Eye of the beholder

Isabella Rossellini once declared imperfections to be where life’s interesting bits are. Photographer Emma Bass thinks along similar lines, writes Rebecca Barry Hill

Photographer Emma Bass is celebrating the opening of her exhibition 'Imperfect II' at Black Asterisk Gallery in Ponsonby. Photo / Babiche Martens
Photographer Emma Bass is celebrating the opening of her exhibition 'Imperfect II' at Black Asterisk Gallery in Ponsonby. Photo / Babiche Martens

Being a perfectionist is a pain in the arse. So says Emma "just one more" Bass, the Auckland photographer nicknamed for her tendency to keep snapping pictures, in case the next frame is better than the last.

"It's not an easy thing to live with because nothing's ever good enough," she says, at home in her 1950s Mt Eden pad, cockatiel Kowhai perched on her shoulder. "I'm a perfectionist in everything I do. The way I make a bed, the way I cook, everything."

A former intensive care nurse, Bass has been photographing celebrities, interiors, architecture, advertisements and the occasional wedding for 20 years, turning her lens on everyone from John Key to Karen Walker, Jonah Lomu to Ali Mau, Ewen Gilmour to Diane Foreman. You can bet her punctilious yet compassionate traits are partly to thank for her diverse portfolio - she must be one of New Zealand's most adaptable photographers.

As sought-after as she is, Bass is the most passionate about her artistic pursuits.

Several of her photographic exhibitions explored the life cycle of the human body, including Corpus Basilius and Metamorphosis - and Bloom, about the romanticism of pregnancy.

But nothing has been quite as fulfilling - or ironic - as her latest endeavour, Imperfect II, a photographic exhibition featuring surreal and beautiful images of decaying flowers, now showing at Ponsonby's Black Asterisk Gallery.

The exhibition follows last year's well-received Imperfect, in what Bass says is a more mature, resolved way, the result of getting to know her subject, and the humble space in which she photographs it, that much better.

Each of the images deserves a double-take: a pink orchid comically kisses the floor as it wilts; blackened, puckered berries spill out of a Crown Lynn swan alongside their vital, blood-red companions, and a swarm of ants invades a bunch of waratahs, forget-me-nots and cinerarias. It's no coincidence that a crowd of fiery poppies droop like elderly people. They're a reminder life is in constant flux.

"I think they're very reassuring because there's an honesty about them," says Bass. "And hopefully they challenge our ideas of beauty. I like the notion that the closer things get to non-existence, the more exquisite and evocative they can become. It's a great way to look at life."

At the launch of Imperfect last year, Bass was amused to overhear a couple discussing the images, convinced they were shot in the studio. The truth is a little less staged. She raids the gardens of family and friends, the flowers living and dying on the staircase rail by the front door, each one arranged in one of her many second-hand vases.

"I love the fact they're shot among the total mayhem of everydayness, with my son tearing around with his mates," says Bass. "It's just the most incredibly unassuming little spot, with the simplest lighting. All the family chaos happens around them and I think that's somehow infused in there."

You wouldn't necessarily pick Bass as a perfectionist if you met her. At 46, she looks at least a decade younger, and exudes the warmth and optimism natural to someone who follows their passion on a daily basis. She and her husband Dave Watson bought Candy Lane's old house eight years ago and, while it's not messy by any stretch, it has a relaxed, celebratory feel. The large living room windows allow the sunlight to pour in, the furniture is red and gold and drawings by her children, Olive, 11, and George, 3, share the wall space with a vibrant art collection. When I ask to use the bathroom, she hoots, "Lucky I cleaned away the poo splatters!"

Bass operates in an intuitive way, keeping a constant eye on her wilting subjects and grabbing the camera when the light is right and the flowers are just on the turn.

"One day I looked up at my sunflower marigolds and there was a praying mantis just sitting there. Every time I took a shot, he'd be there. Another one I left overnight and in the morning it was swarming with ants. Kowhai decided to hop in the frame and roam around, eating it. I like that you can't tell if he's real or not."

The idea for Imperfect was just as uncalculated. Bass was shooting a commercial job at her house when she realised she needed something colourful and "blobby" in the background. There were wild magnolias growing nearby so she shot up the road and picked them, knowing their hail-damaged petals would be out of focus.

