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The eye of Ans Westra

It took a Dutch woman to see our strangeness and photograph it, so that we might one day see it, too.

For once, it is sunnier in Wellington than it has any right to be, but after a cheery, "Halloo!" at the gate, Ans Westra ushers her visitor around the back of the house and down into the sudden gloom of her subterranean flat. She owns the whole house, but, in the first of a succession of eccentricities, chooses to live underneath it, in a series of rooms with as much natural light as a cave. "My last house was very light. The paintings faded. But that was a different life," she offers, as an intriguing explanation.

Looking around at the junkshop levels of clutter, you do get an Alice-in-Wonderland sensation, as though the contents of a much bigger house have been stuffed, with haste, into a minuscule one. But there is little time to wonder. Without any small talk or offers of a cup of tea - without, in fact, even waiting to be asked a question - Westra is off and halfway through her life story before I've had a chance to open my notebook.

As I sink back into a couch that is the size of a double bed and half-listen to her chattering away in a girlish, high-pitched voice with a still-strong Dutch accent, I can't resist making an inventory: one dust-covered Buzzy Bee; a glass of grey feathers; a jar of ancient willow catkins; plastic flower leis; hundreds, possibly thousands, of Agfa film paper cartons; a similar number of dehumidifiers; a black feather boa; a masquerade mask; a definite presence of macramé; a couple of kitsch Maori dolls; and enough books to sink a submarine.

Yes, a submarine. Another photographer who has seen Westra in action described the way she looked down into the lens of her Rolleiflex camera by saying it was as if she were manning a submarine and the only way she could see what was in front of her was by peering out through its periscope. Talk about life through a lens. Westra is the first to admit that she is either taking pictures or taking part - but never both at the same time. "You're either visiting, or you're talking, or you're behind a camera. When I'm behind a camera, I can't communicate in any other way. So you isolate yourself. You're comfortable behind a camera."

In the end, it is Westra's invisibility that has made her work so enduring. She doesn't impose her personality on the subject in front of her. To compare her to that other celebrated photographer of her generation, Marti Friedlander (more of that later), where Friedlander focuses with a European cynicism, Westra softens her gaze with empathy and affection, allowing the dignity of her subject to emerge. Where Friedlander directs her subjects like a field general, telling them where to sit and what to do, Westra hovers in the background and waits for the least contrived moment.

There is often a lot of interesting stuff going on in the background of a Westra photograph, which tells you, subliminally, about the era in which the photo was taken. "It's a different way of working," says Westra. "I'd rather pick from what I see. I don't impose my ideas, my personality, on what I'm photographing. I blend in a bit more. I'm apparently very good at it. But I don't know how I do it."

For an invisible woman, Westra is much taller than you would expect. "That has been handy because my camera is waist high, otherwise it would have been at a funny angle. But I've been a lot taller, of course, because you begin to shrink. And also, I stoop." All that peering into her periscope has forced her spine into a permanent hunch.

Handboek, the major exhibition of Westra's work that opens at the Auckland Art Gallery this week, is in many ways, a history lesson spanning the past 50 years. You'll hear other photographers expressing jealousy at the situations that Westra has been in, and captured, unnoticed: Waiwhetu marae and Parakino Pa school in the 1960s; James K Baxter's funeral in the 1970s; Springbok tour demonstrations and a Porirua Mongrel Mob convention in the 1980s; inside the brothels of Auckland and Hamilton in the 1990s. There was Washday at the Pa, the book that was pulped by the Minister of Education, in 1964, after a complaint from the Maori Women's Welfare League. The book captured genuine rural poverty; they accused Westra of making it up.

Later on, she learnt to be more careful, censoring herself before others did it for her. "I tend to be drawn more easily to what stands out. You make a few compromises because you've got too much of something." By the time it came to doing the book Wellington: City Alive in 1976, "we were counting how many homeless people were in it. Especially not too many homeless people of a dark-skinned colour." Does that censorship contradict the spirit of documentary photography? "Ya, well that is self-censorship, because I didn't want to present Maori in the wrong light. It's more of a kind of kindness."

When Westra stepped off the boat from the Netherlands in 1957, she was struck by the brightness and intensity of the light here and the intensity of our wish to conform. She remembers working at the Crown Lynn china factory for a miserable few months, painting ugly gold edges onto perfectly fine white cups. "Woolworths wouldn't buy them if they didn't have a bit of gold." How odd, and how provincial we must have seemed to the Dutch girl, raised on the great architecture and design works of Europe, who had gone through a four-year course in the decorative arts.

Starved of her usual aesthetic pleasures, Westra found herself drawn to the only visually arresting sign of life. "I noticed the Maori family next door. How different they were. How much more open and enjoying life and not caring about outward appearances so much. This Maori family, they were just a big bouncy family and they were playing in the garden, so I would stand there looking over the fence and thinking they were really beautiful people."

Was Westra aware of their value as a historical document when she first started photographing Maori? "I thought that I should be photographing them because nobody else was. Not the real Maori life, in the 60s, when it seemed to be rapidly disappearing. There seemed to be so much pressure on Maori to become Europeanised." It is amusing to Westra that later on, during the 80s and 90s, it was the Pakeha's turn to aspire to being Maori. Westra recalls a Pakeha friend who felt that she ought to learn Maori. "She said, 'I'm feeling I should be getting a moko. And you should, too, Ans!' And I said, 'You don't just have a moko. It means something. You're mad!' It's not something you can take out of context and think that it's a good idea to have it because it will give you status. Actually, she didn't get one. But I was horrified that she would even consider it."

