Forever young, that’s how I think of Marti, but of course time catches up with all of us.
Sylvia and I saw Marti on Sunday afternoon. We looked through a box of her old photographs together – from England, Austria, Israel and New Zealand. Daphne, the home care nurse, had found them under Marti’s bed, forgotten.
Marti was a kind, generous and ever loving friend for many of us here – a pleasure to be with, even when you were arguing. For me, Marti was about living keenly, even while she was dying, delighted to see her friends, more concerned about them than herself – witty, warm, and reassuring. Just on Sunday morning she phoned us to see if Naomi, our daughter, and family were ok and safe travelling in northern Norway.
As she became more unwell, Marti did not feel sorry for herself. She felt that she was lucky to have had the life she’d had, despite her beginnings – born in the economically poor East End of London, near Mile End, in 1928, orphaned early, disappearing parents. It was not a very auspicious start.
Marti’s sister, Anne Gresham, sent an email this morning. She writes, “My beloved sister, Marti, was a star from the day she was born. Although tiny for her age and troubled by ill health, her personality shone and entranced all who knew her. I retain the memory of her, at the age of five. Being sick in bed in the dormitory of the Jewish orphanage, the only one in a row of beds, her little face as white as the pillow, she said to me, “Annie, when I grow up I am going to go all over the world”. As sisters, our close loving relationship helped us cope with a poverty-stricken adolescence. She came to be a photographer by accident – or was it ordained – when having won a trade Scholarship at the age of thirteen to train as a dressmaker, the course being full, only the trade of photography was available to her”.
Most of you probably know the outlines of Marti’s life thereafter – from Shirley Horrocks’ film, books, exhibition catalogues and her own memoir, Self-portrait in 2012: orphanages in the 1930s, her training and early work in photography in England, marriage to Gerrard in 1957, migration to New Zealand in 1958. Marti felt fortunate in all the chances and opportunities that came her way, the people she met, and in her work. Marti’s photographs: what a wonderful treasure. Her first photographs published in New Zealand appeared in Landfall in 1959 and 1960; one of them the young Moss (Maurice) Gee, at the beginning of his writing career, somewhat tentative-looking. He was a neighbour of Marti and Gerrard’s in Henderson. Marti’s portraits of artists, writers, potters, musicians, children and others; her photojournalism for newspapers and periodicals, such as The Wine Review, New Zealand Herald and the Listener, and her street photographs. And then the books: Moko: the art of Maori tattooing in the twentieth century, with Michael King, in 1972; photographs of elderly Maori women with chin tattoos. Quite a few publishers rejected Moko, believing it was not financially viable. It has had many editions and is still in print. I feel that Marti came to look like an old kuia herself, even if we could not arrange a moko. Her other books: Larks in a Paradise (1974), with James McNeish, who died on Friday, Contemporary New Zealand Arts: A – M (1980), Pioneers of New Zealand Wine (2002). Then there was the great Auckland Art Gallery exhibition of 2001 that toured the country, more exhibitions, including another big one at the University of Auckland’s Gus Fisher Gallery, accompanying the launch of the book, Marti Friedlander, in 2009. We had struggled to come up with a title, before we realised – just Marti Friedlander. No more was needed. And a book with her photographs, all recent, of vintners on Waiheke will be published in February next year. In short, Marti never stopped. She was irrepressible. Undoubtedly she was one of a small number of key photographers in New Zealand since the 1950s – one of the best.
