For the record

By Adam Gifford

Adam Gifford talks to photographer Gil Hanly, who has made a career of capturing people going about their business.

Pat Hanly in his studio with Tamsin. Photo / Gil Hanley
Pat Hanly in his studio with Tamsin. Photo / Gil Hanley

Gil Hanly is a familiar figure around Auckland at art gallery openings, writers' festivals, garden shows, public celebrations and protests, quietly documenting it all with her camera. Looking back through her scrapbooks, one realises how invaluable that sort of consistent chronicling is to a culture - who was there and how things may have fitted together, seen with an insider's eye.

There are two chances to see Hanly's work in this year's Auckland Festival of Photography.

Her portraits of artists in their studios, commissioned by collector Sir James Wallace, is on show at the Pah Homestead.

And at the Nathan Homestead in Manurewa until tomorrow are her photos from hui of Nga Puna Waihanga, the Association of Maori Artists and Writers.

She shares the Nga Puna Waihanga show with John Miller from Ngapuhi, another extraordinary chronicler of public life stretching back to Vietnam-era protests.

"John told me he was doing this show, and I said, 'I photographed six of those hui and I don't remember you there', so we decided it better be a joint show," says Hanly.

She developed an interest in photography at art school in Christchurch in the 1950s, even though it was not taught there, and took a few photos of the "Hi Mum, here we are" variety when living in Europe in the 1960s. She regrets she didn't pursue it further then; it was only in the late 1970s, when she went on a holiday to Fiji with husband Pat and bought a camera at duty free, that she realised how much she liked it.

"We went to America. Pat got a grant to look at outdoor murals and I took the pictures, and then when we came back the Springbok Tour came along, and that's when I thought, 'I'm going to be a photographer'."

She did a one-year course at Elam to beef up her technical knowledge, then packed in her job at the University Bookshop to freelance for whoever she could - Broadsheet, Craccum, the Listener.

"I'm a very conventional photographer, I don't see myself as an art photographer," she says. "I was taking pictures of things we were involved with, like the Peace Squadron, and Greenpeace hired me to document the raising of the Rainbow Warrior. I think I photographed things I thought might make a difference, more social commentary photography."

Eventually, Hanly also found steady work photographing gardens which, as a keen gardener, (Far left) Ceramics artist Bronwyn Cornish; (above) Pat Hanly working in his studio with Tamsin, circa 1968; (left) Gil Hanly.she enjoyed. "I'm interested in the big picture, how things relate to each other, rather than staring down the throat of a single flower. That's how I am with the artist portraits - I don't like set-up portraits much, I prefer to capture people in action."

Her brief from Sir James Wallace was to photograph artists in the Wallace collection in their studios as a snapshot of a work in progress. Some resisted being caught in their private space, but if anyone can break down that reserve it's Hanly, who has spent a lifetime in studios - the earliest picture is of Pat with their daughter Tamsin in 1968.

There's a warmth and intimacy to the pictures of old friends and neighbours, such as sculptor Bronwyn Cornish, who appear to have forgotten the camera as they get on with their work. Others seem more formal. Michael Smither looks as if he'd rather be outside looking at his fishponds.

Hanly sees the project as a work in progress.

"I can revisit. I like going back. I revisit gardens, too, to see what happens. Things change, and maybe you get a better shot next time because everyone is relaxed."

The Nga Puna Waihanga show starts with Miller's photos of some of the earlier hui, starting with the first at Te Kaha in 1973. It quickly became a magnet for Maori intellectual and cultural activity. Youngsters such as Witi Ihimaera, Hana Te Hemara and Ngahuia Te Awekotuku were rubbing shoulders with artists in their prime, like Ralph Hotere, Selwyn Muru, Para Matchitt and Hone Tuwhare, as well as masters of the traditional arts, John Taiapa and Digger Te Kanawa. A later hui at Wairoa saw Tamati and Tilly Reedy, Rauru Kirikiri and Piri Sciascia pictured singing enthusiastically, before they became better known as public servants.

The Listener asked Hanly to cover the event at Waahi Pa in Huntly in the early 1980s, and she was then invited back to subsequent ones, including the last at Te Kaha, where the event had swelled to 3000 participants over seven marae on a wet winter weekend. "It just got too big," she says.

It was also an early exercise in marae DIY - Hanly documents artist Jacob Scott taking in his students before the Te Kaha event to refurbish the painting inside the meeting house.

Hanly says as a Pakeha, she wouldn't go into that environment without an invitation. "I knew a lot of the artists anyway through Pat and the art world. I backed off when I decided there were enough young kids doing stuff, waving cameras around. They may as well do it. I'm perfectly happy to still cover political things. I'll go to Waitangi and listen to what is said, or something like the protests to get Maori seats on the council. Takaparawha [marae] occasionally ring me up to ask me to cover something there."


Auckland Festival of Photography

What: Gil Hanly: Artists in Situ

Where and when: Pah Homestead, Wallace Arts Centre, Hillsborough, to July 28
What: John Miller and Gil Hanly: Nga Puna Waihanga

Where and when: Nathan Homestead, Manurewa, ends tomorrow

- NZ Herald

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