Marti Friedlander has had a long and mobile career. Arriving in New Zealand from England, by way
of Israel, in 1958, her photographs have been published and exhibited here and elsewhere since the
mid 1960s. Her career’s work is now very well-known here, perhaps more so than that of any other
photographer, following the large and popular retrospective show that toured New Zealand from 2001
to 2004, the accompanying book, and Shirley Horrocks’s film, Marti: The Passionate Eye (2004),
with its primetime Saturday television screening. Some of her photographs have become iconic images
of a distinctive ‘New Zealandness’—for instance,
Eglinton Valleyy (1970), with its flock of sheep on a
misty rural road eyeing the photographer and viewer. Yet there is relatively little informed writing or
critical commentary about her actual photographs, to the extent that their integral features, Friedlander's
working methods and picturing projects overall have been overlooked, as if unseen—paradoxically so,
given that her work is, among other things, 'about' seeing photographically, and the complexities and
problematics of that. This essay will focus on some of those less-addressed features and issues.
The subject range of Friedlander's photographs has been wide and diverse—children, Maori women with moko, artists and writers, the development of New Zealand's wine industry and its practitioners, rural, city and suburban scenes, landscape, public demonstrations and street incidents, for example. Often such photographs have been regarded primarily as a form of social documentation, just as records of what was out there to be seen. Her work, though, has other dimensions and qualities, and it is these that make her photographs so compelling and memorable. I have observed before that her photographs, both of people and places, are fundamentally images of meetings, encounters, relationships and 'conversations' among and between people, including, crucially, the photographer herself. They can suggest the various ways people negotiate their being in particular places, with their attendant ambivalences, tensions, certainties and uncertainties. I see her various projects as exploratory journeys; the resulting photographs characterised by ambiguities as well as a searching suggestiveness, that can hold within it differing, even conflicting, registers of meaning. Rather than claiming to reveal 'truths', Friedlander's photographs frequently pose questions; complicate matters.1 Her images, then, work both as condensations of thought—not fixed and final, but thought in motion, fluid, changing—and as 'captured' moments of being and interaction between subjects and photographer.
While she is not literally in her pictures, Friedlander has been as much subject and part of the pictured events as what is to be seen in the photographs. Her photo-portraits image relationships between viewer and viewed, as well as encounters in which the person in the photograph is effectively 'created', in the sense that particular qualities, perhaps unseen before, are brought into visibility. Yet her work is sustained by the recognition that 'personality' or 'character' is labile, often rife with contradictions; that there can be limits to what can be known about a person in, or through, a photograph. And Friedlander's close observations of people, their faces, looks and postures, and the spaces they inhabit, are founded on empathy for them; on an openness to, and feeling for, their singularity, individuality, and, often, their vulnerabilities.
Take a sample of her pictures; photographs in which touch, both literal or metaphorical, is integral— and which themselves touch, not in sentimental or histrionic ways, but in terms of communion, of sharing, between people; between those in the pictures, and between the photographed and the photographer in all their differences. Tiraha Cooper and her great granddaughter, Waikato (1970) and the retired couple before their suburban State house (1969) are two of Friedlander's best- known and most widely-seen photographs. Besides portraying the particularity of individuals, they encapsulate both a sense of entire social histories and acute moments of change that others can either identify with, or recognise the profundity of. The photograph of Tiraha Cooper and the little girl suggests loss and the end of an era, yet also a continuity between past and present, old age and childhood, of a future brighter, possibly still fraught with uncertainty. Light from outside falls on the two in the darkness otherwise of the interior. In the compressed space, they appear almost as if one, joined together, leaning against the tilt of the cracked sink unit, the child looking warily up at the photographer, the old woman looking down at the child, who is the link with the viewer outside, and with what lies ahead: close but not too close.
Touch, too, is crucial to, and in, the photograph of the retired couple—their arms entwined, close to one another, their 'lived-in' faces looking back, he smiling, she somewhat skeptical. They stand, centred, stable, yet with a hint of the tentative, before their home, pristine in look, the section almost bare; the wall the boundary between them and us. This image implies a narrative of resilience, some adversity, hard-won independence. It summons up a passage from the 1930s Depression, the coming of Government social welfare programmes, through War to a sense of security in the 1950s and 1960s—a security which from our current vantage point could be tenuous, short-lived for people of their class.
