Eric Lee-Johnson: Artist with a Camera
From the Introduction by John B. Turner.
Eric Lee-Johnson was a prominent New Zealand painter during and after World War II. He was a deliberate regionalist, and in 1956 became the first New Zealand painter of his generation to have a monograph published on his work. Public awareness of his painting was further increased in 1956 and 1957, when a short documentary film about his work was seen in picture theatres throughout the country. He was, at the same time, a freelance photographer whose photographs were as widely known as his paintings, though this achievement he kept secret. For fifty years, in fact, he jealously guarded his reputation as a painter, while his photography ran like a deep underground stream that frequently surfaced but rarely revealed its source.
From the beginning of his mature work in the thirties, up until 1992, when Lee-Johnson's photographs were included in The 1950s Show at the Auckland City Art Gallery, he had only once had an exhibition of his photographs (on the theme of Waihi, during 1962). It was not until 1994, with the posthumous publication of his autobiography, No Road to Follow, and the opening of the Auckland City Art Gallery's exhibition, 'Opo: The Hokianga Dolphin,' that Lee-Johnson was revealed as the photographer of the world famous dolphin.
Surrounded by his own paintings in his Howick home, near the end of 1989, he explained why he had been moonlighting in photography thirty years before:
I kept dark about it because I saw myself as a painter. Not that I had any funny ideas about painters cheating with photography — but the public did!
But, as this book seeks to explain, there was more to it than that. Although photography was an integral part of his life and work, overall, as we shall see, he often displayed a puzzling ambivalence toward it.
When he went to art school as a boy of sixteen he wanted to be a painter. But, without wealthy parents he could not afford to go overseas to further his studies. So he worked in the allied fields of design and advertising and aimed for the top, instead. At twenty-one he left Auckland's biggest printing and publishing establishment to make his fortune in England during the Great Depression. In London during the thirties, the young designer found it easy to accept the spirit and principles of modernist art. He was fascinated with technological developments of all kinds, especially in transport and communications. He was excited by modern typography and design. He was also keen on the new developments in photography and film, which were becoming increasingly influential in the advertising industry. He witnessed the birth of television in Britain and instantly saw its potential. These interests were quintessentially modern, and as well as his design work of the time, they are particularly evident in his photographs, which cover a wide range of subject matter from surreal studio setups to spontaneous street scenes to modern aeroplanes, cars and trains. But when he painted, as we shall see, different aspects of his personality came to the fore.
The wealth of his experience in London gained him one of the top jobs in New Zealand advertising when he returned eight years later, with a wife and two children. Fit, confident, enthusiastic, and nearly prosperous at twenty-nine, he expected he would soon to be able to paint in his spare time. He even changed his name, from Eric A. Johnson, to Eric Lee-Johnson to launch this new chapter in his professional life, when he started to freelance as a photographer in his spare time. But just as he reached thirty, tuberculosis pulled him down. Suddenly nothing was assured, except his determination to make the best of a bad situation. Photography played an important part in his recuperation, and later, when he became a full time painter, it provided additional income.
Although he soon felt compelled to hide other aspects of his photography, when it came to the documentation and promotion of his painting, he had the edge over contemporaries who always had to rely on somebody else to photograph their work. Unlike most painters, Lee-Johnson also valued photography for its expressive character, but despite his impressive publishing record, he resisted the temptation to exhibit his photographs. From the early nineteen forties, when he tried to fit every aspect of his daily life around his painting, he became more guarded about his photographic work. One aspect of this ambivalence emerged when he wrote, with some justification in 1958, that:
In New Zealand of the mid-fifties, photography was not art, and I had no wish to be downgraded as a painter who dabbled in this somewhat despised field.'
Earlier, when asked to submit an article on photography for New Zealand Studio, the professional photographers' magazine, he had warned the editor that he was:
never certain whether he is a painter who is also a photographer, or whether he is a photographer who is something of a painter?
He was joking about his choice of profession, of course, but he had not resolved how to value his personal photography, while there was still so much painting he wanted to do. In many ways, he ran out of time to properly resolve this issue. The two hundred or so photographic prints which he approved at the end of his life can be seen as a measure of the standard he set for his expressive photography. But due to the circumstances of their fortuitous, and somewhat serendipitous history of survival (many fine images were never printed), these prints are all the more precious, although they represent only the surface of his photographic work.
Like so many artists, Lee-Johnson used the camera to collect things of interest that were too big to fit into a car, or too delicate to remove to his studio. He also used it to record the progress of his art, his growing family, and their unusually nomadic lifestyle. These tasks gave him considerable satisfaction. But he also used photography as a spontaneous sketchbook for recording things and ideas and feelings that couldn't be put into words — those aspects of his life, in other words, that he did not feel compelled to paint or write about. Although his subsistence lifestyle seldom permitted the luxury of printing his negatives, he was sensitive to the unique capabilities and limitations of the camera, and knew that the intentions of the photographer, and the expressive potential of the medium was embodied in the nuances of colour and tone which distinguish a fine print. Eventually, when one of their isolated Hokianga retreats of the fifties came with electricity, it sparked an outpouring of exciting new enlargements from the Lee-Johnson's kitchen-darkroom.
