In Praise of Unruliness
Mark Amery considers an exhibition and book on the 40th anniversary of Photoforum, and what they present in terms of photography which so often our galleries now lack.
* * *
It’s 1978. The smiling guests are gathered before the camera behind a table laden with party fare. At the centre is a young man, who at first I take to be the only Polynesian in the room. He is holding a ladle before a large bowl - punch, perhaps. Older Pakeha men with bulbous noses - his bosses I presume - are on either side, plus a pudgy lad - one of their sons? It takes a while to notice that one of these older men is holding a brown hand. It takes even longer to twig that it is of a Polynesian woman in the shadow behind, gently smiling. Whose wife is this?
This is the photograph ‘The Party’ by Ken Browning from the collection of John B Turner and originally published in Photoforum magazine in 1981. It is one of nearly 100 photographs currently snugly lining the walls of the top two back galleries at City Gallery in Wellington.
Originally shown at Gus Fisher Gallery Auckland and accompanied by a substantial book, History in the Taking marks the 40th anniversary of Photoforum and the contribution of Turner, its founder. As odd and self-centred in shape as this exhibition is, it is a rare trove of New Zealand photography, much of it long unseen. I love its eccentricity. The way it echoes the world as just as unpredictable and peculiar. We rarely have unruly quality group exhibitions like this anymore.
The bulk of the exhibition traverses 1970 to the mid 1980s bringing alive the diversity in the shadows of another time, when the mode of documentary was full of vim and the expression of identity was a’coming out. The bulk of these images make us to consider the politics of our relationships with each other. There are few landscapes.
‘The Party’ has probably been thrown for an employee, in the wave of employment of Polynesian immigrants that marked the 1970s. Yet divorced from a history or portfolio, I like that I’m left guessing. On another wall is Glenn Busch’s 1973 image of a businessman outside a cafe, with a briefcase, milkshake and the saddest yet funniest expression of despair you have ever seen. So perfectly composed, so rich in tones it is like the full stop at the end of an era.
Remarkable as Photoforum once was as an advocate and a meeting place for photographers, its history is not what is of interest here. Rather, it’s how rich a picture might be built of New Zealand through the idiosyncratic multiplicity of a spread of emboldened artists.
For as a society we do not stand facing the same direction, nor do we all stand at the front. We are diverse, contradictory and complex. A strong eye can see that in a crowd of people, and that’s reflected in many of these images.
History in the Taking fascinates precisely because it doesn’t clearly package a story about New Zealand. There is no unitary viewpoint. There aren’t even labels (you have to struggle with an impossible handout). Photoforum reminds us national public organizations don’t have to forge ‘our story’. Rather, they can inspire us collecting difference - a crackling collective prism. In the spirit of a ‘70s social collectivism (slowly but surely coming back into vogue) this exhibition unpacks history into a myriad of different types of ways of looking.
Often this is what a great documentary photograph looks like. Through look, gesture and the interaction of different elements it explodes in all kinds of directions. It is both on edge and bound together compositionally as one strong whole.
Take an early Bruce Connew photograph of Aboriginal children. One is crouched on the dining room table, eyes obscured with a knife sawing into a sheep’s carcass, with what is probably the skull close at hand. The other to the right is moving towards us, knife left on the table, her back foot bandaged, eyes on us looking through open hands, showing us her unbloodied, clean palms.
What makes so many such images isolated here strong is not that they tell a story, but that they ask us to consider what those stories might be. In the process we ask questions of ourselves.
Peter Black’s Selwyn Toogood on a television in a café in Levin. Reg Feuz’s grinning Muldoon in the back of his limousine. There are significant, heralded work aplenty but more not well know. Jeff Howell and Ross the Cat as shot by Geoffrey H Short, way back in 1982 – he takes photographs of explosions now. This is not some ordained greatest hits.
History in the Taking features a roll call of now well-established photographers, often represented by early work. Then there are photographers like Browning who have disappeared from public attention. This is where rare group exhibitions reaching into deep collections like this with lots of curatorial investment can be so vital.
This exhibition’s strengths are also its weakness. Its arrangement around work that has been published or exhibited by Photoforum matters little to us. Bound to history and chronology, it is more like the hang of an archive than one that has any real shape. As befits Photoforum’s presence it is light on the last 20 years, and kicks off with an interesting but odd assortment of pre 1970s work.
The story goes that photography is now accepted as part of the visual arts. Photoforum’s role as needed when it began is over. Yes, City Gallery was taken over by Yvonne Todd for the summer. Currently also on show are the Mongrel Mob portraits of Jono Rotman. At Photospace, following their showing at Trish Clark Gallery in Auckland, are the very impressive images of new up and comer Chris Corson Scott, who also provides the last work in History in the Making.
Yet something is missing. Exhibition making favours the large-scale, static and singular. Todd and Rotman’s subjects are stripped of their background and made large. Landscape based work is typically today devoid of people. Often absent are the many-threaded group exhibitions that recognise social and artistic diversity. It is as if galleries are seeking to counter the kaleidoscopic lens of the Internet, where we are bombarded with images. I say we need a new generation of artist collectives.
Photography curators are short on the ground and a rich contemporary photographic heritage is not seen enough. In its dying years in the late Noughties the New Zealand Centre for Photography in Wellington tried to establish a national photography gallery. There wasn’t enough will, but the potential in regards to better exhibition of photography based on its rich heritage in New Zealand was clear.
Recommended alongside History in the Taking is a generous history book Photoforum at 40, published by Rim Books. Recommended because, like the exhibition, it is stacked full of beautifully printed rewarding images. True to its awkward subtitle ‘counterculture, clusters and debate in New Zealand’ it is a sprawling many- headed tome. With multiple forewords, prefaces, essays from every angle, interviews, and memoirs it is overwritten and has a touch to much navel gazing. Yet it does make for a fascinating scrapbook of impressions. Like the exhibition, it reflects Photoforum as a place for a lively gathering of different views and ways of looking at the world. We could do with more of this unruliness.