Saturday, June 4, 2011


Te Papa's Brian Brake

Now that the survey exhibition Brian Brake: Lens on the World has closed at the national museum it may be timely to survey the wider picture, not only the context of the show itself but also various reactions to it, as well as other Brake-related phenomena, such as the contemporaneous exhibition and book published by the Auckland auction house Art+Object.

It's necessary to state here right at the beginning that although this writer was commissioned by Te Papa to provide one of the essays for the book accompanying their show, he had no other connection with any part of preparations for the actual exhibition.

Brian Brake was famous for New Zealanders for three decades from the middle of the 1950s. His fame rested on two pillars: that he was a successful photo-journalist, and that he had "made it" overseas. For anyone under about 35 it's impossible for them to imagine what that word - "overseas" - meant and conjured up. When only the well-off were able to travel, when the most direct and vivid information about foreign parts were travelogues at the movies, and when just about every local frame of reference was compared, unfavourably, to anything from "overseas", Brake's achievement had a glamour that was almost mythical. It was as if Ulysses were found to have been a New Zealander.

Brake was proud of his national origins, a tireless promoter of his native land, and throughout his many years of living abroad he maintained close contact with his many friends here. He was an assiduous networker, partly from seeing the professional advantage, partly from personal need. Always on the move - just following his itineraries is exhausting - it must have involved enormous focus and energy to maintain the correspondence he did, and there's an edge to this vast undertaking that can't be explained simply in terms of ordinary friendship. He was an ambitious man (nothing wrong with that), keenly aware of his status, and prepared to use it to align himself with the great and powerful and use that influence to push through projects he deemed worthwhile. You were either with him or not with him. He had no time for those in the latter camp.

He always envisioned returning to New Zealand, seeing it as the necessary base for achieving more locally-sited projects occupying the latter years after his ceaseless international life. His untimely death at the age of 61 ended many of those plans, but they had been partly frustrated anyway by his having, to a telling extent, lost touch with the dynamo of this rapidly developing culture. The New Zealand he left in 1954 was not the New Zealand he returned to in 1976.

The myth of "overseasia" - if one may call it that - was still alive and well here in 1976 however. A strange aspect of this was that while anything from overseas was automatically assumed to be better than anything from here, it was seen as seriously breaching the social code to be disparaging of anything local. As A K Grant once observed in his book The Paua and the Glory, there were three "isms" New Zealanders couldn't tolerate: Communism, idealism and criticism. So, it was pretty much a case of fame resembling a peerage: once gained you had it for life. (In those days people were known for their achievement; now, being known is the achievement.)

But, as they say, fame is fleeting, and it's interesting to track what happened to Brake's reputation after the mid-1960s, when it seemed at its zenith. There's an interesting paragraph in the catalogue essay written by the Dowse's foundation director, David Millar, for a show he curated of Brake's work in 1976. After writing about the heady days of 1950s' photo-journalism he comments: "But Photo-journalism, as was then understood, was about to founder. The days when photographers could be given budgets and eighteen months to produce a series were going. Brake saw the writing on the wall and took avoiding action. He set himself up in his beloved Hong Kong, established his own documentary film company, and there he stayed, until in 1976 he returned again to New Zealand to settle in Titirangi". Brake's fame was intimately tied to photo-journalism, and what Millar describes as professional re-adjustment is actually a tacit admission that Brake's career had passed its midday.

The Dowse exhibition of 40 prints largely featured Brake as the assured serial photo-journalist in colour. The only exceptions were one image from the famous Picasso bullfight event, two from New Zealand: gift of the sea (the Kumeu dairy farmers and the dramatic Milford Sound panorama used as the book's end-papers, but the Dowse preferred the colour image from the original transparency), one of Mao, one from the Arabian medical operation story and, right at the end, Brake's first photograph used by Life magazine, the highly Pictorialist Lake Mapourika from 1951.

This first-ever gallery survey of Brake's work gained much publicity - he had, of course, been famous overseas - and the response was overwhelmingly positive. There was little enough art criticism then worthy of the name let alone photographic critical writing, and there's a sense that the nature of the general response was more conditioned by gratitude that the work of this famous New Zealander was being shown than by any critical assessment that the work was worth showing (which it was) or that the exhibition was a good one (which it wasn't). The only "bum note" was supplied by Des Kelly, reviewing the show in PhotoForum magazine, #33, August/September 1976. Very different from the media's general cheer-leading, Kelly's piece placed the work in a wider context, posed relevant questions and made fair critical comments that still have traction.

