Thursday 26 March 2009

John Fields - Part 2

This is the second of my posts on John Fields. Please click here to read the first part.

In 2001 John Fields generously gifted Fijian, Milne and Choyce’s Store, Auckland 1970 (above) to the Gallery. This is one of the earliest local artworks to address the experience of Pacific Islanders at Auckland. A Fijian man is shown visiting the large menswear section of Milne and Choyce's Department store. ‘Milnes’ as it was affectionately known prided itself on having menswear at all price points from ‘affordable to exclusive’. This customer appears bemused by the amount of clothing that the store has available. More than this, the photographer has caught a surreal shopping moment when the costume traditions of Pacific and Pakeha actually encounter each other.

Humour, a delight in discovery and the presence of expressive oppositions characterise Fields’ 35mm images. I recently secured for the Gallery his unknown 1974 portrait titled John Allen, Rangitoto, Auckland (below). This haunting work is a unique vintage exhibition print. No further prints were ever made as the negative was unfortunately destroyed in an accident.

John Allen was a work colleague of John Fields. He undertook part-time duties at the Auckland Medical School with Ron Bently, the Anatomy Department's technician who supervised the storage of cadavers. While Field’s photograph of John Allen seems like a snapshot, it is in fact a carefully composed portrait. John Allen was swimming at Takapuna beach when the artist, who was on shore, saw the visual potential to an asymmetrical intersection of three compositional elements – his friend’s bobbing head, the volcanic cone of Rangitito and the cumulus cloud hovering high above that island. While the photographer was standing out of the water off Milford Beach, the artist’s viewpoint appears higher than head height above the sea’s surface.

Many of Fields’ 35mm portraits of the 1970s have a surreal reality, with people observed in disjunctive contrast with their location. This portrait of John Allen has a palpable tension - the cloud's scale and a symmetrical volcano juxtapose with the swimmer’s glowing face, conveying an unexpected encounter. Allen wears an expression that has been ‘held back’ during the printing making him glow. His long black hair, moustaches and self-absorbed expression contribute to an impression that he is being seen at a time that is separate from current reality.

John Allen looks like a quintessential hippie and a man who appears from a distant past. Almost Christ-like, rising from the sea. By including only his head, the figure is less a swimmer than a human sea-creature. Mystery fills the image like a carefully wrought and prefabricated performance. I find such portraits unforgettable and I enjoy the fact that this portrait was totally unknown until recently. 35 years of being hidden from art history. Where is John Allen now?

Image credits:

John Fields
Fijian, Milne and Choyce’s Store, Auckland 1970
gelatin silver print
205 x 295mm
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
gift of John Fields, 2001

John Fields
John Allen, Rangitoto, Auckland 1974
gelatin silver print, toned with selenium
193 x 120mm
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
purchased 2009

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