Sunday, 2 February 2014

Self-Portrait by Marti Friedlander with Hugo Manson (Auckland University Press) 2013


Marti Friedlander is the photographer that people who know nothing about photography know.  This beautifully produced book of Marti’s photos is more about the images rather than the words, as perhaps it should be, but the words do show that Marti is a curious and intelligent woman with chutzpah.  Throughout the text she explains her interactions with people and places that have bought about some of the most iconic New Zealand images. 

She doesn’t talk about her parents, or how she and her sister came to live in an orphanage in London in the late 1920s-early 30s.  Gaps and silences are as interesting in their omission as to what is included, and I am curious about Marti’s parents, but it is her self-portrait and she gets to choose how she composes the text as much as any photo.  Marti does recollect her transition from having no personal relationship to photography as a child, to starting her career in London, and moving to New Zealand with her husband in 1958.  At that time New Zealand appeared barren, bland and devoid of culture but thankfully Marti managed to find herself amongst European immigrants and the boho crowd who gave her a taste of culture that she missed from London.  While Marti has recorded the lives of artists, writers, protests, and politicans, she also reflects on her opportunities to photograph women at Parihaka and her work with Michael King on his publication Moko.  The memoir in some respects isn’t about Marti at all but is about her recollections of the images and the people in them; it is a social history of New Zealand as much as it is a memoir.

Marti uses a digital camera these days and notes how easily people delete the photos that they aren’t happy with which means, “They will never understand the absolute thrill of rediscovering an image years later which takes on a whole new relevance and wonder” (242).  Her comment made me think of the big box of photos that mum used to have up in the wardrobe when I was a kid.  Our ‘proper’ photos had been put into albums but then there was a box with all the duds.  People in the images weren’t smiling or looking the right way, or the camera wasn’t focused.  As kids we would occasionally take the box down to have a look.  There was one of Grandma (who hated having her picture taken) standing in the backyard next to Granddad’s impressive vegetable garden by the rotary clothes line, with her face turned away.  On first glance the image isn’t a Kodak moment, but it shows her in everyday life, which is what I think of when I think of her; we would hang out in the backyard stealing peas off the vine or water the sweet peas that grew up the side of the shed, or sit inside the state house with the sun streaming in the venetian blinds first thing in the morning and watch the wax eyes in the tree.  The picture of Grandma is one of an ordinary person going about her life, which illustrates Marti’s approach to photography, and with the passage of time that ordinariness has become extraordinary to me because it accurately shows my Grandmother.  People won’t have those boxes of photos in the wardrobe anymore because we’re all deleting the shots that don’t quite look good enough (and even the good ones we upload and never get around to printing).   I can also remember taking the thin brown negatives out of the photo envelopes and holding them up to the light to see the image in various shades of brown.  Marti’s book shows the changing technology of photography and highlights what skills and images we may be missing out on while making technological gains.

I was particularly interested in her impression and images of New Zealand’s artists and writers.  It seems anyone who is anyone has had a run-in with C. K. Stead who according to Marti has, “to get out what he feels, regardless” of the feelings of his longstanding friends (164).   The book highlights how hard it was (and perhaps still is) to gain recognition for art and writing in New Zealand society, the struggle to make ends meet, and for artists who coupled up, what happens when one artist gains more recognition than the other, and the effect it has on their relationship.  Readers also get an insight into Marti’s relationship with her husband Gerrard, and how each of them has grown as individuals, and as a couple.  The book is about being an outsider in New Zealand, being Jewish, coping with illness as a child, and of loss, but alongside these trying experiences there is also an enthusiasm and joy in life.

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