Painting with light

Marti Friedlander saw us for who we are.

Written by       Photographed by Phillip Simpson

Phillip Simpson

Travelling through the Eglinton Valley, en route to Milford Sound, Marti Friedlander suddenly asked her husband to pull over. Stepping out into the road, she raised her camera, focused, and released the shutter. A moment was peeled from the endless spool of time and fixed in black and white.

“I knew right away that I had got an iconic image,” says Friedlander.

In Eglinton Valley, 1970, sheep loom out of a curtain of dust thrown up minutes earlier by a tourist bus. Bathed in a delicate light, they stare back unsettlingly, seeming to interrogate the viewer. It is a trademark image—spare, uncluttered, direct, determinedly unsentimental. New, and at the same time deeply familiar.

“Whenever I took photographs, it was always with a tremendous excitement. I remember every one I have ever taken,” says Friedlander, reflecting on a career spanning 50 years. “It is all about engagement. I never allowed myself to be on the sidelines, snap-shooting.”

Now in her 80s, she still radiates the zest for life that, as a young woman, lifted her from a Jewish orphanage in London to a job as an assistant in the Kensington portrait and fashion studio of Gordon Crocker and Douglas Glass. During her time working at the studio, she met her future husband, Gerrard Friedlander, and the couple spent nine months exploring eastern Europe on his Lambretta scooter before sailing for New Zealand.

Landfall in her husband’s homeland was a shock for Friedlander. The scenery was spectacular, but achingly empty and, compared with cosmopolitan London, New Zealand in 1958 felt buttoned down and provincial.

“No one who hasn’t been a migrant could understand the depth of my loneliness then.”

She sought out like-minded people—painters, writers, the winemakers of West Auckland—men and women who felt anything was possible and who were beginning to stretch the boundaries of what New Zealand could become. Against a backdrop of increasingly frequent street protests, she joined Amnesty International and co-founded the Auckland branch of the Council for Civil Liberties. To help make sense of her new home, she began using a camera to record everyday life, developing her negatives in the small x-ray room of her husband’s dental practice. Tellingly, her first New Zealand photograph was of a meeting opposed to sending the All Blacks to South Africa without any Maori players. Featuring the banner “I’m all white Jack”, it was bought by the BBC for a series on rugby.

Friedlander had found a new vocation. Instinctively, she knew that her lens was beginning to capture raw change. The shedding of a national skin. In 1964, after a year in Israel and Europe, she settled to work in her adopted country as a freelance photographer.

“No matter how much we travelled, this was Gerrard’s country. I stayed through sheer willpower.”

A turning point came when she was invited to photograph surviving Maori kuia (female elders) for a book by Michael King. Friedlander describes the assignment—which involved journeying through rural New Zealand to document the fast-disappearing art form of chin moko—as being “like a gift”. She was deeply touched by the women she photographed. The result, Moko: Maori Tattooing in the 20th Century was published in 1972. Two years later came Larks in Paradise: New Zealand Portraits, with text by James McNeish—a record of her travels and the first significant photographic book about the country and its people.

The catalogue Friedlander built up is eclectic, ranging from anti-nuclear protesters, artists and art dealers to old couples, children, shearers and campers—New Zealanders, in other words, going about their lives. At the outset of her career, the very idea of applying a seriousness of purpose to the act of taking a photograph was novel. She points to one of her most familiar images—two black-singleted shearers taking a break out in the yard. Sheep are at their backs. They look up at something, amused. One holds a cigarette in his lips.

“They thought I was an American tourist. Other people I photographed asked me if they were going to be on television. To a lot of people it was all quite new.”

There were images, too, from further afield. Church-goers in the Tokelau Islands. Armed women soldiers in Israel. But always a connection with the human spirit, with “this great mystery called life”.

Forthright and feisty, Friedlander was, by her own admission, better known for her opinions than her work in the 1970s and ’80s, but the tide began to turn with a major 2001 survey exhibition in Auckland, curated by Ron Brownson. Young people, in particular, were won over to her new way of seeing.

Her gift, said Michael King, is the uncompromised vision of an outsider. “This gave her an ability to recognise contours and textures that eluded the rest of us until we saw them in her photographs. And then we said, ‘Yes, of course, that’s how it is. Why didn’t we notice those things before?’”

In June 2011, Marti Friedlander received an Arts Foundation Icon Award. The honour, limited to a living circle of 20 recipients, celebrates the country’s most accomplished artists. Her medallion had earlier been awarded to carver Pakariki Harrison—in a nice touch, this passing from the dead to the living is said to imbue each medallion with the mana of many artists and its mauri, or life force, to strengthen with each passing.

Much as the photographs themselves.