Rick Alexander photographs;
Introduction by Peter Ireland
RA, NZ$75 | Reviewed by Andy Palmer

ABOUT ten years ago the book A Century of Images was released. It was a loose history of New Zealand photography taken from the archives at Te Papa. Amongst those represented were the familiar, both names and images, and the unknown. The opening image is a dramatic shot of a sand dune, with beautiful textures, lovely tones, and heavy vignetting, which while looking recent, could have been taken at any point in the last 100 or so years.

While I couldn’t have told you who the photographer was (even though his name is on the page opposite), that image has stuck with me. And that same image is the second plate in Hinterland, reproduced here in pure black and white, minus the blue-green cast of the earlier publication. It looks even better and sets the tone for the images that follow.

Alexander studied photography in the mid-1970s and has quietly been doing his own thing since. Though he hasn’t been a regular exhibitor his work has been shown in some prestigious galleries and is in some important collections. The self-published Hinterland brings together 64 of his images taken between 1978 and 2002.

All the works are landscapes, not the big sweeping vistas of the souvenir book, but details of this country – landforms, buildings, views, interiors, animals. Sure you can see the influence of Aberhart and Peryer and, to a degree, Morrison, but these photographers are his contemporaries, and Alexander makes his works his own rather than mere copies. I can even see the pictorialism of George Chance in a some of the pieces, an influence many ‘serious’ or ‘art’ photographers would probably not wish to announce so loudly.

Most of the works are black and white images and they’ve been sequenced in a fairly logical and obvious way. I’m torn as to whether this is a good thing or not. It certainly makes the read an agreeable one, but possibly that’s a problem. To help break up the easy flow, little colour images are used as punctuation between subjects.

The nature of the imagery means that many of the works have a timeless quality – an old Ford Prefect pops up here and there, but generally speaking there is nothing in the image itself to signify when it was taken. Alexander’s use of camera formats enhances this timelessness, and there’s a consistency in his imagery which minimises any possible jarring between, say, the large format shots and those from his Diana camera. There is a stillness and serenity to many shots, even those with quite heavy gothic overtones. That may sound paradoxical but it demonstrates Alexander’s strength and steadiness of vision.

Alexander’s Hinterland is a New Zealand most of us don’t see, or choose to ignore. This point is reinforced in Peter Ireland’s introduction. Ireland has long been a proponent of New Zealand photography, writing extensively on the subject in numerous books, magazines and journals, as well as curating a number of shows over the past 30 years or so. Ireland’s writing seems to fall into two camps – involved near incomprehensible (for me) art theory, or lucid, enlightened and enlightening prose. Fortunately his essay here is one of the latter.

His discussion of “What does that term “New Zealand” mean?” breaks it down to part geographical, “part contested history, part belief, part nationalist aspiration, part inherited prejudice”. It’s a fascinating read, and while it considers a subject close to my heart he made me think about how I approach the subject myself, in my art and as a New Zealander.

Relating Alexander’s photographs to the representation of New Zealand, Ireland states “This sequence of still and silent images offers mysteriously a critique of the utopian project of European settlement of New Zealand, at precisely a moment suspended between colonialism and globalisation.”

That means it’s a book worth exploring. And for those interested in such things, Alexander provides a map pinpointing where each image was made, thereby allowing us to make a parallel physical exploration to the photographic journey he provides here.

‘Hinterland’ is available nationwide, or from www.rickalexander.co.nz.

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