By MICHELE HEWITSON
Marti Friedlander is directing the making of a photograph. "Pull your chair round here. Just turn your face, slightly. There. Now, I don't want you ever to put your eyes around the corner. Isn't that interesting, that you say to me 'where shall I look?' People don't know where to look."
It is interesting, watching one of our most accomplished and respected chroniclers of the New Zealand condition at work.
It is made all the more interesting by the fact that - and although she doesn't know this, it is apparent that she has sensed it - the person whose photograph she is taking has something verging on a phobia of having her photograph taken. Yet, oddly (or perhaps not so oddly, for reasons which will become clear) I am almost loving having Friedlander take my photograph. The lens, with her behind it, feels like a trustworthy friend.
She talks constantly throughout the process, about the process. She moves around a lot, searching out the light surrounding her subject. She is looking, she explains, for the light in the eyes. Friedlander wants to demonstrate how she works and, because "I've got colour in my camera. Let me try."
Most assuredly Friedlander knows where to look. On Saturday the first major retrospective of her photography opens at the Auckland Art Gallery. That the exhibition represents almost 30 years of work, and includes 150 images culled from more than 50,000, gives some clue to Friedlander's commitment to documenting a country and its people.
When Friedlander arrived in New Zealand from London at the age of 28, she had been married to Gerrard (whom she clearly still adores) for just a year. It was 1958. She worked in the studio, as an assistant to expatriate New Zealander Douglas Glass, the portraitist, and Gordon Crocker, the fashion photographer. She was a habitue of art galleries; her friends were artists and conversationalists.
Home in New Zealand was Henderson, then semi-rural, and Friedlander worked in Gerrard's dental practice as his nurse. She had arrived in a country where ladies were expected to bring a plate, not to develop their own photographic ones.
Although Friedlander had already begun exploring the possibilities of photojour-nalism, it was two years after arriving here before she felt enough at ease to start documenting her new homeland.
At ease is a relative phrase. If anyone had suggested to Friedlander that one day a story about a retrospective of her work, held in New Zealand, would contain the word "our," that indeed we would be proud to claim her as "ours," she would likely have looked at them as if they were mad. Because Friedlander struggled to find an affinity with New Zealand, and it is fair to say there was little immediate empathy.
"When I was young," she says looking back with delight, "I had this sort of impudence and chutzpah, thank God." Those buttoned-up, passionless people, stereotypical New Zealanders of the day, must have found her terrifying, she says.
Although it wasn't the people she minded, actually, it was the absence of people. When she did pick up her camera again it was, she says, "a sort of response to the surprise that there were actually people living in that landscape. I thought: 'How could people live in these isolated places?"'
The paucity of population frightened her. "I grew up in a city where you become sort of streetwise and you're aware of danger. But it always seems to me that in isolated places there's more of a sense of danger."
She tells, in her deep expressive voice, about her first camping expedition in 1961, in the South Island with Gerrard. "I said, 'Before you put the tent up, I really have to know if there are people here.'
"And he was sweet, he put me in the car and drove about three miles and said, 'There you are darling. There's a house.' And I said, 'Well, if there's a house here, why don't we camp right next to it?"'
It's a funny story, told well. But, she says, "My fears were very real. I wasn't used to the isolation. And first of all, I wasn't sure that there weren't any wild animals."
The girl with no experience of isolation was raised in the care of strangers. From the age of 5 until she was 14, when she won a scholarship to the Bloomsbury Technical School, she was raised in a Jewish orphanage in Norwood.
She has one small, scarred photograph of her mother whom she has not seen since she was a small child. This is the only topic Friedlander, who is a generous and vivid storyteller, does not care to talk about.
Growing up in this orphanage provided, she says, a secure childhood. "I was very lucky in a way. You knew exactly what was what and when it was going to happen. You went to bed at a certain time, you got up at a certain time. I think, in a sense, it was a very fortuitous childhood." A kind childhood? "Well, I received tremendous kindness."
The girl who grew up surrounded by faces did not initially cope well with a country where there were so few: "I missed faces, faces that tell their life." She was lonely for them,"lonely for other things too. That sort of brightness has to have responses to it, if people are being affected by it and not liking you because of it ... soul destroying." She believes that when she began looking at New Zealand through her lens, New Zealanders looked at the results and decided they "couldn't stand my photographs because they felt I was seeing something in New Zealanders that they didn't want to recognise.
"It had nothing to do with revealing a New Zealand that didn't want to know itself, but it had everything to do with photographing a New Zealand that I recognised as being totally unique. That's all. I felt I had to capture it."
And capture it she did. Look at Campsite, 1969. The landscape, and Friedlander has never been interested in landscape for the sake of landscape, is a backdrop, almost a cliche. It is a backdrop of the sort reproduced in many a tourism brochure to sell the natural charms of a country.
But what interests Friedlander, and the viewer, is the clutter of suburbia on holiday. It has turned its back on the natural wonders. There is washing to be done, perhaps a hangover to be slept off. There are no people, no one going about those chores, but you are in no doubt about who would perform which. As in Eglinton Valley, 1970, "a portrait of the essence of New Zealand, I think, of how people see New Zealand," even a photograph of sheep on a country road is about habitation.
"It's as though I knew it was going to change," Friedlander says.
It was. All the women she photographed for Michael King's first book, Moko, in 1972 have since died. These are still wonderfully fresh, celebratory portraits, and they represented a breakthrough for the immigrant photographer whose gift has been her unique foreign perspective. She felt, for the first time, a sense of belonging.
"I felt I was part of New Zealand once I became knowledgeable about the history - when you begin to understand a history, you can't help being touched and being involved in it. Otherwise you're living in a vacuum."
It is perhaps for her portraits of other artists that Friedlander is best known: Rita Angus, looking both regal and cheeky in 1969 (she was, thinks Friedlander, "so pleased - it had been a long time since anyone had been interested enough to take photographs"); Michael Illingworth, pictured in 1967, on a lonely road, carrying flowers, a stranger in a culturally hostile landscape; that now classic 1966 portrait of James K. Baxter, contemplative in paisley, the demons lurking somewhere in the endless depths of that black background.
It is the strangest thing, says Friedlander, "as a very small child I used to think 'one day I'm going to marry an artist, and I'm going to look after them so they can paint."'
Her portfolio of New Zealand artists is a form of "looking after." Because artists, when Friedlander arrived here, and to her total incomprehension, were people on the outskirts of society, to be shunned rather than celebrated. If she were to photograph them, that would be a form of validation - her way of nurturing them.
Those portraits are her gift to our cultural landscape. They seek to capture, says Friedlander simply, "the best photograph of that person, as I see it, in terms of saying something about the person."
Or, as Ron Brownson writes in his essay, Are you looking for us? We are here, in the retrospective catalogue: "[Friedlander] is able to catalyse a shift of the sitter's attention into a more relaxed, self-revealing, and infinitely more personal countenance. This procedure may appear effortless [it does] but it is one of the most difficult skills for a camera artist to attain, and it is dedicated to obtaining an image that exposes the person's true character."
Which can be a slightly unnerving sensation: waiting to see what Marti Friedlander has exposed in mine.
* Marti Friedlander: Photographs, March 10 until May 20, Auckland Art Gallery.