Come to my island - a tribute to Glenn Jowitt

By Chris Bourke

Auckland photographer Glenn Jowitt died suddenly last month. Long-time friend Chris Bourke pays tribute to a man adopted as one of the family across the Pacific

Swordfish, Avatele, Niue, 1982.
Swordfish, Avatele, Niue, 1982.

Glenn Jowitt was the Mayor of Auckalani. For 35 years the gregarious palagi photographer looked over his back fence and saw the Pacific in all its richness and colour. He published nearly 70 books, most of them about life in the Pacific. They ranged from children's illustrated readers to sumptuous and scholarly books for the world's leading fine art publishers.

Jowitt believed in "using the camera in a gentle way". He didn't want to intrude on his subjects, but humanely celebrate their culture and everyday lives.

Nevertheless, his work still portrayed the realities of Pasifika. His eye was never interested in the tourist cliches of sunsets and coconut palms; his lens was just as likely to show Polynesian Aucklanders working in a fish factory in Penrose as their cousins back home pulling the fish from the Pacific Ocean.

A sense of community and the importance of family was crucial to his work: it also fuelled his life. He photographed cultural rituals such as music and dance festivals and coming-of-age rites.

Among his many photography books for children are titles such as Ear Piercing Ceremony in Niue, The Haircutting Ceremony of the Cook Islands and A Title Bestowal in Western Samoa.

This devotion to the culture and peoples of the Pacific began in 1980, when he moved to Auckland and began photographing the Polynesian families who were then so prominent in Ponsonby and Grey Lynn. In 1981, in Lincoln St, Ponsonby, he took one of his most famous images. Eight colourful, lovingly woven hats are laid out on a bright pink bedspread; in an instant, you can see the craft, feel the pride and almost inhale the scent of frangipani.


Lincoln St, Ponsonby, 1981, is one of Glenn Jowitt's most famous images.

He then photographed a haircutting ceremony. "I couldn't believe the vibrancy of it," Jowitt told Sheridan Keith in a recent interview for Art New Zealand magazine. "For them it was an oddity, me turning up and being so enthusiastic about what they were doing. There was this kind of connection made early on that what I was there for was to show them at their best. They would talk about how they were looking after their culture, as if it was an issue like going to the dentist."

Seeing Jowitt's photographs, a friend told him, "You must come to my island". So began more than three decades of travelling throughout the Pacific, visiting far-flung atolls by canoe or small planes, eating and living with locals while immersing himself in their culture. To Keith, he recalled "landing on rough paddocks with wild pigs running into the bush, one time taking out seats on one side of the plane so we could transport a coffin, eating fruit or fish". It was an often hand-to-mouth existence that led to unforgettable photos and lifelong friendships.

Jowitt was born in 1955, and spent his childhood in Upper Hutt, near Wellington. At the age of 8 he was given a Box Brownie camera; he developed his first prints in his father's home darkroom.

Leaving school, he went to the Ilam School of Fine Arts in Christchurch, originally to study sculpture but photography quickly took over. Running the course was Larence Shustak, a photographer who had recently arrived from New York. Brash, confrontational, fast-talking, Shustak had credibility among his peers and was streetwise among his subjects. To many of his students he was an inspiration, telling them: "If the picture's no good, then you ain't close enough, baby."

Jowitt's first book, Race Day (1982), evolved from his honours assignment at Ilam. It captured New Zealand's racing industry when it was still a vibrant, earthy subculture. Next, Jowitt photographed the Black Power in Christchurch. According to Athol McCredie, photography curator at Te Papa, Jowitt earned the gang's trust using "the classic documentary technique of spending weeks hanging out with them until he was accepted enough to bring his camera along".


Race Day trainer and jockey, 12.8.78.

Both Race Day and the Black Power series were shot in black-and-white, the most common format at the time. The film was affordable, and photographers could control their own printing. But Jowitt changed to colour film in the early 1980s. "Colour is emotion," he told Keith.

The shift to colour came after a trip to the United States in 1980, where he met two pivotal characters. One was the photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark, whose work he admired for its rawness and closeness. Also in New York, he met Ruth Lester, the assistant director of the International Centre for Photography, who had worked at Life magazine. She looked at the Pacific Islanders in Jowitt's images of Karangahape Rd and Ponsonby and said they would change Auckland, just as the Puerto Ricans and Cubans had changed New York.

Jowitt's mission became clear: he wanted to "generate photographs that would create a greater appreciation and understanding of the Polynesian cultures around us in Auckland and the Pacific".

After his book Images Pacifiques/Pacific Images was published in 1986, he travelled the world, photographing festivals, rituals and ceremonies. But he kept returning to the Pacific, both in the islands, and in the streets near his Grey Lynn home.

Shustak said "get close" to get the perfect image always full- framed, never cropped but it was Polynesian elders who taught the tall, exuberant palagi about protocol and humility. Throughout the Pacific, Jowitt was adopted as one of the family by countless new friends. Socialising was inherent to his nature: it was an essential element of what made him a great photographer. He loved throwing parties, providing food, helping neighbours, and turning his garden into a Pacific idyll. He funded his work through ingenuity and entrepreneurship, staying true to his calling as a camera artist. In the early 1990s he taught photography at AUT, and in the 2000s, was typically passionate about working for Winz teaching young artists how to make a living from their art.

Jowitt knew a lot about the fads of the art world, but this year his work was enjoying renewed interest. In June, a retrospective exhibition Glenn Jowitt: Pacific Images opened at the Wallace Arts Trust gallery in Hillsborough, and he was photographed by Marti Friedlander for the cover of the spring issue of Art New Zealand.

On July 23, Jowitt died suddenly at home of heart failure. He was surrounded by many of his classic images of festivals and fisherman, dancers and tattooists; the interior walls of his home were like portholes into the Pacific.

Glenn Jowitt's Pacific Images are on show at Pah Homestead's upper lobby until September 28.

Glen Jowitt - 17.6.1955 - 23.7.2014

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n6 at 02 Oct 2014 17:43:11 Processing Time: 15ms