Laureate smitten by photography

16:00, Dec 17 2013
UPS AND DOWNS: Laurence Aberhart with his works on show at City Gallery.

A selection of Laurence Aberhart's black-and-white photos at Wellington's City Gallery forms part of an exhibition from the Australian Museum of Contemporary Art.

His work hangs alongside that of Australian artist Noel McKenna and the photographs of American pioneer colour photographer William Eggleston, gathered together for one of a series of shows that place the work of Australian artists with that of their international peers.

Russell-based Aberhart has a dealer in Sydney and is well known there. In New Zealand his photographs hang in all major public collections. Collectively they form a four-decade visual social history of New Zealand.

Aberhart was a 2013 recipient of a $50,000 Arts Foundation Laureate Award. He is established, admired and collected. And it hasn't paid. He has always lived from hand to mouth. Just now he is tossing up whether he needs the money awarded with his laureate for his frugal existence or whether he can afford to spend it on a temperature-controlled storage facility for 40-year-old photographs which are deteriorating.

Aberhart made his life difficult, choosing to be a photographer who never took images commercially, always used the same century-old camera, refused to succumb to modern technology and eschewed colour.

He made his commitment early when he was a teachers' training college student in Christchurch. He was smitten by photography.

"One night I walked into a flatmate's part of the flat and he'd turned his bedroom into a darkroom. A photograph was something you sent to a chemist shop in the 1960s. I never thought where they were made.

"I saw a photo come up through the developer and instantly fell in love with the whole magic of it. A blank sheet of paper goes into chemicals and an image comes out. It seemed like magic.

"The next day I went into the Canterbury library with the intention of finding how to make a photo and picked up books on Henri Cartier-Bresson and Edward Weston and fell in love with the art of it.

"I never got to the technical section. I looked at the work of famous photographers and learned from it.

"A few people understood I was really interested in photography and introduced me to commercial photographers. They could see my absolute enthusiasm and I looked at them and knew they'd had the same enthusiasm but somehow lost it.

"I resolved not to go that way, to make pictures I wanted to make, pictures for myself, not for other people. For 10 years I did anything as a way to stay alive and made photographs in the evenings."

His struggle never really ended. At first he used a conventional camera, taking it everywhere and becoming irritated by taking far more images than he printed.

His answer to that was "to buy a big camera where every exposure is a separate, single item and the effort, time and cost of making it into a photo I thought was a very good way of cutting down on the amount I would never print."

In 1974 he bought an 8x10-inch Korona view camera, a bulky piece of equipment with a tripod and hood, made in America by the Seebold Invisible Camera Corporation.

"People make a fuss of the camera being old but, if I'd found a new one, I would have bought it."

He still uses it, despite difficulties finding the right chemicals and photography paper. He uses 19th-century technology "but I'm looking at our world now".

"I'm always interested in the world still here but possibly about to go, the stuff people don't recognise the importance of until it's too late. It seems solid stuff until an earthquake or council expedience.

"A lot of the world we think is here forever isn't. I'm not willing it to go but doing it in case it does go. The trick is not to make it look as if it's from another time but to photograph it in a modest way, as a timeless subject."

An early series recorded Northland's old Maori churches. Since then he has recorded Masonic lodges, cemeteries, war memorials, domestic architecture and landscapes.

"I would set myself an exercise and in the process explore a small town and find other stuff. You fill the spaces in between. I've looked at New Zealand in an idiosyncratic fashion. You take on the bits you respond to."

In 2010 he was invited to the Antarctic and worried that his old camera might not be up to it.

"I found if you didn't drop anything it was OK. I was very, very careful."

Photography, he says, has not been a "viable" career, "but it has been better than working. That's what I tell myself all the time."

He has had one "good" year – 2006-07, "when I made what other people would call an income and I thought 'is this what it's like not worrying about money?' And then Wall Street did what it did.

"I regard myself as an economic barometer, the first place any extra money stops being spent and the last where it resumes."

Public art gallery shows are gratifying but don't necessarily pay. "I can't allow myself to get depressed or I would stop."


South of No North: Laurence Aberhart, William Eggleston, Noel McKenna, is at City Gallery until March 9


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