Afterwards, she noticed how beautiful they looked and took a few shots.

"My neighbour saw them and said, 'I want a big one for my wall' and I said, 'but it's not perfect! She said, 'That's why I love it'."

Friend and fellow artist John Radford (who is responsible for the sunken building parts in Ponsonby's Western Park) encouraged her to pursue the idea, particularly when self-doubt crept in.

"It's an ideal commentary on life in general," says Radford, who has known Bass for 20 years.

"Emma has this incredibly healing and caring resolve, and I think there's a parallel with her nursing work and faithfully recording these dying floral patients."

As the images began to take on deeper meaning, serving as a metaphor for the human body, Bass began to investigate the concept of wabi-sabi, a Japanese philosophy her friend had told her about. Not to be confused with the hot green condiment, the wabi-sabi aesthetic acknowledges that nothing lasts, is finished or is perfect. It has influenced how she lives her own life. Not long ago, she would have raced around tidying up the place before visitors came.

"I'm learning to let go," she says, laughing off the half-eaten breakfast on the table and the drumsticks on the floor, one of which proves useful when Kowhai disappears behind the couch and has to be lured out.

Like many working mums, Bass is used to getting by without much sleep. On the weekend she worked all night on a commercial shoot; the previous night, she climbed into bed with a restless George and lay with him until he nodded off. But ask her how she juggles it all and she looks bewildered.

"I don't know. I try not to think about it too much. It's a challenge to try and simplify, especially as a mother, because I don't think you can do it all. Something's got to give. Life throws curlies at you."

For instance, the big age gap between the kids was unplanned.

"It's not perfect. [Between the birth of the kids] we had a few miscarriages which were challenging to deal with. Life is so unexpected, you never know what's around the corner.

Being in my 40s now, you realise that more and more and you have more of a sense of mortality. We've had a friend, a lovely neighbour the same age, who went off a cliff in Mexico a few years ago. That was a wake-up call. It egged me on to do this project properly. If you put things off you may never get that chance again."

Bass has been "annoying family members" with her incessant picture-taking for as long as she can remember but it wasn't until her mid-20s that she began to pursue it in earnest.

On her OE in London she worked as a nurse "to survive", but spent her downtime traipsing through the city with her camera, developing the images in a darkroom she found through a doctor friend. She took a photography course in Leicester Square and exhibited some of her work. Then an advertising agency got in touch, and offered her a job. Overwhelmed and inexperienced, Bass turned them down.

"But I thought there must be something to this."

When she returned to New Zealand she studied photography at Unitec, and has worked steadily since as a freelancer. To get an idea of her eye for a picture, check out the wide range of evocative snaps she's taken on her iPhone, on emmabass.co.nz.

"She has an incredible eye," says Bass' friend, sustainable fashion designer Miranda Brown of Miranda Brown Conscious Cloth. Bass worked as her photographer for years and the two became firm friends.

"She's a perfectionist, absolutely, but she's also really efficient. Her eye moves so fast. She can see imperfections way ahead of most people. The artist in her sees more than meets the eye. She's a deep, visionary woman."

Bass loves shooting interiors, architecture and portraiture, and has done so for several noteworthy publications.

"I love photographing people. You get a taste of all these people's lives. It's quite an honour sometimes. You get a key into another life having a camera observing and meeting interesting people.

"But I do miss [nursing]. It was a wonderful feeling, helping to make a difference to someone's day. When you're that young and exposed to those experiences - the unwell and dying - it gives you a different outlook on life."

Bass hopes Imperfect II will inspire viewers and provide a sort of reality check. Because perfectionism isn't just an individual's trait.

"Society is obsessed with perfection, with looking younger, having a nicer, better house. I think about my children and how it will affect them, how they'll afford to live here."

As for her own perfectionist streak, she suspects it's genetic. Her father was much the same way and she's noticed her kids exhibiting similar traits. Over the week, Bass emails several thoughts as they occur, evidence perhaps of a woman who strives for the best, but also, of someone who lives in the moment, responding to ideas as they occur. This is much the same as the way she takes photographs.

"It's like breathing. It's not something I try to do, it just happens."

Emma Bass' exhibition, Imperfect II, is at the Black Asterisk gallery, 10 Ponsonby Rd. She presents an artist's talk there today at 1pm.

- NZ Herald

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