Marti Friedlander: ‘A collector of raw evidence’

by Diana Wichtel / 22 October, 2013
Master photographer Marti Friedlander, at home in Parnell Auckland, October 2013. Photo/David White

Marti Friedlander has photographed everyone from tattooed kuia and Rita Angus to Sir Walter Nash and John Key. Her story is told in a memoir.

"I’m going to keep quiet now,” promises Marti Friedlander, photographer, national treasure, force of nature, for the umpteenth time. “I said to Gerrard before you came, ‘I’m going to let Diana do all the talking.’” You imagine her husband of 56 years took this with a grain of salt. “You can’t help it if it’s your personality – full of life,” she explains.

I noticed. It’s as difficult to believe Marti Friedlander can be 85 as it is to get a sensible question in edgewise during our free-range exchange. When she isn’t telling her stories, she’s getting you to tell yours.

The conversation began when I was in the cab on the way to her townhouse – nice view, lots of art – in Parnell. The tiles can be slippery. The woman who once roundly told off Baron Philippe de Rothschild for his bad manners – shortage of chutzpah is not one of her failings – calls to make sure I’ll be careful not to go for a skate. Not on her watch.

“When people say I’m formidable, Gerrard laughs,” she says, after I tell her I was nervous about meeting her. She can make an impression. “I must say, quite forceful and a little scary,” says painter Gretchen Albrecht in Shirley Horrocks’s superb 2004 documentary Marti: The Passionate Eye. “She’s very bossy,” mused potter Barry Brickell. Everybody from Walter Nash and Yehudi Menuhin to passing livestock have submitted their decisive moments to her penetrating gaze.

Her directness can be a bit confronting in our culture. “There is not much honesty in New Zealand. Everybody wants to be careful.” Not her. “I don’t believe in playing games. It takes up too much of your time. If someone says, ‘What do you think?’, why not say what you think?”

Friedlander does just that in her new book, Self-Portrait, written with oral historian Hugo Manson, who first interviewed her when she received her 2011 Arts Foundation Icon Award. “I said, ‘Do you really have to?’ I don’t like being interviewed. Anyway, he came and he charmed me.”

Martha Gordon in 1942.

In Self-Portrait she talks about life, her work, growing up from age three with older sister Anne in London orphanages. “I said to Hugo, ‘I don’t know how you managed to solicit that from me, because really, I don’t talk about my background.’ That memoir is more about what I haven’t revealed than what I have revealed.” The most powerful absence is that of Friedlander’s parents. “And to remain so.”

The basic facts: they were Jewish, from Kiev as far as she knows, refugees from the pogroms. Bethnal Green, East End poverty, a broken family. Friedlander, born Martha Gordon, was very ill as a child. There was an operation for a deformed duodenum. “Always hugging herself in pain,” Anne recalled in The Passionate Eye.

Yet childhood is mostly sunny the way Friedlander tells it. “Growing up in the Jewish orphanage was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” she writes valiantly.

“I was fortunate,” she insists. She had her sister and a strong Jewish identity to see her through privations and prejudice. For a young woman with a forceful personality there was, ultimately, a certain liberation. “I have to say quite honestly when we were growing up I did have some moments when I thought, in a way I’m lucky. No one to tell me what to do. I loved making my own decisions.” She did feel disadvantaged, “in the sense that you knew one should have a mother and a father. But I was so loved.” She was a bright child; made people laugh.

Perhaps that charm evolved as a survival strategy. “Perhaps it was. If you really want to analyse, my sickness might have made me more cheerful in order to get … I don’t know,” she says. “You don’t want to go there too much.”

We don’t go there. Kim Hill interviewed her once about a book she’d dedicated to her parents. “She said, ‘Tell me about your parents.’ I said, ‘Why should I, Kim?’ Everybody wears their heart on their sleeves these days … Everybody is telling everybody everything. I can’t stand it.”

There is a haunting moment in the book, from the orphanage years. Visiting day. The two little Gordon girls. “We would stand there by the gate, thinking we might have visitors – this is becoming painful for me to remember,” she writes.

Unsurprisingly, for one who has spent over half a century capturing the intense, eternal moment there in front of her lens, she doesn’t like looking back. There is a brief summation of the family history in a 2001 Metro magazine interview. There’s reference to the illness of their mother, the disappearance from their lives of their father. Their mother visited the girls at first but not for long. What really happened remains uncertain. Is that accurate, I ask, not wishing to cause pain. “I think that’s perfect,” she says. End of story. There are the sensitivities of her sister and family in England to consider. And Friedlander remains fiercely protective of the memory of parents she barely knew. “I think when you love people,” she tells me, “you want to honour them and lift them up.”

