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Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Volume 31, Number 17. July 23, 1968

Books — It never lies


It never lies

Photography has long been the Cinderella of New Zealand visual arts.

Only one art gallery in the country contains a photographic collection (Wanganui), and the "Arts in New Zealand section of the New Zealand Year Book never mentioned photography.

The passive ignorance or active prejudice towards this medium exists in spite of a strong national society, the Photographic Society of New Zealand, over 120 photographic clubs, and numerous local and international photographic exhibitions. The national society claims there are more amateur photographers per total population here than anywhere else in the world.

Various reasons have been advanced to explain photography's underprivileged status. It may be partly due to the prejudice that still regards this medium as a series of mechanical acts of technical virtuosity rather than a vehicle for artistic expression. The popularisation of photography as art in such books as The Family of Man, Nothing Personal, and Maori, should go a long way towards dispelling this attitude.

The low prices offered by New Zealand newspapers and journals of newsworthy pictures has been advanced as an explanation for the low incidence and output of professional photographers. It is notable that most creative photography in New Zealand is the work of amateurs.

Camera in New Zealand present a cross-section of subject-matter and skills in monochrome and colour. Prints were solicited by the editors from a large number of photographers and the published collection of 198 pictures is a selection of these.

As with New Zealand painting, sea- and land-scapes are the dominant subject, the result of the great variety and beauty of scenery offered to the artist within a confined territory.

Most of the photographs examine the mists and soft light effects of early morning and evening. A particular beautiful example of this type is E. F. Ashby's colour print of mists swirling through Dunedin streets after dawn.

There is no evidence in this book of attempts to explore the stark and sinewy ruggedness of the New Zealand countryside in full daylight as Colin MeCahon has done in landscape painting, partly, perhaps, because the results would not be regarded as conventionally beautiful, and partly because of technical difficulties in dealing with strong light.

The other main categories of pictures in the book are the collection of highly competant nature studies mainly close-ups of birds and insects, and the human studies, mostly drawn from the extremities of life child hood and old age.

A very effective example of the latter group is Eric Bell's sympathetic study of the the dejected punter, a woman of Ena Sharpies proportions dressed in mauve and blue, lamenting her failure as she leans against a race course railing.

The collection shows little evidence of experimentation in colour and tone, apart from a number of competent prints developed in limited black and white tones One of the few, ambitious exceptions is Charles Leslie's "The Last Bastion", showing in skeleton form the four horsemen of the Apocalypse interposed on red sunset clouds and a church steeple. The effect is startling and awesome, like that of a Salvador Dali painting.

While the subjects and treatment of some of the prints may strike the reader as hackneyed, this book is valuable for the interest and beauty of most of its pictures and as the first general record of photography in New Zealand.

Camera In New Zealand. Edited by Dr A. Robert Anderson and A. Lennard Casbolt. Published by A. H. and A. W. Reed, Wellington. Reviewed by Michael King.