Monday, August 31, 2020

Something New

 We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“MARTI FRIEDLANDER: PORTRAITS OF THE ARTISTS” by Leonard Bell (Auckland University Press,  $NZ75)

            There is something impertinent and presumptuous in using words to describe art works. In their various ways, art works speak for themselves, even if what they are saying will be interpreted differently by each viewer. This is such an obvious truism that I’m sure Leonard Bell won’t be offended if I say the photographs themselves are the chief attraction of Marti Friedlander: Portraits of the Artists. But the texts that Bell provides are a great supplement to them. Leonard Bell has been an art historian at the University of Auckland for most of the last 50 years. He has published prolifically, including an earlier book about Marti Friedlander (1928-2016), and he is immersed deeply in the visual arts of New Zealand, including photography.

            Marti Friedlander: Portraits of the Artists is a capacious hardback, 336 large pages long, which reproduces portrait photographs Friedlander took, mostly between the 1960s and 1980s, of New Zealand artists – painters, potters, sculptors, creative writers, film-makers and historians. 124 such creative people are listed in the publisher’s flyer. The images are reproduced with meticulous clarity; and on the page facing each image, Leonard Bell gives an account of who the artist was, whether she or he has continued to be well-known or has faded from the collective memory, and the circumstances in which Marti Friedlander took the photograph. Bell also notes that most of these photographs have never before been included in a book, although one or two of them were included in small publications.

Just as important, Bell, who selected the images, provides a long and detailed essay by way of introduction, which he calls “Contexts”. The main thrust of this essay is to tell us what sort of person Friedlander was, and what sort of arts scene existed in New Zealand at the time she was producing her portraits.

Friedlander [nee Gordon] was the daughter of a Russian-Jewish couple who abandoned her and her sister to an orphanage when they were very young. She was a native of London’s East End, and trained as a photographer in London in the 1940s, but remained an amateur, supporting herself with other jobs. She arrived in New Zealand with her husband in 1958. Only then did she begin to study as a portraitist, and in 1959 her first New Zealand portrait was publshed in Landfall. It was a cropped version of the portrait of the young (28-year-old) Maurice Gee, found in its uncropped form at p.69. It was only in 1963 that Friedlander turned professional.

Much of her time was spent on commissions for magazines and on theatre-publicity photographs. She never worked from a studio, photographed people in their own environments, and used “available” or “natural” light as opposed to the battery of lights found in most photographers’ studios. Objects and art-works seen in the homes of her subjects were one way in which she caught the subject’s character and interests. Once well-established, she often chose her own subjects. Leonard Bell compares her with dedicated photo-portraitists of the 19th century, such as the Parisian “Nadar” because, like “Nadar”, she recorded the most important artists of her adopted country. Also, in photographs over the years, she was able to give “visual biographies” of how people changed. (p.31) Bell says her approach was “relational”. She directed her subjects and, says Bell, in contrast to other peoples’ camera-facing studio portraits “Friedlander’s portraits… aim to picture their subjects’ ‘true’ rather than ‘put-on’ or acted face.” (p.54)

Bell also gives in his introduction an interpretation of New Zealand in the 1950s and early 1960s as a monocultural, philstine, artistic wasteland. The arts were looked on with suspicion. Hence he sees Friedlander as the chronicler of an artistic culture that was beginning to flourish with, as the years moved on, more involvement of women and more awareness of Maori culture.  He lists many artists who were just emerging in the 1960s and 1970s. If some of those Friedlander photographed are now forgotten, they were nevertheless part of the buzz and excitement of that time, and they earn their place in this portrait gallery. Yet, sadly and rather ironically, Bell’s much shorter “Epilogue” tells us that, in the age of neoliberalism, the arts are now once again being down-graded and both music and art departments in high schools and universities are being ruthlessly cut-back or de-funded. The wheel turns on.

