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A Man Walks Out of a Bar ... Lucien Rizos: New Zealand photographs review

Where Robert Frank’s The Americans is primarily about a place, Lucien Rizos’s photographs are about a time.

Between 1979 and 1982, while travelling around New Zealand, Lucien Rizos took 24,000 photo­graphs of ordinary people and places, seemingly randomly. Some of these austere black and white images were shown at Wellington’s PhotoForum Gallery in 1980, and there was talk of a book, but nothing more was seen or heard of them. A year or two ago, art historian Damian Skinner made it his mission to bring this work to light and now, after 30 years, 66 of these photographs appear in published form.

A man walks Out of a Bar… pays conscious tribute, in both imagery and design, to Robert Frank’s seminal 1958 book The Americans, which not only shaped the way that vast country was perceived, but also altered the course of photography’s documentary tradition. It is tempting from today’s perspective to regard the 1950s as a golden age of peace, progress and prosperity – just go through your old National Geographics – but  Swiss-born Frank’s photos redress that balance: his colourless images from US state after US state convey Cold War anxiety and the limits of materialism in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.

But where Frank’s book is primarily about a place, Rizos’s is about a time. Looking at his sequence, it’s not always easy to believe that between 1979 and 1982 there were blue skies and laughter or that people relaxed at the beach. The images are grainy and grim – as were Frank’s – and there’s a sense of lives lived within the confines of small places, geographically and spiritually. Rizos was documenting the sunset years of Muldoonism, years marked by the ­muffled drumbeat of events such as the Bastion Point occupation, the Erebus disaster and the ’81 Tour.

A man walks Out of a Bar… pays an unconscious tribute to the documentary tradition of photography, which has been perceived as passé and unsexy. It fell out of art-world favour generally in the 1980s, particularly in New Zealand, where market-forces ideology promoted personal gain over community values, and anything resembling social crusading was deemed simp­listic and old-fashioned. Now, as the market-forces argument struggles for credibility, there seems to be a slight revival of respect for the documentary – even in the art world, which, of all ­sectors, seems most to have been seduced by the scent of money. This book’s ­appearance right now is no accident. It’s timely in all senses.

A MAN WALKS OUT OF A BAR … LUCIEN RIZOS: NEW ZEALAND ­PHOTOGRAPHS, 1979-1982, with essays by Damian Skinner and Ian Wedde (Rim Books/PhotoForum, $45).

Peter Ireland is an art writer specialising in photography. He was a contributor to New Zealand Post Book Awards finalist
Brian Brake: Lens on the World.