Photographer Laurence Aberhart’s book captures war memorials in all their glory and decay.
For his new book and accompanying exhibition of photographs of Anzac war memorials, Laurence Aberhart travelled throughout New Zealand and eastern Australia to add to the images he’d been taking for 40 years.
Aberhart, one of the country’s most highly regarded photographers, remembers a three-day road trip from his home in Russell in the Bay of Islands “to knock off the last of them”. “It was probably 2000km of going, ‘There’s one there, there’s one there, there’s one there …’”
In Queensland he drove 600km in a day, taking in a memorial he’d forgotten he’d already photographed in 1997.
There was, however, one that was never going to detain him. When I ask if Russell, where he’s lived since 1983, has a memorial, he laughs, saying: “We shouldn’t talk about that.” For years, he says, residents would “go to the memorial at a little Maori community out of town. Around 1998 or 1999, [it was decided] we needed a memorial of our own.
“So we have been inflicted with the most hideous memorial in the country bar none. It’s an awful thing, with what I assume is an eternal flame carved out of some sort of red rock on the top.”
Aberhart thinks more highly of the memorial in Nelson, the city in which he was born in 1949. That memorial does feature in his book and he can remember attending Anzac Day commemorations there in the 1950s when the parades were huge events and his father, who fought in World War II, played in the Nelson Garrison Brass Band. The book is dedicated to him, “Pvt Harold Ernest Aberhart MM (7980) 20th Battalion. POW.”
“My mother always said my father was very proud of his low enlistment number,” says Aberhart, “which is why I included it in that dedication. He actively joined up [to fight Hitler].”
Anzac focuses on “digger” memorials – ones that incorporate a statue of a solder. The earliest photograph is of the memorial at Katea, near Owaka in Southland, taken in February 1980. There is another of the memorial at Alexandra, Central Otago, taken in December of the same year, as well as a shot of it from 2012. It is one of several return visits in the book, in this case capturing changes wrought by time, a perennial theme throughout Aberhart’s career.
In terms of the 2013 trip to Westbrook in Queensland, which he had been to in 1997 and forgotten about, “I think if I’d realised I’d already done it I wouldn’t have gone again. But I liked the little boy sitting there [in 2013]. It was too good an opportunity to miss, really.”
The Katea memorial intrigued Aberhart “because I was cruising Southland and saw a name on a map, so I drove to Katea, which doesn’t exist. It was a crossroads, a tin shed, a hall and this sort of memorial sticking up out of a bunch of blackberry bushes. And nothing else. When you look at the brim of the soldier’s hat, all the little pieces of reinforcing wire are sticking out, because it had been made of concrete. I was intrigued by that.”
Decay, time’s fingerprint – of course he was intrigued. Aficionados will be amused – but not surprised – at Aberhart’s observations of the memorial upgrades ahead of this year’s centenary of the outbreak of World War I: “Not necessarily in my photographic opinion for the better. I just like the moss and the limescale …”
The centenary prompted Aberhart to make something more of the memorial photographs he had been sporadically taking over the years. That and the realisation they are subject to decay.
“I photograph a lot of things and I’m fairly actively trying not to photograph more than I already do,” he says of the churches, marae, cemeteries and other recurring images in his career-retrospective book Aberhart (2007). “So for a long time I avoided things you think are tolerably permanent, such as war memorials. But gradually as you look at them over the decades you realise – and I think the Christchurch earthquake is a good example – nothing is particularly permanent. So gradually I adjusted to doing them, because they should be done.”
He knew, however, that in 2014 they would be venerated. “A few years ago, I realised this centenary was going to come up and I guessed that far too late in the piece somebody would have the very bright idea to get me to do an exhibition on them. So I just ploughed ahead more intensely for the last three or four years.”
That included ensuring he shot Australian memorials along with the New Zealand ones. “I went, ‘Damn it, I don’t want to photograph their memorials, because it’s their culture and I’ve got enough going on trying to look at our culture.’ But gradually one or two crept in because you’d be in the right place at the right time and the light was great.”
After building on that, and with an exhibition in mind, he was disappointed to discover that some of the organisations that had heard about his project and approached him “just weren’t interested in Australia being in it”.
A sad reflection on the Anzac spirit in 2014? “It’s really terrible. But Australians aren’t much better. You go over there and get sheep jokes ad nauseam.”
One of the main interests for Aberhart is the relationship between the memorials and their surroundings. Towns have either vanished or grown around them (to such an extent in Beaudesert, Queensland, the memorial is now cheek-by-jowl with a KFC outlet, Colonel Sanders pulling rank on the soldier sculpture).
A favourite memorial for Aberhart is a Maori one he shot in Wairoa, Hawke’s Bay, “the only one where it shows a man in uniform holding a Bible, which I think is wonderful, really”.
Another, in Clydevale, Otago, he photographed from the back as well as the front, “because in the rear view the figure seems to be surveying the great New Zealand landscape he had protected”.
But the one “that illustrates my feelings most about [the subject] would be the Isla Bank one in Southland, which is very dark and brooding”.
ANZAC, photographs by Laurence Aberhart (VUP, $60). Accompanying exhibition at Dunedin Public Art Gallery until August 31, then touring.
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