Charlotte Grimshaw looks into the eyes of photographer Marti Friedlander
In 1983 Marti Friedlander photographed Kiri Te Kanawa for the New Zealand Listener. The opera singer stands on a Northland beach wearing an expensive ermine fur coat, an image set up, as Marti put it, to create a tension between “sophistication and the almost unworldly”. Te Kanawa looks beautiful, exotic, glamorous, also wary. During the session she was, Marti later noted, “very cooperative”, with a sense of humour, but also “a cold fish”.
This encounter, recorded in art historian Dr Leonard Bell’s meticulously curated new collection, Marti Friedlander: Portraits of the Artists, raised my own memories of being photographed by Marti, an ordeal and comedy I was subjected to on and off from the age of three months, Marti being a long-time family friend and a frequent photographer of my writer father, who used to joke with affection that Marti and her camera turned up everywhere, that if he ever got to the Pole or the top of Everest she would be there, telling him to raise his chin or stop scowling, demanding he lean on an ice pick and strike a suitable pose.
Armed with her camera she came on like a hurricane, and if you were, as I was, hopelessly hypersensitive, you tended to shrink away, all the while knowing if you did start to retreat she would notice and come after you, demanding engagement, asking you to explain yourself; what were you doing backing away like that, why had you turned so rigid, what was that expression, darling? Can’t you relax, for God’s sake?
I once wrote this, on living in the South of France when I was five years old: “Marti Friedlander came to stay with us at Garavan, and took endless shots, ordering us into position, insisting we look natural in her trademark tyrannical style, which invariably caused shyness and paralysis, ‘What are you doing, darling? Why are you wriggling like that? What’s that funny look for? Come on!’ Eventually, standing next to her, I dropped a heavy petanque ball on her foot. In the uproar that followed I insisted this was an accident, nothing to do with her constant harangue, and the adults seemed more or less to believe me.”
While she was working her attention was a force, warm and benign but relentless, so that I would turn not only into a cold fish but into a statue of a cold fish, and either she wasn’t able to turn down the dial to suit those of us who couldn’t manage the intensity, or, just as likely, it suited her to keep up the onslaught, and her powerful concentration and focus were part of the method by which she caught her subjects raw, closed in on their borders and produced her extraordinarily revealing and illuminating portraits.
Here’s Leonard Bell on her relationship with her subjects: Marti’s portraits “aim to portray their subject’s ‘true’ rather than ‘put-on’ or acted face.” And he adds this fascinating detail: “The concept of panim from Jewish intellectual tradition is useful to deploy. Panim, the Hebrew word for face, derives from the root panah, to turn outwards or inwards. Panim means both surface appearance and inner being. It can also mean ‘border’. Such are the faces in Friedlander’s photo-portraiture: thresholds between different spaces and conditions, fundamentally dualistic.”
This was Marti with her camera, right up at the edge of your territory, aiming to cross or, if the border was closing, recording the guarded or hunted or haunted look, the turning away, as the barriers came down.
She was a force, she was expansive, vital and deeply interested in people. Many of her subjects, Ralph Hotere for example, hit it off with her right away; you can sense their easy rapport in his relaxed, soulful portraits. She described him as a “mensch“. Others, like teacher and academic Meremere Penfold, recalled feeling “a bit pushed around”. You wouldn’t know it, though, from the serene expression in her portrait.
Bell records Marti’s quick-witted and revealing comeback when sculptor Rosalie Gascoigne said she felt bullied during a photography session. Marti replied, “You bully your materials.” She did have a sense then that she too was pummelling and moulding her subjects. She circled, instructed, angled, demanded, arranging her human material just as, at the same time, she was manipulating light and shade and background and atmosphere.
The writer Kapka Kassabova was a close friend of Marti. Bell describes their relationship as one of “intense rapport and recognition of one another’s states of mind and feeling.” I imagine what a rich and rewarding friendship it would have been, and reflect what an admirably solid personality Kassabova must have compared to my own, I who was always glancing sideways, edging towards the door, looking to escape before Marti even got going, because the level of attention and frankness was too much.