The book is, in a way, the story of a woman who invented herself out of what was to hand. Later, she set about inventing New Zealand, or a version of it that remains resonant into a new century. “Well, in a way I did. But that wasn’t conscious.” Self-Portrait is part memoir, part photograph album, part cultural history. It also reads like an ongoing conversation with Gerrard Friedlander. “Yes, it is. I’ve told Gerrard this is my love story to him, actually. He gets a bit embarrassed by it, but I don’t care.”

Marti with sister Anne, in the late 1940s.

She met him, appropriately, in a friend’s photo album. He was a New Zealander in London on his OE. He gets a chapter – “I said, ‘Who is this beautiful man?’” – and a supporting role in the rest of the story.

“This is my beautiful Gerrard,” cries Friedlander, when he arrives as we’re talking in the kitchen. I’ve heard a lot about him, I say. He smiles the serene, eloquent smile of the long-term spouse. “Darling, go upstairs, sweetie. Because I’ll feel less inhibited,” says Friedlander. He companionably ignores the instruction; heads off to another room. Any inhibiting effect on his wife is difficult to detect. Their relationship seems humorous, tolerant, devoted. They’ve been out that morning to a neighbourhood cafe to have a coffee and meet friends. It sounds like a bit of a ritual. “It is a ritual. There are some rituals which are fabulous.”

There’s something of the ritual about photography, too. Certainly the way it was done when she began. The thrill of developing and printing. “Every time I’d say to Gerrard, ‘Darling, I’ve taken the best photograph that’s ever been taken.’ For god’s sake, I knew I hadn’t, really. But you actually have some hours of a tremendous feeling of achievement. That’s to me the beauty of it. Not the actuality of it. It’s the belief in it.”

In London, aged 17, living in a bedsit among poets and artists, she worked for expat New Zealand photographer Douglas Glass, then for fashion photographer Gordon Crocker.

But it was the shock of the new when the couple moved to New Zealand in 1958 that had her picking up a camera. “I think those first three years were probably the hardest of my whole life,” she writes. This says something, considering her early years. She decided to be the perfect wife, went to work in Gerrard’s dental practice in Te Atatu South. “I was a terrible dental nurse.”

Stranded in paradise. She was homesick for London. There was tragedy – the death of their baby daughter, her only child, at full term. The couple went to Israel for a time. Gerrard had an affair. “… why don’t you scream and rant and rave?” a friend asks her. “I said, ‘I can’t … he’s going through his own suffering and I’m going through mine,’” she writes. “There was no support,” she tells me, of dealing with such a loss in those days. “He was grieving.”

Gordon Crocker’s photograph of Marti in the late 1940s.

On the cover of Friedlander’s book is a self-portrait taken in 1961. In later ones, she stares down the camera, sometimes with hands gesturing like a conductor or magician. The 1961 portrait is softer, uncertain. She’s looking down, into the viewfinder of her Rollei. “You see, I took that photograph the day I stopped being Gerrard’s nurse,” she says. She’d decided to be a photographer. “It was like a celebration,” she says, of the photo. “I was in his surgery. I’d just lost my baby and I said to Gerrard, ‘This is the last day I’m going to work for you, darling.’ He understood.” In the corridor was a mirror. “I took my Rollei and I thought, ‘Oh, you don’t look so bad.’ That’s how it happened.”

The rest is history, hers and ours. “Isn’t this beautifully produced?” she says of her book. It is. The aesthetic seems to take its cue from the monochrome, clear-eyed elegance of the instantly recognisable, still startling photographs inside. Children and couples. Politicians, painters and protesters. As with her photographs, the text wants to make you see. “Look at her lovely legs,” she urges, of a photograph of a very young Gil Hanly. There’s Parihaka and what she calls a “snapshot”, hilarious, of Robert Muldoon manning a barbecue. She didn’t like him. Helen Clark: “That’s Helen: with you, but not with you.” There’s Ralph Hotere, Rita Angus, John Key with a passing cat.

Eglinton Valley, from 1970, is a sort of great New Zealand novel in an image. Sheep emerge from a pall of road dust, stroppy and otherworldly, eyeballing the camera. When Friedlander says hold it, you hold it.

