Marti Friedlander: 'At this time of your life, everything is courage' video

CHRIS SKELTON/FAIRFAX NZ

Photographer Marti Friedlander talks about what photography means to her.

Marti Friedlander is waiting in her room, upstairs at her home in Parnell. She's reclining on the bed next to her desk, and for a moment she looks rather small. But then she sits up, and starts directing the show, and fills the room.

Where does Chris, the photographer, want her to sit? On the seat near the window? Wonderful!

"I could try to go down the stairs, but it's very hard. At this time of your life everything is courage."

Marti Friedlander at her home in Parnell, Auckland. "I never look in the mirror."
CHRIS SKELTON/FAIRFAX NZ

Marti Friedlander at her home in Parnell, Auckland. "I never look in the mirror."

She lifts herself from the bed a little gingerly.

"Look darling, you'll have to help me."

We help her, an arm apiece.

"This is all the radiotherapy treatment causing all this pain, but I'm fine! I just feel so fortunate to be receiving all this treatment."

She sits and turns, ready. The light is just right, sun softened by the venetians. The pinboard behind her is covered in photos: her own, family snaps, the odd postcard.
Marti Friedlander, self-portrait, aged 54. CREDIT: MARTI FRIEDLANDER
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"It's so nice of you to come. I might pop off tomorrow, but I thought up to the last minute I might as well perform."

Then: "Adam, it was the most wonderful ceremony. It was so moving."

She's talking about the event at Auckland University's Fale Pasifika on Monday, where she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Literature in recognition of her life of photography.

Smoko, South Island, 1970. Friedlander saw the country with an outsider's eye. CREDIT: MARTI FRIEDLANDER

"When I grew up in the orphanage in the East End, how could I ever have known that one day I'd go to New Zealand and photograph New Zealand? It's a marvellous story."

It's a story that's been told in the 2004 documentary Marti: The Passionate Eye, and in her 2014 book Self Portrait: Martha Gordon and her sister Anne, children of Russian refugees, growing up in a Jewish orphanage in London.

Marti taking a job printing photos in a Kensington studio.

Marti falling in love with Kiwi dentist Gerrard Friedlander who was in London for his OE, and returning with him in 1958 to an empty, puritanical, authoritarian country at the bottom of the world.

The stillbirth of their only child. Marti's decision to pick up her camera and capture what she saw: toitoi, children, sheep, shearers, artists, the protest marches of a changing society.

"I was so incredibly lonely and I thought to myself, look around you Marti. There are other migrants here. They're feeling the same. Why don't you take photographs of this strange country. And that's how it all began."

You don't plan to capture history, but you do anyway.

Images of dissent: Donna Awatere and Mona Papali'i at the United Women's Convention, 1979. CREDIT: MARTI FRIEDLANDER
She tells young would-be photographers: "You think you are so contemporary, but if you photograph what's around you now, in the future young people will say, 'Is that what it was like?'"

She thanks Chris as he clips a mic to her shirt, and again when he takes it off. She says how grateful she is for the women caring for her at home, and for the United Nations of people who looked after her recently in hospital.

"There's so much humanity and caring out there. I'm so deeply touched by it all."

Her voice is deep and strong, still Englishly clipped.

"The only thing is, Gerrard and I have been together for 60 years, and I love him so much. I can't really bear that it's so hard for him, but I don't want to take him with me, because he's full of life. He loves life."

She takes a tissue.

"I woke up this morning, in a little bit of pain, and I looked around this room. The children in Grey Lynn," (she waves at a poster of her 1960s image of grinning Pasifika urchins); "I talked for Christchurch," (a poster for a quake charity event); "my sheep shearers," (a print of the familiar 1970 photo "Smoko"); "my pinboard there. And I thought, aren't you lucky Marti, you have this life. I've always felt lucky Adam, even when I was in the orphanage."

Kirikino Kohitu, Waikato, one of the subjects of Friedlander's famed moko series of photographs, in a print gifted to Te Papa.
CREDIT: MARTI FRIEDLANDER

She learnt about the doctorate only weeks ago, in an email, and says it's kept her alive.

"I was already quite ill, so I said to my GP, 'Paul help me. Let me receive it. It's such an accolade. No matter how sick I am, I really would love to receive it.

"That's what my friends have done. They've rallied around. We were all in tears. It was so moving. Adam it was marvellous."

In 1970 Friedlander spent two weeks travelling through the rural North Island with Michael King taking photos of kuia for a book about moko. She has been thinking about those women more than ever recently.

"Being that age myself, there are little vanities you don't realise. Having hairs taken off your chin.

