What We Saw - The Photographs of Sally Griffin, reviewed by Angela Middleton
1975 was a seminal year, as the current ‘History in the Taking: 40 Years of PhotoForum’ exhibition in Wellington’s City Gallery informs us. It was an equally significant year for me, the year I joined Photo Forum (the organization John Turner founded to promote photography as an art form) and the year I developed a number of significant friendships. Among these friends was Sally Griffin, recently arrived from Melbourne where she had just completed a higher diploma in painting and drawing. These were idealistic, formative times.
Merata Mita in Takou Bay, Northland, 1975. Photo: Sally Griffin
I was recently in Wellington for the opening at Photospace Gallery of Griffin’s ‘What We Saw’, a retrospective of photographs taken since that same year, 1975. These are equally ‘history in the taking’ and should be viewed alongside the ‘PhotoForum’ exhibition: the two overlap with a brilliant synergy and many of Griffin’s images are equally photography as art form. Moreover, Griffin’s photographs demonstrate a warmth, personality and political awareness sometimes lacking in the PhotoForum show. Some of the same subjects appear in both places, while at least one photographer from PhotoForum appears as subject in Griffin’s photographs, as do other creative artists, several of whom are no longer with us: the film maker Merata Mita, then a young woman, lounges inside a tent during a break in filming at Waitangi; Phil Clairmont’s young son Orlando tries on Dad’s sunglasses; he, Nigel Brown (whose works are in the National Portrait Gallery at the moment), David Parkyn and Sally lie in long grass beside the Whanganui River, en route to Jerusalem and a visit to the grave of James Baxter. Tony Fomison seems very much himself in a portrait, but in the next image is dwarfed beside one of his huge mural paintings. An image of playwright Dean Parker is beautifully composed and enigmatic; and a young poet with long blonde hair, Peter Olds, stands beside a life-size Coke advertisement.
Griffin’s photographs document turbulent political events of the times, as she joins a group of people on a lonely road marching into Kaikohe to protest about the Treaty as a Fraud; Jim Anderton was a newly-elected Auckland City Councillor who found himself leading an unexpected protest of thousands; and commentator Peter Lee is seen on the Waitemata harbour, aboard a protest yacht bearing a huge image of Che Guevara on its sail, under the nose of the Chilean torture ship, the Esmeralda, in effect forcing the Chilean navy to salute this revolutionary figure, an enemy of the Pinochet regime.
These images are full of history and narrative: the exodus of the hippie era from the streets of Ponsonby, as a patient woman and a barefoot, hirsute man (Leo Thompson) stand beside their Austin A40 and a trailer overloaded with mattresses and household stuff, about to leave the inner city forever; I find myself on the wall as an unrecognizable wraith with a white face, symbolic of a European presence, perhaps a kehua, in an indigenous landscape. A crack runs along the floor, about to split the space on which I stand. Another wraith with white face stands in an anonymous, dark, semi-Victorian interior: but one which only I can recognize as once the artist’s / photographer’s painting studio, a vast but not grand atelier from our seminal year of 1975.
Viewed from the lofty distance of 2015, these images have the pervading innocence and optimism of those times. Who would have thought, back then, that we were creating history? But this was the case. I look forward to seeing Sally Griffin’s new paintings, her other, perhaps preferred medium, one of which has been commissioned to be in Wellington’s 150th Anniversary exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in June. Her painting of Wellington Radicals is called ‘You’re Not in London Now!’ - Angela Middleton, May 2015
During the 1970s, photography was Angela Middleton’s chief interest. In 1976, she and Sally Griffin were members of a committee that edited and produced Fragments of a World, a book of New Zealand women’s photography. Angela is now an archaeologist and honorary research fellow in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Otago. She is also a consultant archaeologist and her book, Pēwhairangi – Bay of Islands Missions and Māori 1814 to 1845, was published in November 2014. She has also published Te Puna: A New Zealand mission station (2008) and Kerikeri Mission and Kororipo Pā: An entwined history (2013).