Monday, November 14, 2016

Vale Marti Friedlander

Marti Friedlander, who died yesterday, was a great photographer of life. Her best subjects were people: artists, intellectuals and politicians, as you would expect of someone so prominent in her profession, but especially ordinary people. It was principally through her work, and Ans Westra’s, that I was able to experience as an immigrant what the country looked like during the time I spent growing up somewhere else.

Both Friedlander and Westra immigrated from continental Europe, which may partly explain why I have found their work so accessible and sympathetic. Theirs isn’t a New Zealand of majestic landscapes or remote places without people (unlike, say, Robin Morrison’s ). Nor is it the New Zealand of quietly dignified, laconic men, or muscular sporting heroes. It is rather the country – for which Aotearoa may be a better appellation – of working people and their families: plain, seldom stylish, hardly wealthy, but always projecting with thoughtful confidence a sense of its own place in a global human society. A country that skews female, Māori and young. A country one might like to live in.

I first came across Friedlander through her work for The New Zealand Listener, before having the opportunity – Google tells me it was in 2002 – of seeing here in Wellington the superb retrospective curated by the Auckland Art Gallery. ‘One day,’ she told Diana Wichtel in 2012, ‘we will all just be a photograph’. And if that is true, some day in the far future, when everything else is gone, Marti Friedlander herself may be found in the famous Self-portrait at the age of 54

or in the Self-portrait with portraits of Michael and Nina (1964) chosen for the cover of Leonard Bell’s monograph.

The book is a catalogue of life in Aotearoa which is particularly at home in the workplace, on the street, in artists’ homes and in the midst of demonstrations. Browsing through it just now, I am struck again by warmth that Friedlander was always able to draw out of her subjects, and that links all of her work, right from the very beginning and including the celebrated Moko Suite she shot for historian Michael King in the late sixties and early seventies .

Herepo Rongo, 1970 (from the Kui Mau Moko page at Te Papa)

Ralph Hotere, 1978

I wonder for how many of the book’s subjects, if any, you could say that they are now just photographs. Maybe none of them yet. The entanglements that each of our lives creates in the lives of others take some time to unravel, and of my own ancestors I’d be reluctant to say that they have been reduced to a simulacrum. But of the country as a whole in Marti Friedlander’s time, at the height of her work – the obscured, almost forgotten decades leading up to the cleavage of 1984 – we may say perhaps that the sharpest image that remains, the closer one to the truth, is the one that was carefully created by her, snapshot by snapshot.

It is not for me to write any kind of obituary to Marti Friedlander. As well as the Diana Wichtel profile referenced above, I am happy to direct you instead to the interview she gave, in extremis, to Adam Dudding, fresh from receiving her Honorary Doctorate in Literature from Auckland University last month. It’s a fitting and witty taking of leave. For my part, I can say that I am grateful for the opportunity to view the immediate past of my adoptive country through her subtle, humane, exquisite eye.

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