Title: Snap Happy

Author: Mark Amery

In: Sport 30: Peter Black-Real Fiction

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, March 2003

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Literature

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Sport 30: Peter Black-Real Fiction

Mark Amery — Snap Happy

page 12

Mark Amery

Snap Happy


You don't actually need a camera to take cheap and cool photos. Simply build yourself a pinhole camera (out of an oatmeal box, even), download PinHoleCalc (freeware, Mac) to calculate the optimum pinhole diameter and exposure time (or just do your best with this handy, dandy chart), and you might just create some amazing things.

Made by the Great Wall Plastic Factory of Hong Kong in the 1960s, the Diana Camera is a cheap plastic toy camera that has left an odd photographic smudge on our art history.

A precursor to today's throwaway service station cameras, the Diana would, on the face of it, seem to have no pretensions towards being a quality piece of equipment. Sold in plastic-entwined bunches as big as twelve dozen, you could say the Diana had a few design faults. Its single shutter speed varied from camera to camera, and the built-in flash could vary wildly in synchronisation with the lens. The plastic mechanism often didn't fully tighten the exposed film, resulting in a light fog passing onto the film, and the cameras were so notorious for leaking light through the body that it was common for photographers to bandage them up with tape. The coup de grâce, however, was that what one saw through the viewfinder didn't correlate exactly to what the camera itself shot.

Yet it is these very elements that led the Diana in the 1970s to achieve brief art fad status. It was arguably a period when contemporary art in New Zealand was re-evaluating its relationship to real life through direct action. The Diana took the fancy of a new generation of often art school trained photographers, who seized on it as if it were some plastic-encased Dadaist symbol in the liberation of the photographic image from technology and technique.

The Diana's allure is encapsulated perfectly (and inadvertently) by Chris Orsman in his poem ‘Instamatic’ (which accompanied Peter Black's work in Sport 15): We're easily charmed by inaccuracy and learn to love the plainness of life. The fine art interest in the Diana lasted long enough for there to be exhibitions devoted to photographs taken by the camera. A length of time, one supposes, governed also by when these artists’ combined stash of cameras stopped working altogether.

‘Since the Diana is a toy,’ suggests Robert Hirsh, ‘it allows you to look and react to the world with the simplicity and playfulness of a child.’ This might explain why Peter Black was attracted to the Diana in the 1970s—given that the child and the viewpoint of children are common in his photographs.

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Black has always looked for the spaces in which to exploit the camera's snapshot ability to play with chance. The photographer's eye roams guerilla-like in the environment around him, with little regard for the status of one subject over another. It's as if he's engaged in some kind of stake-out game of chasey with the camera around the legs of adults.

Ironically, it was ultimately the consistency of a type of visual effect rather than its happy variance that made the Diana camera as popular as it was—and led Peter Black to work with it only briefly. The very lack of surprise in its surprise, you could say. The Diana's hallmark was a fuzzy keyhole effect around the edges of the image, with the detail becoming sharper towards the centre. While others were charmed by the Diana's democracy in making everything look suitably dark and moody, for Black this effect ultimately interfered with the plain, direct power of looking.

The Diana's period of popularity coincided generally with the beginning of photography's acceptance into the contemporary fine arts in New Zealand. But just as some photographers seemed to have taken something different from the Diana camera than Black, the photograph that was ushered into the public galleries in the 1980s as contemporary art seemed largely to espouse quite different values from those of Black's photography.

Black's images reflected the pace and behaviour of daily urban life, finding a suitable quick
Black and white photograph.

Prince Charles’ Visit 1, Lower Hutt, 1981, from ‘Fifty Photographs’

page 14 snapshot freedom in the camera to engage in the chance encounter. On the other hand, the painstakingly constructed elegance and reverence for the iconic image of other new photographers’ work seemed to belie the modern camera's snappy, off-the-shoulder capabilities—further drawing darkness between the ‘documentary’ and ‘aesthetic’. This was art with a capital A, as interested in incorporating the cultural iconography and traditions of the past as the mood of the present. The time taken by Laurence Aberhart to let the light soak into a large-format camera for example, or the delicate filigree of Megan Jenkinson's collages and Fiona Pardington's early work, the theatrical weight of symbols and poses in a Christine Webster—all those large and exquisite, glossy, black, sumptuous and expensive sheets of photographic paper. Put in a group exhibition with such artists, Peter Black would have stood out like the drunk who had inadvertently gatecrashed a party—all ragged and random street poetry, while everyone else is dressed up in elegant conversation and costume.

At the time of ‘Moving Pictures’ (1987), for which Black took reels of film out of a moving car window, his images were described by Peter Ireland as having an artlessness. Others, no doubt, were quick to label him an adventurous documentary photographer. In the artistic climate of that time, perhaps that's not surprising. Now, with a retrospection that labels Black a postmodernist, we can see the choices he continues to make are far too refined in their personality for either label.

