T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T.J. McNamara: A guide to the way we were

By T.J. McNamara

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Photography provides insight into the transformation between then and now

Devil and Baldie by Glenn Jowitt.
Devil and Baldie by Glenn Jowitt.

Photography has undergone fundamental changes. Black and white roll film seems quaintly archaic and Kodachrome is a thing of the past. Now there is a camera in every phone. The possibilities are limitless and in some measure this is reflected in the large number of venues in the Festival of Photography which has been running in Auckland.

One result is to make the images of the old processes all look like archival documents of an even longer past. Another is to shift the old processes into the art schools, putting them on the level of media that were once popular means of making images such as woodcuts and etchings.

The nature of the transformation can be traced in part by History in the Taking at the Gus Fisher Gallery. It is a large show of work published in the now defunct magazine PhotoForum. Arranged more or less chronologically, it is a comprehensive guide to the way we were.

The magazine was founded in 1973 by John B. Turner, who was to become an influential lecturer in photography at Elam School of Fine Arts. An historic daguerreotype, from the very beginning of photography, that he used in his lectures is the starting point of the show.

As well as publishing art photography, the magazine had articles on prominent overseas photographers. The show has two images made in the 1930s by the famous Edward Weston: a convoluted capsicum and a nude given exactly the same treatment in composition and light and looking remarkably similar.

The publication also included articles on early photography in New Zealand as well as 20th century work so the show has images from the Burton Brothers. Once commercial cameramen, their photos have now become invaluable archival documentary.

Throughout much of last century there was a big gap between newspaper photography and the work of those who were thought of as serious camera artists. This gap has largely disappeared as each learned from the other with magazine fashion photography leading the way.

The PhotoForum show reflects the social conscience of non-professionals. They were interested in the simplicities of the lives of ordinary New Zealanders and in particular the counterculture. Glenn Jowitt, who is still actively working, is included, with Devil and Baldie, two hoodlums in a field with their big car. Only one politician appears, Robert Muldoon, who is caught in furtive moment.

As well as there is self-conscious "art" in the presence of delicately posed female nudes, which seem coy in today's world.

When you move into the foyer where more recent work is on show, two changes emerge: the quality of colour and the size of prints. Dominating the area are three large photographs of the same striking personality who morphs from woman to man simply by slight changes in clothing and the addition of a moustache.

The historic show at Gus Fisher is complemented by a typical modern photo-essay in colour and with video by Ane Tonga of the Polynesian convention called Grills for gold fillings in the teeth. Such adornment is an expression of identity for those living in New Zealand. The teeth are prominent but the personality of the owners is less emphasised.

Streets We have Known at the Anna Miles Gallery is also a thematic show. For one artist, who calls himself Photoman777777, the street is Karangahape Rd. He has taken 24 close-ups of the old, lined, weather-beaten and frequently tattooed faces of those whose home is the street.

Edith Amituanai has a smaller version of her sequence, At the End of My Driveway, of Polynesian secondary school students plodding stoically to and from school. There are books of photographs of personal experience by musician Luvien Rizos and by Solomon Mortimer, which help make the point that personal work often looks better in books than on the wall.

Veteran Allan McDonald brings his sharp eye and fine technique to two colour prints called Elvis Sighting. One has a shabby statue of Elvis tethered to a post in Dominion Rd and the other a moody precinct where Elvis might have been. It is a brief showcase of serious modern photography.

One exhibition explores the possibilities of a medium through the collaboration of a gifted sculptor and colour photography. Joe Sheehan has done inventive and appealing work in stone, particularly in green pounamu and other coloured jade.

For this show at the Tim Melville Gallery, he has cut small slices of cloudy jade from sources in this country, Australia and Russia. With the aid of Nigel Gardiner Photography he has projected strong light through the semi-transparent stone and photographed the resulting image.

The results are extraordinary, with tumultuous clouds of colour. Some appear to sweep across landscapes like the surface of the moon. Others swirl around dark caverns. Some take on the forms of dimly seen figures. Everything is in motion and all have the effect of complex abstract painting. The colours are green, orange, yellow and red as well as caverns of black. The variety of variations brought to the process of exploring a medium is remarkable.

At the galleries

What: PhotoForum: History in the Taking: 40 years

Where and when: Gus Fisher Gallery, 74 Shortland St, to June 28

TJ says: A copious exhibition that covers 40 years of the PhotoForum organisation and influential magazine.

What: Streets We Have Known - Five Photographers

Where and when: Anna Miles Gallery, 4J/47 High St, to June 28

TJ says: Five camera artists, all with different sensibility, capturing aspects and people of our low streets rather than our High Streets.

What: Screenshots by Joe Sheehan

Where and when: Tim Melville Gallery, 11 McColl St, Newmarket, to June 28

TJ says: Sculptor in stone, especially jade, who cuts his material into fine slices, and shines a powerful light through their transparency to make remarkable photographs.

- NZ Herald

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