By LINDA HERRICK arts editor
There's a twist to Peter Peryer's touring exhibition of photographs of his wife, Erika Parkinson. Married in 1964, the couple's relationship was dramatised on film during the 70s in Peryer's small portraits of his partner. Admired for their ambiguity and severity, the Erika photos, which have been described as a form of "passion play", were only recently curated into a travelling collection by Dunedin Public Art Gallery's Justin Paton.
Erika: A Portrait by Peter Peryer first hit the road in 2000 - just before Parkinson and Peryer separated after more than 35 years together.
"When the decision was made to put the collection together Erika was living in Japan for a year," says Peryer, who recently moved from his long-time home in Auckland to New Plymouth.
"When she came back, that's when we separated but meanwhile the show was already under way. I felt, 'how awful', but in other ways it's really appropriate.
"The show is a homage to the times we were together, totally so. Erika has gladly spoken at the shows, she's given the floor talks, not me. I choose to see it as a celebration of the relationship, and not even in the past tense."
The portraits were - and still are - regarded as significant in Peryer's long career because they were an early signpost to a reputation which has become major.
Peryer's work has been shown all around the world, his photos are hugely collectible, and in 2000 he was given one of the first Laureate Awards by the Foundation for the Arts. But this collection is also a reminder of the important role of Erika and those photos.
Former teacher Peryer abandoned the classroom in his early 30s to take up "a choice to pursue a non-materialistic goal".
Says Paton of the Erika series: "As much as they testify to the aching curiosity of Peryer's eye, so too Erika's gaze, by turns limpid, mysterious, despising, taunting ... is empowered".
Being Peryer's model was as much about dressing up and role-playing as it was about mood, says Erika Parkinson.
"As I recall it, I would have had an outfit and Peter might have said I'd like to take a picture of you in that. I absolutely loved it, I love dressing up and changing my looks and cutting my hair. When our daughter first saw the catalogue she flicked through it and said: 'Woman in search of a hairstyle'."
The carefully posed photos have often been likened to film stills - "moody East European film stills", comments Peryer.
As with all his work, the picture titles are spartan: Erika, Winter, 1979, Erika With Knives, 1978, or just simply Erika.
"I have a difficulty with all my titles. I don't want my titling to predetermine the way in which the work is going to be experienced by the viewer. All my titling is terribly neutral. They are like scientific labelling. I keep any interpretation or emotional leanings out of it."
Peryer's portrait phase didn't last long. "Those Erika photos were like the beginning and the end of my portrait career, a period of five years. It was important though because at the time I was intensely interested in human portraiture of Erika and other people and myself.
"Perhaps I resolved something. I'd only been photographing for a year or two when I started photographing Erika. I didn't start my career until I was in my early 30s."
Now he's more happy to take pictures of a rabbit or terns in the Chatham Islands or cave wetas (see the Govett-Brewster gallery booklet The Left Hand Raised: Photographs 1995-2000). He admits he's never been a family snapshot kind of man. "Even my best friends have never seen me with a camera. When I try to photograph it is quite an occasion and a private event. I do not shoot a lot of film."
The years have brought changes, but Erika Parkinson says she likes to think of the photos as "portraits of strength ... that I was always delighted and willing to take part in".
But she later sends an email amendment to that: "It would be more truthful to say I enjoyed being photographed 80 per cent of the time - and if I didn't enjoy it the rest of the time, it ain't nobody's fault but mine."
* Erika: A Portrait By Peter Peryer, The New Gallery, Auckland City Art Gallery, to January 28, 2002.
By LINDA HERRICK arts editor