This review was, probably, the first real sign of dissent in a photographic community that, until the formation of PhotoForum in 1972, was dominated by camera clubs and commercial studios, all of whom unquestioningly accepted Brake as New Zealand's most important photographer - albeit largely on the grounds that he was the best known. Conflating "best known" with "most important" is a sure sign of an insecure, provincial culture. Of course, the practice of photographers such as John Pascoe and Les Cleveland in the 1940s and '50s had signalled its own form of dissent, but it was individual, not organised.

Organised dissent reared its contentious head on the issue of one of Brake's favoured local initiatives: the establishment of a New Zealand Centre for Photography. It was a doomed project from the start, the two main competing interests unlikely to ever find enough stable middle ground for such an institution to survive, and lacking a focus in sync with actual needs and realities. It was as if the Republicans and Democrats had joined forces to create a game park: was it to be filled with elephants or donkeys? The debate left bad blood, spilling through to the present day.

After Brake's death some protracted negotiations saw the bulk of his large archive acquired by Te Papa, and the deal seems to have involved an undertaking to mount some exhibitions. One of the shows the Museum of New Zealand did in 1995 prior to its Te Papa days was Brian Brake: China in the 1950s, consisting of almost a hundred images and a handsome monograph. The introduction by Eve Arnold went no further than being a personal memoir of their time together at Magnum, and the Museum went no further than claim he "is New Zealand's best known photographer". In 1998 the new Wellington waterfront venue sported the exhibition Monsoon: Brian Brake's India - the best known series from the best known photographer. Best known: where could this mantra go next? (Oh, it had already. The "rain"-faced Aparna Sen is the best known image of the best known series of the - well, you'll be getting the hang of it by now.)

Time, as it happens, was against the mantra going much further. As curator Athol McCredie wrote in his introduction to Brian Brake: Lens on the World: "This publication, and the exhibition it accompanies, is an attempt to bring Brian Brake's photographs back to life and allow viewers both to understand their original contexts and to consider how successfully they work as individual images. It also subjects Brake's work to critical examination, the first time in which this has been done in any sustained way. Its ambition is to peel back the overlay of myth that has accumulated around Brake's name and to examine the inevitably obscuring claims to greatness and iconicity applied to him". That statement is a bit of an icon itself, announcing its own coronial fiat on the death of "overseasia": an ability, willingness and courage within a national museum - no less - to face up on our own terms without fear or favour. Let's have a new national day to celebrate.

There are any number of interesting, pertinent, relevant photographic exhibitions that Te Papa might have devoted such considerable resources to. Doing the Brake show was an institutional choice - commitments made, marketers consulted - not a curatorial one. It's likely that McCredie, as their curator of photography, would've much rather done any one of several other shows. But he stepped up, and whatever reservations one might have about the content of the show - never its range - the book will stand as a model of its kind for a long time to come.

Not everyone is happy though. Many personally close to Brake have been uneasy with this "peeling back the overlay of myth", seeing the project as another instance of a Postmodern cynicism and a taste of what critic David Eggleton has called "revisionism" with regard to the book's essay by Damian Skinner. In this respect, Brian Brake: Lens on the World could be regarded as an extravagant and extreme form of Tall Poppyism.

The day after the show opened at Te Papa on 20 October 2010 a piece by Diana Dekker appeared in the Capital's Dominion/Post newspaper. Called Brake with the Past, it was liberally sprinkled with quotes from the exhibition's curator whom Dekker had interviewed in some depth. With sometimes breath-taking honesty the usually circumspect McCredie let be known what his more personal feelings were about Brake's work. "I think there's some interesting bits in it" being a good example. It was as if the royal jeweller were questioning the quality of the Crown Jewels, and this piece only fuelled dissatisfaction among those who felt the whole project had belittled Brake's achievement and reputation. But it was a refreshing instance of curatorial candour, and especially so considering how image-conscious Te Papa tends to be. It would be wise to remember that no one - apart from Brake's partner Aman Lau - could be more familiar with Brake's work, and that no one at all will have thought more about it than Athol McCredie.

