Dunedin photographer Gary Blackman passed away on 22 November 2022 at age 92. Here curator of photography Athol McCredie reflects on some aspects of Blackman’s work.
When Gary Blackman discovered photography as a form of personal expression in the early 1950s he was way ahead of his time. Too far ahead in fact, for there was little context in New Zealand for his work then.
His father was a member of the Dunedin Photographic Society and it was from him that he learnt the techniques of the medium. But the rule-bound system of judging photographs in the society held no interest for Blackman.
Instead, he found some pointers to different possibilities in a handful of books he stumbled across around 1950. They included a book on Eugène Atget’s photographic documentations of Paris he found in the University of Otago library, and Bill Brandt’s 1948 Camera in London he purchased in a sale. He also discovered what was perhaps New Zealand’s first proper photobook – and a deliberate riposte to the pictorialism of photographic societies – John Pascoe’s 1950 The Mountains, the Bush & the Sea.
In 1951 and 1952 Blackman experimented with making documentary records and photo-stories. These were inspired by the photojournalism of international picture magazines such as Picture Post and Life. A story he assembled on a gorse blaze in Dunedin’s North East Valley yielded one of his best-known images of excited children watching the fire.
However, there was no audience at the time for Blackman’s early photographs, and they existed as a private cache of prints for almost two decades. Blackman instead focused on his painting, which he saw as his real creative outlet.
A period overseas from 1959 to 1962 in Edinburgh gave Blackman fresh eyes for the Victorian architecture of Dunedin. This led to his book with architect Ted McCoy, Victorian City of New Zealand in 1968. Blackman considered his work for this book as largely illustrative, but it was around this period that he began to see how photography could creatively substitute for his painting and drawing.
The late 1960s/early 1970s were also when the idea of contemporary photography began emerging in New Zealand – as I’ve outlined in my book The New Photography. A key moment was the 1975 survey exhibition and associated publication The Active Eye. Blackman had two photographs in the exhibition, one a surrealistic photograph of an inflatable penguin in an inner tube in a swimming pool; the other a beautifully understated image of wind-blown tussock contrasted with sparkling light on ruffled water.
For the young photographers of the mostly Auckland-centric contemporary photography scene, Blackman seemed to have come out of nowhere; an older, photographically well-informed man from the deep south who had been taking photographs back in the 1950s yet whose current work aligned with their own.
In fact, I would argue that in images like the slightly later Waterfront, Queenstown, Blackman’s work was more sophisticated and ahead of the Kiwi alternative-culture flavour photographs generally found in The Active Eye. This photograph drew on the work of international figures such as Lee Friedlander, Gary Winogrand and Tony Ray-Jones. It parallels their interest in visual reality: how things look through a camera as distinct from how we picture them in our mind.
Gary Blackman considered himself a formalist. In his series on war memorials, for example, his focus was on the memorials as objects in the landscape. Seen through his lens, they are pictorial elements with as much visual significance as a power pole or tree, despite the intense emotion of loss they represent. This tension between appearance and meaning runs through his series.
Self-effacing, quiet and restrained. In these qualities Blackman’s images seem very English, recalling the work of British photographers such as Paul Hill and Raymond Moore – whom he admired. Precision of vision was another characteristic, and perhaps not surprising for someone whose day job was university research and lecturing in pharmacology.
This extended down to technique. I remember him telling me that he often used a tripod with his 35mm film camera. This seemed a contradictory gesture, for the 35mm camera was conceived for candid, rapid-fire photography. But Gary swore that it made his photographs that much sharper (and, I’m sure, his seeing more precise).
Rest in peace Gary.