Exhibition seen in a foreign light

By William Dart

An exhibition celebrates the work of photographer Frank Hofmann, who fled the Nazis and found sanctuary in Auckland. Adam Gifford reports

Frank Hofmann's Whangamata, 1968. Photo / Supplied
Frank Hofmann's Whangamata, 1968. Photo / Supplied

Frank Hofmann stares out of the frame, literally, larking it up with his mate Eric Lee Johnson, cigarette smouldering on his lip, whisky glass clutched in his hand.

It's 1952, just over a dozen years since the photographer fled Prague ahead of the Nazi invasion. He'd settled in New Zealand, married, found work as a commercial photographer, and set about creating a culture around him of pictures and music and books and architecture.

There's another photo, taken in Albert Park in 1969 by Geoff Studd, of one of the concerts organised to defy a ban on music in parks. Among the young crowd stands a tall, thin older man cradling a camera as if it were an extension of his hand.

It's Hofmann, involved yet detached, looking for that combination of figures and light and movement that would make an image.

The photographs taken by Hofmann over the years, from the early pictures back in Prague to the commercial portraits, the interior and exterior shots of buildings by his friends in the Group Architects, and his modernist art photographs, show peerless technique and an aesthetic sensibility that did not emerge from his adopted country.

"Czechoslovakia had a major innovative avant-garde. He was informed by that. That is the milieu he comes from," says Leonard Bell, who curated the exhibition at the Gus Fisher Gallery as part of his ongoing exploration of expatriate, refugee and travelling artists.

During the 1940s Hofmann worked in Clinton Firth's commercial photography studio at 110 Queen St, which is where some of the earlier portraits in the show are from.

"Firth had an eye for the American, or more particularly Hollywood, style of the 1930s and 40s. Many of those photographers were refugees from central Europe who brought expressionist, or noir style lighting," Bell says.

That means architect Vernon Brown gets shot like Clark Gable, and conductor Juan Matteucci's profession is indicated by the shadow of a music stand on the wall behind.

A portrait of his wife, the writer Helen Shaw (or Hella Hofmann to her friends), is meticulously composed, the figure standing backlit alongside the wall, the plume of smoke rising from her cigarette testament to the time taken setting up the shot, the side of her face reflected in the glass.

From the late 1940s Hofmann worked for Christopher Bede Studios, a national chain that did advertising work as well as wedding and family portraits.

When that folded in 1975 he formed Bede Associates with Karl Jobsis and continued doing family portraits to pay the rent.

Hofmann's architectural photographs would have been the way most people saw the buildings being created by friends like Brown and Ivan Juriss, and his knowledge of European New Objectivity informing the way he emphasised the modernity of the spaces.

This show is the first time the portraits and architectural photography has been gathered together and identified as Hofmann's.

In 1989 Peter Ireland curated an exhibition of his art photographs for the National Art Gallery in Wellington, some of which are reprised at the Gus Fisher.

"He kept his art photography or personal photography deliberately and self-consciously separate from his commercial photography," Bell says. A quote on the wall cues into Hofmann's thinking on the matter: "It isn't true the camera doesn't lie. It can turn everyday objects into completely abstract patterns."

Bell says: "He wrote a lot about photography both for photographers and also for people who wanted to start taking photos.

"He was involved with camera clubs, which contrasts with the art photographers who emerged in the 1970s who were pretty patronising and snooty about camera clubs. He wasn't. He was an enthusiast and advocate for photography. He gave radio talks."

Bell became aware of the photographs held by Hofmann's sons Stephen and Michael after he was asked to contribute a chapter to a book about artists in New Zealand from German-speaking countries. "They were sitting in Stephen's basement, waiting to be looked at."

Bell has written extensively about cross-cultural interactions in art history, starting with Maori and Pacific contacts.

"This was part of that, the movement from one place and culture to another was integral to it so I became intrigued and researched travelling, emigre and then refugee artists, writers and photographers."

Family connections with people who came to New Zealand as refugees triggered academic research.

"I found that for a relatively small country with a relatively small number of refugees let in, there were a significant number of very good artists, photographers, writers, musicians, people involved in the arts in one way or another. You had central European intellectuals of multi-lingual, high sophistication living out their lives in Mt Albert."

Many of those people turn up in Hofmann's portraits, such as pianist Lili Kraus (a resident in the 1940s after her release from a Japanese internment camp), Ernst Specht and Greta Ostova.

His own involvement in music went further, playing in the Auckland String Players and helping found the Auckland Symphonia. Bell suggests that Hofmann's photographs fit the modernist tenet "All art aspires to the condition of music".

Hofmann's work can be found in music programmes and record sleeves for the Kiwi label, the Yearbook of the Arts, Landfall, and the short-lived Here and Now.

The exhibition can be seen as here and not here - an artist who contributed to this culture by bringing to it a light and shade from elsewhere.

What: From Prague to Auckland: The Photographs of Frank Hofmann (1916-89)

Where and when: Gus Fisher Gallery, 74 Shortland St, to October 29

Public events: William Dart talks to members of the Auckland Philharmonia about the Auckland String Players with Hofmann, today at 1pm

John Walsh on approaching architecture through photography, September 24, 1pm

For more events, see gusfishergallery.auckland.ac.nz

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n3 at 19 Apr 2014 09:45:13 Processing Time: 914ms