The Dominion/Post's regular art writer, Mark Amery, reviewed the exhibition in the paper's Arts & Entertainment supplement on 20 January 2011. After giving a summary of Brake's career and a description of the content of the show, he asked: "Yet beyond all this, looking at the photographic evidence with fresh eyes, it's hard to see why Brake warrants yet again such significant attention". Lens on the World hardly equates with the two earlier Te Papa shows in both scale and depth for a start. And, Amery seems to have overlooked McCredie's introductory remarks quoted earlier here. The exhibition wasn't just about the images, it was about the wider historical context and a deconstruction of the Brake myth - the very tasks of an institution claiming to be a national museum in a country assumed to have some spunk. This writer has been a long-time critic of the Te Papa project - since its inception around 1989 - but is happy as to be making acknowledgement when the Museum starts doing the job. Too often the public galleries are buying into the commercial promotion business best left to the private sector, mounting shows that do more for an artist's profile and their own on-to-it image than unravelling the complexities of this effervescent culture.

The private sector is allowed to be shameless in the promotion department. Although, art being art, there's at least a veneer of respectability and seriousness usually applied to what is, essentially, the moving of product. Six weeks after Lens on the World opened at Te Papa, the Auckland auction house Art+Object held a sale of "selected vintage photographs from the Estate of Brian Brake", including many of the prints from the 1976 Dowse Art Gallery exhibition.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of this enterprise was Art+Object's publication of a 48-page, full colour, slip-cased hardback catalogue on the occasion of the auction. In his introduction, A+O's Ben Plumbly admits that "This book constitutes ART+OBJECT'S first foray into the publishing world and is the first time an auction house in this country has attempted to create a substantial publication aimed at having shelf life beyond the impending auction which justifies its existence and which brought it into being". The publication contains eight short essays by seven writers, two of them from A+O. The other five are: Gavin Hipkins, Kriselle Baker, Bruce Connew, Peter Simpson and John Perry. Apart from Connew - who tells the straight story of Aparna Sen, the "Monsoon girl" - the others are all pretty much a form of sales pitch that add little to the Brake conversation.

Not all the information is reliable. In his enthusiasm, Plumbly claims that Brake and Shadbolt's New Zealand: gift of the sea "remains today the most popular illustrated book about New Zealand ever printed". It isn't. In terms of sales, that peculiar distinction belongs to Kenneth and Jean Bigwood's New Zealand in Colour, Vol. 1 of 1961. And the reproduction of Lake Mapourika, 1951 - Brake's first in Life - is printed upsidedown. These are minor points of course. But when Plumbly claims in his essay Australasia 'Pricked' that "Brian Brake's photographs are loaded with that indefinable but unforgettable 'pricking quality', or punctum, which Barthes speaks of" it's necessary to point out a triumph of sales talk over intellectual reflection. The great French philosopher never intended punctum to be shaken like confetti at a wedding, and his application was to the perception of an image, not the selling of it.

Towards the end of his introduction Plumbly makes an interesting observation. A+O produced the book, he says, "...acutely aware that simultaneous to the publication of this book and the upcoming viewing and auction, a major retrospective exhibition of Brian Brake's work curated by Athol McCredie at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa is taking place accompanied by a monograph on Brian Brake. At the time of writing we have not had the chance to see either the monograph nor the exhibition yet I feel it important to note that it is not our aim to attempt to compete with either. Rather, we hope that through this publication we can add to the somewhat overdue but now richly renewed dialogue around one of this country's most important and internationally recognized artists". Of course, encouraging dialogue is always good, although to describe it in advance as "richly renewed" may suggest a certain disposition to gloss the evidence. But to assume that Brake remains "one of this country's most important and internationally recognized artists" is to set parameters on that desired dialogue which effectively close down the debate Te Papa's Lens on the World has started. But, product needs to be moved, and that "best known" has handily segued into "most important".

Brake's story is a complex and intensely interesting one. The arc of his career will remain embedded in New Zealand's social history. New Zealand: gift of the sea will always be treasured for the great leap it made in both conception and design, as well as for being the clearest statement of what Brake believed in. But ulimately it's about the work - shorn of the artist's reputation. After Lens on the World what we're left with is a handful of images likely to survive beyond their historical context, the context of Brian Brake being a highly professional, hugely competent and remarkably successful photo-journalist. No more bests. No more mosts.

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