Arts Laureate and Fulbright Scholar Peter Peryer’s latest exhibition at Jonathan Smart Gallery in Christchurch reveals an artist who, in his fifth decade of practice, shows no signs of losing his magic touch

Photographer Peter Peryer holds a very dear place in my art heart. I can clearly remember my earliest art epiphany moments as a twelve-year-old in 1976. One was Colin McCahon’s Here I Give Thanks to Mondrian from 1961. The other was Peter Peryer’s Divided House, bought by my mother from the artist who she met as part of the circle of photographers that gravitated to the magazine Photoforum.

Divided House was amongst the earliest of the photographer’s exhibited images. It is a silver gelatin print, developed in the dark room, which like almost all of the foundation photographic ‘dark arts’ has been rendered obsolete by the digital revolution that kicked in around the turn of the century. But it is important to note the artist’s roots in the pre-digital era of handmade prints, because these arcane processes locate Peryer within a long whakapapa of photographers stretching back into the 19th and early 20th century, to the great figures of the medium such as Eugene Atget, Bill Brandt, Walker Evans, and – a particular Peryer favourite – Edward Weston.

Here endeth the history lesson. However the preamble is necessary to digest when looking at this current exhibition Peter Peryer 2017.

Shell Study, 2017. Photo: Jonathan Smart Gallery

The declamatory and contemporary nature of the title is no accident, asserting as it does the artist’s authorial voice as well as his understanding of his own history. Many photographers hatched in the medium’s ‘negative’ era have had to reckon with the onslaught of digital image technology to the tune of an estimated 657 billion images loaded online per annum. (And climbing – those are 2014 figures.)

At the turn of the millennium Peryer and his peers were hit with the triple whammy of digital image capture, and digital printing technology pummelling ‘old school’ processes into submission by removing the nuance and chance of the dark room overnight. Finally, to add insult to injury, digital manipulation skewered photography’s moral high ground by rendering the medium’s unimpeachable ownership of empirical truth void: death by a thousand Photoshop cuts.

Photos could be just as ‘made up’ as paintings.

In this new 21st century digital space, whole new genres have emerged, as have a new generation of ‘photographic’ artists, markedly brighter and shinier than those photographers encumbered by such irksome baggage as notions of faithfulness to the image, subject, or the truth. We live in the era of fake news after all.

So for many image makers of Peryer’s generation it has been heavy going for nearly two decades and some, I am sad to say, have fallen by the wayside. How can a crusty old photographer used to tramping through all conditions to capture ‘the decisive moment’ compete with a young hustler who knows that a brighter sunset or more junk in the trunk is just an app away?

Peryer’s, I am happy to report, competes swimmingly. By insisting on the primacy of the unmanipulated image as it stands, he maintains his links to the tradition of photography as a witness bearer and by diving into the immediacy of new technology at the moment of capture, he can move with nimbleness older technologies did not easily enable.

His Christchurch gallerist Jonathan Smart argues that new technology has freed the artist up, got him out of the dark room and allowed him to revel in the complexities of scale that colour printing technology facilitates:

“Peryer has never been a technocrat. In fact he has relished the fact that he can carry an iPhone 7. Peter has kept looking at the world in his inscrutable manner. He reminds us that every day, we are surrounded by visual riddles that are well worth a second look. The small is big and big is small.”

Divided School, Hokianga, 2009. Photo: Jonathan Smart Gallery

Peter Peryer 2017 is a tight mini-survey of 16 images from the last decade. The geographic range takes in Invercargill, Fiji, Sydney and the far north where Peryer grew up in the 1950s. Divided School, Hokianga 2009 is an image that caught me the moment I walked into the gallery, harking as it does to the earlier Divided House from 1975.

It is classic Peryer, replete with the resonance of the past made all the more mournful by the abandoned and mouldering state of the structures, testimony to his innate feel for the communicative power of architecture . The resolute mundanity of the school buildings is leavened by a grand set of wooden columns hinting at better days and bigger dreams.

Witty plays on scale have been a hallmark of Peryer’s work since the 1970s. One of his early iconic images is a Meccano toy bus. Other classics include a school playground map of New Zealand from an angle that suggests a topographical aerial view and a bowl of whitebait that appears to be a globe.

Macraes Flat, 2007 is a symphony of grey mine wall strata interspersed with two enormous trucks that in this context are dwarfed by the enormity of their harvest. One of Peryer’s unique abilities is to locate pathos in the documentary. Many of his subjects have seen better days or are lost in the fog of the past, but they never come softened with nostalgia or seek to posit as an emblematic example from a taxonomy of the past.

Macraes Flat, 2007. Photo: Jonathan Smart Gallery

Peryer’s images always seem to have a subject with agency, some sort of inanimate soul with a desire to be heard, even when the subject/object in question is a single sea shell, an image category he returns to time and again, one notable example from 1996 was delightfully titled After Rembrandt. Peryer has wrung from this 2017 shell fragment an urgent individuality that goes to the heart of his ‘eye’ yet comes from the eye of his heart.

The photographer’s latest exhibition asks the viewer to act as an accomplice as he mines his own and our history and delights in some new discoveries, some a little further afield than usual, some just down the road.

* Peter Peryer 2017 is at Jonathan Smart Gallery until May 20

Leave a comment