Brian Brake: A Lens On The World; New Zealanders In Focus: The Documentary Photography Of Peter James Quinn

ARTS, Books, Visual Arts

Brian Brake is arguably New Zealand’s most world-renowned photographer—maybe second only to Anne Geddes, depending on your point of view. His renown is largely based on a ten-year involvement with the famed Magnum collective, alongside such luminaries as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ernst Haas, Bruce Davidson, and (briefly) W. Eugene Smith.

While Magnum was built around the idea of “the concerned photographer”—subjective, politically-driven documentary photography—Brake’s inclusion in the group has always puzzled me. His oeuvre was broader and more politically netural; his documentary films lacked the heft of his peers. Nor have I ever been that taken with most of what I’ve seen of his work, and frankly never understood what the fuss was about.

Following his death a number of monographs have been published—China In The 1950s, Monsoon, and Maori Art—yet there hasn’t been a proper survey of his work since the 1976 Dowse Gallery publication, Brian Brake 40 Photographs. A comprehensive retrospective is long overdue, and Te Papa have obliged with an exhibition and this associated catalogue, Brian Brake: A Lens On The World (Edited by Athol McCredie; Te Papa Press, NZ$100).

Te Papa Press are never one to skimp when it comes to production values, and this is a luscious-looking tome—great design and fantastic reproductions. The book is arranged by genre, with each chapter featuring an introductory essay by a different writer. While artist surveys tend to be celebratory, the use of a number of writers does seem to proffer a stronger critical response than a single author might, and in this case there’s a greater air of honesty and pleasing inclusion of some less than positive critiques, marking it as a somewhat unusual retrospective.

McCredie offers a concise overview of Brake’s life, and here’s a very brief précis: Brian Brake was born in Wellington in 1927, worked as a commercial photographer and filmmaker in New Zealand, before heading overseas in 1954. He joined the prestigious Magnum photo-agency in 1955, travelled the globe shooting stories for various magazines, before moving back to New Zealand in the mid-1970s, continuing to work nationally and internationally. He died suddenly in Auckland in 1988.

Outside of his celebrated works, my knowledge of Brake was slight: a name that popped up at times, his life, relatively short as it was, was one of determined self-belief, constant drive, and an impressive work ethic. As clichéd as it sounds, Brake truly created his own luck, and that ‘luck’ took him to some astonishing places during interesting times.

Lissa Mitchell writes of Brake’s formative years in New Zealand, and his early photographic and cinematic education, elements of which can be seen in his later works. The bulk of the publication looks at Brake’s reportage career, split over two chapters: John B. Turner’s ‘The Roving Photojournalist’, and Gael Newton’s ‘The Colour Photo Essay’. Turner, one of our country’s unsung photo-historians, examines Brake’s career from 1954-1959. It’s pretty much a chronology, but Turner does offer brief, insightful critiques—both positive and negative.

Brake was fortunate to be working for Magnum, arguably at their height, and for Life Magazine (amongst others) at the height of publishing opportunities for photojournalists. While there is common ground between Turner’s and Newton’s coverage, Newton deals with the bigger post-Magnum photo essays, and discusses their development and publication. What I was entirely unaware of was how much work Brake did for such prestigious magazines as Life and National Geographic, both incredibly important at the time, and bastions of the photo essay. Certainly some of this work has far greater appeal to me than some of his more famous images.

Peter Ireland’s look at the 1963 book Gift of the Sea, a collaboration between Brake and writer Maurice Shadbolt, was enlightening. He gives it a historical perspective, positioning the work within the New Zealand pictorial publications of the time. He also draws a connection between it and the famed 1953 exhibition and book The Family of Man. The account Ireland offers has made me reassess the material. Forty years after the fact it isn’t always clear just how groundbreaking a particular event was. And because Gift of the Sea seems to have set the benchmark for any number of similar books since, even the majesty in Brake’s photos has been diluted. Interestingly Ireland makes no mention of the heavily-revised 1990 edition, possibly because rather than setting a new standard, or even nodding in the direction of Robin Morrison who was trying to do that, it just reworked the now-tired formula.

Damian Skinner looks at Brake’s artefact photography, principally objects of Maori and other Pacific ethnicities. While the technical skill is apparent, it is work that has never sat right with me, largely because, as Skinner puts it, “Brake colonises the object, forces it to become subject to his vision.” The latter half of his essay is particularly critical and bluntly honest. He closes by stating that “the ‘timeless universe’ [blackness] in which Brake’s taonga Maori are underpinned by a set of beliefs that are no longer ours,” and that to me is the crux of Brake’s photography in general—the world is no longer the place in which Brake worked.