"When I photographed the moko women I adored them. It never dawned on me that they were old. I just saw them as the most beautiful women. "We didn't have the same language, but they were beautiful. We laughed. And now I'm that age."

Heropo Rongo, Waikato, from the 1970 moko series. CREDIT: MARTI FRIEDLANDER

Does she see that beauty of age now, in the mirror?

"I never look in the mirror."

What about photos of yourself then? You look at them don't you?

"I look at photograhs of myself when I was young. And I don't see the beauty so much, I see the energy and the personality I was. Full of confidence. Well, not always. That's not true. Full of love. Go and ask Gerrard."

Recently, a regular from her local cafe, Alphabet, emailed and said "Where are you Marti? We miss you."

It's only in the past year that she's been seriously ill, but she sort of pretended it wasn't happening.

"I've known for quite a while. I had breast cancer, and it returned. I didn't talk about it.

"My feeling was do as much as you can while you can. I didn't get up each morning and say 'thank God I'm still here'. I just lived.

"When you know you're at the end of your life it's the simplest things that you realise are more valuable – a lovely toasted sandwhich. Hokey pokey icecream. People complicate their life. People say 'I'm going to give this up. I'm going to become a vegan.' And I say, 'Oh rubbish!'"

She isn't bothering to keep up with the nonsense about Trump, though she was thrilled at Bob Dylan winning a Nobel Prize.

Painter Ralph Hotere was one of many New Zealand cultural greats captured on camera by Friedlander.
CREDIT: MARTI FRIEDLANDER

"I thought at last! The imagination."

She's just finished photographing 28 Waiheke Island winemakers for a book due in February.

"I'm working right up to the last moment.

"I think that's the biggest gift. I've not felt sorry for myself, not once. And I've had tremendous illnesses. We lost our daughter. I've always felt that life is something none of us understand. It's been an amazing journey."

She can't pick a favourite photograph. She loves them all – "I wouldn't have bothered to take the photograph unless I liked it."

She'd like to be remembered, though, as a photographer who "had an attitude to human beings and life and images that had a bit of wit.

"There's no point if it's just a prosaic, pictorial copying. It's like writing a poem, where you precis literature and life. You precis what you feel about the human experience.

"I couldn't take pretty pictures. I love people. We're all endlessly fascinating."

Her technique was always simple. Use available light. Don't take a thousand shots in hope of getting one good one – "If you see my strips of film, the second or third shot was always the one.."

She and Chris talk about box brownies (her first camera) and Hasselblads ("so heavy!") then she picks up the small Canon digital on her desk and makes us pose: move together; this arm in front of that; stand up please.

"This is how I work. It's about getting a different angle."

She frames up and takes a few shots from her seat, then shows them on the camera-back screen.

Normally she'd stand to take a photo but "I love this. Perfect. You couldn't get it better than that. Marvellous. Isn't that lovely. Look at that.

"Anyway," she says, putting the camera down, "that's how I work. Very quickly."

Girls in Mt Eden, 1969. People, says Friedlander, are "endlessly fascinating". CREDIT: MARTI FRIEDLANDER

She photographed real people but also well-known ones: prime ministers, writers like CK Stead and Dan Davin and Margaret Mahy, artists like Don Binney, Tony Fomison, Rita Angus, Sofia Tekela-Smith.

She'd have liked to have photographed Edmund Hillary but it never happened, though she bumped into him once when she and Gerrard were walking Karekare Gorge.

She turns on her computer to finds a picture she recently posted on Facebook: a black-and-white image of a rainbow above Karekare beach, taken in the 1960s. She more interested in people than scenery, but she likes this one – the paradox of a rainbow made colourless.

She can't get out, but she's reading a lot. She's deep into Judas by the Israeli novelist Amos Oz. And The Patagonian Hare, the memoir of Claude Lanzmann, director of the epic Holocaust documentary Shoah. And Vivian Gornick's New York memoir The Odd Woman and the City.

"I find it very hard to read light novels."

We help her back to the bed, where Chris tries a different angle. She's eager to find the best pose for him, though "I don't want to look ill. I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me."

She congratulates him when he's done and summons him down for a hug. Then me.

"You're a darling. An absolute darling."

She looks about.

"Is my darling Gerrard anywhere? I feel I've neglected him."

She directs us around the room to dig out gifts from a cupboard and under the bed: greeting-card reproductions from an old exhibition; a couple of poster-sized prints. She thanks us again for coming.

"I feel totally privileged," she says, though the privilege is all ours.

 - Sunday Star Times

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