“I don’t see myself as an artist,” she says. “I’ve been a photographer.” But there’s no false modesty. One of her favourite quotes, from Golda Meir: “Don’t be humble … you’re not that great.” She calls such photographs what they are: iconic. “I’ve got hundreds of images that I could put in that people have never seen before, but far better to talk about iconic images because people do often want to know: why did I take that?”

If there are areas of reserve in the book, there’s also frankness. She recalls working on the landmark book Moko with Michael King. “I felt totally at ease with them,” she writes of the kuia. “I wonder if Michael and I might have been intrusive, although at the time we were made to feel so welcome.” It wasn’t easy being a working woman on the road in the 70s. Some people assumed they were having an affair. “In those days, if you were travelling with a man, everyone presumed you were.”

On honeymoon with Gerrard in 1957.

She tells of Hamish Keith berating her at the launch of a book of photographs of New Zealand artists and of the hurt of the cooling of a close friendship with Karl and Kay Stead over a dinner-party argument about Israel.

It’s all told with humour and spirit. “This photograph is like a Gilbert and Sullivan chorus line,” she notes, of a line-up of police during the Springbok tour. There’s the disappointing Baron de Rothschild. She photographed him for a story in the Listener. The Friedlanders offered him hospitality. He insisted they visit him at Château Mouton Rothschild if they were in France. They did, only to be kept waiting and treated like tourists. “I can remember he came in with this beret … ‘Marti!’” She mimes an aristocratic flinging open of arms. “No way. I was furious. And then this daughter of his, an absolute snob, showed us their wine museum and even then they didn’t offer us a glass of wine. You can’t imagine that, can you?”

There’s a wild, difficult day spent photographing painters Tony Fomison, Philip Clairmont and Allen Maddox. “They all had their personal tragedies … All of them died around the age of 50,” she writes. “I think you have to try to survive in order to show what you need to reveal, a kind of purpose that gives meaning to your life.”

There’s a great poignancy to many of the book’s photographs. “One day,” as Friedlander likes to say, “we will all be just a photograph.” Loss and dislocation inform Friedlander’s outsider’s eye. She became a New Zealand citizen in 1974. How does she feel now? “I will never be a New Zealander because I’m not a New Zealander. When I say that, I don’t say it disparagingly. I didn’t grow up in New Zealand, but I can feel with New Zealanders.”

There’s a self-consciousness here that’s not quite her style. “I loved growing up in England because I never had to explain what it was to be English … Whereas being a New Zealander, you always sort of have to make a statement about it and I think that’s a shame in a way. It just means that we haven’t grown up yet.” “We,” she says.

Marti in 1967.

Exile was also a kind of gift. “When I was first taking photographs in New Zealand, I felt only excitement. I was grateful for being in a place where everything I saw was an absolute wonder,” she writes. “I’m a collector of raw evidence.”

We go upstairs to her study. Her husband is next door. “Gerrard, we’re having a lovely talk,” says Friedlander. “Can you summarise it?” he asks me, with the air of one issuing a challenge. Yikes. It’s a bit like developing a photo, I say. I’ll have to go away and see what I’ve got. “Well, best of luck.”

What you go away with is an extraordinary, courageous story, quite a few laughs and an irrepressible joie de vivre in the face of age, ill health, whatever life throws at her. “I think I’ve had every single illness people can have in the world,” she says. “I laugh with Gerrard about it. I say, ‘Darling, something is testing me.’ But in a way it’s given me tremendous strength to cope in difficult situations.” You also go away with a book she thinks you might like – Claude Lanzmann’s autobiography – and an apple to eat on the way.

She’s still incredibly busy, preparing for the launch of the book and the accompanying exhibition of photographs from a 1971 trip to the Tokelau Islands. There’s a lot of her work in archives, including some she did in Japan for the London Review of Books in the 80s. “All sorts of extraordinary things that will one day get exposure.”

She’s done so much. Was there ever a plan? “No!” The very idea. “The plan was to survive every day. And I’ll tell you something, it’s still the plan,” she says. “I wake up every morning and I say to Gerrard, ‘Darling! We’re still here!”

SELF PORTRAIT, by Marti Friedlander with Hugo Manson (Auckland University Press, $59.99). 

This article was first published in the October 26, 2013 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Follow the Listener on Twitter or Facebook.

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