A life in focus
Brake was known to New Zealanders for two things in the mid-1970s: his international career as a photographer for such globally distributed magazines as National Geographic, Life and Paris Match in the 1950s and 1960s; and as co-author with writer Maurice Shadbolt of the phenomenally popular 1963 picture book New Zealand, Gift of the Sea. By the time of his premature death in 1988 Brake had added a third string to his reputation, and that was as photographer of craft and museum objects, particularly taonga associated with the 1984 Te Maori exhibition.
His return after two decades of a peripatetic international existence prompted a number of enthusiastic items in the local media, aspects of which were repeated regularly over the following 12 years. Brake’s story was, of course, hard to resist: travel to exotic locations, adventure, big budgets, working with cultural treasures and meeting famous people.
Today it seems surprising that a young man from the far side of the globe, whose only track record in photojournalism was a month or so on the streets of London and a body of scenic colour photographs of New Zealand and Europe, should be invited to join Magnum, an international agency whose 17 members were among the best in their field. Brake was the first to acknowledge that he was lucky. His charm and ambition doubtless also played a part, not to mention the potential evident in his photographs.
From 1955 Brake travelled hither and thither on a wide variety of jobs. These included photographing Orson Welles in the play Moby Dick, a medical art exhibition, Fabergé jewellery in colour, the Earls Court Motor Show, an adventure playground in London, Picasso at a bullfight in the south of France, Moscow in winter and Queen Elizabeth II on her Royal Tour of Nigeria.
The photographs of Picasso and his entourage seem to have been taken more or less as a chance opportunity while Brake was on holiday, but they became his first story to be featured in the international picture magazines. The tale has been told often, and there are different versions, but the key point is that instead of concentrating on the bullfight that Picasso was attending in his honour, Brake kept his back to the spectacle and remained focused on the audience, albeit one very famous member of it.
Moscow in winter was Brake’s first big assignment. He photographed the usual attractions of Red Square, the Bolshoi Ballet and so on, but he also followed a common approach of post-war magazine photography of visiting an ordinary family and spending time with them, photographing them until they were no longer self-conscious. This was published in Illustrated as “I take tea and TV with the Kootenovs”, one in a five-part series on Moscow by Brake.
Entry into the People’s Republic of China at that time was relatively uncommon, but Brake and his long-term partner Nigel Cameron seem to have had little trouble obtaining visas, and were generally unrestricted in the places they could visit within China. With entry barred to United States citizens, American magazines were keen to show Brake’s images, though both he and Cameron were disturbed by the anti-communist rhetoric that tended to appear in the accompanying texts. Nevertheless, Brake obviously made a good impression on the Chinese, for he was invited back in 1959 as the only independent Western photographer to cover the tenth anniversary celebrations of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing. His images of the spectacle were widely published internationally.
Between the China visits Brake was flying from one side of the globe to the other in an age when only the wealthy could afford air travel. His work included an article on Kashmir for National Geographic, covering the 1957 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit conference in Paris, Princess Margaret’s tour of the West Indies, the arrival of Vice-President Nixon in Washington after his South American tour, scenes of adulation surrounding King Hussein of Jordan, Mother Teresa’s home for the destitute in Kolkata, and the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet—among others. In this period he also attempted photographing the monsoon cycle in India, an idea that had been discussed previously at Magnum and considered too difficult. He was dissatisfied with his first results, but he spent several months in 1960 pursuing the idea, this time better preparing himself with research on the monsoon, and spending time getting feedback on his images within the country as he worked.
When Brake showed the photographs to magazines in Paris the response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic and he had to hold them off until Life had an issue with enough space to print the 20 pages they had set aside, as they had paid for first option. The story finally ran in September 1961, quickly followed by differing versions in Paris Match, Epoca, The Queen and De Spiegel—to name but a few of the magazines that printed the story. “Monsoon” was the landmark event in Brake’s career, fully establishing his reputation as a photographer and earning both him and Magnum a substantial amount of money. Brake’s achievement was to create a true photo essay, a group of photographs whose sequence, rather than accompanying text, created a narrative and, unlike most previous efforts, did so entirely in colour. The popularity of the story might be attributed to the fact that it tackled its subject in a thematic, somewhat romantic, way: as a broadly painted, timeless story of eternal renewal, rather than one of specific and immediate events that was more often the province of photojournalists.
