Sport 30: Peter Black-Real Fiction
Gregory O'Brien — The Place Where They Live
The Place Where They Live
‘Presence is our duty, be it only for a moment’ Goethe (notice on Peter Black's darkroom wall)
Disquietude And Its Characters
‘How little, in the real world, forms the basis of the best reflections—the fact of arriving late for lunch, of running out of matches, of throwing the matchbox out the window … the fact I'm nobody in the world …’ So utters the narrator in Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquietude, a character Peter Black might cite as a kindred spirit, the two of them perambulating through the roads and paths of their separate cities, both of them gatherers and orchestrators of observations—of things seen and thoughts, as we say at home, thunk. Peter Black cultivates a certain distance and might be described as a Pessoa-esque ‘realist’—that is, an individual ‘for whom the outside world is an independent nation’.
That said, it would be inaccurate to cast Peter himself as an outsider, even if his work is characterised by detachment and understatement. It's just that he shuffles rather than strides through the modern world—he glances rather than stares. Avoiding the overt and showy, he eschews not only the smoke machines and lighting rigs of Romanticism but also the Mobile Disco of subjective emotion. His ambiguity is unequivocal, his ambivalence decisive. Ultimately, he is a figure neither apart nor integrated, adrift in the space between the personal and the impersonal. The camera, then, is a halfway house between the subjective world and the objective one.
Some of Peter Black's best known photographs were taken during the Springbok Tour protests in 1981: protestors hoisting a crucifix on the rugby park in Hamilton, the battered bearers of battered placards resting beside an Auckland hedge, the charge of the Red Squad past an overturned police car.
This afternoon, Peter saunters uncomfortably about the darkroom. He says he has probably lost the Springbok Tour negatives. Not that this worries him. His lack of attachment to these images stems, I suspect, from the fact they unsettle his notion of photography, their subject matter overriding any interest they might have for him as photographic prints. He would build something from almost nothing, rather than take a huge, public event or personage and reduce it to a black and white print. Peter would have the image generate its own private narrative rather than stand its ground as public record. The photograph, then, is a point of origin rather than a terminus, a catalyst rather than something in which the world is reduced or summarised.
The Reflection of the Photographer in the Shopwindow Takes a Picture of the Photographer
What or who precisely is the persona, the shaping personality or fictional character orchestrating both the order and chaos of these images? If the New Zealand male photographer—from Alfred Burton to Eric Lee Johnson to Robin Morrison—tends to be thought of as a man of action, these photographs draw us towards a more discreet presence, a non-demonstrative, resolutely private figure. Walker Evans's oft-quoted comment on Eugene Atget will hold for the ‘street photographer’ Peter Black as well: ‘His general note is lyrical understanding of the street, trained observation of it, special feeling for patina, eye for revealing detail, over all of which is thrown a poetry which is not “the poetry of the street” … but the projection of Atget's person.’
Peter Black sees the kinds of things we all see. He ventures onto the construction site in ‘Sites’ much the same way a curious neighbour or a child might. He is not the Man Alone of New Zealand tradition—rather the curious bystander. Art, then, is not a form of privilege; if anything it underlines the earthliness and earthbound-nature of everyday life. Yet the images remain, somehow, intensely his.
The photographer's art: the artist's photograph aswim in its chemicals … the blackened room where the photographic papers are laid out like beachtowels then hung up to dry … Photography is one of the processes ‘Reality’ has contrived to preserve itself. And, it follows that photographs are often thought of as acts of ‘preservation’—but what exactly is being preserved / retained / held onto? The interior / exterior of a condemned building or, as the case may be, an unspoiled landscape; a family, the social pattern at a certain point in history? The prevailing fashion? The Plight of the Worker? Might this art also be about the preservation of a sense of wonder? Then again, what is being preserved might be the mood of the photographer himself on the morning or afternoon in question?
