Marti Friedlander, a closely observed photographer

Marti Friedlander, By Leonard Bell
Auckland University Press
RRP $75.00

Looking Closely, Marti Friedlander
Gus Fisher Gallery

Until November 21st
Leonard Bell’s new book on Marti Friedlander and the accompanying exhibition at the Gus Fisher Gallery are a timely recognition of the photographer who has worked for over fifty years as a documentary photographer developing a distinctive approach to her subject matter.

Photographers like Friedlander are documenting the political, social environments they have lived through. The images they produce and collect provide an insight into that society and to some extent into their own lives.

The book presents Marti Friedlander’s life and times through her photography under several chapter headings; “Inside Outside, Public Private”, “First New Zealanders”, “Investigating New Zealand”, “On the Street, At the Beach”, “Displacement, Migration, Travel" and “A Competent Mistress of Time “.

The photographs in” Inside Outside, Public Private” are mainly from the 1970’s and 1980’s and are of well-known creative artists such Philip Trustumm, Michael Illingworth, Pat and Gil Hanly. Many of these originated in a series of photographs she took for the Jim and Mary Barr book “Contemporary new Zealand Painters” including the remarkable series of Rita Angus

Included in the many writers are two photographs of C. K. Stead, one of them of 1982 in his confrontational pose while the one taken in 2007 reflects his contemplative side.

While some of the photographs have a naturalism to them, most have a posed and composed quality which is part of the photographers style. So, Tony Fomison's portrait in which he leans across one of his paintings has him almost being a reflection of his own self-portrait.

The equally posed photograph of Mervyn Williams prefigures some of the artist’s later timber constructions with a wooden gate in the centre of the photograph

Some of her political images are almost iconic, particularly her photo of a triumphant Walter Nash

One of her most important bodies of work is the series of photographs she took for Michael Kings book “Moko”. These portraits along with a set of photographs of Parihaka are one of the more important records of Maori in the late twentieth century.

While the images of moko were to illustrate Michael Kings writings about the women and the history of their moko designs the photographs go well beyond illustration.

They bring with them a sense of the gulf between Maori rural dwellers and the Pamela photographer. The background environments of decrepit buildings and gardens are metaphors for a forgotten history and the moko themselves transform the women into living art works.

In some of her landscape works she has been able to distil qualities of rural New Zealand. “Eglinton Valley” with its flock of sheep on a misty road is quintessential New Zealand as well as photograph which hints at a surreal darkness in the landscape while her “Suburban Development, Henderson” of 1966 captures the rawness of New Zealand society.

The works grouped under the heading of “Displacement, Migration, Travel” are an interesting mix, recording the photographer’s journey around New Zealand and around the world, a personal diary as well as a commentary.

There are a number of photographs of Israel, a country she has visited several times and where she considered living. These photographs seem to reflect an ambivalent approach to the land and its heritage. On the one hand there here are images of Golda Meier and David Ben Gurion in which the ordinariness of major leaders is captured.

Then there are the more political ones. A young, possibly Arab boy playing on top of an empty oil drum with a single building in the background. The potent ideas of oil, housing, youth and the future of the land condensed into one succinct image.

Two contrasting images on a double page spread; "Tel Aviv", with two orthodox Jews and "Jerusalem" featuring three women reservists highlight the stark contrast between the traditional and the contemporary.

A number of the her images show her ability to present an unusual or inspired take on her subject such as the rear view of Margaret Many, underscoring the writers eccentricity. The juxtaposition of a cow and cannon in “Ruapekapeka” is not only witty image but also one rich in memories of colonialism.

The final chapter, “A Competent Mistress of Time” concentrates on the self-portraits and portraits of the photographer herself, for as well as being an observer of social change she has also been a participant.

She is not merely a photographer capturing good newsworthy image she is someone who, as the title of the book suggests, looks closely at things and one of the objects of her contemplation is herself. Just as the painter of the self-portrait manages to expose elements of their personality so too does Marti Friedlander.

Just as artists either produce their self portraits from observing themselves in the mirror or based on photographs or other images of themselves, so too does Friedlander.

Several of the portraits are of her and her camera. They convey the notion of a woman who is at one with the camera. I,t is an extension of herself and she is not discrete about it seeing her role as an involved rather than a dispassionate observer.

Through all of her photographs there is a sense of a desire to engage with humanity and reflect individuals and their emotions.

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