Peter Peryer photographs;
Essays by Peter Simpson and Peter Peryer
AUP, $59.95 | Reviewed by Andy Palmer

PETER PERYER himself introduces us to his book – and to himself. In ‘First Light’, a brief autobiographical essay, he gives us some insight into the man and the artist, and where they came from. It largely comprises of seemingly random thoughts/vignettes about his childhood – such as “In 1953 we were given little British flags on sticks and made to line up along a footpath and wave at Queen Elizabeth as she was driven past. What beautiful skin, I remember thinking” – before slipping into more of a direct narrative as he gets older. While it ends shortly after he first picked up a camera, throughout Peryer hints at the foundations of his photographic interests without spelling it out.

There was a certain amount of serendipity involved in his photographic development (pun unintended). Relieving work at Otahuhu Intermediate led to him being taught the basic darkroom fundamentals by a couple of (unnamed) students; a chance meeting allowing him the opportunity to join the fold of a budding New Zealand photographic art scene.

In some ways Peryer’s autobiography stops at an odd time, concluding with “[Edward] Weston was a man who dedicated everything to the pursuit of the photographic image ... He inspired me.” But it does imply that his old life was over, and a new one begun in which his photography now speaks for him.

And so it does; 80 of them to be precise, mainly more recent works, spanning the period 1983-2007, all selected by Peryer alone. Welcome to Peryerland.

There is a simplicity to Peryer’s photographic approach, verging on the snapshot, yet the images he makes are far from ordinary. They are described as being “so singular in character that they defy easy classification or generalisation.” Because of their singularity I found much of Peryer’s work an acquired taste; works which take a while to get to grips with, to understand the reason for the photograph. Yet once acquired and understood you get to wander through an intriguing world.

The sequencing of the images in the book is, in some ways, reasonably straightforward, but it also invites comparisons which may be missed in when viewed elsewhere. Within a two page spread there is often an intriguing mirroring going on between the images even though the objects themselves are quite different. This helps reinforce Peryer’s vision.

Amongst Peryer’s recurring themes are those of anthropomorphology, repetition, scale, and ambiguity. While it’s not too hard to spot a Peryer photograph it is quite difficult to make generalised statements about his oeuvre. This is where Peter Simpson comes in.

Simpson’s essay ‘Mapping Peryerland’ quite literally picks up where ‘First Light’ left off, offering us a “rough guide to Peryerland, its history, geography and culture” largely via discussion of exhibitions and published catalogues. Simpson gives us the greater context with which to read Peryer’s works, or, if you like, the topography, climate and features of Peryerland. He also gives us a brief history of the New Zealand photographic art scene as it was prior to the great leap forward of the 1970s.

Simpson points out that this is not a retrospective survey, but a survey of an artist as he is in 2008. Consequently this volume lacks many of Peryer’s more iconic images though there are some which will, no doubt, become iconic in time. It does nicely compliment earlier survey books, the ten year retrospective show and catalogue Peter Peryer: Photographs (Sarjeant Gallery, 1985), and Second Nature (Edition Stemmle, 1995), which looked at the first 20 years of his career. While there is some repetition of works from Second Nature (thirteen to be precise) they are presented differently in Peter Peryer: Photographer; some to the extent that I thought they were new works.

‘Mapping Peryerland’ details Peryer’s growth and development as an artist, recording his evolution from more traditional genres of art practice to Peryer genres. While specific early works are discussed (and described), the illustrations are primarily book/catalogue covers. Readers new to Peryer may find this frustrating, but it does reinforce that this book is more interested in the present than the past.

Peter Peryer: Photographer is definitely a welcome addition to the Peter Peryer publication catalogue, and to the growing list of quality publications by and about important New Zealand photographers.