Rather than being overtly autobiographical, Peter Black's photographs rely on the ‘unfathomably complex hedges of self-inscription’ David Bellos noted in the novels of Georges Perec. A series as seemingly objective as Peter's ‘Moving Pictures’ does in fact have a purposefully oblique personal design. These images were dedicated by the photographer to the memory of his father who ‘while estranged from the family still managed to take us on some great journeys’. So the pictures are infused with a sense of loss, gratitude, bewilderment, varying degrees of warmth and coolness. And, in the final frame, a figure carrying a suitcase in either hand, walking away from the photographer [p127].
Peter Black's photographs frequently capture subjects sleeping, daydreaming, sunbathing or slouching: people in their ‘down time’. In Western art—from Poussin to Matisse and Kertesz and onwards—the reclining figure, usually female, has put in some very long hours as the earthly page 57 embodiment of Beauty. Which brings us to the rather different reclining figures in Peter's work. Take the street photograph from his 2002 series ‘Streetworks’ [p155], in which a young woman in high heels lies prostrate on a sun-warmed stone wall in central Auckland. The subject, like a female superhero, is horizontal, as if flying into her dream-state, high heels trailing like jet-streams. Needless to say, the figure is neither idealised, romanticised, allegorised nor eroticised. (In fact, it is the marvellous peripheral details to which the eye is drawn: the tiled swimming pool-like walls, a row of concrete triangles, the vegetation on the frock …)
The photograph was taken without recourse to the camera's viewfinder. This has been Black's preferred technique in recent years, the camera hand-held. While, on some occasions, Peter might use a tiny, automatic-focus Olympus camera with auto-wind, here he used a single-lens reflex camera, the camera setting hurriedly approximated and the photo taken. Operating the camera at waist-height allows the photographer to work spontaneously and without drawing attention to himself. It also introduces an element of surprise: he is not aware of the success or failure of the images until he sees them, for the first time, on a proof sheet. ‘Working on this series,’ he recalls, ‘I wanted the camera to do things I wasn't aware of … As it eventuated, the camera was telling me a new way of seeing.’ Intriguingly, we find the height at which Black's hand-held images are usually taken is closer to the viewpoint of a pet animal or child than of an adult. And we find his lens frequently aimed at the ground or road—a ‘street photography’ in the most concrete sense.
Peter Black's street photographs [pp102–105, 155–159] explore the split-second, not the extended lengths of time required by pictorialists and the users of large-format cameras. Peter says he has very little patience: ‘If I don't find the thing when I'm out walking around then I'm not interested.’ Similarly, photographing from a car for ‘Moving Pictures’ [pp106–127] left a great deal up to spontaneity and chance. ‘You turn a corner and something new is there,’ he explains. ‘You have to make a gut decision to take a photograph. It isn't conscious … there is no waiting around for the right moment. You could think of these images as a kind of anti-documentary photography. How can it be documentary when you are travelling at speed—there just isn't time to think?’
The engagement of Peter Black's human subjects with the camera is as momentary as the camera's engagement with them: there are looks of surprise, a few knee-jerk reactions. Occasionally his subjects appear stunned, scornful, abusive even. At the time of writing, the European Economic Community is considering—under its Human Rights Charter—banning street photography on personal privacy grounds. But, then again, isn't the street photograph as much a portrait of the anonymous subject's inscrutability as it is an invasion of privacy?
With their anonymous individuals, their flimsy, implied social structures and their occasional vistas of earthly redemption, Peter Black's photographs make up a quietly voiced essay on the human condition. In the end, however, Black's world and its characters remain unknowable—the car speeds off into the distance, the pedestrians disappear left and right of the camera frame. The objects in the shop-window are sold or rearranged the next day.page 58
‘If there's one thing life offers us besides life itself and for which we must thank the Gods,’ wrote Fernando Pessoa, ‘it's the gift of not knowing: of not knowing ourselves and of not knowing each other.’ Peter's photographs are imbued with this sense of unknowing, and a metaphysics which hums through the particulars of a humanised world whose emblems might well be an assortment of stuffed toys and lawn mowers.
