ANDY PALMER previews McNamara Gallery’s latest photography exhibition, currently in Auckland.

OVER THE LAST few years, the McNamara Gallery in Wanganui and its owner Paul McNamara have been doing a fantastic job of promoting New Zealand photography nationally and internationally. Being based in Wanganui has meant some logistical issues have had to be worked through in order to promote both the gallery and its artists to a wider audience. To get over this relative isolation, McNamara has curated and toured a number of group shows. Close Up, currently on at Gus Fisher Gallery in Auckland, is the latest of these and coincides with the Auckland Festival of Photography.

McNamara’s shows are pretty simple ideas, generally based around a particular subject or approach to photography: The Caravan, Polaroid SX-70, photography and text, use of 19th Century processes etc. Close Up looks at the use of the contact print (where the negative is printed in contact with the paper rather than through an enlarger).

The catalogue contains one image and a brief text by each of the nine photographers and a slightly longer text by Athol McCredie, Curator of Photography at Te Papa. McCredie’s discussion on the history and use of the contact print is short, direct and to the point. I would have liked a longer essay from him, but he does a good job of covering the ground in the space given. There’s nothing new in it for those educated in traditional photographic practice. Along with the mention of digital, he points out the failings of the enlargement process and, in a comparison with music which brings to mind Ansel Adams, describes the contact print as “barely a step away from the transcription of the negative itself from the real world via the camera’s lens.”

As with any catalogue requiring a quote from the artists, the results vary. Here we have Andrew Ross’s typically brief and understated “I think contacts prints are lovely; why use anything else?” to longer considerations about the practice and/or their own photography by the likes of Haru Sameshima and Wayne Barrar.

One thing this catalogue does is make me want to see the show. Sadly I probably won’t be able to make it to Auckland or it’s Waikato outing (Ramp Gallery, August 4-22). The catalogue contains a list of all works in the show, and you can view them all on the gallery’s website (mcnamara.co.nz/exhibition.html) along with each artist’s statement. It is by no means the ideal way to view the fine complexity and beauty of a contact print but it gives an idea of the range of subject matter and approach taken by each photographer. It really makes me want to see the show.

Most of the Laurence Aberhart’s were familiar to me, as were Ben Cauchi’s and Andrew Ross’s – both of which were shown at Photospace a number of years ago. I would love to see the new works by Barrar and Sameshima whose work in particular I feel suffers from the reproduction. Joyce Campbell’s botanical specimens look fascinating and hark back to the early photographers such as Henry Fox Talbot and, specifically, Karl Blossfelt.

One thing about contact prints is that they’re the same size as the negative (typically, though not always, 8x10 inches) and they’re made as contact prints because of the rich detail they preserve. Decreasing the size of the image for the purpose of publication is a quite disappointing, though it makes sense financially. I was hoping that this catalogue was going to be in book form and I was a little taken aback when I discovered it was only a foldout, albeit a beautifully produced one. Over the years McNamara Gallery has produced some reasonable publications of their shows (The Caravan, Les Wesney, and others), and Aberhart’s fine 2005 monograph Domestic Architecture.

I was hoping that this catalogue would be more along that line; a publication that stands alone and invites return visits. This catalogue is really just a nice souvenir of the show. there’s nothing wrong with that, but for those of us unable to make the show it is a disappointment, though one made up for in part by the website.

All I can do is encourage you to get along to the exhibition as it will be great.