Marti Friedlander, modern woman

By Michele Hewitson

Why are you giving away your money?" I ask photographer Marti Friedlander, who says, "Oh, sweetie, oh darling, it's lovely to give it away. You know that."

She says this on the phone and ticks me off for saying I wouldn't give away my money, if I had any. Most people, though, don't go around giving money away but Marti and Gerrard Friedlander are: in $25,000 lots, every two years to begin with, to promising photographers.

In her lifetime she will choose the recipients - the first is Edith Amituanai - and the Arts Foundation will manage the award in perpetuity in Friedlander's name.

She has always wanted to "give everything away, ever since I had nothing to give away".

And, "I just love being able to give anything away. I mean, if you like my brooch, I'd say, 'have it'."

I might have said, "I like that brooch," if I'd been able to get a word in.

For someone who doesn't much like being interviewed, Friedlander can use up an hour's worth of talk in what feels like a flash. She is absolutely hopeless at being interviewed, she doesn't really answer questions except in a roundabout sort of way and disagrees with almost anything I pose, but in such an ebullient way that you have to forgive her.

She is, for example, talking about Gerrard, which she does, constantly, as in, "Well, he's gorgeous looking, as you can see." And she paints a sweet little picture of domestic bliss: "I wake up every morning and it's like a gift and when Gerrard and I sit and have breakfast together, I just feel it's so marvellous and Gerrard feels the same way."

I say something trite about their wonderful marriage and she says, "No! It's not a wonderful marriage. It's been a very difficult marriage."

"Oh, has it?" I say, "and whose fault is that?"

"It's always two people's fault, you can't assign blame. I've just been talking about that, Michele."

I have just been ticked off, again, for not paying close enough attention. Anyway, I'll take her word for it.

"A marriage is the most difficult thing in the world, but you know, I mean, we talk about it. I say, 'Gerrard, I think in spite of all the difficulties, I think it's amazing that we're still together' and Gerrard does too and you should have spoken to Gerrard, but Gerrard's like a typical Kiwi male and it would embarrass him. He doesn't want to talk about such things. He's not very romantic. I'm the romantic. Of course I am. I'm not romantic about life, I'm romantic in terms of loving people."

Don't ask me how we got on to this. I wasn't paying close enough attention. I still maintain that they do have a wonderful marriage and that Gerrard should get some sort of award of his own.

"You are," I will say at the end, "a very difficult woman." "I know!" she says, "Thank God!"

I knew she'd be difficult in at least one respect: having her picture taken. On the phone she said, "Oh Michele, darling. Do I have to?" What she really likes to do is agree to be interviewed and suffer through it, twitching, until she can turn the tables, get out her camera, and take her own portrait of the person who is supposed to be making one of her. This is both charming and disarming.

I would have quite liked a little chat with the gorgeous Gerrard but he wisely scurried away as quickly as he could. When he left, his wife was showing the photographer her Rolleiflex and having this conversation. "Oh, are you going to take those candid shots, Richie? I don't understand why photographers do that, actually. No, I'm not going to tell you what to do. I'll be intrigued by how you do it because to me portraiture is about lighting the eyes. Anyway, that's the way I do it. You have a job to do, Richie, so you do it."

By the time Gerrard returned, an hour later, his wife was photographing the photographer. I say, "This will come as no surprise to you," and he smiles, serenely.

The Friedlanders live in a very nice house in Parnell with lovely art and lots of nice things to look at. "I sometimes say to Gerrard, 'darling, how did we end up here? What are all these things we have?"'

When they married in Britain - after living together for nine months which was very unusual 50 years ago - they never intended, says Friedlander, to have a house and things. They planned a nomadic existence. But they came back to Gerrard's home country and he set up his dental practice and for a time, which must have been rather exciting for his patients, his wife was his nurse.

She was already taking pictures, "for myself" and after their daughter was stillborn she began her career as a photographer in earnest.

"Did you not know I had a baby? Everybody thinks, 'Marti, marvellous that you made the decision', because, as you know, Michele, I get on with life."

This is a sad story - "We wanted to have children." And it is, in one significant way, the reason the Marti Friedlander Photographic Award exists: They have no child to leave their estate to.

But she tells this story matter of factly, and the one about how she grew up in a Jewish orphanage where she was much loved and felt very secure. When the word orphanage is mentioned, she says, "you can see that sort of feeling of pity. And I say, 'Tell me about your childhood. Was it happy?' and of course then they realise that their childhood and family situation wasn't always happy either."

I would like to know more about her childhood but she is protective of her stories and "I never talk about my childhood partly because it was a very difficult childhood and I don't want anybody to pity me for it."

She understands pity but I think it bores her: "The point is that it's a sort of rather expected response."

And she has always been in the happy situation of liking herself. "The important thing is to not mind not being liked."

But she hates to be thought of as bossy and was upset by a description of her directing her photographic subjects like a "field general". She thinks people get the wrong idea about her.

She will likely include me in this because when she tells me she is working on a photographic essay about couples I say she should include herself and Gerrard. "Well, I might. I know it sounds silly but Gerrard hates being photographed. I have to persuade him." Surely she could do that? "No, no. I'm not the strong one in the family. Everyone thinks I am, you'd be surprised, everybody is because people are not perceptive enough."

That perception exists, she thinks, "because I'm more opinionated ... But within the marriage Gerrard is very assertive and I don't mind that. I'm old-fashioned in some ways although everybody thinks I'm the very modern woman. I am, but I come from a generation where your marriage mattered as much as your career. And I feel fortunate that I've been able to follow a career as well as being, hopefully, a reasonably good wife to Gerrard, partly because I needed that and partly because Gerrard has always been very supportive of it."

I am obviously not very perceptive but I think she is quite bossy. If I'd left out everything she told me to, nothing would be left to put in. But I regard bossy as a compliment and I think she is only bossy in the way that great photographers are.

She'd rather create her own portrait because she can do it better than any one else, and she can choose the final image. But I get to choose this one: a portrait of an interesting, assertive and generous woman - and her gorgeous husband.

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