Portraits of a battered city

A self portrait of Doc Ross. ‘‘Every artist and every photographer and every writer in this city is sort of compelled [to do something] about the earthquake.’’
A self portrait of Doc Ross. ‘‘Every artist and every photographer and every writer in this city is sort of compelled [to do something] about the earthquake.’’

With the near-universal popularity of digital cameras and camera phones, there are countless photographs taken of Christchurch and its people in the aftermath of two earthquakes.

This poses a challenge for professional photographers and artists. How do they approach the earthquakes through the medium of photography without, as Christchurch photographer Doc Ross succinctly puts it,  just creating more ''earthquake porn''?

In the case of Ross, who has published four books on the impact of the September 2010 and February 2011 earthquakes, his new exhibition, 37 Portraits,  opening at the NZ Portrait Gallery in Wellington tomorrow, takes a very different approach. There are none of the usual photographs of the devastation, people in the midst of it or being shown rebuilding their lives.

The core works are 31 of 37 portraits Ross began taking a few months after the February quake. (The remaining six portraits are on show nearby at the NZ Academy of Fine Arts.) The majority of portraits are of people, including artists and writers, involved in Christchurch's arts community. The figure 37 comes from the fact that the February earthquake, which killed 185 people, lasted 37 seconds. ''I found a scientist who would actually tell me that it was roughly 37 seconds,'' Ross says.

''Each person was photographed for 37 seconds. I got them to sit in my studio in a chair and support their head. I got a large format camera and got them to stare into the camera.

"I made six separate portraits of them of varying exposures, but those six separate exposures combined added up to 37 seconds. I combined all those images together to get the one 37 second picture.''

Also featuring in his exhibition is a photograph that combines all 37 participants into one image, as well as a small number of the city's post earthquake landscape which ''gives a place for the portraits to sit''.

Ross says one reason for combining the six photographs of each person was to capture movement and stillness. It echoed back to how people reacted when the quake hit, he says.

''Some people just bolted out the door. Some people were frozen to the spot. I wanted to create photographs where you could, in some way, put the experience of an earthquake into a photograph rather than just photograph a person.''

Ross also asked each participant to write 37 words on their experience of the earthquake.  ''I was walking up in the Port Hills [in Christchurch] and I thought, 'I wonder how 37 words works out?', and talked out loud my own experience and it was 35 words. I thought that was pretty cool. What I found happened, as a result of that, people had to search for that one thing that could be a key experience. I realised as words started to come in from people that, all combined, they created this nice kind of global experience. All these stories add [up to be] almost every single person's experience.''

Ross had looked at the possibility of  37 Portraits having its premiere in Christchurch this year as part of the city's ongoing ArtBox project. The project uses mobile and flexible weather-tight exhibition cubes to exhibit art after many Christchurch exhibition spaces were damaged or destroyed in the earthquakes. But it is now likely to be shown in the city next year, he says.

But Ross adds that having the exhibition open first in Wellington isn't far removed from an element of chaos to the project. The chaos - or openness to randomness - echoes the unpredictability of earthquakes themselves. ''You have no control over it.  The people [in the portraits] had little or no control over how they looked. I didn't want to have control over who came. After 37 people came I stopped.''

Ross moved to Christchurch 15 years ago from Queenstown where he had mostly taken photographs of the Central Otago landscape. At first in Christchurch he focused on seascapes, but, as he always carried a camera, he would take the occasional photograph of a Christchurch building. But he hardly glanced at the photographs and habitually just put the negatives  in his safe. Now, years later, he has a photographic record of Christchurch buildings that were damaged or destroyed. Ross chose 88 of the photographs for the self-published book Christchurch 1998-2011.

But in photographing the city post February 2011, Ross  wanted to take a different slant from how the earthquake was shown in media photographs.

''Every artist and every photographer and every writer in this city is sort of compelled [to do something] about the earthquake.  It's impossible not to. You can't get it out of your mind. It's in front of you every day.

''I didn't want to go out there and do the family standing in front of their building or people standing in front of their shop, because everybody was doing it. These are not your average portraits from your average commercial portrait photographer who wants to see everything nice and sharply focused and everything perfectly pretty. They are quite raw portraits.

''It's just that thing. If you have to sit and stare at the camera, you can't do anything but expose what you really feel at the time.''


37 Portraits by Doc Ross, NZ Portrait Gallery, Wellington, tomorrow until February 24.

The Dominion Post