the grass is awfully green

ARTS, Books, Visual Arts
Photographer Peter Black continues his exploration of New Zealand’s social landscape.

In the latest issue of Photofile, the journal published by the Australian Centre for Photography, Daniel Palmer considers whether or not Australian photography is global. He poses the question: “In the wake of the past two decades of globalisation—with its flows of people, finances and digital images—does it make sense any more to frame photographic practice in national terms?”

Palmer concludes that, “Even as clichés of nationalist narratives are resisted, images of places are attuned to a desire for national or cosmopolitan political belonging. In this way ‘cosmopolitan’ photographers can offer a sense of the global grounded in local difference.”

I’m not sure whether or not Palmer was asking that question, in part, because of some perceived lack of recognition of Australian photography internationally, but Bill Jay tackled that issue for a New Zealand audience in the New Zealand Journal of Photography in 2006. His conclusion was similar to Palmer’s: “Ask yourselves: What is intrinsically special about this place and its people?”

Yet, many photographers (or art photographers, anyway) still seem to shy away from declaring a strong sense of place, instead, as Bill Jay noted, “making images interchangeable with the bulk of [international] art photographers.”

There are exceptions, of course, such as Mary Macpherson’s Old New World, David Cook’s River-Road, and Haru Sameshima’s Bold Centuries. And there is Peter Black, who for the past three decades has produced work that is very definitely made in, and made about, this place. As he puts it himself, he has been “photographing the social landscape of New Zealand.”

Black’s latest publication is the grass is awfully green and is available in two versions—as a hardback book containing 81 images and a soft cover catalogue with 22 images (a companion piece for the exhibition of some of the works at Photospace earlier this year). This review considers the hardback version.

the grass is awfully green starts and finishes with images taken close to Black’s home in Wellington at dusk and dawn. In between we go on a journey around New Zealand. For all the potential positivity of the title (the grass may not be greener, but it is awfully green), it seems an overly sombre way to bookend the images in between, but it does complete the journey. Equally, in a similar way to how Black’s previous book, I Loved You the Moment I Saw You, could be read as moments occurring in the split second between the opening and closing images, this volume could be read as the moments occurring in the hours between the opening and closing images.

At first glance it appears to be a collection of more-or-less random images, a mix of landscapes, street photography, close ups and even nature photography. Individual photos could be read as commenting on the likes of the tourist industry, urban development, capitalism, the income gap, the rural environment, but like much of Black’s work it can be read collectively as a ‘state of the nation’.

It’s possibly a bit corny, and even simplistic and all encompassing, to say that Black photographs the ‘state of the nation’. The usual approach of the contemporary ‘art’ photographer is to shoot a specific and predefined concept or story, but it seems to me that Black goes out and collects images, later creating his narrative on the editing desk /computer screen.

So maybe it’s truer to say that he’s photographing his ‘state of the nation’, and that has long tended to be a bleak or, at least, pessimistic view mixed with moments of lightness and humour. Black’s style also suggests the objective documentary photographer, even while acknowledging the myth of objective photography. But his approach isn’t overtly political and though I can guess at Black’s politics, I’m not sure how much of that is from me and how much from him. The fact that Black allows some ambiguity, some openness for the reader to create their own meaning, is a subtlety often missing in contemporary art.

the grass is awfully green is a continuation and extension of the themes he examined in I Loved You the Moment I Saw You, and in fact towards the end of this new book, there is a selection of images that could very easily have slipped in to the earlier volume.

Like much of Black’s work, while this may be a love story, it isn’t an entirely happy one. There is no selling of 100% Pure here, but the fact that Black feels the need to photograph the things he does, at the very least, suggests he is concerned about where we’ve come from and where we’re going.

The range of subjects here allows for numerous repeated motifs—dead animals, Maori designs, crosses, red spot colour—each carrying their own particular meaning/baggage, be it an art history one or a social one. The red fiery clouds that end the book add to the biblical overtones of all those cross motifs and at the same time recalls the cover of Brian Brake’s New Zealand, gift of the sea (1963)—a rather deliberate reference, I imagine.

One thing that has long struck me about Black’s work is that he is less interested in the single image and much more interested in the whole—the project, the exhibition, the book, the narrative. This means that over the course of his career there are very few iconic Peter Black photos—Selwyn Toogood, Levin (1981) arguably being the best known—but what it also means is that his pictures have a democracy, a socialism even, working together for the greater good with no one standing too much above the others.

But this means that reading, or at least trying to get some meaning from, his books can require a bit of time and effort. In the case of the grass is awfully green, the search for meaning isn’t helped by the lack of artist statement or accompanying essay. It is not a terribly common approach in recent photography books, but I actually like being presented with this uncertainty rather than being pointed down a particular path by someone else’s reading of the work.

As with his other publications this is a photobook, a very deliberate statement to be taken as a whole, not merely a selection of pretty pictures—in fact, some of these photos are downright disturbing. And even after some weeks with it I’m still digesting this, trying to understand the sequencing, etc. Some seem quite obvious, but there are also sudden, disorientating jumps. Black has said that his “aim is to move the language of photography forward” and in that I feel he is succeeding.

Elsewhere in the Photofile article, Palmer quotes Helen Westgeest: “More than any other medium photography tends to evoke questions on where it was taken and whether the world depicted involves a ‘real’ or constructed place.” This is something Black contends with too. There is no doubt that these places are real, however I am aware that even though I don’t need to know the location, I want to know it. This essay isn’t about specific places or localities, it’s about one place, our place, but for better or worse Black offers a list of locations at the back for the curious.

Peter Black is our very own ‘cosmopolitan’ photographer and the grass is awfully green does offer “a sense of the global grounded in local difference.” To people who know this country, most of these images would be quite obviously New Zealand images and yet the ‘message’ is a global one, not a geographically specific one, and therefore one more than suited to a global audience.

Black has self-published the grass is awfully green through Blurb which is why the price is higher than would be expected for a similar volume through a traditional publisher. But this means that any sales are supporting Black directly, hopefully allowing him to continue exploring New Zealand’s social landscape—and producing more wonderful publications.

the grass is awfully green
Peter Black, peterblackphotos.com
NZ$250 for hardcover full version
NZ$300 for limited edition hardcover version
NZ$75 for shorter paperback edition 

Images © Peter Black. All Rights Reserved. Published with the permission of the artist.