Athol McCredie, Curator Photography, reflects on the life of New Zealand photographer Len Wesney.
I was stunned and saddened to learn that Christchurch photographer Len Wesney died tragically in a house fire on 14 August 2017. I spent nearly a day with him in February this year and had planned a return visit soon.
Wesney was born in 1946 in Invercargill and was a member of the Southland Photographic Society as a teenager. He shifted to Christchurch to spend a year studying painting at the Canterbury School of Fine Arts (photography wasn’t offered at this time), and then to the UK where he studied photography at the Guildford School of Art 1966–1967.
He was quickly spotted as a talent on the London scene following a solo show at the Qantas Galleries in early 1968. A writer for Amateur Photographer magazine noted that:
Wesney is 21 years of age, but his pictures impressed me with a force belying this. His appreciation of pure light continually drummed into my mind and suddenly the thought struck me that here was a man who was starting off from the platform already so painstakingly constructed by greats such as Bill Brandt, Brassaï, and Man Ray. …So firmly did this thought stick that in the end I was moved to contact Bill Brandt and suggest that he and Len Wesney should meet.
The conversation between the 63-year-old Brandt – the senior figure of British photography – and Wesney was recorded over four pages of Amateur Photographer, illustrated with the younger photographer’s work.
Though Brandt claimed there was more of the influence of Brassaï in Wesney’s work, it is not hard to see Brandt’s own photographs of grim industrial towns in Britain in images like Wesney’s one above.
Another magazine responded to the Qantas Gallery show by publishing a page titled ‘young contemporary’ where Wesney explained that, although he never regretted his time at Canterbury, he failed his ‘history of art examination anyway for a better cause by far’. Clearly Wesney was a strong believer in the expressive potential of photography, for he went on to say that, ‘When photography means so much to me it will be difficult in the future to apply it professionally. But it makes hard living worthwhile.’
Wesney did pursue his personal vision following Guildford and was successful in seeing his work featured in prestigious publications such as Creative Camera, Photography Year Book, the British Journal of Photography Annual, and Single Lens Reflex Photography Yearbook between 1968 and 1970. But he also had to earn a living and was prepared to compromise his high ideals by working as an assistant to photographers Brian Seed and Derek Bayes successively, as well as undertaking freelance magazine work.
On the strength of his professional work overseas Wesney became a photographer with the Christchurch Star on his return to New Zealand in 1970 and stayed with the newspaper until 1982. Though employed to take photographs, it also became an opportunity for his ability as a writer to shine, for he wrote a monthly column on contemporary photography during 1975 and 1976. These included discussions of the work of Laurence Aberhart, Rachael Feather, John B Turner, Keith Nicholson, Murray Hedwig, Larence Shustak, and Heather Forbes, people whom he chose simply because their work interested him.
He also wrote reviews of photography books and exhibitions as well as addressing general photographic topics with titles like ‘More than just a record’ and ‘Photographing people not the easiest of tasks’. This series of intelligent and in-depth pieces on photography must be unique in the annals of New Zealand newspaper journalism.
Sometimes the general articles were illustrated with Wesney’s own photographs. An example is On Cook Strait ferry above, where he described the process of taking the photograph, and castigated himself for being so indecisive as to shoot 23 frames in total, each with a different orientation or framing. (Nine were before the man rolled onto his side to get some relief from the harsh lighting). He noted that the man was completely unaware of being photographed: ‘Even when I had finished, he did not stir from his slumber. I think Her Majesty was more aware of the proceedings’.
It’s an image that is typical of one vein of Wesney’s work – a concern with absurd juxtapositions. Someone is simply trying to relieve the tedium of the voyage by taking a nap but Wesney was alert to the contrast in direction of faces: the man to the wall, the Queen looking at us. And the bizarre image of the industrial quality barrier deemed necessary to protect the sovereign.
Another strand of Wesney’s work was high-contrast images of bleak New Zealand landscapes, as if he had brought Bill Brandt’s eye to New Zealand – though, to be fair, this was a style of photography generally prevailing in the sorts of British publications mentioned above.
Wesney continued his personal work during the 1970s and a small amount was printed in PhotoForum magazine in four issues between 1974 and 1977 and in the 1975 touring Active Eye exhibition. His only solo exhibition in this country wasn’t until 2004 at McNamara Gallery in Wanganui where a selection of his photographs from 1967 to 1975 was shown.
Some of this work is now held by Te Papa and I used a small reproduction of Plaster hand in my book New Zealand photography collected to sheet home a point that the photographs for the book had ‘all been chosen because they raise questions rather than illustrate things already known’. In a way, the photograph was a touchstone for the book.
I first met Len in 2011, following the second Canterbury earthquake. His living room floor was strewn with the contents of a bookcase. He was very shaken by the quakes and, like some others, felt so defeated he didn’t think it worth clearing up yet again. He was, however, galvanised into photographing the damage around the city and this became a major pre-occupation for the following years.
When I visited Len earlier this year he was still living on the smell of an oil rag. We spent a lot of time discussing how to preserve his digital quake photographs when he had no computer nor much knowledge of current technology (though he was a whiz at inventing pictograms from basic characters when texting). Then, near the end of the day he agreed to show me what I had really come to see, his 1970s photographs he’d kept carefully stored in plastic folders under the bed.
There were many I had never seen before and the quality and depth of this work amazed me and changed my view of him as the maker of a handful of brilliant images to someone whose achievement was much more substantial.
However, Len was not only reluctant to show them, but also to part with any. So I left hoping that he might reconsider, and that next time I visited he would let me acquire some for Te Papa. Now it sadly seems likely they were destroyed in the fire that consumed his house and took his life.
Haere rā Len. Rest in peace.