The Intuitive Eye

Marti Friedlander's photographs reveal a compassionate and intuitive eye as well as a deeply enquiring mind

Auckland photographer Marti Friedlander thinks it would be great if everyone could have large posters of her photographs in their home. “Why not?” she asks.She’s not being big-headed—she’s not like that. But she is acknowledging the fact that over the last 45 years she has created a powerful body of work that speaks to us with great emotional depth about what it is to be a New Zealander.

And it’s not presumptuous to use the word “us” in this context. Whether she is photographing European vintners in West Auckland, shearers in Balclutha, Maori kuia with moko, New Zealand artists and writers, churchgoers in the Tokelau Islands or anti-nuclear protesters, her photographs reflect the universality of human experience while also acknowledging rich local diversity. Though often intensely personal, her images always have a wider emotional resonance for the viewer. There is not a trace of sentimentality about them. For instance her portrait, Mark and Daniel, 2002, beautifully captures the intimacy of the bond between two gay men while also acknowledging the social taboos surrounding the public expression of such a bond. Not only is it a tender portrait of two individuals, it also speaks of a specific time in our history and the social values of that time.

Now acknowledged as a key figure in the history of New Zealand photography, Friedlander recently spoke at the launch of the book Contemporary New Zealand Photographers—the first major survey of New Zealand art photography in 30 years. The trajectory of her career to some extent mirrors the development of the medium, and its recognition as art, in this country. Slow to start and now rising like a bright star above the horizon.

“I was such a feisty human being and I was noticed more for my opinions than for my work in the 1970s and 80s,” she remarks.

In fact it took 30 years for Friedlander’s work to be recognised, resulting in a major survey exhibition in 2001 at Auckland Art Gallery. Curated by Ron Brownson, the show drew a massive audience to the gallery—many of whom wouldn’t normally visit. Speaking of that long-awaited recognition (Friedlander took her first freelance photographs in 1964) she says, “I was thrilled to bits. I loved that exhibition and what I loved about it was that I had such an enormous response, particularly from young people. People whom I’d never met came up to me in the street and said, ‘Good on you Marti; we love the exhibition’. What I rejoiced in is that it brought people into the gallery who would never have gone otherwise. People responded because they understood the images as a reflection of who they are; they were touched by them. And that is all I want my images to do—to touch people and make them think.”

Ironically, it is often outsiders who are able to best reflect on the particularities of place and national identity—and so it is with Friedlander. As a Jewish immigrant to this country—she arrived from London in 1958 after marrying New Zealander Gerrard Friedlander—she has always been highly attuned to the experiences of cultural diaspora and otherness that increasingly define post-colonial New Zealand. The experience of growing up in a Jewish orphanage in London, after her parents were forced to give her and her sister up due to extreme poverty, has reinforced her awareness of otherness.

Coming to New Zealand, Henderson to be precise, from London—where she had spent 10 years working as an assistant in the Kensington portrait and fashion studio of Gordon Crocker and Douglas Glass—was a shock for the forthright and “opinionated” young woman. She sensed a country poised on the edge of change, about to transform itself from a conservative, homogenous society into something far more dynamic and complex. Her photographs capture that transition. The longer you look, the more levels of meaning are revealed, giving the images a spaciousness that draws the gaze again and again.

“I love the work of Dorothea Lange; I like Paul Strand; I can admire Edward Weston—I think he is pretty clever—but I actually prefer the photographers who I can relate to by saying, ‘That image really moves me deeply,’ rather than looking at an image and saying, ‘Isn’t that clever’. And that for me is the defining thing. I like to respond to a photograph and be touched by it.”

In the catalogue for her 2001 survey exhibition she wrote, “If I had not come to New Zealand, I might never have become a freelance photographer. I used my camera when I first arrived here to record the unfamiliar and make it coherent. Emotionally I was reasonably self-contained and had a strong sense of my Jewish identity. But I had grown up and lived in London, and the fears that I had to overcome were more about isolation from a world in which I found conversation, friendship and access to the arts so effortless. I needed to find people with whom I could share my interests and concerns.”

The images in her survey exhibition, which spanned more than four decades of her practice, traced narratives of immigration and struggle, separation and belonging, and captured essential qualities and characteristics of New Zealand life at different socio-economic levels. This democratic approach is also characteristic of her approach—the ability to empathise with people from all walks of life.

Nowhere is it more evident than in her photographs of the last remaining kuia with moko—published in Moko: The Art of Maori Tattooing, written by Michael King and published by Alister Taylor in 1972.

Of that project she says, “It was amazing to go into the hinterland of history, seeing the sort of New Zealand people weren’t visiting in those days—rural Maori New Zealand. It was like a gift and Michael had researched it well so wherever we went we were welcome. I got on well with those women because I understood; I just loved them. Had they been older migrant women, I would have photographed them too—even when I was young I loved older women. But they (the kuia) had something that touched me.”

Another milestone in her career was the publication in 1974 of Larks in a Paradise: New Zealand Portraits, with photographs documenting her travels throughout New Zealand and text by James McNeish. Published by Collins, this was the first substantial book of photographs of this country and its people.

Though her photographs appeared in many publications during the first three decades of her career (including Contemporary New Zealand Painters, A–M, with Jim and Mary Barr and published by Alister Taylor), it was not until Auckland gallerist Kathlene Fogarty of FHE Galleries began to represent Friedlander in the 1990s that her work was exhibited in a gallery context.

Today, Friedlander sees her practice as wider than the black and white, portrait and documentary boxes she has been placed in. However, she has often chosen to work with black and white film because of its reductionist tendency—the way it registers the passing of time and evokes nostalgia for a quickly disappearing past.

“By using black and white you are paring down the image and cutting out all the distractions. Colour is very beguiling—consequently it is often hard to know what the central focus is.

“Now I photograph mostly in colour and convert to black and white, so I have the option of printing in colour or black and white. Thank goodness for that; technology has advanced.”

Works like Garden of Remembrance, Jewish Museum, Berlin, 2003, and Sofia Tekela-Smith, 2005, are “not colour in the usual sense. They are almost monochrome. The beauty of colour is that there is a way of using it that is not obvious.”

Whether colour or black and white, Friedlander’s images compel with their potential to reveal psychological states and relationships—the nuances between people and between the photographer and her subject that are normally hidden by the relentless flow of time.

It’s no surprise to hear her say, “My view of life is quite idiosyncratic; it’s not straightforward. Life is complex as are relationships; I hope to capture that in my work. / Virginia Were

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Fantasy and reality collide in an epic photobook project. Robert Leonard reports.
Clare Corbould and Hilary Emmett on an artist addressing the Pacific slave trade.
Gavin Hipkins celebrates a new storyteller.

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