Taken sparingly - one at a time

By Adam Gifford

Taken from a motel window in Omapere, Hokianga, in 1986, this image of a woman pulling on a pine tree bough for sheep to graze on is the closest Alan Miller gets to street photography. Photo / Alan Miller.
Taken from a motel window in Omapere, Hokianga, in 1986, this image of a woman pulling on a pine tree bough for sheep to graze on is the closest Alan Miller gets to street photography. Photo / Alan Miller.

"I'll probably have a couple of days at Rotorua again soon. I got a lovely image there last year, a great image," says Auckland photographer Alan Miller, almost in passing.

Miller wrests his photos hard won out of the landscape, and Rotorua and Auckland's west coast beaches are places he has returned to a lot over years of training the eye, doing a lot of looking, seeing and waiting, rather than snapping off shots.

Miller went to Elam art school in 1977 after travelling overseas, but elected to stay on the fringes upon graduation, making a living elsewhere and having occasional shows.

"The gallery thing to me is closer to fashion, it's ideas driven, there's turnover happening. If people sell well they can get away with a couple of shows, but then they have to change. I take photos for myself."

Now he has self-published New Zealand Photographs, making some of those images more widely available.

"I just thought I'd bite the bullet and put this stuff together. I also thought I would like to join people who have done stuff, so you become part of what has been done here before you kark it," Miller says. "This book really came out of a show I had at the Sargeant Art Gallery in Whanganui in 2003. I printed up a lot for that, about 40 images, but there is also some more recent stuff.

"A book is a kind of permanent exhibition. That's why you have to be reasonably happy with it, because you can't get rid of it."

The book includes a conversation between Miller and Kriselle Baker and a dense, poetic essay on photography by Martin Edmond, which seems to be more about raising questions than answers.

Talking about some of his Elam contemporaries who became professional artists, Miller comments on their ability to talk about art.

"I'm simple beside all those guys," he says in his slow drawl, but it's deceptive - he didn't get his degree in art history without putting in the work. "Photographers don't usually say a lot. That's why we take images. The ones who do talk said about a paragraph. [Josef] Koudelka won't say anything because he says, 'I might change my mind tomorrow'."

The Czech photographer is a major source of inspiration. "I like the way his photographs are taken. His landscapes have an interesting sense of survival. It's desperate stuff."

Miller describes himself as old fashioned "in the sense that I stay with the frame", rather than editing images in the darkroom or on a computer screen.

The work is composed in the camera, usually his well-worn Leica with a fixed lens, and shot on Kodak Tri-X black and white film.

He doesn't shoot a lot of film. "I think my photographs are more about a long look rather than being dramatic, the idea of absorbing. I'm thinking now about images I shot last year in Europe. I develop the film and then think about which ones might make it. I might make a little print and then have a look.

"Koudelka would print so many to postcard size and put them in his pocket, so when he'd go walkabout he would occasionally take them out to see which ones would hang about."

The ones that made the cut for the book include landscapes rich in texture; Mt Ngauruhoe with a tree silhouetted in the foreground, rain in sunlight bouncing off the roof of a shack at Paradise near Mt Aspiring, the heads of two women at the Ngaruawahia Regatta in 1988, their dark wavy tresses cascading down below taniko bands, wind-shaped trees standing over landscape, a white horse against a grey sky at Helensville, tyre tracks on Muriwai Beach, wind on waves and waves of sand and a fantail flying over sunlit sea.

The closest he comes to street photography is a woman pulling down a pine tree bough for sheep to graze on, the view that struck him when he opened the curtains at a motel in Omapere one morning in 1986.

"When I was living in Sydney in the early 1980s, I did a lot of street stuff. I probably got two or three images from that time and I took a lot of film, more than I do now, and I did a lot of walking.

"It's tough, dragging something from the street. I thought, 'What am I doing this for' and I came back and started getting in the landscape here and continued. That's 20-odd years ago and I feel better for it," Miller says. "I think what I am trying to do is take the eye further. I think the amount of emotion you get from an image, that's still probably the art."

New Zealand Photographs by Alan Miller (Anglesea House $70)

- NZ Herald

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