Review originally posted in Photographymatters.com in March, 2008
At their highest level, the photograph and the poem arrive at “that art of the marvellous” through which the compressed power of the image achieves “an endless expansion of meaning” (Fred D’Aguiar).
”This panel brings together four of New Zealand’s pre-eminent photographers, all of whom have had major survey exhibitions devoted to their work in recent years. Marti Friedlander, Anne Noble, Ans Westra and Laurence Aberhart talk about what they aspire to achieve when making images, and what purpose and power the still image retains in a world increasingly busy with moving pictures. Lawrence McDonald will talk to them about the deceptive simplicity of photography, and its role in the world of contemporary art.”
Or so went the introduction, as emailed to me in the promotion.
The first action of the event was something like the tactical movement of rugby lineout jumpers as the ball is thrown in, but slightly slower; it was Ans making sure she didn’t end up sitting next to Marti, which involved getting Laurence to shift seats. That intricate manoeuvre, it turned out, was the most action packed moment, as when dry-as-dust chair Lawrence McDonald introduced the discussion, things went downhill.
Confusion immediately arose. The title for the talk, The Camera is a Small Room, was, we were informed, lifted from a poem by Gregory O’Brien. This ambiguous, directionless title was followed by a series of slides showing various types of camera, then some historic photographs. So, it seemed the discussion was to be about the mechanics and processes of photography. This was news to the panel and most of the audience, who thought the topic was the relationship between words and photographs.
Anne Noble stuck to her original brief and presented a short talk on the latter theme. She related photography to poetry by their both being ‘condensed forms’, then explained how photographers tend to make lists and how this is like a form of poetry. She backed this idea with selected images from Peter Black’s Moving Pictures series, then her own Ruby’s Room series, giving each image a one word title; the sequence of titles was read as a list and sounded somewhat poetic. ‘Out of normal and everyday activities the world is reconfigured and given to us anew.’
I found this all quite interesting and engaging, and despite the confusion thrown in by MacDonald’s intro, very much the sort of stuff that this audience would relate to. Throwing in lovely words like ‘taxonomies’ did no harm here.
Unfortunately, the next speaker didn’t seem to have any idea what the discussion was about—or care, for that matter—and so proceeded to talk about her own work in her usual manner. Marti Friedlander’s concession to the topic was to read one of her own poems and explain jokingly, ‘Now you understand why I became a photographer instead of a poet.’
One mistake she made was to say, ‘I don’t do technology’, handing over the projector remote control to the chair. Then her attempts to talk to her own slides were at the mercy of his unrehearsed pacing; he was constantly a slide or two ahead of her. The moral: if you refuse to come to grips with technology, you will end up ceding control to a third party, to your detriment. This is widely true.
Laurence Aberhart, too, was in a state of confusion by the time he spoke, through no fault of his own; he said he thought the discussion topic was to do with books, as he and all of the other panelists have all authored books of photographs recently. So he talked about his book, (Aberhart, Victoria University Press, Wellington, 2007), saying that he thought most photo books, including his own, had too much writing in them, and this was mainly due to pressure from publishers. Picking up from Noble, ‘Poetry condenses, photography also condenses.’ And, ‘The image is a condensation of a much greater world.’ Stepping onto uneven ground, he said he thought a poet can’t be intuitive like a photographer. ‘You have to make leaps and stabs in an area you don’t quite understand.’ Photographers can control the accidental, whereas poets use a process of structuring and restructuring. Further, a book of poetry does not include description of what is contained in the poems, whereas photography books have pages of essays which try to explain the content of the photographs. ‘Our [photographic] publications have suffered because of the amount of words included.’ I like the way Aberhart stuck up for visual language as a thing in itself, not requiring words. This went nicely against the grain of the theme of discussion and could have provided a thread of further debate.
Ans Westra was also confused about the discussion’s theme (‘The camera is a little black box- what does that mean?’), and so winged it, it appeared. She told a potentially interesting story about Hone Tuwhare, but it didn’t reach a clear conclusion.
Then Question Time kicked off with a strange question from the chair, something to the effect of: ‘It has been said [by whom?] that photography as a medium is lacking in the power of narrative. What do you think of that, Marti?’
Marti: (silence…) ‘Um, sorry, can you repeat that question?’
It had me confused too. As far as I know, everyone is always trying to impose narrative readings on photographs or series of images, to the point of overkill. First I’ve heard that the medium lacks narrative ability. I wonder who said that.
In response to another question, Aberhart amused the audience with the story of how people say incredibly rude and vicious things about him when he is hidden under the black cloth, operating his view camera. I asked Andrew Ross, who was sitting next to me, if he’d ever had that experience. ‘Only in Masterton,’ he replied.
The audience eventually raised The Subject: digital photography verses analogue or traditional. Ans may have forgotten she was wearing a lapel mike when, in response to something Marti said, she muttered into her chest, ‘Absolute nonesense!’ The entire audience heard her clearly.
Marti: ‘[Digital photography] is terrific. I’m glad it’s here. So many people enjoy it. Film photographers are so rigid…’
Ans: ‘But there are too many photographers already. It’s wasted. It’s too easy!’
I found myself agreeing with them both.
Well, I reckon I got my fifteen dollars worth out of this event, but the feeling among some of the audience that I spoke to was that it wasn’t worth it. They were disappointed. One does have to question the intent of shoehorning this type of event into a writers and readers festival, but I’m not complaining. An impressive number attended, showing that there is a wide interest in New Zealand photography. The main problem was the poorly defined focus of the discussion, exacerbated by a chair who was really out of his depth in this field. I would have also liked to have seen a younger photographer on the panel, as there was the feeling that The Usual Suspects were being trotted out before us yet again. Someone like Ben Cauchi, Neil Pardington or Yvonne Todd might have livened things up a tad. 5/10.
james | 18 March, 2008
At The Camera is a Small Room last Friday, a member of the audience asked the distinguished line-up - Laurence Aberhart, Ans Westra, Anne Noble, and Marti Friedlander - what they thought of digital photography.
I found myself nodding at Anne Noble’s considered response (Technology is fundamental to photography - it doesn’t matter whether the technology is mechanical or electronic - what is important is the resulting image) and cheering on Marti Friedlander in her enthusiasm (Marvelous! Fantastic! “I want to learn Photoshop… the idea of manipulating images appeals to me.”)
Then, in sharp contrast, Ans Westra spoke. Digital photography, she said, made photography “too accessible”. I heard a few sharp intakes of breath at this seemingly anti-democratic remark.
However, I believe that Ans Westra’s remark came not from an elitism, but from a genuine love of the craft and the image.
She spoke with a sadness in her voice at the “millions of images floating around like dust particles” and “thrown into the rubbish.” One can imagine that she sees every single one of her images almost as her children… created by her, with care and love and craft. How callous this new world of image-making must seem.
Images have become so easy to make that they are value-less, disposable. Take five shots in quick succession. Don’t like any of them? Delete them and start again. Take ten more. Or fifty, or a hundred. It doesn’t matter. Storage is so cheap you can take a thousand on a single flash card.
Can we make these two worlds co-exist together? Can we somehow imbue digital photography with a sense of craft and digital images with a value? Can we take the best of what digital photography has to offer, and still maintain a love for the image itself? I think the answer is yes, but that’s for another post.
by deb | 16 March, 2008