'Leonard Bell decided he wanted to write abou' />

What: Looking Closely: Marti Friedlander
Where and when: Gus Fisher Gallery, 74 Shortland St, to November 21
In print: Marti Friedlander, by Leonard Bell (Auckland University Press $75).

Marti Friedlander calls the new book by art historian Leonard Bell on her life's work a love story.

"Leonard Bell decided he wanted to write about my photography and I feel it's a gift to me to have someone write about my work with such understanding. In a way it's a kind of love story. One feels very touched by that. It's beautifully written."

There's another love story, too, the one that got a free-spirited Londoner to New Zealand half a century ago.

Gerrard Friedlander is sitting at a nearby table in the Parnell cafe where I meet the photographer, perhaps in case she wants to abort the interview - he leaves only after she's gone. She quizzed me about why I want to write about her, and then agreed to answer questions.

"Why does one need to expose oneself?" asks the woman whose images strip away psychological layers from her subjects.

I suggest that she's an interesting photographer because of the way she has put herself in all sorts of extraordinary situations.

"Absolutely. When I came to New Zealand with my darling Gerrard sitting over there (53 years together, not bad), I needed to. I had worked with two of England's best photographers, as an assistant. I was very much a part of the world of bohemia, which I loved.

"I came to New Zealand in '58, at the beginning of the 60s when everything was happening in London. I came because I was curious about where Gerrard had grown up and it was a shock. But you're young, so you try to adapt to every situation you are in."

Friedlander worked for three years as the nurse in her husband's dental practice before picking up the camera again and inventing herself as a freelance photographer. "I arrived in New Zealand as an innocent and I think it is good to be a kind of innocent person. There is no judgment. Everything I saw was amazing to me."

Cut off from her circle of friends and the city she knew, she felt extremely lonely.

"I had terrible homesickness, but I was absolutely determined I was going to survive for Gerrard's sake. I was not going to let him down by breaking down, so I became a stronger person. Someone said I was hiding behind the camera and yes, it was like a shield, but that was not the reason for taking the photographs.

"I took the photographs because I needed to record this new world. I am an intuitive person. It's my talisman in a way. It helped me adjust."

In this time when digital photography is ubiquitous, it may seem strange to think of a world when photographers were rare, and women photographers even rarer.

Even so, Friedlander stood out for the original way she approached the medium, looking for new angles.

"There's such a plethora of photographers now, everybody has a camera, and when I travel with people and they get out their digital cameras and shoot everything, they say to me, 'Why are you not photographing anything? You're the only photographer amongst us'. And I say, 'I am, but I'm looking first.'

"People forget that. You can photograph everything, in the hope you have one marvellous photograph, but my belief is my photographs are actually about seeing something that moves me enough to take that photograph. I'm observing all the time. Everything is a photograph, but it depends what you choose to take. You have to pare it down."

Friedlander says she has no interest in writing an autobiography, but hopes people are interested in her view of the world through photographs.

"When I look back, I do have an amazing record of New Zealand, the way it was changing, and that's what I'm thrilled about because I felt in those early years New Zealand just had to change.

"It seemed I'd come to a country where there were rules against everything that made life bearable. It was so authoritarian."

Being raised in Jewish orphanages from the age of 3 and then carving out an independent life for herself through her 20s, the woman previously known as Martha Gordon wasn't going to knuckle down to authority.

Friedlander doesn't class herself as a documentary photographer, if that implies being an impartial observer. "Everything I've photographed I am connected with. Every photograph I have taken, there is a story I can relate to you."

There's the book Moko, still in print after 38 years, which stemmed from a 1968 photograph of Rauwha Tamaiparea at Parihaka, which she visited with Dick Scott as a side trip while they were working on a book about pioneer winemakers.

Michael King saw it, and invited her to illustrate the book he was writing on those few women who still had the facial tattoo.

"They reminded me of my own Jewish youth, all these matriarchs I used to know and love, wonderful wise, beautiful women, so in a sense, yes, I was involved."

The same sense of involvement is behind her photographs of protests, and her refusal to photograph the late Sir Robert Muldoon, because of her suspicion about people's need for charismatic leaders.

The book and accompanying exhibition came out of her retrospective at the Auckland City Art Gallery several years ago.

"Leonard wrote a review in Art New Zealand, and when I read it I could not believe someone understood my work. Every artist hopes for that, that someone understands what has motivated you to take all those photographs. It was as if he was behind my camera."

The book means some of her work will be available again, rather than interested people having to scour the collectors' market for her old books. Unlike the prints in the retrospective, which were specially printed by Studio Lagonda, Looking Closely contains Friedlander's own prints.

"So it's my view of my photographs, printed in the darkroom, and that's what I think makes it so much more interesting."

Now, even in her 80s, the photographer's eye is still active. "Look at those amazing ... that's a photograph," says Friedlander, with a nod of her head towards a young woman standing with her back to us at the counter.

"I just love it. Those legs and those boots, because it just defines a generation. That's the sort of thing I love photographing. Look at her. She's just beautiful. You could go up to that girl and just hug her. She's so unself-conscious."