Friday, 22 May 2009

Visual forensics of Oriental Bay

Brian Brake (1927 – 1988) was one of New Zealand's most important camera artists. His perceptive images frequently reveal the nitty gritty about how people live together and how they react with one another. His photographs show his longterm involvement with non-Western cultures. Whenever I talked with Brian, I was always stunned by his knowledge about human diversity and I believe that his photography reveals a remarkably humanist inspiration. For instance, I reckon Brian understood Asians, and Asia, with a comprehension rare among his artistic New Zealand cohorts. Only his friend Theo Schoon, and Rita Angus also, had a similarly committed interest in Asia's art traditions.

Soon after he reached London in 1953, Brian Brake became a renowned photojournalist. His achievements as an artist are international in their significance and important to the history of photography. As a member of the MAGNUM photo-agency, he followed on from the example of Henri Cartier-Bresson and George Rodger. During his distinguished career, he produced 10 films and over 20 books. In 1963, he collaborated with Maurice Shadbolt to produce New Zealand, Gift of the Sea, which would become the most popular illustrated book in the history of New Zealand’s publishing. As well as this, he created unforgettable photographs of Māori, Pacific and Asian taonga.

As part of my on-going curatorial research into the significance of Brian’s photography, I offer here a report about one of his photographs in the Gallery’s collection. It is an eye-stopping image. Our print of Oriental Parade, Wellington 1960 has intrigued me since I discovered the image at Brian’s studio in 1990. Prior to that date, I only knew of a black and white image of the photograph. The artist’s assistant Waiman Lau generously allowed me to study the variant colour transparencies that Brian had made and it was from this suite that I selected the now famous print Oriental Parade, Wellington.

Brian made his Oriental Parade transparencies during March 1960, probably on a Saturday afternoon. To see so many people on a Sunday at Wellington's city beach would have then been quite uncommon. I consider this sequence of six pictures as among the more interesting photographs ever made of sunbathing New Zealanders. Brian Brake's beach-side photographs are more than documentary views because they express an unforgettable story about the changing reality of our post-war social manners. They succeed in the way that all expressive photojournalistic photographs do - by making art out of the everyday. The beach at Oriental Bay presents a massing of different human relationships. Separate groups are easily discernible and they are recorded as consisting of either families, or friends or partners. Brake’s skill in getting physically close to people - while not being noticed - is everywhere apparent.

I propose that the chronological sequence of the transparencies occured as follows. This is the first exposure.


The second exposure takes a much keener interest in the layout of the foreground figures, their poses and the articulation of their limbs. Particulary of the male figues. The mood is one of sultry relaxation. Here is a crowd where small groups remain distinct from each other. The play of light is now more complex, more dramatic.



Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa collection CT.032945


The third exposure is the one that is actually being sought out by the artist. He wants to capture the essence of the scene. He is totally at one with the scene's supine poses but remains utterly focussed on the potential to record a 'decisive moment'. A moment when everything is brought together by action and composition to coalesce pictorial meaning.

I still believe that the image that I chose for the Auckland Art Gallery collection is the best photograph of this group (Auckland Art Gallery 1990/12/1). What makes it so memorable is that it has the 'decisive moment' - the shot records the instantaneous moment of recognition when the young boy at the exact centre of the view looks directly at Brian Brake and is the only person on the beach doing so. He is a witness to Brian's recognition of the scene.



Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa collection CT.032858 and Auckland Art Gallery 1990/12/1


The next image has a retro look not apparent in the other images. The man with the guitar, his smoking mate and sun-glass wearing girlfriend contribute to the Playdate moment. There is no longer the cohesion apparent in the previous shot and that fact that the woman is staring straight at Brian does not assist the image's significance.


Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa collection CT.031879


I find it telling that this group of young Maori men are quite a way distant from the Pakeha sunbathers. This was not to be unexpected in Wellington in 1960. It was a form of voluntary, but expected, segregation. You find it in beach photos taken on Auckland's North Shore that date from the very same period. But look at how much more comfortable these young guys are in splaying themselves out and relaxing at the beach. How posy the tight limbed Pakeha men appear in the previous shots. Rather like 'look at me relaxing poses'.



Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa collection CT.031881


What ruins this image is Brian's shadow coming into view at the base of the image. The guys are totally disconcerned by the photographer's very close proximity. Notice also that the guys wear sports-clothes not togs. They are not coming to this beach for a swim.



Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa collection CT.031880


I derived this progressive sequence from the internal evidence that the photographs convey about which image follows on from the previous one. This progression recreates how Brian moved across the beachfront. I would appreciate any comments about this sequencing.

Here is a close-up of the witnessing young boy from the best shot. Where is this man now? He would be aged in his 60s I expect.



(Detail) Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa collection CT.032858 and Auckland Art Gallery 1990/12/1



Captions:

Title:
New Zealand cities: Wellington, Oriental Bay
Date: March 1960
Photographer: Brian Brake
Reproduction from a colour transparency
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
Registration number: CT.031606
Gift of Mr Aman Lau, 2001
© Brian Brake Estate/Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, CT.031606


Title: New Zealand cities: Wellington, Oriental Bay
Date: March 1960
Photographer: Brian Brake
Reproduction from a colour transparency
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
Registration number: CT.032945
Gift of Mr Aman Lau, 2001
© Brian Brake Estate/Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, CT.032945


Brian Brake
Oriental Parade, Wellington 1960
cibachrome print
417 x 613mm
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
gift of friend of the artist in memory of Brian Brake, 1990
1990/12/1

or

Title: New Zealand cities: Wellington, Oriental Bay
Date: March 1960
Photographer: Brian Brake
Reproduction from a colour transparency
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
Registration number: CT.032858
Gift of Mr Aman Lau, 2001
© Brian Brake Estate/Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, CT.032858


Title: New Zealand cities: Wellington, Oriental Bay
Date: March 1960
Photographer: Brian Brake
Reproduction from a colour transparency
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
Registration number: CT.031879
Gift of Mr Aman Lau, 2001
© Brian Brake Estate/Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, CT.031879


Title: New Zealand cities: Wellington, Oriental Bay
Date: March 1960
Photographer: Brian Brake
Reproduction from a colour transparency
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
Registration number: CT.031881
Gift of Mr Aman Lau, 2001
© Brian Brake Estate/Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, CT.031881


Title: New Zealand cities: Wellington, Oriental Bay
Date: March 1960
Photographer: Brian Brake
Reproduction from a colour transparency
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
Registration number: CT.031880
Gift of Mr Aman Lau, 2001
© Brian Brake Estate/Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, CT.031880

4 comments:

artandmylife said...

Great post!! I love the detective work here and also the collaboration involved. This woudl be great published somewhere

Anonymous said...

Fantastic.

carrington said...

Excellent post! Thanks.

Ron Brownson said...

Hi
I have been thinking about Brian Brake's reputation in New Zealand. It will change significantly when Te Papa publish their forthcoming study. He is an intriguing portraitist - subtle and complex.
Ron