Max Gimblett Workspace: Photography By John Savage (Edizioni Charta, NZ$50) declares itself in the title: a photobook documenting expat New Zealand artist Max Gimblett’s work and New York workspace. The concept is nothing new; photographers have been photographing artists and their work/spaces for nearly as long as there has been photography. What makes this book unique, however, is that it is an entire volume devoted to one artist, and that the artist barely makes a physical appearance—although obviously the book wouldn’t exist without him.
It’s not stated in the book, but Savage told me in an email correspondence that the seeds of this body of work, “arose out of the time I spent in New York at the International Center for Photography. I would visit Max, who is a friend, every so often, and, since I always had a camera with me, I got into the habit of making ‘photographic notes’ about his studio space on the Lower East Side.”
‘Photographic notes’ is a good description of the images. There’s no question that Savage is a very good photographer (as earlier books and exhibitions attest) and these photos have an exploratory feel about them, almost like he is charting new territory and wanting to record every aspect of it, not as a way of laying claim to it (as was the want of early topographical photographers), but in an effort to more clearly understand and know the space and, in doing so, understand and know the people who have created the space.
While we are given a peek into someone’s personal space, these aren’t depersonalised ‘Home and Garden’ style set ups. There’s an organisation to the various spaces, but there’s no escaping that fact that these are workspaces. You can see the documentary photographer’s eye at play here, looking for those images that will create and develop a story. Gimblett has lived overseas since 1959, and yet there are numerous reminders of New Zealand (various tiki, cushions, a signed cricket bat leaning against the wall, a Four Square Man apron) amongst the objects, tools and materials.
I’m not sure that you need to know Gimblett’s work to ‘get’ the photos, though it can’t hurt. As a complement to the photography, expat Kiwi academic Jenni Quilter offers a beautiful and insightful text that fills out Gimblett’s story and helps make sense of the photos without really discussing them directly. Quilter currently teaches non-fiction writing at New York University, and her take on the same space that is explored in the photographs is wonderful.
So many people when writing for photographic books tend to reiterate exactly what we can see in the photos, and as much as a picture may paint a thousand words, words can tell us things pictures can’t or won’t. From Quilter we get taken back into these spaces on an emotional/intellectual level, as she describes the inhabitants of the space, the influences at play on the space, and the works made in the space and how they all feed each other.
Clearly she admires Gimblett’s paintings (and I suspect, the man), and she writes about them with a lucidity that can open the reader’s perception of the artist’s intent and of the works themselves: “painting as object rather than surface”; “contemplative”; “proposing relationship between the world and ourselves”; “the surface can be looked through rather than at”. I’m not big on abstraction, so have never really been that drawn to Gimblett’s paintings, but Quilter has made me reassess my response. Furthermore, bits of her text made me think about my own relationship to art in general, and my own art practice, and very few writers have done that.
Max Gimblett Workspace does what few art books do. It shows us the private life of the art/artist, the life that happens away from the gallery wall. It’s a lovely book, and is available from selected bookshops, or workspace.maxgimblett.com.