The New Photography - reviewed

The New Photography: New Zealand’s first generation of contemporary photographers

Edited by Athol McCredie

Te Papa Press, 2019

Reviewed by Deidra Sullivan for PhotoForum, July 2019

Ans Westra,  Crowd ,  Cuba Mall ,  The New Photography

Ans Westra, Crowd, Cuba Mall, The New Photography

What should a well-considered history of photography seek to achieve? Ultimately it should aim to draw the reader in, bring us closer to the moment under investigation, and ask critical questions about the ways in which we understand and interpret both the past and photography. Athol McCredie’s The New Photography: New Zealand’s first generation of contemporary photographers (Te Papa Press) seeks to examine the historical moment during the 1960s and 70s when favoured pictorial approaches to representing New Zealand gave way to a new photography in which practitioners sought to “explore, interact with, and make sense of their world.”[1]

This was a world in which the idyll of post-war New Zealand was challenged by social and economic change – by falling economic affluence, the increasing influence of American popular culture, and an emerging sense of cultural disharmony prompted by both a growing awareness of social inequalities and international protest movements. Before the photographers take the stage in their individual chapters, McCredie sets the scene effectively – describing the camera clubs that determined photographic aesthetics and content well into the 1960s, the predominance of idyllic and beautiful landscape imagery such as Brian Brake’s 1963 New Zealand: Gift of the Sea, and international photographic practice. Against this, he pits the ‘uncertainty and discontent’ emerging in New Zealand culture as an impetus for a new form and understanding of photographic practice.

The photographs selected for The New Photography evoke the sense of disharmony and underlying social anxiety that McCredie refers to – to a greater or lesser extent. The work of John B Turner and John Daly seems more significantly guided by formal qualities; Ans Westra and John Fields by a closer engagement with the subjects photographed; Max Oettli, Gary Baigent, Len Wesney and Richard Collins by capturing the immediate and the momentary. But very few of the photographs selected give themselves away easily; there are no easy narratives here. Sometimes this sense of discord is quite pointed (I have always shrunk under the glare of the fur-hatted woman in Westra’s Crowd, Cuba Mall, 1971); sometimes it is more playful (what happened to the bride in Wesney’s Christchurch, 1974? Did she trip?) The actions of Rover in Oettli’s Leonard and Rover, 1974, may always be a mystery, as will the reasoning that caused Queen Elizabeth’s portrait to be hung above the toilet in John B Turner’s Kemp House, Kerikeri, 1974. The layering of these discordant moments is perplexing, but it’s extremely engaging.

John Fields,  Couple ,  The New Photography

John Fields, Couple, The New Photography

McCredie’s decision to foreground the photographer’s narratives lets particular patterns and influences emerge. Most notable among these is the significance of John Szarkowski’s The Photographer’s Eye exhibition, which travelled to New Zealand in 1967. The exhibition and publication of the same name gave photographers a formal language and system of analysis through which to understand and articulate photography as a communicative medium. The impact on photographers in New Zealand was immense. John Fields recalls, “His writing brought meaning to what I was trying to do, and what others were trying to do at the time. He brought it together in a way that was understandable.”[2] International photographers such as Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson, William Klein, Bill Brandt and Eugene Smith also feature as recurring influences. At the same time there’s a clear sense of the Auckland photographic community – the “incestuous photography scene”[3] as Baigent describes it – and the conflicts that played out within it, notably the debate over the print quality of Baigent’s The Unseen City (1967). Most engaging, however, are the photographers’ reflections on what photography was and could be – an emerging sense of a practice with its own structure, logic, and philosophy. These aspects of the photographers’ narratives could have been drawn out further and given greater emphasis.

Gary Baigent,  Milkbar ,  Greys Avenue ,  The New Photography

Gary Baigent, Milkbar, Greys Avenue, The New Photography

As much as I appreciate the photographers’ voices within this publication – and as personal and photographic histories they draw me in – there’s no mistaking The New Photography describes a very masculine moment (among many) in New Zealand’s creative history. The individuals finding a way to do their creative thing in 1960s New Zealand were predominantly men. As McCredie fairly points out, “The preponderance of males among personal documentary photographers may also have been a case of available time and 1960s gender roles. The young men in question seem to have been free agents with few domestic responsibilities and with enough money to buy good cameras.”[4] The circumstances described in The New Photography – meetings at the Kiwi Hotel after work, photographing late at night or in the early hours of the morning – would not have been a possibility for women largely responsible for the upbringing of their families and the managing of domestic duties. McCredie observes that street photographers – out and about, people watching, immersing themselves in the crowd – are akin to the 19th C French flaneur. This is an apt comparison – but a man out photographing alone at night is in one situation, a woman in quite another. McCredie asks, “Was this a form of photography that particularly suited a male outlook?” I would suggest no, it’s not a question of outlook. It’s a question of possibility, of what was possible for men and what was possible for women. That said – such was the cultural situation of New Zealand in the 1960s. I’m not advocating a rewriting of history, or that The New Photography should have sought out women photographers for the sake of it. But I am suggesting that we consider the kinds of histories that we write. Observing that women were unable to participate in a certain way in creative practice – but producing a history that promotes and favours that practice – could be considered disingenuous.

Len Wesney,  Christchurch , 1974,  The New Photography

Len Wesney, Christchurch, 1974, The New Photography

As such, while I thoroughly enjoyed reading Ans Westra’s text (particularly her dilemma about whether or not to ask permission when photographing), she seems to have been shoehorned into The New Photography. Her photographic influences seem distinctly different from the other contributors (The Family of Man, rather than The Photographer’s Eye), as does her practice (less street photography, more sustained social documentary based on personal engagement). Westra’s inclusion would have made more sense if, rather than a history as told by individual photographers, The New Photography was a history of a cultural moment structured by its central questions and thematics – thematics that could be expanded from both McCredie’s introduction and the influences the photographers themselves mention. This might allow us to look a layer deeper, and consider a broader inclusion of participants, a shift away from the modernist histories still produced that tend to valorise particular individuals.

Max Oettli,  Leonard and Rover ,  The New Photography

Max Oettli, Leonard and Rover, The New Photography

The New Photography is both perplexing and satisfying in turn. It’s rich in historical detail and expertly researched by its author. However, the autobiographical structure of the book tends to favour description over analysis. And yet it is those moments of analysis – when we hear from the photographers about their understanding and their philosophy of photography – that are the most rewarding.

Deidra Sullivan teaches photography on the Bachelor of Creativity programme at Te Auaha, WelTec and Whitireia’s joint School of Creativity, Wellington. In 2018 she co-curated 'Still Looking: Peter McLeavey and the last photograph' at the Adam Art Gallery.

[1] McCredie, A. (2019). The New Photography: New Zealand’s first-generation contemporary photographers. Wellington: Te Papa Press, p.11.

[2] John Fields quoted in McCredie, (2019), p.115.

[3] Gary Baigent quoted in McCredie, (2019), p.60.

[4] McCredie, (2019). The New Photography. Wellington: Te Papa Press, p.19.

Gallery image captions for mobile devices

John B Turner, Kemp House, The New Photography

John Daley, Post Office, Bledisloe Building, The New Photography

Richard Collins, Easter Egg, Auckland, The New Photography