The Vault; Marti Friedlander

ARTS, Books, Visual Arts

Published in conjunction with his show at Christchurch City Art Gallery, Neil Pardington’s The Vault (NZ$50) brings together many of the works shot for the series over the past few years.

The various shows that I’ve seen exhibiting portions of The Vault haven’t really convinced me, so I’m immediately biased towards not liking the photography in this book. The works are almost too contemporary for my liking, oxymoronic as that may be. Although there is mention of Pardington’s interest in the 1920s Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement, I think these works demonstrate the current trends in documentary photography for stylistic (rather than actual) objectivity and late-photography (photography after the event, recording sites once the action has occurred).

This isn’t to say that I don’t like all the photos, but I can’t help but be reminded of Laurence Aberhart’s similar (and better) images of MONZ Buckle St (and other places), or the work of any number of photographers—Lewis Baltz, Ann Shelton etc. This similarity is particularly obvious when Pardington is photographing the collections (the objects themselves), but when he starts observing the technology and space of the archive I find things become more interesting and original.

The four texts do suggest frameworks of how the images may be read, though none win me over completely. Many art books these days contain essays/texts by various contributors, all offering differing approaches to the art/artist, but few include words by the artist themselves. Here Pardington gets two turns, one in interview with Lara Strongman discussing his wider practice, and an introduction to the series by Neil himself.

When Pardington isn’t producing art or making films he is an award-winning designer. As you would probably expect, this comes through strongly in the production of the book. Lovely design, beautiful printing, and if you know the work and appreciate it more than I do, you will definitely enjoy this book.

Maybe it is old-school (modernist?) thinking but I feel that documentary should at the very least make the viewer interested in the subject, and hopefully make them care about it. Too much contemporary documentary is so coolly ‘objective’ that it creates a distance between the viewer and the subject. For me, Pardington’s work falls into that category, although this cool objectivity is no doubt part of his intention.

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At an entirely different point in the documentary sphere is Marti Friedlander (By Leonard Bell, Forward by Kapka Kassabova; AUP, NZ$75). Recently I’ve come to the conclusion, fair or not, that some photographers are renowned more for their subject matter than for their actual photography. This may seem pedantic, and maybe it’s a pointless observation seeing as photographer and subject are so closely intertwined. However, I have long felt (in fact it was the survey show a few years ago that helped cement this thought) that what makes Marti Friedlander a significant New Zealand photographer is the time she captured, rather than her ability as a photographer. Being an immigrant photographer, alongside long-time ally/nemesis Ans Westra, Friedlander pointed her camera at things local photographers weren’t paying much attention to at the time.

As much as they both dislike the constant comparison—the obvious similarities between Westra and Friedlander making these comparisons hard to escape—for me, Westra is the more vital photographer, and she is still producing interesting work. As the survey exhibition earlier ten years ago, and this book largely confirms, Friedlander’s most engaged and creative period was during 60s and 70s.

While I’m not denying the value, even iconic status, of some of the imagery, the images don’t excite me in the way the work of other photographers do. This volume is text heavy, much more so than Marti Friedlander: photographs (the book accompanying her 2001 survey shows). Leafing through the book, what struck me was that Friedlander doesn’t have a particular ‘style’ of photography; I wouldn’t necessarily pick any of these images as being taken by her if I didn’t already know they were. This is not necessarily a negative thing, more an interesting observation.

Leonard Bell’s text is rather glowing and attemps to build a critical legacy for Friedlander’s work. I can’t say I agree with it all, but he places various aspects of her work in context of the time, (inter)national trends in photography, and her life. He also spends a lot of time describing, in varying detail, the photos on the succeeding pages, which suggests that a picture does not actually tell a thousand words. Surely the idea of writing about photography, or any art, is to tell us about things we can’t see for ourselves, to give us some insight into the work, the artist.

With Bell offering the only commentary, we are not presented with a multi-faceted take on Friedlander’s work that an assortment of writers would offer. Perhaps because I find myself disagreeing with Bell, I feel the single voice to be a weakness. As with Pardington’s book, the object itself is well designed and produced, although as a survey book I prefer Marti Friedlander: photographs, primarily because the flow of photography is not broken up by texts. But as that volume is out of print this latest survey book does fill a gap.


  1. I’ll dare to agree with your outlook on Neil Pardington’s book, his show of 50-odd pictures at the Christchurch Art Gallery was good, and a success, but I went to see him talk about the work and while he did go into some detail regarding the process of his work, he was missing some depth. It seemed the body of work was driven by a persistent curiosity, and was an investigation into the aesthetic of the spaces, but we were not really offered a good reason for the project other than that it might look good.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts AJT. They could lead to a long winded rant from me about the state of contemporary photography. But I’ll resist … for now.

  3. That needed saying Andy. Well done. Good to see some critical writing to counter the seemingly naive opinion (on these photographers) held by the wider NZ art world.

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