You don't have to look too long and hard at ‘the real’ before it becomes unreal. Think of Eugene Atget's famous shopwindow of female torsos, Boulevard de Strasbourg, Corsets, Paris, 1912—an image subsequently co-opted by the Surrealists as one of their own. What of this strangeness, this disquiet, which also emerges from Peter Black's low-key scenarios? His ‘real fictions’ are fainter, subtler by far than the Freudian dystopias so beloved of Surrealism. (It is also worth stating that they are oblivious to the utopias of Modernism generally.) Yet his empty urban vistas and images reflected in shop-windows certainly hark back to the work of Atget and the Surrealists [see pp3, 5, 163, 165 for some examples]. This affinity with surrealist photography is also evident in his Joseph Cornell-like attraction to stuffed and painted animals and in the varying ways he imparts a sense of dislocation [pp79, 83]. While Peter's art is not one of distortion in the manner of Kertesz or Man Ray, the result can be strikingly similar. You only need to look at the ‘Sites’ series, with their x-ray vision into the walls and wiring of half-built houses. No dreams of escape, only dreams of being here.
Dog in Mercedes Benz
The nose of the dog in the photograph [p78] is out of focus. How can this be, when the Mercedes logo on the car boot, in the foreground, and the dog's ears, which are further away, are still in focus? This might be one of those conundrums of photographic technique until you realise that, yes, the dog's nose is in focus too and that it is the breath of the animal that has been steaming up the rear windscreen, giving the blurred effect.
Not surprisingly for a photographer whose camera is so frequently trained on the ground, animals have been a frequent subject in Peter's work. Since the early days of print advertising and the mass media, animals have been incessantly co-opted into commercials as metaphors for aspects of the human psyche—so National Bank's black horse is the ‘free spirit’, elsewhere the big cat is metaphor for both sports car and sexual predator; the loyal dog will do as a mascot for all manner of life insurance. A flock of formation-flying sea-birds becomes an Air New Zealand logo…For years a depressed looking goldfish coasted around television screens nationwide, as the figurehead (if that's the right word) for New Zealand on Air. And Telecom New Zealand corralled just about the entire animal kingdom then set them to music as an endorsement for evening rates. In Peter Black's work of the early 1980s—particularly ‘Fifty Photographs’ and a series of colour images from 1984 [pp2, page 59 5–8]—animals or representations of animals are particularly numerous: a stuffed kitten has replaced a child in a pram (Berhampore School Fair II, Wellington), a black dog, tongue dangling, shares lawn with a writhing infant (Baby, Summer City, Wellington). Not surprisingly, the menagerie that stampedes through the photographs of Peter Black is unsettlingly, relievedly different from the adman's zoo.
- 21 a fluffy dog drinks from a tap
- 22 a concrete kangaroo (with joey) is caught in the headlights of a car
- 23 an alsatian stares from the back window of a Mercedes
- 24 a teeshirted, person-sized pink panther crosses its legs in the back of a panel-van
- 25 a coin operated Mustang Stallion awaits its rider…
- 27 a fake pig sits in a wheelbarrow
- 28 a giant kiwi looms above a Palmerston North department store
- 29 two children are dressed in rabbit outfits…
Peter Black's animal subjects are often human-made: hand-sewn or of badly poured concrete; their habitats are the backs of cars and vans, shopping centres and the crazed rural ritual of A & P shows. Make of this what you will. A fluffy dog peers from a china shop window [p2]. Perhaps Man's best friend also seems, at times, his most compliant victim.
But then animals are also capable of various forms of revenge, the choicest of which is a pristine indifference. Generally, Peter Black's animals are oblivious to humanity, although, in Waihau Bay, 1986, a black dog muzzles up to his camera lens. In fact, if the photographs are anything to go by, dogs seem to quite like him. It's the humans who stare or give him the fingers.