Brake’s second major achievement, though mainly of significance to New Zealanders, was photographed within months of his completing “Monsoon”. This was the 1963 book New Zealand, Gift of the Sea, a reworking of a story created with Shadbolt for National Geographic. The picture book of New Zealand scenes is a genre stretching back to the albums of the Burton Brothers and other 19th-century photographers, and Kenneth and Jean Bigwood had the current stake in the market with their best-selling two-volume New Zealand in Colour of 1961 and 1962. But with Gift of the Sea Brake brought to New Zealand the sophistication he had gained as an international photojournalist. The book was dynamic and carefully sequenced, with a theme of the land and its people, and revealed the Bigwoods’ books to be rather staid collections of unrelated calendar scenes by comparison. New Zealand, Gift of the Sea became a publishing phenomenon: it was reprinted six times, updated in 1973 and republished as an entirely new edition in 1990. Sales of 100,000 copies are reported for the first decade, and Brake was again riding a money-spinner, albeit a slow-burning one of annual royalties.
It was “Monsoon” that gave Brake direct access to the offices of Life magazine, with the result that they commissioned several large-scale projects through the 1960s, including assignments on Asian movies, Japan, the Roman Empire and ancient Egypt. Brake became effectively a Life photographer, and was regarded as part of the Life family, even though he was not officially on staff. The majority of his work through to 1967 was for Life magazine; by his own account he had more Life covers than any other photographer, and he was awarded the largest commission Life had ever made—for the six-part series on ancient Egypt that took him 18 months to shoot.
The Roman Empire and, more particularly, ancient Egypt commissions marked a turning point in Brake’s career, away from photojournalism (the photography of people) to illustrative and studio work (the photography of things). This shift in the type of work Brake was doing coincided with the decline of the big-budget picture magazines. Queen was absorbed by Harper’s Bazaar in 1968; Look folded in 1971, Life in 1972.
On a 1957 visit to New Zealand, Brake had told the New Zealand Listener that he could never live here again because it was undeveloped in the arts. By the mid-1970s Brake had obviously changed his mind about New Zealand culture, or New Zealand had itself changed, and he decided to settle here with his partner Wai-man Lau. He purchased land and commissioned architect Ron Sang to design an Asian-influenced house set in the bush of Auckland’s distant suburb, Titirangi. His intention was to take on fewer assignments but still work internationally.
The plan to take it easy was never realised, and Brake ruefully admitted in 1986 that for him happiness was to be found in “work, and honestly nothing else until the day I die. I suppose I made that decision many moons ago! And I certainly do enjoy what I am doing.”
Brake’s career was rich and varied. At his peak in the 1960s he was privileged to work under lavish budgets on big themes, and to know that his photographs were being seen by millions around the world. For New Zealanders, who knew him both as a local boy who stood on a world stage and for his widely seen New Zealand work, his reputation lives on, but internationally his name seems to have faded.
Brake’s strength lay as a maker of pictures, of images that pleased and often ‘wowed’ the eye. Though he quickly departed from the confines of the camera clubs, and when he became a photojournalist partially disowned this background by proposing that his ARPS title no longer be used, he always remained essentially a pictorialist, a romantic, looking for the pictorial qualities in the world. His early experience as an assistant in a Wellington photographic portrait studio also remained a lasting influence, as seen in his interest in picking out faces in a crowd and, more particularly, in his highly sculptural use of light in photographing art objects that echoed the directional lighting style of his 1940s studio portraits.
His experience with the National Film Unit from 1948 also had a lasting effect, establishing in him a documentary habit of seeing photography in storytelling terms, with opening shots, close-ups and protagonists. Brake himself acknowledged that familiarity with film editing conditioned him for magazine work by giving him an understanding of how to construct the cuts and flow of a narrative from a collection of individual shots.
But, in the list of formative influences and persistent themes, perhaps the deepest was Brake’s early experience of living in the small village of Arthur’s Pass surrounded by the rugged, towering peaks of the Southern Alps. His first photographs were of these surrounds, and if his teenage snapshots did not adequately capture the grandeur of the mountains, he made up for it both in a lifelong pursuit of spectacle in general and of the New Zealand landscape in particular.
For New Zealanders, Brake’s contribution was to give us an image of and for ourselves. The nature of his imagery and the channels through which he worked tended to make this an institutionalised image that bore the stamp of ‘official culture’. Combined with his popularity, this set a standard which some no doubt considered a goal to emulate; for others, especially of a younger generation, it was there to react against.
Brake’s formative years as a photojournalist were the 1950s, a post-war era when the dominant ideology in the field was a humanist one that was most famously expressed in the title and content of the globally toured Museum of Modern Art exhibition, The Family of Man (1955). Photographers looked for similarities, not differences, between peoples and always worked with respect for those before their lens. Photographers since have often adopted a more alienated and critical attitude towards their subjects, and in this light the closing words might best go to Brake’s London agent, John Hillelson, who said, “Photographers are often criticised for having a cruel lens, but Brian had a gentle one.”