Moving from the text to the reproduced photographs themselves, I have to be sparing as I cannot possibly comment on all the many images found here.

 One nods one’s head at some of the people we expect to find here – such as James K. Baxter, wearing an uncharacterisitically florid shirt, looking either angsty or simply wary (at p.87). There are three portraits of Friedlander’s sometime friend Karl Stead.; and fully seven pages of Ralph Hotere, who also features on the front cover. Also, Leonard Bell is happy to point out which of Friedlander’s subjects was or is a personal friend of his, such as the fellow-art critic and art historian Francis Pound, or the artist Gretchen Albrecht (who appears on the back cover). I have to note that Bell also has a penchant for quoting Baudelaire.

Among the forgotten artists displayed here are Keith Patterson, Phil Slight, Suzanne Goldberg, Ted Kindleysides and others, but then it is the portrait that matters. Besides which, the bearers of obcure reputation sometimes make the best photographs. Among the forgotten, one is almost inclined to add Rei Hamon, who was once a best-seller of books reproducing his work, but who is now very much out of favour. Look at the careful positioning of the little-known potter Mary Hardwick-Smith, neatly placed by Friedlander in her creative environment (p.91). Similarly, look at Jeff Macklin (p.103), who was an extremely handsome guy, but ephemeral to New Zealand art.

The overwhelming majority of photographs are, naturally, in black-and-white. The few colour photographs are almost startling when they appear. Note (pp.28-29) the bold contrasts in the black-and-white photograph of Doris Lusk and less sharp, but warmer, contrasts in the coloured photograph of Toss Woollaston on the facing page. In both cases the light comes from the left and the shadows are on the right, and both painters are in relaxed, non-dramatic poses, with the contrasts giving depth to the image. One of the most unadorned photographs in the book (at p.289) is Friedlander’s coloured portrait of fellow photographer Ans Westra, staring candidly at the lens with perhaps mild amusement. Interestingly, the other image which most suggests unselfconciousness and ease in front of a camera is the black-and-white shot of another image-maker, film director Gaylene Preston (p.295).

Friedlander’s situating artists against their work is amply on display. The portrait of Rita Angus (p.67), photographed in 1969, has her standing next to a self-portrait she had painted some years earlier – the photographed woman and the painted woman have the same pursed lips and budding cheeks, but the look in the photographed woman’s eyes is more amused and ironical than the wider-eyed look of the painted woman. (The other images of Rita Angus, at pp.163-165, verify her essential good humour.) It is interesting to compare the portraits of Rita Angus with those of another prominent artist Robin White, who appears both assertive and unassuming in her no-nonsense, folded-arms pose (p.132) and, like Rita Angus, is set against one of her own self-portraits, which was clearly influenced by Rita Angus’s clear-lined modernism. Potter and ceramicist Warren Tippett, at p.125, looks quizzically at his own creations, but with the camera stationed in such a position that his pots look larger than he does. Environment conquers artist. (Incidentally, the bearded Tippett projects a completely different persona in other photographs of him, at pp.126-127, where he is beardless.)

It is possible that some photo-portraits reveal more than the sitters might have expected. I can only look at the portrait of Pat and Gil Hanly (p.50) and think “They are husband and wife, but what a contrast between these people!” Pat looks a little quizzical but Gil has a real smile suggesting a degree of moderate scepticism about this whole business of being photographed. The same holds true in the images of the Hanlys presented at pp.149-151. At the same time, I love the way some sitters bite back at the camera. On p.75 there is a lovely, cocky shot of sculptor Antony Stones, in cardy and specs, looking unimpressed at the camera as he smokes a fag. The artist who is most relaxed, and hardly caring what the photographer records, is the old-school painter Bill Sutton (p.255) who, sitting comfortably, looks at the camera with mild amusement.

