It is with sadness and regret that we learned that photographer Glenn Jowitt died suddenly on 22nd July. Glenn is best known for his photography of Pacific people and their cultures, both in New Zealand and in the Pacific Islands.
Glenn was born in 1955 in Upper Hutt. He studied art and design at the Ilam School of Fine Arts in Christchurch in the late 1970s, where he was inspired by photography lecturer Larence Shustak. For his honours project he undertook a photographic series on the horse racing industry. With characteristic entrepreneurship, and at a time when the number of monographs by NZ photographers could be counted on the fingers of one hand, Glenn succeeded in having his student work published by Collins as Race Day just a few years later.
His next major documentary project was on the Black Power gang in Christchurch. He already knew some key members from childhood, so a level of trust existed from the start. However, he still practised the classic documentary technique of spending weeks hanging out with them until he was accepted enough to bring his camera along. These photographs were published in PhotoForum 46, 1980.
It was a study trip to the USA in 1980 that set him on a course that was to become his life’s work: photographing other cultures, particularly the peoples of the Pacific. At the International Centre for Photography in New York, former Life magazine editor Ruth Lester pointed out the number of Pacific Islanders who appeared in his black and white shots of Auckland’s Karangahape Rd and Queen St, suggesting that they would change the face of this city in the same way that Latinos had changed New York. In the US he was also surprised to discover that colour photography was often used by leading documentary photographers such as Mary Ellen Mark, even though their images might be known only through black and white magazine reproductions.
Back in Auckland Glenn began to photograph Pacific people in his neighbourhoods of Ponsonby and Grey Lynn. This, he says, was “like an adventure where you popped your head through a door and there were new friends, new food, new ways of behaving”. You can hear Glenn talking about his experience photographing the hat image that appears at the beginning of this blog here:
New friends and acquaintances led to invitations to visit their islands. Glenn spent six months in 1981 photographing in colour in Niue, Tonga, Samoa, Tokelau, and the Cook Islands. The work culminated in a touring exhibition Polynesia Here and There (1983) that combined his Auckland and Pacific work, and later appeared in a book, Pacific Images (1987). The experience began a career of photography and publishing that was often hand-to-mouth but which, he said, once discovered he couldn’t get enough of. The number of book titles mounted to a total of at least 70, many of them educational booklets for children. The more substantial include Pacific Island Style (1999), Feasts and Festivals (2002) and Pacific Pattern (2005).
I first met Glenn in Auckland in 1981 or ’82. We walked around Ponsonby and K Road, and he seemed very street savvy (courtesy the Black Power experience I guess), and to know just about everyone. And as he would always do, when we looked at his photographs he pointed out the underlying stories. Viewing his images of factory workers, for instance, I remember him claiming that the basis of the New Zealand economy wasn’t farming so much as the Pacific Islanders working in the factories of Auckland on low wages. And how sad it was that people who had lived by fishing in beautiful environments might now find themselves working in a smelly, wet and cold fish factory in Auckland.
Glenn rarely focused much on the negatives of life though. Instead, he never seemed to tire of attending Polynesian festivals, ceremonies and events in search of new images.
Glenn was a talker, an enthusiast, a networker before the term became commonplace, and an entrepreneur, always looking for sponsorships, contras, grants and ways to get his work published so he could just go on taking photographs. In another life he might have been a salesman. Like many documentary photographers the medium offered him a licence to engage with people. He wrote to me once: “The camera has been a key into many worlds. It has been my friend through many travels and somehow it has kept me alive all my working life.” And in his last letter to me he said: “I feel fortunate to have been the person who was allowed to share the great love the cultures of the Pacific so easily share. Not a day passes without some contact arising – mainly just conversation out of the blue.”
I think in the PhotoForum issue mentioned above he summed himself up perfectly:
I think of people as being on journeys. Some people are into spiritual journeys, some people are into money journeys. I’m into a people journey, and my photography is an expression of that.
Te Papa has a strong collection of 89 Glenn Jowitt prints [and, since this was written, a large number of his negatives and transparencies]. You can see our holding of his work here.
Auckland Art Gallery has a substantial collection of Glenn’s Race Day photographs.
And you can also see many Pacific images on the Glenn Jowitt website. When this was run by Glenn it was fronted by one of his favourite images, a man with a fish in his pocket (which he explained to me as simply the logical place for it if you aren’t carrying a bag or bucket). Glenn always delighted in incongruity.
Farewell Glenn. You were taken too soon.
– Athol McCredie, Curator of Photography