Marti Friedlander: A picture of empathy

by Deborah Smith / 29 November, 2016
Eloquent and tenacious, Marti Friedlander took photographs that depicted her adopted home of New Zealand with empathy and breathtaking clarity.
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One summer, Marti Friedlander introduced herself to me at The Bethells Cafe at Bethells Beach. There was no need, of course: she was already a legend to me. She was there with a guest from Argentina and was hoping to show him the artist Don Binney’s old bach at Te Henga. She had visited and photographed Don there many years ago and was keen to get back for another look, but wasn’t sure of the way. I offered to show her. That is how our friendship began.

We both lived in Parnell and met often for coffee. For years Mink Cafe on Parnell Road was practically Marti’s second office. She read the paper and held court there. Later she transferred up the road to Alphabet. She rocked an elfin haircut, carefully curated eyebrows and her photographer’s uniform of dark pants, a stylish anorak and sneakers. She was besotted with Gerrard, her husband. I loved the way she called him “darling” in her husky, flirtatious voice. It seemed like such a good thing after many years of marriage.

Once, when I admitted to never having read Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie, she turned up with her own well-read copy of it as a gift. It was a Penguin paperback edition from 1962, delivered in a little striped Guatemalan bag. I still treasure this small object, humble but absolutely precious; it serves as a perfect emblem for Marti’s love and support. She was a voracious reader and generous with books, articles and enthusiasm.

In 2005 I had the opportunity of having an exhibition at the John Leech Gallery in Auckland. I had always enjoyed collaborations more than solo performances, so I asked Marti if she’d be interested in joining me and showing her work too. I had seen in her study a photograph she’d taken of a girl in a ragged tutu (an image entitled ‘Anna Hammond’), charming but with an edge. I wanted others to see some of these lesser-known images, especially her images of children. We talked a lot about our interest in photographing young people and what we felt drove this.

I could recognise much of my own childhood in many of Marti’s images. ‘Mt Eden 1969’ (previous page), a photograph of three young girls, affected me greatly: the girls’ homemade shift frocks, patterned in great optimism; the haircuts; the body language. I remembered those dandelion-splattered suburban lawns of 1960s New Zealand. And I wondered what happened to those girls – the frowning non-conformist trying to escape her pinafore, the unsure one in the middle and the slightly worried one on the right tugging at her hemline.

I wondered how Marti had appeared to them. She probably seemed quite exotic and powerful.

Marti gave me open access to her archives, which are lovingly housed at the Auckland Art Gallery. Her body of work is so rich, from powerful moko’d kuia to portraits of our cultural stars, to our early suburbs, urban and rural sites, protests, children and more. To trawl though her proof sheets was an incredible privilege. The resulting exhibition was called she said. The title was an acknowledgment of our love of talking together, as women, sharing our experiences and observations.

We agreed to present a selection of large 20 x 24 inch fibre-based prints with identical frames. The rationale was that it would make an interesting conversation and the constraints would contrast the way we work. Marti was more of a collector in her images. She moved to New Zealand from the UK in 1958 and studiously documented her new country, its inhabitants and their ways. I am more of a constructor, creating images in a more staged manner. Even so, there seemed to be similarities in our work. At the opening, the artist Greer Twiss joked that he was playing a game with Dee, his wife, to see whose work was whose, sometimes with confusing results. I liked the fact we were hard to pigeonhole.

A few years later I was giving a talk at an exhibition of mine at the Gus Fisher Gallery. Marti was there, supportive as always. At one stage, attempting to be inclusive and thrilled to have her there, I asked her if she had any questions for me. “You know me, Deb,” she grandly declared to all those assembled. “I don’t ask questions, I only make statements!” Which indeed she did, holding court about her response to my show for  a typically eloquent five minutes.

Once, over coffee, I was talking about that horrible way in which we sometimes find ourselves judging others when we are feeling bad about ourselves. “Yes!” said Marti in acknowledgment, “but welcome to the human race, Deborah!”

And that was Marti: larger than life, passionate, opinionated, big-hearted and always real.

Last week, Marti’s big life here finished. My younger friends have been shocked to learn she was 88. They thought she was much more youthful. There is a pall hanging over Parnell. I think of how Marti arrived in New Zealand all those years ago and made such an evocative photographic record of us and our idiosyncrasies. It must have been hard for her. But her strong and empathetic way of looking and thinking, her tenacity and craft, leave us with the most extraordinary record of who we were then, full of the possibilities of what we might become.  

Deborah Smith is an Auckland photographer and the co-founder of Cloud Workshop, an art project for grieving young people.

This article was first published in Paperboy magazine.
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