It is a perilous thing to assume that one photograph really can sum up a personality. Perhaps the most anxious face is that of sculptor Greer Twiss (p.153). But this image does nor summarise the man, as the following two pages show him with a completely different expression and apparently in a very different mood. The images of painter Michael Illingworth (pp.200-203) show how different the same person can appear in different settings and occasions, yet the downturned lips always suggest a certain melancholy.

And, of course, different eyes can interpret photographs in very different ways. I can only conjure up the word “wistful”  when I look at the portrait of the then-young historian Judith Binney, photographed in 1970 (p.167). Binney also looks very wary of the world… but of course I could be completely misinterpreting the image, and I certainly know that there is nothing wistful about the scholarly and severely-factual histories that Binney went on to write. Leonard Bell tells us that the image of Louise Henderson (p.172) projects “the sense of an intense, strong person”. Perhaps. But (knowing nothing about Louise Henderson’s life or personality), all I see in the photograph is a slightly grumpy person smoking a cigarette. The elderly historian and essayist Eric McCormick has his index finger to his lips (p.207). Does this mean that he is requesting silence, or that he is secretive and keeping a secret or that he is simply pensive? Who knows? And naturally there are some people whose faces defy interpretation. You have no chance of decoding the forceful face of Milan Mrkusich as seen at pp.272-273.

How much is movement a factor in making still photographs? There are photographs of potters, painters and writers in motion and not holding a pose – but sometimes it is uncertain whether the subject of the photograph is in motion or not. On p.253, is Shirley Gruar about to push herself up from an armchair? Or had the camera’s quick shutter frozen her in mid-movement?

There are times when I would challenge Bell’s view that Friedlander’s portraits “aim to picture their subjects’ ‘true’ rather than ‘put-on’ or acted face.” Or, at any rate, I would challenge the view that she always achieved this aim. The double page spread (pp.10-11) of Neil and Brian (“Tim”) Finn looking into the distance against a cloudly sky really shows the brothers quite self-consciously striking an “iconic” pose. At p.107, there is an excellent photograph, taken in 1967, of the historian and polemicist Dick Scott. He stares through his specs into the distance beyond the photographer, with notebook and pen in hand, in front of a house at Parihaka, all of which neatly establishes his status as journalist and his historical interests. But (judge for yourself) is the expression on his face mildly amused? This is a very self-consciously posed photograph. Friedlander’s photos (pp.214-219) of Tony Fomison (taken in 1978) seem not to have overcome her objection that he was simply playing the role of being an artist.

And, before I conclude, here is a miscellany of unrelated oddities. The now-forgotten minor playwright Alexander Guyan (p.14) ,photographed in 1965, could be a dead ringer for the young James K. Baxter, with his gauntness and his prominent ears The 36-year-old Michael Morrissey (as he was when photographed in 1978) looks very ill at ease, despite the relatively calm pose he has adopted. (p.209) Perhaps intended as a glamour shot for a magazine, the portrait of Kiri Te Kanawa (p.279), wrapped in a fur coat and standing on a beach, is incongruous in so many ways. The opera singer’s blank stare, aimed directly at the camera, seems to confirm Marti Friedlander’s comment that she was a “cold fish”. And dare I say in this context, that even allowing for Marti Friedlander’s undoubted artistry, there are a (very) few photographs that, at least to me, seem little more than jobbing snaps? I instance the image of poet Alan Brunton (p.282) waving his left hand while holding in his right hand the script from which he is apparently reading.

But that is as much carping as I can make.

Friedlander, when on form, was a great photo artist. For sheer artful composition, I will instance one portrait, which is also one of the quietest and least provocative in the gallery. This is (at p.182) the portrait of the artist Lois McIvor who is on the right-hand side of the frame, her head slightly lowered, her expression of quiet expectation, a cigarette in her hand at the bottom of the frame. But the left-hand side of the frame is one of her art works. The curved line of part of her painting is so situated that it appears to be springing from her head – like a thought. You might miss this image if you are hunting for better-known arts people, but it is one of the best in a great collection.

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