Andrew Ross Photographs
VUP, NZ$55 | Reviewed by Andy Palmer

REVIEWING this book puts me in a bit of a bind. I’ve known Andrew Ross (the artist and his art) for years, we exhibit at the same gallery (which is also co-publisher of this book), and I’ve followed the progress of this book for as long as there’s been progress. Consequently I may be a tad biased in my views. Fortunately this is a first-rate publication, and one that should introduce Ross’s work to a much deserved wider audience.

Fiat Lux, meaning let there be light, is an apt title for a book about Andrew Ross’ss photography. Photography as a medium is about recording light, and great photographers are often referred to as ‘masters of light’. These days, however, it seems that mastery of light is of little importance for many photographers. Yet, for Ross, light is an essential part of his image making – the way it falls, what it falls on, what it leaves in shadow.

Superficially one can compare Ross’s work to that of Laurence Aberhart – and it is no coincidence that VUP published both this book and Aberhart’s recent catalogue. Both work with large format cameras and make contact print photographs (no enlargement necessary). Whereas Aberhart has travelled and explored New Zealand (and other countries), Ross, as Emma Budgen points out in her essay, is “an extraordinarily localised artist, whose body of work has largely focused on his immediate environs.” This isn’t to say that Ross hasn’t made images outside of Wellington, but, arguably, it is his accumulated Wellington images that have made his name and will be his legacy.

As Dominion Post arts reviewer Mark Amery notes on the back cover “Andrew Ross is to Wellington what Atget was to Paris – ... the principal photographer of a disappearing city (if old buildings are Wellington’s endangered wildlife, Ross is as close as it comes to a park ranger).”

Fiat Lux is a great introduction to the world of Andrew Ross. Divided into five sections, each with text and images selected by a different writer/artist/curator we get a good cross-section of Ross’s oeuvre. To define Ross’ss oeuvre I’ll borrow wholesale from Peter Ireland’s concluding essay, “Curiously, in terms of subject matter – and perhaps style – Ross’s work seems familiar territory; the already known, as it were. We may not have seen the actual sites but we have all experienced places very like them. Nothing new there. And we have all witnessed enough of the documentary style to position Ross’s place securely within it. Hardly cutting edge stuff. So, what’s the big deal? The ‘new’ and ‘cutting-edge’ were Modernist concerns – obsessions even – and they're not so much inapplicable to Ross as irrelevant to his practice ... Ross has never been anything other than a photographer.”

When Budgen describes Ross as “an activist and an archivist as much as he is an artist”, you probably get an idea of where Ross is coming from and the sort of work he produces. But really he is just Andrew Ross – he is his work. Put simply and generally, he photographs the disappearing. Working solely in black and white, his subject tends to be the past as defined through buildings, rooms, and people. A fast fading past which he helps us remember.

Starting with John B. Turner’s “Messages from the Interior” we get a selection of quintessential Ross interiors. Turner invokes three of photography’s greats – Walker Evans, Paul Strand, and Eugène Atget – when discussing Ross’s practice, and adds conservationist to his list of titles. Ross manages to gain access to locations Turner refers to as “unseen spaces”, and the photographs made reveal new things with each viewing. Turner’s selection is quirky, with many of the shots being details rather than whole rooms. He hasn’t gone for the obvious, but rather for images that have a greater meaning for him, images that invite questions of who, what and why.

Karen Lee’s essay on Ross’s city workshop series is a personal reflection on a body of work she encouraged Ross to produce. The two visited and photographed a number of small commercial workshops and the images are fascinating views of spaces most of us would never have ventured into. Clearly Lee shares Ross’s politics stating “Most of the buildings have vanished now, lost industrial treasures and fascinating corners gone for greed, no building allowed to go into gentle decay with the traces of past generations still evident.”

Lee’s essay ends with a rollcall of the fate of each premises pictured, which leads nicely into Budgen’s text on Ross’s Inner City Bypass photos. As she states “This might be propaganda the graceful way, but it’s no less pointed for all its beauty.” Budgen’s concise selection of images from this large body of work possibly has greater resonance for Wellingtonians but the images are far from memorials, and more a celebration of the places and spaces.

Separating these two essays in the book is Damien Wilkins discussion of Ross’s portraiture. While not known as a portraitist Ross has never shied away from photographing people. Sometimes they just happen to be in the scene, sometimes they are the subject (or part thereof) of the image. These aren’t brash portraits which confront the viewer, they’re polite images of ordinary people placed in front of the camera. They’re an invitation to the worlds of strangers. More than a lot of modern portraiture, these images intrigue me and make me want to know more about the people in front of us. The use of the view camera slows the photographer’s approach to shooting as it requires some time to set up, focus, and get ready to shoot. This slow process seems to transfer to his subjects who display uncommon patience and acceptance.

Peter Ireland’s essay, from which the book gets its title, considers Ross’s film-based techniques in an era of digital photography and image manipulation software, and unifies the book’s earlier themes. Alongside a discussion of photographic light, he refers to the humour in Ross’s photos – it’s not as overt as say, Peter Black, but Ross slips it in wryly and slyly. We also see a rare example of Ross in fairly traditional landscape photographer mode – albeit a fairly non-traditional scene.

One of the fascinating aspects of this book is that even though the contributors have each focused on a different aspect of Ross’s photography, they all cross over, and the elements of one can be seen in the others. This is testament to Ross’s consistency and steadfastness, not only of his vision, but of his entire practice.

Alongside the aforementioned doyens of photography, I will throw a couple of other names into the hat – Robert Frank and Robert Adams. All these photographers are/were concerned with the documentary, of capturing spaces and places as they saw them, to present us with the truth as they saw it. While Ross isn’t breaking new ground photographically, his raison d’etre is comparable to these forebears, and he too is asking us to question our actions, both collectively and individually.

There is a sense that Ross’s primary Wellington focus could govern the audience for this book. This really shouldn’t be the case as the photos stand up as works of art and, if there is just one message in this collection, it is a universal message. For the same reason that we’re happy to have a copy of, say, The Americans or The New West, we should embrace the work made more locally. We need people like Andrew to record our past/present. The fact that he does it with such beauty, technical acuity, and persistence is something that we should celebrate. And this book does just that.

As Wilkins concludes, “Looking at Andrew Ross’s work – its strange combination of humility and daring, intimacy and reserve – provokes what may well be an unwanted comparison: a great painting always reminds us of the greatness of painting; a great photograph often suggests how minor photography is, since it reminds us of the greatness of living.”