We’re shocked and saddened to learn that New Zealand photographer Peter Peryer died on Sunday 18 November, aged 77. Here, photography curator Athol McCredie shares some thoughts about Peter and his work.
Peter Peryer had a unique vision. This is said of many artists, to the point of meaninglessness, but never was it more true in Peryer’s case. He created his own world of images – sometimes described as ‘Peryer’ world or ‘Peryerland’ – that did not slot easily into any of the conventional varieties of contemporary photography.
I was first struck by this when a renowned American photographer visited New Zealand in 1988 and was dutifully shown the work of some of the country’s top art photographers. He was simply unable to relate to Peryer’s work. I couldn’t believe it at first, but then I realised Peryer had invented his own language – one so original that perhaps some induction was required. I also wondered if you needed to know Peter and to experience the powerful intensity of his personality to ‘get’ his work, to recognise how he was present in each of his images.
As it happened, my own experience belied these theories, for I responded instantly when I first saw one of his images, without knowing anything of the photographer behind it. This was a small and murky newsprint reproduction of Denise naked in a Listener review of The Active Eye, the 1975 landmark survey exhibition of contemporary New Zealand photography. I can still clearly remember seeing the image and knowing that it was something special. Decades later, when I became a curator at Te Papa I was pleased to have the opportunity to purchase the photograph for the collection.
Maybe it was also something about New Zealand that the overseas photographer missed. Many, or perhaps most, of Peter Peryer’s photographs are not overtly New Zealand specific. Yet even when they don’t depict the landscape they contain something grounded in the experience of living in this country.
Another early photograph that touched me, for example, is of a shed among bracken fern or mānuka. It seemed so exactly to express a memory from my childhood of somewhere visited. But it was a memory so dim I couldn’t really put a finger on it except to say that it conveyed something essential about the New Zealand in which I grew up.
Equally of this place is Peryer’s semi-abandoned caravan, with two windows that look like eyes and an eager, tipped-back gesture that seems human. Here there is clear anthropomorphism, but in so many of Peryer’s other photographs a diverse range of objects still seem somehow alive, regardless of their form. Lonely sentinels, from radio masts and power pylons to direction signs are a common subject, for example. It is as though Peryer has drawn upon childhood thinking, where the world is full of aware, feeling objects; and before, as adults, we have shrunk our sense of self back into the boundaries of our skin.
Peryer acknowledged early on that his photographs were all, one way or another, representations of his expanded self – that is, self-portraits. Even his portraits of others, he admitted, seemed more about himself than the subject. This was illustrated to me sometime in the late 1970s when a friend said that Erika, his then wife and a frequent subject of his earlier work, in real life looked nothing like the person in his photographs. Indeed, for many years I was never quite sure whether that was her in the image titled only Journey to Wellington (it is).
Peter Peryer first really made his name with photographs taken around 1975 with a toy ‘Diana’ camera that produced blurred, dark-edged images, like the above two of Erika. This was a time when many photographers were exploring inner states of mind and personal relationships in their work. Americans Minor White, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Duane Michals, Ralph Gibson, Jerry Uelsmann and others were influential. It was what Peryer later jokingly called his ‘moody blues period’.
But as contemporary photography in general switched from interior to more social concerns Peryer pared back the emotional content and dramatic effects, though the personification of objects remained. His photographs became literally lighter and more even toned. And where he had previously sometimes drawn on personal memory, now he drew from a collective photographic consciousness. His photographs were often about photography itself.
They recalled other types of photographs, for example. These sources ranged from earlier art photography (European New Objectivity in particular) to many vernacular forms. These included scenic postcards, scientific imaging (particularly the natural sciences), aerial photography, surveillance images, tourist imagery, and so on. This was not out of postmodern irony, critique or jokey cleverness. But it reflected Peryer’s deep fascination with the way photography has its own reality – the representation as real and as embedded in our memories as the thing or scene it depicts.
The photographic was also seen in plays on scale where Peryer might remove context so you could not really be sure whether you were looking at a model or full size reality. Artifice was a related matter of interest. At first sight Isabella below looks like a regular baby, but closer examination raises doubts. There is something uncanny and unsettling in the image, as there is in the ambiguously scaled Home.
Peter Peryer’s ability to tap deeply into himself, and into our collective memory, makes him one of the most important New Zealand photographers of recent times. A measure of this is how memorable many of his images have become. I can readily name a work to others affected by his images and see instant recognition (Journey to Wellington; Erika with knives; Meccano bus; Dead steer; Trout, Lake Taupo; Westhaven, Auckland; Bluff; Isabella; Neenish tarts; Headless chicken; Frozen flame; Self-portrait with rooster…I could go on). There are not many artists where you can do this.
Peter, I never knew you very well, but I was one of your biggest fans. It would have been awkward to say this to you and nobody needs the burden of fans, but there it is. I always enjoyed hearing you talk – you were funny, engaging, reflective and opinionated. We were chalk and cheese in some respects: I decided that you were someone who lived by and openly accepted their emotions. I don’t know if this was true but you certainly seemed to tap into something deep and powerful – and, to me, a little scary.
But you also thought carefully about a lot of things (most especially your photography) and were knowledgeable on a whole host of disparate topics. The last time we met we had an enjoyable two-hour chat, mostly about photography and the art world. We could have gone on to talk about native plants or World War II aircraft, had you known that these were among our several shared interests.
Peter, I regret and am saddened that you have gone. Your presence enriched the world – in particular because you were still producing work to the very end.
Rest in peace Peter.