Photography Curator Athol McCredie’s new book The New Photography: New Zealand’s first-generation contemporary photographers has just been published by Te Papa Press. It is accompanied by an exhibition that runs until 13 October. The book and exhibition feature eight photographers who were working in a personal documentary manner from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s.
How and why did this book and exhibition come about? What follows is an edited extract from the preface to my book that partly answers these questions. It tells my own story but many others of my generation would have come to photography in similar ways:
I came slowly to the photography featured in the book. The work seeped into my consciousness over time, and eventually stuck there. The process began when, as a teenager, I discovered my deceased father’s cameras and set about figuring out how to use them. I read all the ‘how to’ books I could find at Wellington’s Miramar library and then moved on to magazines like Popular Photography and The British Journal of Photography (and their annuals) that had more advanced technical information as well as reviews of the latest gear, portfolios of images, and the occasional book or exhibition review.
It was in one of these magazines that I came across the claim that Henri Cartier-Bresson was the world’s greatest photographer. I’d never heard of him, but thought I should look at his work, and duly discovered a book of his images printed in soft, chalky gravure at the library. I was puzzled about why they should be considered great photographs. They mostly seemed about nothing in particular, and the simple captions of place and date provided no illumination. They were enigmatic images, questions without answers. I was frustrated and disappointed, yet also intrigued. I returned the book, but the images stuck in my mind; one test, I later realised, of a good photograph.
A few years later I had a university holiday job at the museum helping out in the photography department. Through the photographer there, Trevor Ulyatt, I saw the first issue of Photo-Forum magazine in 1974. I became a subscriber, and every two months another instalment on New Zealand photography – past and present – would arrive in my letterbox. I looked at them, and looked again many times, to the point where I can still recall nearly every image printed over thirteen years (38 issues) of the magazine. Again, at first I wasn’t quite sure what was so wonderful about many of the photographs, but clearly the people who put the magazine together thought they were important, so who was I to judge?
Gradually, as I moved away from trying to emulate the prize-winning photographs that featured in the international magazines and annuals and used the camera to explore and express my own world, I came to appreciate the accomplishment of the work in Photo-Forum and in the two key New Zealand photography books of the early to mid-1970s, Three New Zealand Photographers: Gary Baigent, Richard Collins, John Fields and The Active Eye. I didn’t know it then, but I was part of a generation who valued self-expression and who took to the ‘democratic arts’ in droves. These were the forms that didn’t require an art school training (and indeed had rarely been taught in art schools) and were not considered fine arts – or art at all. They included pottery, weaving, jewellery, printmaking to some extent, and photography.
A Brian Brake exhibition I saw at the Dowse Art Gallery in 1976 provided a sort of inverse confirmation. Brake was claimed to be a world-famous photographer and New Zealand’s best. The exhibition consisted mostly of his colour images of exotic overseas places blown up to huge proportions by the standards of the day. There were many attractive photographs (and I have always had a soft spot for his image of a Japanese woman lighting a candle in a graveyard), but the exhibition didn’t really touch me: the work seemed to have no relevance to my life and reality, whereas what I saw on the pages of Photo-Forum did. The exhibition was criticised in Photo-Forum as devoid of personal qualities, and that was the nub. Essentially the photographs were magazine illustrations designed to catch and please the eye, often with images of spectacle. They were exemplary of their type but also somehow anonymous and remote from a generation who were using photography to connect with their immediate world.
I tell this story of personal experience not because it was unique, but precisely because it wasn’t. Many others came to similar conclusions through similar encounters with photography during the 1970s. Together we formed an audience that both appreciated and advocated for more personal forms of the medium. Some of us fought for photography to be accepted by the art world – to be sold at art prices by dealers and collected and shown by public galleries. Now that acceptance has been achieved it is difficult to envisage a time when this wasn’t the case, and to imagine the environment for a generation who came of age in the 1960s and whose work kicked the whole thing off.
Brian Brake returned to live in New Zealand in 1976; he envisaged that in semi-retirement he would mentor and facilitate the growth of local practice. But what he didn’t expect was that in his 22-year absence a whole generation had emerged from left field for whom he was irrelevant. I have told the story of Brake’s achievements in Brian Brake: Lens on the World (2010). Now it is time to attend to eight of those much less recognised practitioners of the period who ultimately had the greater influence on photography in this country. By exploring their own experience, and by showing the rest of us the world as they saw it, they set the foundations for New Zealand contemporary photography – or art photography – as we think of it today.