Sport 30: Peter Black-Real Fiction
Gregory O'Brien & Lara Strongman — Real Fiction
At the time of writing, the staff at City Gallery Wellington are hoping that the drum corps in the photograph on page three might beat up a storm at the opening of Peter Black's survey exhibition at the gallery on March 22. Apparently the band personnel hasn't changed in the 18 years since the photograph was taken. The picture is hanging not far from the entrance to the South Gallery—a long, second-storey space in which nearly 200 of Peter's photographs presently hang.
Peter Black suggested the title for this publication and the exhibition—Real Fiction—because it draws attention to both the artifice and the reality inherent in his photography. As well as continuing on with their real lives, the drummers in Peter's photograph have by now become a kind of fiction. They have also become characters in memory and various histories (family, regimental, musical…). All of which makes them more, rather than less, real. Peter's photographs insist on a close proximity between ‘fictional’ and ‘real’. He is concerned with the capability of real life to yield metaphors, to expand and contract, to grow. Pictorial analogies abound in the work: while Peter's photographs are images of the real world, they are also a compendium of selected fictions. Together they make a plotless narrative which stretches over nearly 30 years.
The life of the photographer himself could be thought of as one of these fictions—the narrative that holds all these disparate images together is, after all, a personal one. (As American photographer Robert Frank noted, ‘It is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that produces a photograph.’) Black's distinctly personal view of the world as a ready-made vehicle for image-making has led his work to gain what could be described as a cult following in Wellington, where he has lived for most of his life.
Born in Christchurch in 1948, one of the strongest memories of his childhood was of listening to his older brother's Elvis Presley records. Peter comments: ‘What I've always loved about Elvis's art (apart from the obvious things like changing the entire 20th century for teenagers) was his ability to take original songs further in every direction and make them his own.’ There is an analogy, here, to aspects of Black's own practice: starting from an extensive knowledge of 20th-century photographic history, he often reworks significant images by other photographers, in unwitting tableaux glimpsed by chance along the side of the road or on a busy city street.
One of a generation of photo-artists that also included Laurence Aberhart, Peter Peryer, Bruce Foster, Anne Noble and Fiona Clark, Peter studied photography with William Main at Wellington Polytechnic before spending the late 1970s as a freelancer (his images from this time still surface occasionally in the Listener and elsewhere). His first exhibition was at the PhotoForum Gallery, Wellington, in 1979. After shows at the Wellington City Art Gallery and the Waikato Art Museum, he exhibited ‘Fifty Photographs’ at the National Art Gallery in 1982—the first solo exhibition by a contemporary New Zealand photographer to be staged by that institution. In 1990, his ‘Moving Pictures’ were exhibited in the old Wellington City Art Gallery premises in Victoria St—and were page 11 shown again recently as the opening exhibition at the McNamara Gallery in Wanganui. Between times, and since then, he has exhibited extensively in public and private galleries throughout the country. He has also made series of work in France and North America, and has produced commissioned series for Peter McLeavey, the Hirschfeld family and others.
The images reproduced in this publication track the artist's career from his first ‘street photograph’, taken in Brisbane in 1973, to his 2002 series ‘Streetworks’, taken mainly in Auckland and Wellington. The photographs carry a number of ‘real fictions’ within them: the fiction of progress as embodied by the ‘Sites’ series [pp135–149], the fiction of Nature as explored in ‘Foliage’ [pp128–134], the various utopias and spoiled dreams of ‘Moving Pictures’ and ‘Autoportraits’, and everywhere the ordinary narrative of existence in the present era, with all its imagined futures and constantly reconfiguring pasts.
This ‘fictional’ quality in the photographs may be one reason why writers are so drawn to them. Not only have Peter's photographs adorned the walls of writers’ houses (in this regard, see Ian Wedde's essay ‘At Home in the Dark’), they have been used on book covers by poets including Wedde, Bill Manhire and Andrew Johnston. In 1995 Sport 15—akaWhite Horse Black Dog—featured Black's ‘Moving Pictures’ in its entirety and included an enthusiastic array of literary responses to the work. Writers as diverse as Emily Perkins, Keri Hulme, Elizabeth Knox, Iain Sharp, Graham Lindsay, Damien Wilkins and Elizabeth Nannestad contributed memorable ‘fictions’ or half-fictions, heading off down parallel stretches of highway to Peter Black's portfolio.
For the present publication, we invited a number of art writers and poets to contribute responses to Peter's work. If nationalistic notions tend to be rather too frequently associated with Peter's work, we sought to unsettle this by inviting two Australian writers to contribute: Ken Bolton and Laurie Duggan. And if Peter Black has been a relatively quiet presence on the photographic scene in recent years, essays by Gavin Hipkins, Blair French and Neil Pardington attest to his status as both an artist—quite possibly a pre-postmodernist—and a pertinent influence on a later generation of photographic artists.
With the recent ‘Leaky Buildings’ debacle involving the New Zealand construction industry, Peter's ‘Sites’ images (1989–90) feel not only timely but prescient. Gavin Hipkins and Lucy Alcock explore that series in its art historical as well as its social context. Without trying to explain away the images themselves, the other poems and essays in this publication explore, discuss or take their cues from different aspects of Peter Black's work. Some of the poets—notably James Brown, Andrew Johnston and David Eggleton—in their different ways seek to emulate his strategies.
Late in his career, Robert Frank commented of his work: ‘I am always looking outside, trying to look inside.’ Photography can offer us a way to comprehend the relationship between the interior and the exterior, between the world as it is and the world as it might be. It is precisely this kind of multi-layered fiction that Peter Black's photographs generate. And that is why they are real.