Since the 1970s Laurence Aberhart and Mark Adams have made the discovery of New Zealand as an idea and a reality their lifes’ work
New Zealand has been snap happy since the 1850s. The ‘discovery’ of New Zealand as a subject and the invention of the medium coincided, meaning photographers and colonists interests aligned, both wanting to get in quick to capture first mover status. The result was something of a photographic gold rush. Today our museums and auction rooms are full of spectacular scenic images courtesy of pioneers such at the Burton Brothers and an array of portraits of important Māori figures that date to well before the canvases of Charles Goldie.
These 19th century images of New Zealand are by their nature mostly documentary and most now sit comfortably in a musty leather bound volume entitled The Way we Were. Some though, rise above the requirements of reportage. Alfred Burton’s journey up the Whanganui River in the mid 1880s, George Valentine’s post-Tarawera eruption images in 1886 and of course the Reverend John Kinder’s 1860s Auckland scenes are hardwired into our national consciousness.
It is our history, near and far, that has consumed Aberhart and Adams for pushing fifty years now. "The past is a foreign country" goes the famous quote. For both photographers that foreign country is Aotearoa, New Zealand. Their practice is located within a clearly articulated context of the past by choosing to deploy about the earliest form of photographic technology they can find, a plate camera. Fully loaded with tripod and various paraphernalia this original technology weighs in at about 20 kilograms and requires an eternity to set up, insert the glass plate, focus, plan an exposure and finally press the magic button. By holding steadfast to this near obsolete ‘new’ technology both Adams and Aberhart are making explicit their kinship to our earliest photographers and their desire to ensure that their images can be read in terms of this historic "foreign" past.
Laurence Aberhart has been on the road less travelled since the mid 1970s. In 1985 he described his subject as "my family, my country, my head, my heart". Almost all of these are on display at his latest exhibition at Gow Langsford Gallery in Auckland. Over the last forty years Aberhart’s journey has taken in war memorials, country churches, Masonic lodges and community halls up and down the land.
Most of the time these structures lie empty, between engagements, and that is how the photographer usually depicts them – void yet echoing with the ghosts of past celebrations and gatherings. These communal spaces peopled intermittently, dot the countryside like wallflowers.
Aberhart’s images articulate the silence of New Zealand’s provincial hinterland in a way that can seem almost devastating to urban eyes. The pathos of decades of loneliness drips off these photographs' pristine silver gelatin surfaces. It is the images of cemeteries that most potently sheet home this crushing sense of remoteness; of grief endured alone.
Many of Aberhart’s images work as an ongoing series, each new iteration adding to an expanding whole – motels, car yards, suburban art deco houses and so on. But it seems to me that Aberhart does some of his most affecting work when death hangs in the air. In the current exhibition there is a heartbreaker entitled Child’s Grave. It depicts a child’s rocking chair placed as a memorial on a tiny grave. In this single image Aberhart captures mourning, in plain daylight. He frequently dates his images specifically to the day of capture. Over half of the photographs date to 2017, the most recent Interior #3 was taken only a few weeks ago.
This recency gives the exhibition a sense of urgency, as if the photographer is a kind of quiet storm chaser, ever alert for an image and ever ready to report his findings.
Mark Adams has always struck me as the most painterly of photographers. He works at a scale that we usually associate with oil on canvas; the vastness of his subjects requires him to deploy multi-panel diptychs and triptychs.
His large format field camera lends itself to long exposures and this is ideal for capturing atmospheric conditions in all their romantic sweep. In Adams’ latest exhibition Views from Astronomer’s Point at Two Rooms Gallery in Auckland, this connection to the history of painting is made explicit in a rare colour image Nine Fathoms Passage - Tamatea-Dusky Sound, after William Hodges’ Waterfall in Dusky Sound with Maori Canoe, 1775-7. It is a grand photographic triptych that measures three metres across. William Hodges RA was the official artist on Cook’s second voyage to New Zealand in 1772 – 75, his images in Dusky Sound being some of the earliest and most striking within the canon of New Zealand art.
In June 2017 Adams is taking us right back to the 18th century, his images revealing to us exactly what Cook and crew saw when the Resolution entered Dusky Bay in 1773. 240 years is as nought as Adams peers through the veil of time and allows us to stand in the place of our forefathers. These images are part of an ongoing project titled Cook’s Sites. Over more than twenty years now Adams has doggedly retraced Cook’s voyages in Aotearoa and the impact of his discoveries around the world. The photographs are marvels of patience, perseverance and citizenship.
They are also a reminder, if one were needed, that Aotearoa takes a gorgeous photo.
Out in the field; in Aberhart’s case down unsealed roads in Northland, In Adams’ hauling his equipment into the misty remoteness of the Sounds, these artists have been doing some heavy lifting in our culture for almost a combined century of personal exploration. They are by no means done yet. As these two magnificent exhibitions of photography in its purest form reveal, history is being written every day.
Laurence Aberhart New Northland Explorations, Some interiors at Gow Langsford Gallery, Kitchener Street, Auckland until June 24
Mark Adams, Views from Astronomer’s Point at Two Rooms, 16 Putiki Street, Newton until July 8
*The Auckland Festival of Photography currently running at over 60 venues (until June 24) is a developing treasure in Auckland’s visual arts calendar.