On the subject of moko, Westra says that she never forgave Michael King for choosing Marti Friedlander to collaborate with him on the book, Moko: Maori tattooing in the 20th century, published in 1992. "He came to me and picked my brain on where these women were and I was going to go on the road with him. Then I hear that Marti had done the photos and I said to Michael, 'But you were coming back to me!' 'Oh,' he said, 'You told me you couldn't come with me. You needed to find somebody to look after your child.' 'Yes,' I said, 'I was just busy organising it!'" Westra laughs to indicate that she is no longer bitter, but she did feel cheated. "Interesting, really, because if I'd gone to those women and taken their photos, I would have handled it very differently to Marti. I prefer to be less interfering. Less directing."

Even though she battled through a three-month Maori language immersion course at polytech, Westra says she has never mistaken herself for Maori. "I came out of that and somebody said, 'Kia ora' to me in the street and I was sort of really startled and thought, 'No! I am Dutch.'" It is spending so much time among Maori, however, that has given her such a sure sense of who she is and where she comes from.

"I felt that Maori had given me that sense of identity that they have. No, I'm not Maori. I never can be. Titewhai Harawira said to me that I shouldn't be photographing them, that I would never have a Maori mind. That's putting it very strongly, but I said, 'I can appreciate it because I have where I come from and, yes, we feel things differently.' The Maori lives in a very different world, really, deep down, they live in among the spirits of their ancestors and they know where they're at."

Is Westra a textbook case of the only child who grew up to be a loner? She lives by herself in her bat-cave, but most of the time she is on the road, sleeping in the back of her station wagon, which is fitted with a comfortable mattress. "More comfortable than my bed," says the 68-year-old. "But I'm not a total gypsy. I could now really afford to travel and stay in motels, but then I much prefer just to have that freedom to move about, to be camping. I just pull up somewhere and sleep in the car and then I go and see people, stay with them, as long as it's comfortable on both sides and then I move on again."

There was a newspaper article last year that made more of her brief liaison with Barry Crump, in the 1960s, than she would have liked. Crump fathered her first child, Eric, but her time with him was brief. Three months. Was she in love with him? "Yes." They met when Crump was acting in the film Runaway, alongside Selwyn Muru. Westra was having a fling with Muru at the time. "We had a bit of a thing for a while, but Barry was ... Ya, it's not that he's scared of commitment. He's committed himself too often!" Westra laughs, but also seems to blush. "All over the place! It was just that he was a rolling stone, that's the best way of putting it."

She has never married, but there have been offers. Westra says her friend, novelist Noel Hilliard, with whom she collaborated on the Wellington book, wanted to marry her after his first wife died. "He was terribly lonely when Kiriwai died. He was living by himself in the house and ... I just didn't have time to stop, and I didn't want to. I had too much to do in life. I had to photograph." Do New Zealand men need too much looking after? "No. No. Dutchmen do, too. They need to be dominant. And they don't give you that much freedom. That's why the second relationship broke up, because that was a Dutchman.

"I've always been terribly single-minded and it has been difficult in relationships. The father of the two younger children [the Dutchman, again] was terribly jealous of my photography. And that broke us up. He couldn't tolerate it. He also went - Oh! - to the extreme of wanting the same camera. Wanting to photograph alongside me; being silly."

How perplexing that must have been. Westra takes her photography very seriously indeed. She has a collection of rare and boutique cameras and a trainspotterish level of technical knowledge to go with it. She is possibly the last photographer left who develops her own black and white film, laboriously, in her own darkroom. When old-fashioned photo paper was being phased out in favour of inferior plastic stuff, Westra bought bulk, enough to keep her in supplies to this day. She archives her negatives, with scholarly care. Has this dedication to photography ever made her lonely? "Not really. But again, that's the person I am. That's the upbringing I had. I can survive on my own."

After talking intensely for over an hour, Westra seems tired, but at the same time shows no sign of stopping. In the end, I just turn off the tape-recorder and ask her about the thousands of books that line her walls and sit in piles on the floor. "I collect them," she explains, "I'm a hoarder." They are substantial books, with diverse titles: The Cubist Epoch; The Deep End of the Ocean; Daddy, We Hardly Knew You; The Children of Dune; a whole shelf of Penguin Classics with orange spines. New Zealand writers: Frame, Hilliard, Hulme, Mansfield. "If you look at it generally, I prefer women writers, just because I can relate to them more, they're not so single-minded." Asked to recommend a recent read, Westra opts for Kowloon Tong, by Paul Theroux. "I find him very hard [to read], but it was the first time I understood slightly about male sexuality."

A tour of her darkroom, housed in a Gib-board box in the back of the garage, is graciously given. It smells toxic, like a recent chemical spillage. Other people tell her that she is slowly being poisoned, but it is not something Westra has ever worried about. She reminisces fondly about her daughter Lisa, who always used to say, "That's the smell of Mummy."

By this stage, I am getting used to the eccentric world of Ans Westra. It comes as no surprise to walk past her washing line and find it hung with several sets of identical navy-blue T-shirts and slacks; a self-imposed Maoist uniform. The only shock comes in her bathroom, with the discovery of a luxurious spa bath, complete with gold-plated taps. But good on her, you think - nothing beats a soak at the end of the day.

I find Westra pottering about in the kitchen, which is as crowded with trinkets and gadgets as the lounge. She offers me a drink of home-made lemon and grapefruit cordial - something a friend gave her, made from the rinds of their orchard fruit. It tastes like a bygone era; a drink out of Washday at the Pa. It provokes a wave of nostalgia, a yearning for simpler times that I never experienced in the first place. How wonderful to have all those photographs, a permanent record of how we used to be. "I say the photographs are my personal daybook," says Westra. "They're my journey, and everybody has got a different story to tell, different things they're interested in. But I don't claim my New Zealand to be it."

HANDBOEK - ANS WESTRA, Auckland Art Gallery, March 19 - May 15.