Marti’s portraits reveal an extraordinary skill in making visible qualities of personality and temperament. Overall her photos were insightful explorations of places and their inhabitants, especially people’s relationships with one another and the societies they lived in. Her photos were also about her own place in various social and cultural situations, whether in New Zealand, Israel, England or Tokelau in the Pacific. So, her photos of elderly Maori women with moko, taken in 1968, 1970 and 1971 not only document their subjects with empathy, but also helped Marti, a displaced and rather alienated young woman, feel more at home in New Zealand. Marti could visualise seemingly conflictual or incompatible states in the one face or situation. Thus, her book, Larks in a Paradise, was criticised for its supposedly negative view of New Zealand (which was not her intention) and praised for its humanist celebration of the individuality, diversity and distinctiveness of its people. To Marti New Zealand was not a land of “passionless people”. For over fifty years Marti photographed artists, writers, musicians and other creative people, so providing a brilliant visual history of the radical changes in New Zealand from a time, when the arts had little value and recognition in mainstream society, to now, when they are treasured and the amount of quality creative work is extraordinarily prolific for a country with a relatively small population. Marti was right in the thick of this creative and cultural flowering.
Her generosity, personal (including pickles and cheese from the fridge at Brighton Road) and the gifts of her 2001 exhibition photos to the Auckland Art Gallery and the vintage Moko suite to Te Papa, as well her and Gerrard’s biannual award to a photographer and their ongoing benefactions to the Auckland University Press towards a series of books on the visual arts and its histories in New Zealand. Marti enrichened our lives immeasurably.
The University of Auckland’s recent conferral of an honorary Doctorate on Marti was tremendously important to her. Never would she have imagined as a girl and young woman in England that such a recognition would ever come her way. Marti was extraordinarily well read, enthusing about books right up to the end. The last she read were the great Israeli writer Amos Oz’s recent Judas, Adam Dudding’s just published memoir, My Father’s Island, about growing up here in the 1970s and 1980s with less than straightforward parents (thanks Adam for the preview copy. Marti loved it) and American writer, Francine Prose’s The Lives of the Muses – a book of extraordinary subtlety about the complexities and contradictions of relationships between artists and writers and their intimate partners.
Gerrard, you have been a most lucky man to have lived with Marti for over sixty years.
I’m sure everyone here knows that Leonard Cohen died last week at 82; a master of the compellingly ambiguous. This passage from Cohen’s “Anthem” was a favourite of Marti’s: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in”. I wonder what Marti would have made of these lines from “Steer your way” on Cohen’s last, just released CD, You want it darker. To quote, and I’m sorry there is no way I can emulate Leonard Cohen’s basso profundo, which seems to reach back thousands of years.
‘Steer your path through the pain/ that is far more real than you/ that has smashed the cosmic model/ that has blinded every view/ And please don’t make me go there/ though there be a God or not/ year by year/ month by month/ day by day/ thought by thought’.
Those lines were described by Liel Leibovitz (in Tablet) as about as elegant an expression of Jewish theology as there could be.
Some thanks: Gerrard for all you’ve done during a difficult time; to the doctors and nurses at Auckland Hospital and during the last weeks of home care, Daphne and her colleagues; to all her close friends over the last weeks: Adina, especially, you have been a rock, and Bronwen, Linda; to all of you who have come today to farewell Marti, and honour her for a long life, lived well. There have been tributes sent by people unable to be here; too many to read now; from Marti’s sister, Anne, and her nieces, Giselle, and Candia, and others. They will be read this evening at Adina’s. Earlier this year I sat next to Marti at a book launch. Some of the speakers tended to go on a bit too long. Marti was nudging me, “Why don’t they stop?”, while I tried somehow to keep her voice down.
Now some last thoughts. Imagine a small, lost girl facing an uncertain future in the early 1930s. Now think of Marti decades later, ever full of life, indomitable, eyes twinkling, throwing a kiss, waving goodbye. Marti was life – in the Jewish sense of “To Life”. We only have one of them. We are what we do, how we treat other people in the here and now.
Thank you, Marti, for all your love, kindness and inspiration, wit, your often unflinching directness, laughter. Here is Anne: “My sister, Marti, will be remembered and revered after her passing for her humanity and the love she spread around her and the inspiration she gave so many with her special light”. Four lines from the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (born 1924 in Germany); from “A song of friendship, while parting from a friend” in his book, Time (1979):
“Good bye my friend, go back to your house with heavy steps. The light of sunset will also light windows of houses, where nobody lives anymore”.
You lit up our world. Go well, Marti.