gallery, 2014
108 pp. Hardback with dustjacket.
ISBN 9780864739339