Brake’s work doesn’t have the timeless quality of the greatest photographers, and while some may criticise the contemporary take on his work is these essays, I think they help explain why Brake’s star has waned in recent years. That said, A Lens On The World has made me reassess both my opinion of Brake the person (admittedly I was largely ignorant there) and of his work. That’s not to say that I’ve greatly altered my feelings about those images I was previously aware of, just that I have a much greater appreciation of the work that he has done and the skills he had.

In a recent newspaper interview McCredie said that much of Brake’s photography is anonymous in as much as the author doesn’t have unique style. That makes him a great commercial photographer, but isn’t likely to gain him much kudos in the art world. And having seen the exhibition currently on at Te Papa, I have to say his photos don’t work on the wall the way they do on the page—the gallery presentation just doesn’t suit them. Ironically, the one thing missing from the book, but included in the exhibition, are a number of the magazine spreads of his stories. Still. it’s a good thing this pleasingly honest and expansive catalogue exists to, if nothing else, bring together the various facets of Brake’s work and remind us why he was once held in such high regard.

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By contrast, Peter Quinn has chosen the life of documentary photographer at a time when the printed photo-essay is a rarity, particularly in mainstream publications. He has also spent most of his career working on New Zealand stories, many of which are now represented in the collection, New Zealanders In Focus: The Documentary Photography Of Peter James Quinn (New Zealand Geographic, NZ$70).

As with Brake, much of Quinn’s work was shot as editorial content, primarily published in New Zealand Geographic. Shot over the last twenty years, it is, as you’d expect, stylistically more contemporary than Brake’s work, while, like Brake, covering a vast range of subjects. The book alternates between assignments (‘Staunch’, ‘Corridors of Power’, etc.) and themes (beach culture, artists and artisans, etc.). Quinn introduces each assignment and offers personal and informative captions throughout.

Classic photojournalism (a term Quinn is uneasy with) is about shooting for a story, which means the emphasis is not so much on trying to get one all-defining shot (as with newspaper photography), or necessarily individually strong images, but images which work as a group to portray the idea. This means that collections such as both these books have a certain incoherency to them due to the necessity of choosing photos out of context, but due to its layout this seems more evident in New Zealanders in Focus.

Removed from the context of their original publication, it often feels like we are getting, at most, half the story, which is a shame. There’s also some tension between the two sides of this book—the retrospective vs. the storyteller. The size of the book clearly limits what can be presented, and while I would have considered showing not only the essay work, but more of it, this doesn’t tell the whole story of Quinn’s work. There is a nice touch, however, with the blend of personal reminiscence and factual information in Quinn’s text. Often the story behind the photo can be at least as interesting as the subject itself.

Quinn’s work on the whole doesn’t wow me in the way some other documentary photographers do. This certainly isn’t a reflection of his talents, it’s purely subjective and it may simply be that the subjects he shoots don’t interest me personally. His style, approach, and results are perfectly suited to magazine publication and these stories have immense value in being a historical record at a time when such records are not being created in the same way.

The introduction by New Zealand Geographic contributor Vaughan Yarwood paints various pictures of how the country was shaped leading to the one Quinn photographed. Early on he rehashes some of the old clichés about the New Zealand character – generalisations that if ever true, ring less true as time goes by – before heading into facets of mining, politics, and race relations. Yarwood titled his piece ‘The Quest for Identity’ and this has been Quinn’s motivation to—what is it to be a New Zealander—and the two of them have quested together on occasion. I’m not convinced that any photographer or writer can truly answer that, but they can (and do) add their voices to the mix.

In his foreword, New Zealand Geographic editor James Frankham echoes a concern of my own and many other photographers. “In a world of fragmentary, ubiquitous and personalised media, it is assumed that everybody will capture their own version of events … a sort of visual democracy … [but] no number of camera-phone snaps can penetrate the social and physical environment into which [photojournalists delve]. Without a collective public mission to document society, and without the skill of photojournalists like Quinn to see beyond the immediate and the obvious, we are all the poorer.” Maintaining that richness, I guess, is the raison d’être of many a photographer, Peter Quinn amongst them, and quite possibly New Zealand Geographic itself.

During its time, New Zealand Geographic has had its ups and downs, but has managed to survive while many others have fallen. It is one of the last refuges for the photo-essay in New Zealand publishing, and that is a shame as both A Lens On The World and New Zealanders In Focus stake a claim for the value of the storytelling possibilities photography has offered, and will continue to offer in the future so long as there are people willing to shoot them and people willing to publish them.