“I read people’s eyes. That’s why I look into people’s eyes without embarrassment,” Marti said.
She had a genius for getting what she wanted. There’s the memory of her scrutiny, of being stuck in a garish spotlight, yet when I look at Marti’s photos of family many are surprisingly tranquil, the outward face only hinting at the turmoil inside the border. There is that dualistic quality.
Sometimes, as Bell puts it, “The bluntness of the photographer… led to mellow portraits.”
When Marti arrived here in 1958, New Zealand society was described as a “cultural desert”. She set out to capture what she found, and her photographs, taken over decades, form a rich and detailed record. She was unflinching about portraying the raw, ugly and bleak aspects of New Zealand life, but she also had an instinct for what deeply mattered to her: finding the action, the excitement, the most interesting people. She had a yearning for culture and intellectual stimulation, and she made sure she found it. Especially, she found the artists, and this new collection chronicles the cultural life of New Zealand through her portraiture.
There are 250 photographs, many never previously published, of painters, writers, potters, actors, poets, sculptors, photographers and musicians, some of whom are famous and some who have largely disappeared from view, a record of the changing face of the arts, a poignant account of artistic hope and endeavour, evidence that even in the “cultural desert”, creative people could be found if you had Marti’s radar for energy, originality and imaginative potential. This was the generosity and genius of Marti, her ability to find human value and interest everywhere, and to pay tribute to it with her own unique aesthetic.
Leonard Bell’s commentary on each portrait is a mix of biography of the artist portrayed, notes on the artist’s work, observations and anecdotes, occasionally a pithy quote from Marti herself. He gives equal attention to the famous, the less famous and the now-disappeared, in some cases highlighting artists who, in his view, haven’t had their fair share of attention. “Friedlander’s portrait project,” he writes, “now functions in terms of the sociological and the historical”, and his commentary, in the same spirit, sketches the work and preoccupations of each of Marti’s subjects, placing the art in historical context as well as describing the interactions with Marti involved in the creation of the portraits.
There’s a terrific photograph of Gil and Pat Hanly in which Pat Hanly manages to look in some indefinable yet eerily distinct way like a figure in a Pat Hanly painting, a demonstration of Marti’s skill, of Hanly’s own genius and instinct, and of the odd phenomenon whereby visual artists resemble – seem to express with the whole self – their own creations. Marti portrays a lively Hanly next to his quieter yet somehow very Hanly-ish wife Gil, and behind them on the wall, a Hanly. There’s a sense of positive tension and rapport, of collaboration, as if Hanly can’t help but create his own image and Marti is good-humouredly running with it, acknowledging the artist’s irrepressible sensibility. She said, “And the image is so humorous in that Pat is adopting a kind of macho pose.”
Leonard Bell writes, “Friend and journalist Marcia Russell noted that ‘the loneliness of the artist in New Zealand…attracted’ Friedlander. Feeling an unsettled outsider in her first years here, she connected through her portraiture with others, many of whom also felt isolated, sometimes embattled and not really at home here.” On Marti’s portrait of the writer, Bell adds: “That look of intense longing on Maurice Gee’s face perhaps mirrors her own state of mind. In the early 1970s journalist Gordon McLauchlan characterised New Zealand as a land of ‘passionless people’. Friedlander’s portraits offer a riposte.”
This seems the right word for Marti, this is essentially it: the portraits in this new collection, along with Bell’s absorbing commentary, offer a satisfying riposte. Marti’s riposte was to refuse to settle for the superficial, the passionless explanation; she looked harder and deeper and never stopped looking, and in this she showed us what was unique and valuable about ourselves.
Marti Friedlander: Portraits of the Artists by Leonard Bell (Auckland University Press, $75) is available in bookstores nationwide.
* ReadingRoom reviews appear with the support of Creative New Zealand *