Life seen through a differing lens

Peter Peryer, Photographer
Essays by Peter Peryer and Peter Simpson
Auckland University Press
RRP $59.95

Peter Peryer's photography is not obviously political. But even his more innocuous images can have political consequences.

In 1995 he had an exhibition in Frankfurt entitled Second Nature. The advertising posters for the show, which were all around the city, featured his photograph Steer.

This showed a dead cow lying on its side at the edge of a country road. The legs jut out in rigor mortis. It could be some large advertising model or something from a fairground. But the horde of flies around the face and the chewed ears attest to it being real.

Most of us could have told a story about the fate of the cow: the animal breaking through the fence, the accident, or the fall from a truck. We understand the ways of the country.

But in conversations I had with a number of Germans (it was around the time of a mad cow disease alert in England) this image was about mad-cow disease. The cow was seen as a political event, an ecological disaster.

I wrote about this perception in NBR (May 12, 1995) and immediately the Minister of Agriculture leapt into action.

The government sought to have the exhibition closed or the photograph removed and the New Zealand high commissioner who was to have opened a second showing of the exhibition in Aachen was instructed not to attend.

It is an example of the way in which Peryer's photographs can be read in different ways.

At the time Peter Weiemair of the Frankfurter Kunstverein said he believed Peter Peryer was an important photographer.

"His way of looking at the world and his use of photography is unique. I have been gratified to see and hear people acknowledging the different layers of his work.”

Peter Peryer withholds information or manipulates information, not to confuse the viewer but rather to heighten and concentrate the image. He disguises the information, changes the scale of the objects and creates narratives or stories which have no resolution and plays with our sense of time and history.

With many of his works, there is a sense that he is photographing the object in another similar place.

This sense of otherness causes the rift between the two conflicting images we often see – one the photographic image, the other the visual idea conveyed by the image.

This idea of deception links to the idea of the photographer as some sort of magician, the creator of illusions and that is present in a new book of his photography, which has an emphasis on his work of the last decade, including some of his colour photography.

Peter Simpson in his perceptive essay in the book refers to Peryer creating Peryerland, his separate view of the world, not exactly a parallel universe but an environment of landscapes and objects that appear to be symbols or metaphors we have not registered before, and they become visual epiphanies.

He also refers to Peryer’s “love of doubleness” where we have to question what we see. So with House, the photograph is of a model house set in meticulous scale-model trees and stones. We initially view the photograph as an ordinary two-storeyed English country house.

Even when we know the truth of the photograph, we have difficulty comprehending the deception.

Simpson also discuses the way Peryer uses elements of scale, camouflage and the grid.

He notes the artist’s interest in history and art historical connections as in the case of his After Rembrandt, his image of a shell Conus amorous found in Indonesia which Rembrandt produced a sketch of in 1650.

Peter Peryer’s autobiographical essay is a nice addition with much of it conveyed through small “snapshots” of his life. He conjures up images which are as interesting as those he photographs.

So he tells of his typing teacher who “sat on her table talking to us, legs crossed – we glimpsed black underwear.”

And of going ice skating, “The feeling of standing on a sheet of ice floating above deep black water was rather unsettling, especially as the ice had cracks in it.”

And of wandering alone on Great Barrier amd being interrupted “When I saw a figure approaching from some distance.”

Many of the photographs are paired and the reader will find their own interesting connections between subjects and themes, extending the doubles of the photographer’s work.

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