In the first photograph [p75] a woman holds a camera. It looks like a cheap toy camera; just as the photograph itself looks to have been taken with a cheap toy camera. Smiling and squinting as if she's been blinded by the other photographer's light, one imagines she has been beaten by (or beaten) the other photographer in a play camera-slingers duel—at not many paces. She appears snap happy. The photograph is a celebration of the joy of the snapshot. A suggestion that it's not how swish your camera is, but how fast you can draw.


I mourn the loss of my Kodak 133,
it went the way of all plastic

but there are times I feel beholden to
that small faithful body and nylon strap,

that comforting drag at the wrist,
and pre-sexual click of satisfaction

as each new shot fell into place.
Two settings covered all weathers

‘cloudy, sunny’—the viewfinder
stepped the world back, squared it

to a commodious minature
almost anything wandered into.

[Chris Orsman, ‘Instamatic’]

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In the second photograph [p13] a man holds a camera. It looks like standard domestic issue Kodak. Casting a most impressive shadow, he stands on a ten-gallon drum, shading his face from the light with his arm and holding the camera away from his eye. He does all this so he can see better—no fancy tripods and long lens for this fella. The photograph is a tribute to looking behind you at those who are looking, rather than looking at that which is looked at. A suggestion that it's not how swish your camera is, but a willingness to experiment with where you look from.


The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense.
Take what you have gathered from coincidence.
The empty-handed painter from your streets
Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets.

[Bob Dylan, ‘It's All Over Now, Baby Blue’, Bringing It All Back Home, 1965]

‘The Diana’, also says Robert Hirsh, ‘challenges the photographer to see beyond the equipment and into the image.’ Peter Black recounts how recently he was given a cheap camera as a free gift with a haircut. The plastic rolling mechanism broke within two films and the camera provided no exceptional results. Proof that ‘cheap and cool’ are no more synonymous than ‘expensive and refined’. Black's photographs over time are as bound by their difference of technique as they are by the consistency of some of his themes. As if to say it's the looking, not the equipment, that counts.

‘Moving Pictures’ was Black trying to be even more adventurous with the camera in motion than he had even been before. With ‘Autoportraits’ (1986), he walked around the central city shooting copious amounts of film. He deliberately held the camera out in front of him away from his eye (like our man on the ten-gallon drum) and at elbow height (that child perspective again) in order to avoid making compositional decisions. Furthermore, Black did not view the photographs until the assignment was completed to avoid developing a conscious theme.

The results however suggest an artist who, camera in hand, can't so easily escape his talent—the compositions often suggesting an intuitive sense of control and structure. More skilled at this level than he perhaps thought, with his second sequence of ‘autoportraits’—a series called ‘Streetworks’ taken in 2002—he attempted to be even more random. Catching a glimpse of something of interest, he'd hold the camera up and away from himself to snap it. Like a quick, brilliant sketch artist responding to impressions, Black is always prepared to push himself that little bit further by testing the parameters of his control. There is nothing artless about it.

‘I am interested in the language and form of photography and through that creating my own boundaries,’ Black told Peter Turner in 1992. ‘That's what really excites me. It's challenge, a little like saying, “I want to play rock and roll, which I know is steeped in history, but what can I do with two guitars and a bass that Chuck Berry didn't?”’

It strikes me that Black looks where people, rather than the camera, look. One imagines that while other photographers are sizing up their subject and carefully composing before going in for page 16 the slow kill, Black is letting his eyes roam like other passersby towards incidents of interest. Gazing down at the pavement of the street corner, before flicking across to a baby or a dog. Staring vacantly into the scrawny bushes by the side of the bus stop, before meditating briefly on the reflections in a shop window. The humanity of a Black photograph is that it's as much about a crowd of people as it is about the photographer's eye as one of that crowd itself.

It's consequence of this most unobtrusive of approaches that Black surprises us with what he manages to catch. It's what you capture when it's your eye, not the camera, doing the looking. His photography focuses on the urban spaces between the things other photographers are busy focusing on. Perhaps not surprisingly, he finds there the most poignant of ordinary human moments.

In the third photograph [p96] a monkey holds a camera. It looks like a pretty flash 35mm. The camera appears to be attached still to the arm of the photographer taking the picture. It could be a clever play on an advertisement in an old National Geographic magazine: ‘Any monkey can take a great photograph with a Nikon SCX411 Special.’ The photograph however also suggests a moral: that if you're too overladen with cameras, your subject is likely to get your camera before you get your subject. For this monkey, perhaps the photographer's equipment-laden body has come to resemble a tree. A suggestion that it's not how swish your camera is, but how attuned you are to the subject itself.
Black and white photograph.

From ‘Autoportraits’, 1986