Life would be intolerable if we were conscious of it. Fortunately we're not. We live as unconsciously as the animals, in the same futile and useless manner, and if we anticipate death, which presumably (though not certainly) they don't, we anticipate it through so much forgetfulness, so many distractions and digressions, that we can hardly say we think about it… Thus we live, and it's not much on which to consider ourselves superior to the animals.
Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquietude
Film Noir / Camera As Cinema
Certainly Peter Black is an essayist—but as much in the literary as in the photographic sense. His oeuvre plots a physical and mental journey that might be described, in an appropriately low-key way, as an odyssey. Like Leopold Bloom in Joyce's Ulysses, his route is a multi-layered one, its vocabulary and grammar mutating along the way. The 1990 series ‘Vox Humana’ drifts through a number of Wellington churches and religious meetings; ‘Autoportraits’ rambles around the footpaths of Wellington over a number of days then reconfigures these ‘moments’ in a new and resolutely unstable order. While linear narrative tracks are laid in series such as ‘Foliage’ [pp128–133] and ‘Sites’ [pp135–149], for the most part Peter Black's narrative is the perambulatory prose of footsteps and sideways vistas, of zig-zagging, at times circuitous journeying. His oeuvre is a jukebox on which the songs might be randomly ordered and replayed. ‘Fifty Photographs’, ‘Autoportraits’ and ‘Moving Pictures’ are such discontinuous narratives, although here too patterns cannot help but emerge. Of the latter sequence, Peter Black's installation instructions insisted they be ‘assembled in a sequence that reads like a novel’.
If we have thought of Black's photography as a kind of literature, we might also instructively think of it as a kind of cinematography, full of Jean-Luc Godard-esque explorations of both its means and ends. Take the backlighting so evident throughout Black's work, particularly in ‘Moving Pictures’ (where he was confined to the view out one side of the car only—hence the necessity to photograph both into and away from the light-source). As well as being a staple of the amateur family portrait, the backlit shot was one of Godard's characteristic devices in Weekend (1968) and other films from the sixties. In Peter Black's Selwyn Toogood, Levin, 1981 [p86] the backlighting of the room echoes the light emanating from a television screen. If Hollywood uses backlighting to suggest the arrival of God or the Alien Fleet, here it suggests the arrival of Reality, the broad light of day and a blast of daytime television. ‘It's in the bag’ or, as they say in the film industry: ‘It's in the can.’
Yin Yan You're My Thing
The fact these photographs tend, at times, towards the cinematic underlines their allegiance with the work of Robert Frank—the photographer Peter Black is most often associated with. Frank was himself a film director, the maker of a banned film about the Rolling Stones (Cocksucker Blues, 1972) and the cover-artist for the Stones’ classic album Exile on Main Street, which features a profusion of his black and white pictures. If the lesson was still needed, this record jacket was artlessness become art, the words of songs inscribed: Soul Survivor…Yin Yan You're My Thing…I give you diamonds you give me disease… Elsewhere in the gatefold montage, we find passport-booth photos, the jarring vernacular of the restaurant menu (an image reprised by Peter Black and even more recently by Gavin Hipkins in ‘The Homely’), a screaming Joan Crawford, and the incessant, untidy poetry of street and bar: ‘Got to scrape the shit right off your shoes’ … ‘I don't want to talk about Jesus I just want to see his face’.
Taken through the window of a photo-shop, Peter Black's cover image for Bill Manhire's collection of poems Milky Way Bar (Victoria University Press, 1991) is a localised rendition of Robert Frank. Inhabited by equal amounts of affection and alienation, the image begs the question whether Peter Black is in fact stating an allegiance with the family snapshot rather than the Western canon. Peter's photo-shopfront is abuzz with discarded memories—unclaimed and now on offer to the general public for 50c apiece. Hapless children, a prize-giving, a Lockwood-style home on the move, a trophy table, a marae … (Some years later, when exhibiting at the New Work Studio, Wellington, Peter set the prices for his prints—displayed en masse, pinned to the wall—at a ridiculously cheap $50, which reminded me of these shopfront bargains and left me wondering if the association was deliberate.)
