Laurence Aberhart Photographs;
Essays by Gregory O’Brien and Justin Paton
VUP, NZ$125 | Reviewed by Andy Palmer

THE LAST FEW years have seen a proliferation of survey shows and publications of New Zealand photography and photographers – Marti Friedlander, Anne Noble, Peter Black, Ans Westra, Gary Blackman, and Wayne Barrar. Most of these photographers began their photography as part of the documentary tradition: the photo-journalist, the street photographer, think Magnum, think Robert Frank, Walker Evans etc.

Barrar is the exception, and while he is a documentary photographer, his touchstones are more those of the early 1970s New Topographic school – Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Frank Gohlke – and their offspring. Incidentally, Barrar is also the only one not to have a survey show to coincide with the release of his book.

Aberhart continues this apparent increasing interest in New Zealand photographers with the publication of this book and the accompanying exhibition at City Gallery Wellington, which surveys thirty years of photographic practice by Laurence Aberhart.

Aberhart’s approach to photography is different again to the aforementioned. Using an 8x10” field camera (hidden under a dark cloth to frame and focus the image on the groundglass), shooting almost exclusively in black and white (a small number of colour works exist though none are reproduced in the book) he photographs architecture, interiors and exteriors, cemeteries, monuments, and seascapes. His work seems to be influenced by an earlier age of photography, by those who used the camera as a tool for exploring and for cataloguing – William Henry Jackson, Carleton Watkins, Eugene Atget.

I feel I should state from the outset that I am a photographer. I’m a visual person. I like looking at pictures. This publication contains a lot of very beautiful pictures. However I often struggle with words. In my head. In conversation. And especially those of the written variety. This publication contains some of those too.


Interior #2, Suitengu Shrine, Otaru, Hokkaido, Japan, 2001

Luckily those words are in essays by Greg O’Brien and Justin Paton; two of the best arts writers we have. They both possess the ability to write simply, openly, and clearly without feeling the need to resort to what can often be the alienating language of Art to communicate their ideas. For this I am eternally grateful. Both lead us into the work of Laurence Aberhart from different angles. O’Brien discusses the recurring motif of the horizon – both real and artificial – whereas Paton takes us on a journey through the ever-present human element in Aberhart’s work.

As someone who has seen a lot of Aberhart’s work over the years, these essays have given me a new appreciation of his work. We all approach looking at art differently and to have two writers so clearly and concisely express ways of approaching these images is refreshing.

The book contains over 230 photographs, which are sequenced largely by subject matter: Northland churches, Asian images, house exteriors, museum interiors and so on. (A layout also reflected in the hanging of the exhibition.) Each work has a page to itself with white border framing the image on the page, and blank pages offering both a ‘chapter’ ending and a breathing space from the mass of pictures.

Looking through Aberhart’s work it’s obvious that he is an obsessive collector of forms as much as images. Many of his bodies of work are ongoing, be it Masonic Halls, churches, or wharenui. There is an obvious comparison to be made with the Bechers (a comparison Paton points out as being emphasised by shows curated by Aberhart’s Wanganui dealer Paul McNamara, and enhanced by some of the hangings in the exhibition). But where the Bechers images are more about the process of photography than the image itself, Aberhart’s work is very much about the image and, possibly more importantly, the object photographed. Aberhart seems to be gathering these images for himself as much as anyone else.

What we get from his collections are a sense of the past. As O’Brien states there is also a sense that his images are “about continuity and the persistence of certain attitudes... of the sacred or communal building as a living body.” While people are generally never present in his works, they are never absent either. There is a sense of spirit in much of his photography.


Caravan Cromwell, 1977

There is a consistency to his work and a timelessness, in that there is often little in the image to suggest just when the image was made. In part this is due to technique, but also in his continual return to similar subject matter. Ans Westra and, to a lesser extent, Peter Peryer (who had his survey show and publication in 1995) are the only other local photographers whose work throughout their career has shown the constancy of Aberhart’s in both style and subject.

In Aberhart’s work the subject is very much central in the image, generally smack bang in the middle of the frame. Sometimes this results in a composition that seems both wrong yet beautifully balanced at the same time. I think of some of the interior shots where the ceiling can be the dominant feature, though not necessarily the ‘subject’. There is also something initially disturbing in his use of a very wide angle lens, and the resulting distorted light fittings and so on. But the more one sees of these images the more natural they look, and the more it is apparent that it is part of what makes an Aberhart image.

This is a stunning volume, undoubtedly a quintessential book on New Zealand photography, beautifully designed and printed. My only reservation with it is that the reproduced images are fractionally smaller than Aberhart’s contact prints, and consequently some images are a little harder to read than the exhibition prints. However, this is often the case with art books and all it really means is that you should get to the show as well as buying the book.

In 1986 Aberhart commented on the loss of some of the traditional photographic practices, stating that his gold-toned images may well be the last of their kind. While the dramatically swift move to digital photography this decade has meant that traditional photographic practices are now even rarer, I for one feel that the old technology will survive for some time with practitioners of Aberhart’s calibre still producing outstanding work. If, however, his vision comes to pass, we are fortunate that we have this wonderful volume to remind us of both Aberhart’s work, and a photographic tradition.

Andy Palmer is a Wellington-based artist and photographer. His works can be viewed at www.acpalmer.co.nz.

See also:
» A Chill in the Air: Laurence Aberhart

Laurence Aberhart exhibits at City Gallery Wellington until July 29.