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New Zealand's pioneering art photographers

Rock Concert, Te Horo (1971) by Ans Westra.

Their work has faded from sight, but New Zealand’s pioneering art photographers have a powerful story to tell.

“The tax man sat there and said, ‘Well, I can only put studio work down as a hobby, Mr Fields.’” It was New Zealand in 1976. Unable to recoup his fuel expenses for a high-mileage photography project, an enraged John Fields packed his bags and left for Sydney, telling his wife, Patricia, “Stuff this culture!”

Several of the incandescently beautiful images from that “hobby” project are included in a sumptuous volume from Te Papa’s curator of photography, Athol McCredie. In The New Photography (Te Papa Press, $70), McCredie profiles eight pioneering New Zealand art photographers, all active in the 60s and 70s. Ans Westra is the closest to a household name. The others – Fields, Gary Baigent, Richard Collins, John Daley, Max Oettli, John B. Turner and Len Wesney – are legends today, but only among their peers.

Left, Lifecast, Elam (1970) by Max Oettli. Right, Julian (1970) by Len Wesney.

The volume was years in the making. Seven now elderly photographers were interviewed between 2011 and mid-2012, and two of them, Daley and Fields, died before publication. Appallingly, the great Len Wesney died in a house fire before McCredie could talk to him.

The interviews he did get are unexpectedly open and candid. “When I did [my book of photography] Whaiora with Katerina Mataira in the 1980s,” Westra says, “she felt that everybody in the book should be asked permission. I started with the old lady who was leading an action song in Parliament grounds, and she said, ‘God no, you can’t use that, I look fat.’ And I thought, ‘I’m not going further on this one, that’s crazy.’”

Ladies of Thames, Brian Boru Hotel, Thames (1975), by John Fields.

In 1976, the year Fields left Auckland in a huff, Geoff Chapple wrote optimistically in the NZ Listener: “Talk to photographers and you are quickly caught by a new excitement in New Zealand photography. They look at the world as rhythms of light – a jam session, and if they are ready then – click – it can be captured... Photography is now a movement. Its self-appointed task is to slice into, and hold, glimpses of a continuously disappearing New Zealand.”

The “glimpses” are themselves in danger of “disappearing” from our collective sight,  even though they are the work of the photographic equivalents of painters like Ralph Hotere or Pat Hanly. Why aren’t they better known?

Perhaps it is because, like Inland Revenue in the 70s, not enough of us know photography can indeed be a “jam session” – art in its purest sense. McCredie shows how wrong that is.

Bed, Union St, Auckland (1969) by John Fields.

This article was first published in the July 2019 issue of North & South.

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