Photography in New Zealand
As an instrument of social reportage the camera has uses. In the hands of salon competitors or people who are tied to technical apron strings it has affectations that at the best are irritating. An interest in people related to their physical environment is more healthy than the ability to fake million dollar clouds in skies that were gray when the photograph was taken.
An effective, as opposed to a merely ‘good’ photographer can examine life dispassionately, but he will always be limited by the mechanics and optics of his medium, and will lack the objectivity of a good novelist or artist. The reporting of social and economic upheavals needs interpretation, and the camera can help.
When Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt’s official photographer told me that he had heard a cameraman described as a bum reporter whose brains had been blown out, he was agreeing that photographers as a race sometimes passed off banalities as art. In sensitive hands the camera can supplement written histories and verify the background of what may one day be famous paintings or fiction. On this assumption, landscapes are of value in integrating land with life. In the absence of this test, methods of judging landscapes are exercises in criticism of form, balance, and tone. If the photographer with a feeling for the land is to capture its atmosphere, he will need to be in touch with contemporary events. To my mind, indifferent technique, ignorance of retouching, and disregard for orthodox composition are less than crimes if the photographer has the imagination to give sincerity to the vitality of the scenes and peoples he records.
Critical self-examination for honesty of purpose is a virtue, if carried out without undue earnestness. Too much indulgence in purely technical considerations is a handicap. To break rules of pictorial composition it is an advantage to be familiar with them. Arthur Hammond, Associate Editor of American Photography, says that pictorial photo graphs are pictures made with a camera by an artist for the benefit of other artists.’ This definition not only confuses artists with heifer-dust merchants, but does not admit of the mechanical limitations of all cameras, and, if it did, is a piece of self-congratulating escapism. Pedantic photographers who flourish almost everywhere will rule that only one object should be of prominent interest, that skies must harmonize in their cloud shapes with the lines of land objects, that masses must have a pleasing design, that skin textures should be beautiful, that photographic art (sic) is ‘the beautiful representation of nature for the purpose of giving disinterested pleasure’, that exhibition photographs I the best, and so on.
If the cameraman is aiming at imitating an artist he deserves an artist’s reproach: Photography apes everything and expresses nothing of itself. It is blind in the world of thought. It is up to photographers to leave the darkroom and the retouching pen and to mix with the outside world. Is a field merely a design, or is it land where men have explored, fought, worked, where timber has fallen and I crops have succeeded? Are mountains barriers to walkers or masses of intricate design where men find joy in struggling against natural forces they respect?
New Zealand in the past has suckled men who have photographed barrels of lush pastureland dominated by posterish Egmont, trainloads of pseudo-Maori dances, while Mount Cook from the bathroom window of the Hermitage hr sadly slunk through lots of lenses. Where are the documentary stories of the gold prospectors, the deer killers, the growth of a dairy factory, the monotony of wharf labour, the discomfort of a miner’s calling, the adaptation of the Maori worker to city life and environment? In such subjects may lie the future of a valid contribution by photography to the course of our next decade.
Landfall - A New Zealand Quarterly, December 1947, The Caxton Press