Tuesday 26 January 2010

One Hundred Photographs

I have not contributed a book review here before and it may appear odd to begin doing so by discussing a book that is just about a decade old. Yet, to me, this is a book which has not dated. In fact, it feels like a more substantial book after eight years of reading it.

One Hundred Photographs – a collection by Bruce Bernard (Phaidon Press, London 2002) is a heterogeneous gathering. What publisher in New Zealand would consider issuing such a personal assemblage of photographs? The book's concept is simple - present a selection of photographs sampled from a remarkable private collection that Bernard was invited to establish by a collector in 1996. This is a tough collection full of flavour and relish. It is not driven by either the fame, or name, of any particular photographer but by an obsessive commitment to the power of images. Bernard says ‘I wanted to include every kind of photograph that truly stimulated and satisfied me, and that it seemed could permanently continue to do so.’

In his commentary to this book, Mark Haworth-Booth, a much-respected Curator of Photography, notes ‘Now his eye embraced, with equal enthusiasm, the diversity of photography – the rare, the classic, the offbeat.’

August Sander

Mardi Gras Distortion circa 1931

gelatin silver print

My first surprise was encountering August Sander’s atypical image of the Mardi Gras Distortion from about 1931. It is utterly different from his usual sharp focus photography, with its dead centre symmetrical style of seeing, for which Sander is justifiably famous. He had an eye for what Germans then called die Neue Sachlichkeit ('the new reasonableness' or, perhaps, even more accurately, 'the new objectivity'). In type, this photo is much more comparable to the experimental Bauhaus photography of the brilliant T. Lux Feininger (one of my all time faves). By distorting this print upon the enlarger's base, he creates an utterly woozy image. A sinister, funny and seductive snapshot that was never to be repeated by August Sander.

I reckon Bruce Bernard was England’s most incisive post WWII picture editor. We have never had an equivalent to him in Australasia. His innovative work for the Sunday Times Magazine totally altered the contents and appearance of international colour news supplements. His 1981 book Photo discovery is a classic of photographic research and it has helped redefine how early travel photography is regarded. Bernard had a talent for opposing the contemporary with the historical in a manner that made both photographic periods utterly beguiling. He contrasted the familiar with the unfamiliar, and commissioned innovative new work from photographers.

E. O. Hoppe

Vaslav Nijinsky of the Ballets Russes in Le Spectre de la Rose circa 1911


Most everyone who knows about the history of ballet rates Vaslav Nijinsky not only as a brilliant performer but as one of the most spectacularly talented dancers of the 20th century. Yet, it often hard for us to understand why he was idolised as no moving images of him remain. No film of him seems ever to have ever been shot. (The material you are told is of Nijinsky dancing on YouTube is faked up from Baron De Meyer’s justifiably renowned stills). E. O. Hoppé’s studio portrait of Nijinsky in his costume for the dance Le Spectre de la Rose is one of the most beautiful photographs of the dancer. One can easily see that he is someone who not only has the stamina of a strong athlete, he is also able to show himself to be as delicate as a flower - as if he is the rose's own fragile scent. That combination of being tough but showing tender comes together in this image. The silhouette that Nijinsky creates for the occasion of Hoppe’s portrait is absolutely gender-bending. The 20 year old man reveals himself as a 'rose' of extreme physical elegance. Nijinsky is both expanding and contracting within the one pose. Dance historian and Nijinsky biographer Richard Buckle wrote ‘No one who saw Nijinsky dance the role of the Rose ever forgot it.’

Weegee (Arthur Fellig)

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor at the Circus circa 1945

gelatin silver print

There are 12 Weegee photographs in one New Zealand public collection (Te Papa Museum of New Zealand). They were acquired by Luit Bieringa when he was Director of the National Art Gallery. Weegee was the moniker of Arthur Fellig (1899-1968) and he made the use hand-held flash one of his specialities. He liked to catch people off guard, frequently in dark and shadowed places. He was also one of the first photo-voyeurs. Weegee made his income from getting the shots that no one else wanted to take. Proto-paparazzi style.

