The thump of a courier package at the French doors heralded my keenly awaited copy of Pictures They Want to Make – Recent Auckland Photography. It’s a handsome landscape hardback published by PhotoForum Inc, Auckland, that features of the work of 12 photographers, either from or with a connection to the Auckland (New Zealand) region.
In recent years there’s been a small flood of New Zealand photographic monographs, either wrapped around a project, or providing an overview of an artist’s work. It’s been awhile since the last compilation – think Into the Light, A History of New Zealand Photography by David Eggleton (Craig Potton Publishing 2006), or Contemporary New Zealand Photographers (Mountain View Publishing 2005).
Books featuring collections of photographers – grouped under a heading implying a round up of the latest new voices, or an overview of world photographic history – often suffer from snippet syndrome. There might be generous selection of artists, but if each person only has one or two pictures to support a statement, a publication covering 20 – 50 photographers can become a series of easily forgotten glimpses, because there’s simply not enough work from each artist to provide depth or resonance.
Happily, Pictures They Want to Make, edited by Chris Corson-Scott and Edward Hanfling, avoids this trap. Each artist is given a one page introduction, a sketch of what’s interesting in their practice, similar to the wall panel that would introduce work in a gallery, followed by around 10 full page pictures. The work is carefully selected, either covering different periods in one artist’s career, or providing a coherent view of recent projects. It’s possible, therefore, to get a real sense of what each individual photographer is about, and the strengths and orientation of their work.
The book also has a central direction governing the inclusion of the individual photographers, so there’s an overall coherence – rather like a well curated exhibition. The underlying drive is to address the perception that a photograph which begins with an image taken from reality is merely a document of what’s in the image. The editors are keen to remind us that strategies and deliberate intention underpin the work, and it takes sophisticated viewing to understand what’s going on – in much the same way as any contemporary artwork.
This is not a new battle for photography. The introductory essay by Leo Rubinfien in the wonderful monster Garry Winogrand monograph I’m currently reading, notes how in the 1960s Tod Papageorge challenged curator John Szarkowski’s use of the word document – “To use it, even innocently, he argued, was to say that photographs were dumb transcriptions of the real – to say they were not art.” In New Zealand it seems this point needs to be made again and again.
The work itself ranges from projects which subvert viewer expectations, series, like the one from Edith Amituanai, that draws on snapshot and portrait traditions to mine cultural territory, and work from Chris Corson-Scott who uses the view camera to create large landscapes of the quotidian, but where the viewer uncovers resonant information and so keeps returning to a complex image (a similar strategy to American large format colour work – but with a distinct Auckland tang). The 12 series might not challenge the boundaries of what’s acceptable, but works are sophisticated, culturally engaged and contemporary. Whatever your preferences there’s enough variety among the 12 photographers to keep a reader returning to the images.
The book was supported Nikon New Zealand, Progear, Vista Entertainment Solutions and the Wallace Arts Trust (with Creative New Zealand or a public gallery missing from the funding line up). But as a publication driven by people who understand the art in photography, and how to put together a photography book, it’s emerged as fresh and relevant.
Even allowing for my bias as PhotoForum member, I highly recommend this book which at a is available from selected bookshops in Auckland (e.g. Auckland Art Gallery, Unity Books, TimeOut, Dear Reader, The BookLover) or is part of the member benefits package of joining PhotoForum.
(RRP NZ $59.95)