Untitled, 1986, reproduced on the cover of Bill Manhire's Milky Way Bar (VUP, 1991)
By the early 1990s Black was producing his own variants on these picture-windows, using series of his own works—usually 32 exposures—to arrive at some almost Joycean compositions, incorporating inconclusive formations of language. In this, and other, respects, Peter's word-works have an affinity with Ed Ruscha's They Called Her Styrene (Phaidon, 2000), a book which assembles 575 artworks comprising words to create, as the artist states, ‘a sort of novel without an obvious plot, a series of words with an implied narrative’. Elsewhere Ruscha notes, appositely in the present context: ‘Sometimes found words are the most pure because they have nothing to do with you. I take things as I find them. A lot of these things come from the noise of everyday life.’
The noise, Peter would reiterate, rather than the music of experience. It's an untidy aesthetic although a surprisingly current one in photography today—and one that the gods and goddesses of grunge must look down upon and feel well pleased.
Peter's orchestrated suites of photographs could also be thought of as concrete poems. These compositions were exhibited in 1995 and 1997 under the appropriate titles ‘Sign Language’ and ‘Picture Stories’. Boiled down to its linguistic element, Getting Better, as it appeared in the former exhibition, read something like this:
The Camera is a Factory Making Parentheses
The narrator in Jean-Luc Godard's 1966 film 2 ou 3 chose qui je sais d'elle, observes: ‘One might say that living in society today is almost like living in a vast comic strip.’ Image and text in two dimensions clutter the three-dimensional world. The language that reverberates through clapped-out billboards, graffiti and advertising hoardings meanders ‘in parenthesis’ through Peter Black's work—the parentheses, in this case, being the photographic process. So a trail of words burbles through these real fictions. A quick trawl through ‘Fifty Photographs’ (1981) yields the following visual ‘noise’ or Ruscha-inclined narrative:
New Zealand…DINING ROOM…everybody's crunchin…BRINGING YOU HAWKES BAY SUNSHINE…RIVERLAND the top orange…PURPLE BEAR, TEA COFFEE TRAILER HIRE…Ride MUSTANG…KIWI BACON…right…left…SHEEPSKIN SEAT COVERS…NATIONAL DOG…One Way Jesus…
If, for the generation of McCahon and Woollaston, the voices in their heads were the Bible and Gerard Manley Hopkins, for the post-war generation—Peter Black included—the voice and rhythms are more likely those of advertising jingles, theme tunes and popular songs that you can't keep out of your eyes and ears.
The poet then continues on towards Dunedin where ‘you drop down / to roofs and that grey / documentary harbour…’. In Peter's photographs, a sense of place is suggested rather than announced, nuanced rather than signposted (and what signposts there are tend to be of a more general nature: ‘DEFINITELY’ [p70] THANK YOU’ [p112]).
The voices, Kaikoura, Bluff, the Haast:
places go by, and that's how
you leave the past, not even
alphabetical order. And wherever you stop
you say: Do you think
things happened here?
End of the Road
The past keeps moving—‘places go by, and that's how you leave the past’—disappearing off into the far distance. In hindsight, Peter Black's ‘Moving Pictures’ is a pictorial essay about a period when New Zealand collectively realised that Jesus wasn't going to save us, but entertained the thought for a moment that money—or ‘prosperity’ as the PR for the era went—might. ‘In 1986 page 66 and 1987, for many the country felt bad’, Peter Black wrote a few years later. ‘It seemed like the social fabric was being unglued. The economy was being restructured, unemployment was high, rising interest rates were forcing farmers off the land, and then the sharemarket crashed.’
