By T.J. McNAMARA
Photography can do many things. It can raise memories; it can raise questions; it can raise hackles. At the moment there are three exhibitions in Auckland that do all these things.
The largest exhibition is the work of Marti Friedlander at the City Gallery. This is a show that has attracted immense attention because there is something in it that arouses memories for almost all New Zealanders, although some of the photographs are of Israel.
Although the attention has been concentrated on the subject matter - the elderly Maori women, the rural New Zealanders, our artists, our children, our people - little has been said about the art of these photographs. This is because the art of Marti Friedlander is the art that conceals art.
The apparent spontaneity that makes these photographs so fresh and strong is often, especially in the portraits, the result of intense study of the subject in the context of their milieu and attention to pose and lighting. There is also the clever eye that spots such things the Mediterranean style of rowing used by the Greek colony in Island Bay in Wellington.
The approach to this grand body of work is more than a little dour, but it is also the result of consistent study of our art and literature. As in our literature, the suburbia of Herne Bay or Remuera is rigidly excluded.
There is a Frank Sargeson feel to these shots of rugged farmers and shearers with a cigarette hanging from their lip. The bare feet of an old woman that make her one with the planks of her home veranda are like the strong feet that grip the earth in a Russell Clark painting.
The feeling of the work is unfailingly literary and liberal. The sympathy shown is always with the poor and protesters. Image after image recalls times and places but always the focus is on people. There are unforgettable images of artists: Tony Fomison in his bed as if laid out in his coffin not only records the artist, but also evokes the macabre qualities of some of his painting. The portrait of Rita Angus shows her bright bird eye sparkling with quick intelligence.
The art of the photographer is complemented by the skills of the gallery's display artists. Despite their quality, such a mass of similarly sized black-and-white photographs could so easily have seemed better in a book than on a wall, but simple rectangular background areas of discrete colour and an immaculate sense of grouping and interval contribute much to the effect of the exhibition.
Immaculate precision is also a quality of prints by Michael Parekowhai in the attractive space that has been added to the Gow Langsford Gallery, although his photographs are in vivid colour.
They are huge arrangements of bright flowers against a white background. Very close scrutiny might recognise that the flowers are all artificial. The whiteness of the background is intensified by the white vases in which the arrangements are placed. These are like the conventional Crown Lynn vases of the past scaled up to the size of funerary urns or the receptacles that contain flowers placed on graves.
This quality that suggests these flowers are some sort of memorial is in turn reinforced by the titles given to each print, titles taken from the places and battles associated with the First World War. The camp at Etaples is a complicated mass of a variety of flowers, but Passchendaele is all roses and poppies in green and white. An explosion of rhododendrons recalls the mines under Messines Ridge.
At one level these photographs are astonishingly sharp, spectacular arrangements of flowers that recall the effects the artist achieved by his enlarged photographs of birds, but on other levels they raise all sorts of questions. Why do we celebrate pain and death with the beauty of flowers? What is the nature of a memorial? Where is the boundary between the real and the artificial? After the spectacular immediate impact there is food for speculation.
A very special world is evoked by 15 colour photographs of naked, pregnant women by Emma Bass at the Chiaroscuro Gallery. Many of the photographs are superb, but this world of pregnancy and childbirth is treated so frankly that it might well cause dismay and unease. These courageous photographs do not exclude vomit, poo and varicose veins from the world of naked Eve.
Yet the solid realism is countered by the way the frank works are interspersed with poetic works where the shape of the gravid woman is filled with colourful flowers or fauna.
Some images make a very strong point: that all women, however celebrated, are subject to the same processes in childbearing is conveyed by a woman with a wig and a mask of makeup that makes her Madonna.
Some of the works try too hard, but nevertheless, this is a vivid show that mixes joy, mystery and the sheer awkwardness of bearing a child.