Old New World

ARTS, Books, Visual Arts
Mary Macpherson’s photographic survey of change in New Zealand society as seen in small towns throughout the country.

I often have a predicament when it comes to photography books, especially when they’re discrete projects rather than career surveys—do I need to read the text, and if so, should I do it before or after looking at the images?

Photography is, after all, a visual language. And with single project books we should be able to get, at the very least, a meaning from the images without the need for reading any associated text. Interestingly, if the project originates as an exhibition there will, most likely, only be a few paragraphs of text in the gallery, not a few pages, which again begs the question how important is the text?

Quite clearly the book is traditionally a textual object, so the pairing of word and image is understandable. Amongst my collection of photography books the only ones that I can think of that don’t have some degree of written accompaniment are Martin Parr’s two Boring Postcards volumes which are more an archive of collected, found images rather than your standard photography book.

Sadly too often accompanying text may add something to the book as an entity but doesn’t add anything (much) to the work, or to the reading of the work. Sometimes this makes those words unnecessary, but sometimes they can stand alone as a worthy piece with or without the accompanying photos. Brij Lal’s essay in Bruce Connew’s Stopover is one such example, and Greg O’Brien’s interview with Mary Macpherson in this book is another.

‘Old New World, Real Time’ (the essay) could stand alone from Old New World (the book) and not be entirely out of context. It’s a short piece but it covers a lot of ground, including Macpherson’s earlier works and her influences. It is also an enlightening conversation about the nature of photography and the thought processes of a project-based photographer. Throughout it all we are presented with a person who is clearly passionate and knowledgeable about photography but who doesn’t feel the need to place her work in the pantheon of world or, even New Zealand, photography, nor feel the need to over-emphasise the ‘Art’ aspect of her work.

So the text is well worth reading but this book exists because of the images. And those images are of a New Zealand roadtrip that avoids, in Macpherson’s words, making a “statement about quintessential New Zealand,” navigating “right away from [ideas of] the ‘heartland’ community, eccentricity, a sense of isolation, or big statements about the colonial past.” These are the photos of a transient visitor interested in the changes in society during her lifetime, and in the representation of regional identity and history.

Macpherson has stated that she had a specific concept in mind when producing this work, yet I think the images only partially achieve what they set out to do. They certainly aren’t your generic beautiful landscape images reproduced endlessly by visitors, coffee table books, and tourism agencies. But the main issue with photographing change over time is time itself. If the viewer is not presented with the before and after then visualising the change is much harder. Consequently, those who have not seen the changes in these communities over the time that Macpherson has, because they are less well-travelled or just younger, will probably not pick up on this aspect of the work in the way intended. And in some of the images, for example those of Wanaka and Mt Maunganui, the message is pretty blunt.

However, that’s not to say that we need to have experienced the change personally. Photos can still tell that story. We can look at, for example, a Walker Evans photo and imagine what changes have occurred since it was taken. Or look at one of Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places images and, again, imagine what has changed. Or even look at photos from Robin Morrison’s various New Zealand roadtrips and envisage the changes. But decades have passed between the creation of those photos and our looking at them today. The past is inherent in their photos. Macpherson’s images on the other hand have all been taken this century and that sense of ‘past’ and everything that goes with that is more ambiguous… at least for the time being.

Whether the work loses anything because of this is another matter. With any colour photography of this kind it’s hard to escape the strong connection to the American new colorists (of whom Shore was one); photographers who were turning their back on the typical representation of the American landscape. Macpherson’s approach has some similarities in terms of subject matter, seeking out the more or less everyday rather than the iconic. But she is by no means a copyist, and similarly she isn’t rehashing Robin Morrison, Brian Brake, and any number of coffee table book photographers either. Hers is by no means a new approach, some of these works could have slotted quite easily into Derek Henderson’s The Terrible Boredom of Paradise (2005), but it is what Macpherson directs her camera towards that marks these out—there’s certainly not that sense of disdain that Henderson brought to Boredom...

The nature of the project is such that it isn’t geographical documentation; this is just a collection of glimpses without any pretence of trying to represent this country. There are nice subtleties where, for one reason or another, the same spot (more or less) is presented twice. There are also subtle suggestions, whether deliberate or not, of other New Zealand photographers—Aberhart, Peryer, the aforementioned Morrison and Henderson, and even Yvonne Todd sneaks in. There is a lot of squareness in the photos (things shot straight on a lá Morrison), and there are also bits of restrained humour (photos of other people taking photos, etc.)

There’s a very apt quote reproduced part way through the image series, “Yet, at the same time, there is often a sense that the moment in time you have touched down upon is itself far from fixed or resolved.” Although each image is labelled with its location and the year it was photographed, there’s not a lot in the photos themselves which locate them in a specific time, yet they do ‘look’ current, which as much as anything else may be due to how they were captured.

There is one image that looks out of place amongst the rest, and as I understand it, that photo was taken on a film camera while the rest are digital captures. The difference is obvious, and in itself both reflects and demonstrates the changing times the subject matter shows.

This is not your typical New Zealand picture book; it is much more understated than that. Nor is it as immediately lush as Henderson’s recent books of New Zealand journeys, but Old New World is a book that develops with each revisit and I think will continue to develop over the years ahead. Time is integral to this story, it is about time and it will take time to untangle.

Old New World
Mary Macpherson
Lopdell House Gallery
NZ$50

Main Image: ‘Wanaka, Otago, 2010’ © Mary Macpherson.