Shortly after ‘Moving Pictures’, the roof blew off the decade and the series inadvertently became a kind of ready-made memorial, with its boom ‘n’ bust litany: ‘TWIGGY NEEDS GRUBBING’ … ‘SURE TO RISE’ [On the Edmonds Building, now demolished] … ‘Satellite TV’ … ‘One Hour Photograph’ … ‘Ray Kearly Has Aids’, ‘Wheel Alignment’ … ‘Sterns For Furs’ …
Since that time, New Zealand has continued to reconfigure—witness Peter Black's recent series ‘Streetworks’ [pp155–59], which is marked by both an eerie continuity with the past and a sense of radical reinvention. By the late 1990s, the Waikato town of Matamata had become Hobbiton and other areas had been assimilated into Peter Jackson's filmic Middle Earth. And, at the time of writing, Tom Cruise is residing near New Plymouth where a Samurai movie is being shot, because, as a film industry representative says, ‘Taranaki is the best place [in the world] to create a 19thcentury vision of Japan.’ These disjunctions seem oddly consistent with what Peter Black's photographs were inferring all along: that ‘seeing is disbelieving’, particularly when it comes to national identity in a world of not only radical social and economic change but also of digital enhancement, virtual reality and increasingly frequent moa-sightings [p163].
So, where do we, the viewers, stand in relation to these narratives of confinement and liberation, of muteness and moments of speech or exclamation? Who is doing the talking and who is listening? Is Peter Black's critical distance also ours?
In relation to this positioning of photographer, subject and viewer, the first photograph Peter Black ever took is instructive in establishing a few ground rules. It is a street scene in Brisbane, 1973, backlit, of a family selling newspapers [p73]: a heavily built woman looks our way, a man in a sailor's hat sits beside his newspapers while their helper—a Frank O'Hara look-alike—takes up his position beside an intersection, where cars are about to leap forward. The light hits the beautifully polished shoes of the subjects. The ‘tone’ of the scene is hard to establish: not quite disaffected but not enobling; neither judgemental nor aggrandising. At the very outset of his career, Peter's objective was, to borrow from Maurice Duggan, to inscribe a few co-ordinates so that ‘the map of the way of our going and of our being may begin to be exposed’. It is a position he has maintained—keeping a certain distance from his subjects which then becomes the distance they keep from us, the viewers. It is also the distance he, the photographer, keeps from us. It is neither a position of remoteness nor of particular closeness or intimacy. He is one point of an equilateral triangle.
‘Love today is weaker, paler than in the past’
(Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961)
Peter Black's images tremor with, but do not broadcast, human emotion. A heart is painted on a tree [p167] or cut from corrugated iron and nailed to a building. Nuance by nuance, an emotional life—and a record of an emotional life—is constructed. These are necessary co-ordinates on his ‘map of our going and of our being’. In as much as this body of work describes Peter Black, it establishes the vernacular of a life as it is led—shunning the epiphanous highs or climactic moments.
Like Pessoa's narrator in The Book of Disquietude, Peter Black changes nothing. The world goes on in these photographs. The woman asleep on concrete warmed by the sun dozes on through her lunch hour. The Fiat Bambina ambles onwards—or is overgrown with some particularly noxious weed. Buildings continue to leak. The seaside ‘develops’, the temporary hillocks of sand-dunes peppered with temporary mansions—that peculiarly ‘New Zealand’ mixture of the half-built and the half-destroyed.
‘The life we live is a fluid discord, a happy mean between the greatness that doesn't exist and the happiness that can't exist,’ Pessoa might chime in at this point. Yet Peter Black's photographs are by no means this pessimistic. Ultimately, they suggest to me (and they might mean something entirely different to the photographer) that human lives are made up of patterns and textures, overlapping narratives of thinking, feeling and remembering. The function of the camera is to record this; to open our eyes a little wider, insisting we attend to the reality with which we are presented, AS IS, WHERE IS, to adapt the New Zealand vernacular. We live in the foreground and middleground of our allotted territory. A dream of here, not there. The faraway hills of nationalism and transcendence are lost and, for the most part, unaccounted for.