Laurence Aberhart: Recent Taranaki Photographs, by Laurence Aberhart, with essays by Paul Brobbel, Peter Ireland and others, (Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, 2012), 69 pp., $33.
Flying up to Auckland from the South you can often see Mount Taranaki, and if it’s clear you see the amazing radial land-use pattern around it especially to the east where Hawera and Stratford lie. And down there, somewhere, plods Laurence Aberhart, setting up his gigantic camera, his images essentially explorations of the idea that photography is inevitably the past, the passé composé after the shutter has clicked.
In one introductory photo in the catalogue, we see an anonymous gallery with pristinely framed prints on immaculate walls, and a polished white floor. Three people are looking intently at the eye-level pictures. In the foreground a shaggy-maned man is contemplating a war memorial photo. Another figure, a statuesque blonde woman, is leaning slightly into a picture in the back corner; a third figure in a contraposto attitude is closely studying the mysterious tryptich of the distant mountain. Intent, motionless silent. Their viewing distance is identical: a kind of ritual worship.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1837: Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God.
‘Artist’ is a label Laurence shyly accepts for his work as a photographer in the interview with Rhana Devenport published in the catalogue, although he believes that his main function is a more down-to-earth one: ‘Part of an ongoing ritual, doing what photographers have always done.’ Hmm, he makes it sound like it’s been there for ever. But as recently as the early nineteenth century there was no photographic technology, just a few mad amateur scientists playing with lenses and chemistry sets to get the record straight in a positivist age that needed straight recording.
And straight recording, perhaps ‘straight photography’ in the Walker Evans mode is what we get out of a Laurentian slice of a place: With the camera, it’s all or nothing. You either get what you’re after at once, or what you do has to be worthless. I don’t think the essence of photography has the hand in it so much. The essence is done very quietly with a flash of the mind, and with a machine. (Walker Evans, quoted in 1971.)
Purity, puritanism in respect to the process is something that is close to Laurence’s practice. He has a very direct and defined way of transferring what he sees on the ground glass onto his final gold-toned prints. The process, although technically demanding, is minimal. He wants to lose as little of what he sees as he can on the way through. He works in a tonal scale as old as drawing because ‘colour does not last’. Moreover, he confesses that he is ‘ego driven’ to make an image that will ‘last as long as it is possible for a photographic image to last’.
So what, in Laurence’s mind, is significant enough to be recorded for ever and to become a surface that will invoke a feeling in his viewer ? Let’s have a slightly more formalist look at a few of his ‘stacked decisive moments.’
Let us see, for example, the way he resolves very complex compositions with white verticals, a kind of Stieglitzian white fence approach. It is most marked in one of his most difficult pictures, of the Auroa, Taranaki War Memorial. The lemon squeezer-hatted soldier is almost central, placed high, and breaking a drab horizon formed by the tin roof of, presumably, the RSA or memorial hall. The roof is given rhythmic patterning by shiny tin smokestacks, repeated in the foreground by three white pillars. These are tonally and structurally related back to the soldier clutching his marble Lee Enflield. In the Inglewood memorial across from it, the white verticals are actually a Wanganui roadsign, and the rather elaborate truncated flagpole, and again the Kiwi with his rifle. A similar compositional device with three verticals is used in ‘Rahoutu, 2010’: once you’ve seen it, it is everywhere.
He makes less use here of the limited covering circle of his lens, which can lead to a shadow falling over the sky in two fuzzy semicircles in the top corners — sometimes effective, sometimes annoying.
The book itself is a thorough, carefully-organised catalogue, and one of the important services it rendered me was to situate me a little more in the province of Taranaki.The writing fills us in nicely on both the photographer and the region he is working in here. Paul Brobbell’s opening essay does a creditable scalpel deconstruction of the ‘gloom and doom’ responses Aberhart seems to have provoked in the past from assorted art historians and journalists.
One way in to Taranaki for me was through the land wars, which was something I knew about thanks to Dick Scott’s 1970’s book on Parihaka, Ask that Mountain. Much of that material is looked at from a different angle in Ron Lambert’s lively catalogue essay and touched on more peripherally in Ireland’s essay.
Aberhart’s 1986 New Plymouth photograph, ‘The Heavens Declare the Glory of God’ arguably remains one of his finest, and it is good to see it here. (The catalogue does well in giving us us the whole of Aberhart’s Taranaki project.) The shadowline on the top of the frame remains, and draws us down to a hint of light sky, giving a kind of vanishing point to the picture. A beautiful bit of small-town signwriting, and now almost forgotten expression of faith, the word ‘declare ‘ jumps out at us with its insistent contemporary echoes of administration, taxes and customs. Are we looking at a dome or at a half-round cutout ? Either are possible in the Victorian vernacular of the region’s architecture. Honest weatherboard and iron structure, with an oversized window.
But why didn’t Laurence Aberhart also go frontal, and do with the pretty amazing little building what he did with his Southern Masonic halls ? Or to ‘King Konkrete’ in Waitara? ( Though motor vehicles, seem to be on Lawrence’s rather long index of forbiddens, in the ‘recognisable and austere’ inventory of his work as Paul Brobbel puts it.) I think the oracles on Mount Taranaki know the answer to this. It is the mountain itself that creates the drama.There is an urgency in this ‘declaration’ and something as close to a ‘decisive moment’ as we’ll get in Lawrence’s work, with the sun about to disappear behind the southern slope on the already darkened cone.
I am also certain that there is a frontal view somewhere in Lawrence’s archives, but it would express something foreign, something added. A similar effect to that of ‘The Heavens Declare. . .’ is sucessfully repeated in the cover photo (‘Taranaki from Awatuna’), where a derelict dairy factory points its tired art déco façade directly at the mountain. However it looks a tad grey on grey in the catalogue reproduction, I’d have to spend a little time with the original.
Because, despite the efforts that have been obviously gone to regarding colour correction and multiple plate printing, the reproductions remain reproductions. One of the prices we have had to pay in this digital age is to almost never see an original, without going to considerable difficulty. I have looked at possibly 2 to 500 pictures today digitised on the internet on my computer screen, and at a handful of books, including this catalogue.
From this catalogue I wanted more, I wanted to be able to read the text on the two marble memorials in Okaiwa, and on the Rolls of Honour in the Douglas and Tataraïmaka Halls. The historical essay in the catalogue cites names, and I have difficulty deciphering them in the images. Words, names, texts are one of the primary elements in many of these works, as are glints in mirrors, reflected details, shadows, the trimmed feuillage of hedges and trees. But there is only the hint of details.
This catalogue is like a picture of a picture: anticlimactic to the ritual fulfillment that is exposure to the non-digital photographs themselves, in the gallery.
MAX OETTLI is a photographer, photographic historian and writer currently based in Geneva, Switzerland. He formerly taught at the Otago Polytechnic School of Art.