One does not think of mid-century British royalty as ever letting their hair down amongst the masses. Here is a shot that would never, ever, have been published in Britain. Strangely, it is one of the most flattering photographs ever made of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. They are completely relaxed and appear humanly real. For someone who was born to be King Edward VIII, the Duke is actually shown as having the time of his life. Yet, recording pleasure was not a favourite subject for Weegee. He preferred profiling trails of clotted blood. It helped that he had a radio in his car tuned into the Police channel. He always wanted to be the first at any crime-scene.

Wednesday 20 January 2010

Keeping the Gallery ticking

When I arrive at the home of horologist Michael Cryns a strange new world opens up as ticking, cuckooing and chiming emanates from every wall and corner within his Henderson based home. Arms wave and pendulums swing as Michael welcomes me in to explain his history with clocks and his specific interest in our Auckland Art Gallery clock.

Tell me how you came to be a horologist (clockmaker/repairer)?
I started out with a degree in mechanical engineering, working on power stations for the electricity department. Later on, due to some health issues, I had to give it up. Then, while I was taking it easy, a friend of my parents, who was a watchmaker and repairer, asked me to help him out. I enjoyed it a lot and was very grateful to him for teaching me as much as he did. He did an apprenticeship in Holland and passed on some great knowledge on clocks. Then after finishing the work he had for me, I put an advert in a paper as a Clock Repairer and got a good response. Including an antique dealer who gave me work for a year – really good work. That’s how it all started. Around this time I read all the books in the Auckland library about clocks and still study and soak up any book on horology that turns up.

How did you come to maintain the Auckland Art Gallery clock? One day, around 21 years ago, I was in the city and I heard the Gallery’s clock chiming incorrectly. A couple of bells were not working out of the 5. I thought that wasn’t very good and rang up the council. I found someone interested who asked me to go and take a look at the clock. I reported on a fallen ladder that was jamming the bell linkages. Then, they asked me to repair it, which I did and from then on I have been involved in looking after the clock. In the past, the electricians who worked in the Art Gallery would call me if anything went wrong.

What other clocks do you work on in the city? I also work on the Town Hall clock and work on the Ponsonby clock with a clock colleague. All the clocks are from a similar period, 1890 to 1910. However, the Gallery clock is the only one made in New Zealand.

So, tell me more about the history of the Gallery’s clock? The clock was made in Wellington New Zealand in 1894 by a company called Littlejohn & Sons. William Littlejohn was born in Scotland and learnt clock making before emigrating to New Zealand in 1879 accompanied by his son Alexander Ironside. They made many of the turret clocks for the country's Post Office towers. The bells of the clock were not made in New Zealand, as this was a very specialised job, so they came from Loughborough in England.

Have you been working on the clock during the gallery development? Yes, and there is more maintenance and upgrade work to do, but in the meantime I didn’t want the clock to run mechanically with all the building work going on and the dirt and dust as it can damage the moving parts. Instead, just before Christmas, I fitted a temporary electric drive to keep the clock running, but without chimes. Also, I have been requesting some upgrades to the clock peripherals, which have been agreed to in the lead up to the opening of the new building which is great. The clock is of real historical significance. There are not many of its type and age, made in New Zealand, left. Apart from the electrically-driven winding, it is all original. I want to make sure it gets the profile and care it needs.

You are surrounded by clocks every day, but do you have a favourite? Yes that one over there, the one with no hands. It's an old German made clock that I am working on at the moment. The maker is Winterhalder and Hoffmier and it’s from around 1890, a solid mantle clock.

And finally, what’s your favourite thing about looking after clocks? My favourite thing about working with clocks is the mechanical element. Anything mechanical absolutely fascinates me. I get to work on mechanical things and get paid for it!