Poignant images their own memorial

Laurence Aberhart.
Laurence Aberhart.
Laurence Aberhart photographs things that other people don't usually bother noticing. His exhibition of World War 1 soldier memorials, ''ANZAC'', opens at Dunedin Public Art Gallery this Saturday.

"There's a real difficulty there because you are usually taking a photograph of what most people would see as nothing and trying to turn it into something. I'm not the person to talk about it or say whether I achieve it but I do get enough information from people who have gone looking for some of the things I've photographed and find out it's very difficult for them to see them, not only sometimes to find them but also looking at them to see them as they would appear to me as a photograph,'' he said in an interview from his Auckland home.

He also keeps in mind that some of these things will disappear in time and if he doesn't photograph them they will vanish and be forgotten. A trip through Otago and Southland a few years ago revealed damage to many monuments.

"I was quite shocked, going especially through Southland, what vandalism had occurred. I'd go to places where I knew there was a memorial monument in a cemetery only to find it had been smashed. That made me even more determined to keep following on with that sort of thing.''

Many of the things around Christchurch, where he lived for many years, he never bothered to photograph, assuming they would always be there but the earthquakes proved that even the most obvious of long-living things aren't necessarily so, he said.

Aberhart believes his photographs are more than just pictures of memorials. They are also records of the changing aspects of society.

There's a memorial at Rongahere, north of Clydevale on the Clutha, but there's no community there any more, he said.

"You find this somewhat pathetic lonely soldier figure crouched on top of a very grandiose marble column in the middle of a paddock and that's all there is. You realise, that for it to have a war memorial, it was once a thriving township, I assume. There's an interesting read-out within the show of how [the war] evolved or changed society, really,'' he said.

''It must have been devastating for some of those small communities which in some cases lost a significant proportion of their young men. That would have impacted for years afterwards and if you think about it in some ways contributed to the vanishing of those places and had a big impact on small communities.''

He has been photographing memorials, both war memorials and memorials in cemeteries, since his passion for photography began several decades ago.

While at teachers' college in Christchurch in the 1960s, he walked into a flatmate's room which had been converted into a darkroom and was fascinated to see a white sheet of paper go into a chemical solution and an image appear on it, he said.

Before that photographs were something you got from a chemist after taking in a film. His new-found excitement led to his being introduced to some commercial photographers.

''Somehow, in my youthful naivety, I recognised these hardened commercial photographers looked at me and recognised a sort of youthful As a result, he was mostly self-taught, driving librarians demented with his requests for photographic books on interloan.

He was particularly interested in the history of photography and bought an old 8x10 inch (20.32x25.4cm) Korona view camera, a large-format camera of the sort that had been around since photography began, he said.

''You put a cloth over your head and see through a screen on the back. It made me look at that sort of subject matter and the history of photography. One of the things the earliest photographers did was to photograph statuary because the exposures in those days were so long it was hard to record people.''

The view camera made him look at the subject matter and history of photography, which led him to photograph memorials and angels on graves in cemeteries as early photographers had done.

He realised he was continuing in what he calls the ritual of photography.

''The more I looked at particularly 19th-century photography - they had a very clear-sighted way of looking at things and now we fill a lot of our image-making with a lot of artifice to make it look clever and smart - I just wanted to see if you could make simple statements that still worked in the way the old ones did without consciously and manifestly aping the old ways.''

You can't get the same effect with a modern camera, he says.

A few years ago, realising the centenary of World War 1 was coming up, he deliberately sought out memorials in New Zealand and Australia to photograph, and decided to select those with a soldier on top, what the Australians call digger memorials, he said.

''I realised that far too late in the piece a bright art gallery somewhere would get a great idea to get me to make an exhibition of them so I set out very determinedly to be ahead of that particular game.''

When Aberhart arrives at a memorial, it normally takes him 20 minutes to select a shot, set up his camera and take it, but if he thinks the light is about to change, he can work quickly and take a shot in about three minutes, he says.

Sometimes the light is so bad he doesn't bother taking a photograph, but makes a note to return some other time.

If the light is not good, he knows from experience he will not be interested in the resulting photograph.

With a big camera on a tripod, wind can also be a factor, not only blowing the vegetation but also the camera. Although it may seem a perfectly fine day to other people, if it's blowing more than 15kmh, he knows not to bother, he said.

Normally he takes only one photograph. The film is in an 8x10 inch holder and he can carry only so many of them.

When he is travelling, he darkens the motel bathroom at night and takes exposed film out of the holder and replaces it with unexposed film for the next day's shooting.

He makes contact prints from his negatives, which means they are also 8x10 inches and big enough to read easily when framed on a wall.

''There's an interesting, wonderful thing about small detailed pictures which causes you to come closer to look and read. It's often a way of forcing you to read what's in the photograph, whereas often in a big photograph or a big picture of any sort, you stand back and get the broad information without ever going up and studying it closely.''

However, an exhibition of a large number of prints on similar subject matter and the same sort of density and size of image can look repetitive, so six of the images have been enlarged as 50.8x60.96cm platinum prints by a studio in Belgium.

"They turned up on Monday from Brussels and to me they are quite revelatory. I'm used to seeing everything in 8x10 inches and suddenly they were 20x24 inches. I haven't quite recovered yet. They are very beautiful.''

See it
Laurence Aberhart's ''ANZAC'' opens at Dunedin Public Art Gallery on Saturday and runs until August 31.

The exhibition is accompanied by a book, ANZAC: Photographs by Laurence Aberhart (Victoria University Press), which features 72 of his photographs and an introduction by Jock Phillips. 


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