Lee-Johnson was acutely aware that many opportunities for improving the recognition of photography had gone begging. As he wrote in 1958:
Among the fine arts, photography occupies a position about midwav between doodling and washing the dishes. The art critics and the high priests of the temples of painting and sculpture, who may lower their eyes on occasion as far as the lithographs and the lino-cuts, will usually pull up short at the photographic print. Photography has no private patrons. The photo-print is not "collected". Generally photography is not included as a craft subject in the art schools. The city art galleries take no real interest in the medium and rarely have space for permanent display of photographic prints. For the culture-vultures, I'm afraid, photography doesn't really exist. Let's face it: still photography as an art form isn't taken too seriously, and the photographer, despite and perhaps because of the efforts of the photographic societies, has little standing as an artist....
His wry prognosis was fairly accurate. It was not until the mid-sixties, following a world-wide trend, that photography became the focus of academic scrutiny in New Zealand and a new generation of photographers were taken seriously. Despite his calculated challenge to complacency among other photographers, he was not a good role model, because he seldom published his photography under his own name and never exhibited it. As the Auckland editorial representative of the Arts in New Zealand journal from 1942 to 1946, and eventually, as the editor of the final two issues of the Arts Year Book, he did not include a single portfolio by any New Zealand photographer. This curious anomaly does not entirely destroy the validity of his argument, however, because he had the experience of photographer friends like Frank Hofmann and Clifton Firth, who frequently exhibited their personal work, to back him up. Nevertheless, it does raise the likelihood that he felt unable to commit his own precious resources to a cause so patently unfruitful. The publication of his expressive photographs might pav for itself but the sale of exhibition prints of the same work was not a viable option.
Certainly photography did not enter the head of Peter Tomory, the director of the Auckland City Art Gallery, in 1961, when he complained that the lack of original art in galleries, and lack of quality reproductions and informed critics 'conspired to render painting the least appreciated and least understood art' in New Zealand. The relative official status of both painting and photography, however, might have been irreversibly altered had Tomory's predecessor, Eric Westbrook, not rejected the opportunity to bring to Auckland the New York Museum of Modern Art's immensely influential Family of Man exhibition which was shown in Sydney in 1956. Rather, we are witnessing a rerun of the fractured art scene wittily observed by Bare (Helen Crabb) in 1944: the public that feels pictures doesn't like photographs and the people who admire photographs complain about pictures.
She oversimplified the situation, of course, but the apparent schism, or lack of mutual recognition between the traditional arts and photography was not new. Despite all of the pioneering work of Alfred Steiglitz and his circle at the beginning of this century, not to mention the Victorian champions of photography, and the recognition given photography by New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1937, for example, it was not until 1973, by which time photography had been rediscovered for academic and popular consumption, that Kenneth Clark dared admit that:
Only the bad artists of the nineteenth century were frightened BV the invention of photography; the good ones all welcomed it and used it.
Eric Lee-Johnson: Artist with a Camera, by John B. Turner, PhotoForum, Auckland, 1999. Softcover $NZ49.95 available from top booksellers. This award winning book can also be purchased direct from PhotoForum Inc., P.O. Box 5657, Wellesley Street, Auckland 1, for $NZ49.95 (including postage in New Zealand).
ERIC LEE-JOHNSON (1908-1993) was a leading New Zealand regional painter who came to prominence in the 1940s. He was, in 1956, the first New Zealand painter of his generation to have a monograph published, and in the same year, a film was made about his painting. Unknown to most, because he kept quiet about it, he was also an outstanding photographer.
Eric Lee-Johnson: Artist with a Camera provides an overview of the artist's career, with special attention to his hitherto neglected photography. It includes examples from published photo essays as well as personal work never before seen. To retain the expressive tonal values of the artist's photographs from the nineteen thirties, forties and fifties, special tritone reproductions were made directly from his original prints in the possession of Te Papa Tongarewa, The Museum of New Zealand, Wellington.
This monograph is organised for quick reference, with a comprehensive chronological bibliography, list of figures and plates, a map, and index.
John B. Turner is a Senior Lecturer in Photography at the Elam School of Fine Arts, The University of Auckland. He has taught numerous workshops and lectured throughout New Zealand. He curated landmark exhibitions including Nineteenth Century New Zealand Photographs, and Baigent, Collins, Fields: Three New Zealand Photographers. He was editor of PhotoForum magazine from 1974 to 1984. He studied the history of photography with Bill Jay and Van Deren Coke at Arizona State University, Tempe, U.S.A., in 1991, and with William Main, co-authored the anthology, New Zealand Photography from the 1840s to the Present. In 1995 he edited Ink & Silver, an award winning collaborative photography book made during a workshop for photographers and offset printers. He is currently the Director of PhotoForum Inc.