Linda Herrick is the Arts and Books Editor at the NZ Herald.

Always looking

Photographer Peter Peryer with a collection of his portraits from the past 30 years. The exhibition is on display at Gus Fisher Gallery. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Photographer Peter Peryer with a collection of his portraits from the past 30 years. The exhibition is on display at Gus Fisher Gallery. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Photographer Peter Peryer's method of working is like mining. 'Dig dig dig and then you hit a seam'.

Peter Peryer, one of our most lauded veteran photographers, used to take a lot of photos of his wife Erika, so much so that his collection of "Erika portraits" were curated into a national travelling exhibition by the Dunedin Public Art Gallery which debuted in 2000. Erika pictures were - and still are - highly sought after by collectors, public and private. But Peryer and Erika split shortly before the show started touring, and for no related reason, Peryer hasn't shot many portraits of other people during his long career.

But some friends, or interesting looking strangers he's met on the street, or his grandchildren - have been gazed at through the Peryer lens, and a new exhibition at Gus Fisher Gallery called Other pulls together a group of portraits taken over the past 30 years. Most are black and white, a palette long associated with Peryer's work, which has been described as "moody ... ambiguous ... economical", with a few in colour, such as Stan and Rita, his grandchildren.

One particularly striking black and white image from 1983 is of a man in half-profile. It turns out to be former head of Elam School of Fine Arts, Professor Michael Dunn. "Handsome, isn't he?" says Peryer. "He reminds me of a profile from a Roman coin."

Peryer notes that "most of these people I did not know at all well". A couple of carefully posed shots are of a vampish, beautiful street girl "who liked being photographed", while another one is of a woman he saw on a North Shore beach whose face he thought was "interesting".

The show is compact, reflecting Peryer's method of working: slow and meticulous. "About six months ago I went to Brisbane," he explains. "I might have got what I call one 'keeper'."

Peryer, one of the first Foundation for the Arts Laureate Award recipients, converted from film to digital a long time ago, pulling out an iPhone he has started using, although he does most of his work on a Leica. "Top of the range. I'm a snob."

"It is much more relaxing for me to use digital," he says. "I know there and then whether I have got the picture. With film you'd never know until you had exposed it and then you might have missed it completely and you don't get a second chance.

"I have found digital more relaxing and more fun. It is more fluid and I am glad to be alive to ExhibitionWhat: Other by Peter Peryer

Where and when: Gus Fisher Gallery, 74 Shortland St, to June 23

Talk: Dr Erika Wolf, lecturer on photography in the University of Otago department of art history, discusses Peryer's work, May 19 at 1pm

Peter Peryer (left) in front of his collection, Other, at the Gus Fisher Gallery. Below, his portrait of Michael Dunn.Picture (above) / Sarah Ivey

witness it," hoots the 70-year-old. "Some people argue there is greater fidelity in film but that gap is changing. And I was in a wet darkroom the other day and the fumes were terrible."

Since the breakup of his marriage 10 years ago, Peryer has based himself in New Plymouth, describing his life as "a bit lonely. But everything is a package, isn't it? If you live in a place there are some great things about it. It doesn't matter where you live or what path you choose to take ... I am thinking about, 'what is the way ahead?' I just have to do it week by week so I have to be positive about it and make the best of it I can. I am an optimistic person and I don't rail against what is unchangeable."

Peryer didn't start his career as a photographer until he was 33, after nearly a decade of teaching. "I did an English degree at Auckland University and that was important and another thing that was important was that I did some BSc papers and that got me over any fear of the science aspect of photography, like the chemistry. There's a famous quote: 'photography has a science father and an art mother'."

He describes his decision to take up photography as "a colossal thing to do".

"I was about 33 and I'd never really even owned a camera but I was interested in the arts, very, and I think someone gave me a camera and probably within a year of starting I was accepted, published, but it was easier because I was older. I hadn't been to art school but then photography was not really offered then.

"I just applied myself and sought out people in the field and read books and got help. It was in the mid-70s and the camaraderie was incredible. We knew each other [he is referring to colleagues like Robin Morrison, Anne Noble and John B. Turner], we helped each other, we shared our knowledge and exhibited together.

"It was quite a scene. There was no money in it but my belief that I was doing the right thing was unwavering. It still is - that what you are doing is important for your own personal development and understanding. If the audience dematerialised I'd still be working because it is a personal quest."

Peryer leans forward. "Maybe it's a kind of photo-therapy. It requires courage, character, belief in what you are doing, stoicism, because there will be knocks, there will be times when pickings are slim, there might be times when you get some serious criticism."

Peryer says he doesn't work on "series". "I just work on the next image. It's like a musical composition. Sometimes it takes me a lot of work and time in order to get that image. Only three weeks ago I got an image that I kept and printed and that's the first one this year. It's not a hobby. It's something I think about all the time. It's like mining. Dig dig dig - and then you hit a seam. I am always looking. I can't help it."

- NZ Herald

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