A Man Walks Out of a Bar

By Abby Cunnane | May 20, 2011

Sometimes, turning the pages of a book, you become aware of being an intruder, an outsider looking in on a world complete. Between the covers, a host of lives are going on: men are drinking in bars, driving in cars; young women are eating ice creams, striding down main streets with purposefully swinging handbags; children are running, shouting, having morning tea. All this is taking place both right now, and in the past. You are looking in, back, lowering your gaze as if you might be noticed standing behind the man with the camera, three decades ago.

This is the overriding impression created by A Man Walks Out of a Bar (Rim Books, NZ$45), Lucien Rizos’s recent book of photographs taken in small town New Zealand between 1979-82. At that time travelling the country with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, the photographer alternated performance dates with a consuming personal documentary project focused on what he saw performed every day on the road: the life of small communities in New Zealand. This book represents his edited selection from that extensive body of work. Published over thirty years after being taken, we encounter the images across a distance of time, yet at a moment with interesting similarities in terms of political and economic climate. The very clean, restrained design of Rim Books’ publication makes space for the images’ contemporary currency, while leaving them to perform outside of a strict historical frame.

Collectively these images embody such a visceral sense of life going on that to view them is to register the startling awareness of being alone. One of the first things you’ll notice on opening this sturdily and beautifully bound hardcover book is the amount of space given each image; each has a wide berth of white, with only the brief work title on the facing page. Here again the book’s distinctly spare design aligns with the content, enhancing an atmosphere of solitude. Looking at these life-saturated scenes, you recognise the essential loneliness of the viewer of photographic images. Like the photographer, one looks in from outside. The scenes depicted have now inevitably changed; their eternal present is doubly unreachable.

Rizos’s pictures work here partly because they evoke this tangible sense of aloneness in the viewer. In doing so they allow you to identify strongly with key figures in the work. Cued by the cover image, of a lone man walking from a public bar onto the street, time and again we encounter this solitary figure. Set faced, set shouldered, these men form the unifying motif throughout the book, and perhaps throughout one version of New Zealand’s history. Strong and silent, these are the male figures that populate our art history, our literature and film. Their isolation, dislocation from the scenes of activity around them is their single defining feature. The streets, the bar, places of sociability become the places where men go to be alone together.

Faced with this aloneness, and searching for a way to read the images beyond their historical context, a contemporary audience is coerced into considering its own position. Are ‘we’, here and today, performing these same behaviours and social activities? Are the cultural codes the same? Is it tenable that this everyman stand in for us in the contemporary situation? Suddenly there is a shift, and a collective perspective emerges. ‘We’ look at ‘them’ to see how and who and where we were; our process of identification shifting from the solitary man in the photograph to a here-and-now ‘us’. The theme becomes the company we keep—both from the past and today. Offering us both  sameness and difference, aloneness and a sense of collective identity, Rizos’s images oscillate between the documentary and something far less simple, an imprint which is nearly, but never completely decipherable.

Movement is another key theme across the works, and a point where the formal concerns of the photographer intersect deftly with his subject matter. Rizos is not a photographer to wait around courting the perfect shot, staging his images. Almost everyone in these images is going someplace; with one accord they head out of the photo frames, they hurry from the page. The photographer has anticipated this haste; indeed, he is often on the move himself. Accordingly, skylines are frequently askew, pavements lurch slightly, and the crown of a head nears the picture’s ceiling. Several images are taken from the windows of moving cars.

The effect of all this movement is making us feel very still. We pause at the image, scan it, search it, as if disbelieving that time can really hold its breath that long. We look at what often lasted less than a fraction of a second, asking it to represent something final and lasting about that place, time, person. Which is just what these images refuse to do. The narratives they offer are more ambiguous, fleeting, speculative, less knowable than we demand. Ian Wedde’s brilliant essay closing the book explores the elusive relation of narrative to this photographer’s project. Rizos’s talent is in apparently laying out all the facets of a situation for us, yet the full story is only there for someone who already knows it, or has experienced something similar.

Damien Skinner’s leading essay identifies Rizos’s quotation of American photographer Robert Frank’s book The Americans (1958), his effort to represent the ordinariness of everyday life in New Zealand. Consciously rejecting the ‘statement’ images of an alternative documentary tradition, Rizos cultivated instead a deliberate banality of tone, a pervasive greyness (“as if New Zealand in the 1970s and early 1980s was a land of endless overcast days”). Themes emerge with the clarity of hindsight: the pictures can be read as documents of specific localities, of family structures, class separation, race relations. Yet Skinner argues these images do more than simply present the way we were; they infiltrate the present, asking us what has changed. Time may move more slowly in the small towns, but these situations are far from unrecognisable, and nor are the figures in them strangers, really. We have grown strangers to the past, places look different, but Rizos’s pictures question whether the change is more than superficial.

A Man Walks out of a Bar does what an exhibition can not do: it isolates each image on its page so that the encounter is an individual one and discreetly bounded in time. It is the very best sort of picture book, presenting a wealth of visual material on very simple terms, exploiting the page for its form and space, leaving the pictures alone with their audience. The loneliness of the encounter is humbling, instructive, magnetic. A book to own, and return to often.

Abby Cunnane is a writer and curator based in Wellington.