The ground has shifted in more recent portraits. They include eye-to-eye engagements, taken from very close up, faces and upper torsos in the front plane, parts cut off, fragmented—so close as to risk being too close, and to reduce the person to object-like scrutiny. The photographs, though, impact
upon the viewer very differently; as kinds of dialogue and moments of intimacy, in which a sense
of the subjects' depths and complexities is palpable, with a still tension, with tender intimations of
worry. Compositionally minimal, nuanced in tone and light-fall, the details 'telling', these photographs
can be experienced as sites of, and insights into, plays of mood and emotion, in which Friedlander is
also a participant. For instance, Mark and (only partially seen) Daniel (2003) are pictured together as
if one. Their crossed hands between them and us betoken love and necessary mutual protectiveness
in relation to spaces beyond. The mix of fragility and strength in this image is both an index of the
photographer's feeling for her subjects, and a metaphor for her own sense of being. The photograph,
then, is a shared gesture; in making the private public.
In contrast, the portrait of Sofia Tekela-Smith (2005) offers an oblique view. This was one of a series taken on the Auckland waterfront, with Rangitoto beyond. Such an intermediary geographical zone was an apt setting for images of an artist living in, and between, various societies and cultures, and whose work, like her tattoos, comes out of the creative energies such conditions can activate. This particular photograph, though, focuses on Tekela-Smith's individuality, here characterised by a quality merging openness and self-containment, as well as a sense of resourceful acuity of mind and vision.
The spaces of Friedlander's photographs are typically multi-layered, sometimes with disparate features—people, objects, signs, locations—brought together in ways that allow a number of not necessarily compatible narrative directions to be followed. Haifa (1957), an early photograph, is exemplary. A small boy is perched on a ship's deckchair. He looks to the left out of the picture. To the right there is a pile of bags and suitcases, markers of departure and the need to migrate, with a view to sea behind sectioned by the ship's rail. This was taken on the Theodore Herzl, arriving in Israel from Europe. The somewhat awkwardly-placed boy represents the new postwar generation of devastated European Jewry, still facing an uncertain future; those suitcases signaling both what was left of former homes, human absence and disappearance, memories of what had been, and survivors and children being transported elsewhere, hopefully to a future where lives could be led.
Dislocation and relocation, though with smiles, also sustain the photograph (1989) taken in Camden, Central London, of three young women in a bus shelter. An ethnically varied trio, at ease, enjoying the encounter, it connotes with wry wit an unintended and invigorating consequence of Empire and diaspora—serendipitously signalled by the words of the adjacent advertisements. On one hand it is a commonplace scene, on the other a picture rich and redolent with historical and political ironies and reverberations.
Through her photographs and the encounters which sustained them, Friedlander has explored
and questioned her own place and identity, as much as those of her subjects. Her work overall
constitutes an interface between her self and the societies and cultures which she has lived in or
near. While her photographs immediately show physical surfaces and appearances, they can image
intense inwardness too. They can gesture also to that which is beyond straightforward imaging,
to conditions that resist verbal articulation or coherent understanding. To achieve this, rigorous
attention to the architecture of the image is necessary, as in the photographs reproduced; formally
and compositionally so precise and taut. Consider two photographs, in which buildings are the
primary subjects and motifs, and the human figure has either a small part or none at all. In one image
(1968), two weatherboard houses in Island Bay abut at an odd angle, with a gap between them,
accentuated by the sharply receding diagonals of boards, producing a vortex-like perspective, while
the letterbox, with its narrow rectangular slot, placed in the right foreground, comes across as if almost
animate; a blank face staring back. This image could stand as a metaphoric face of New Zealand
suburbia. That suburbia has frequently been stereotyped as bland, boring, featureless. Here, though,
the dynamic visual architecture suggests instead that there might be more to this phenomenon than
the eye usually sees. I am reminded of the caption to a photograph by the American photographer,
Bill Owens, of a couple in a suburban living room staring back at the viewer: 'You assume the mask
of suburbia for outward appearances and yet no-one knows what you really do'.2
One of the strengths of Friedlander's photography has been its penetration beyond the stereotypical, the conventional and predictable, to reveal other social and emotional spaces. Her tonally subtle colour photograph (2003) from the Garden of Remembrance at the then new Jewish Museum in Berlin provides an apposite close. It pictures a section of columns and wall across which fall slants of light and shadow, cast by the unseen foliage above—permanent materials thus touched by the ephemeral. The sole, anonymous figure, cut off at the ankles, hands behind his back, looks pensive. It brings to mind that notion of photography as a 'theatre of memory'. It demonstrates too the capacity of the good photograph to materialise thought and emotion. Marti Friedlander's photographs have so often done that, with an urgency that has not diminished in a career of over half a century.
1 See Leonard Bell, 'Narratives of Loss and Hope: Marti Friedlander's Photographs', Art New Zealand, 101, Winter 2001, pp.78–83.
Article by Len Bell
Published by Mountain View Press, December 2005