Tuesday, March 6, 2012


the trees are big and the sky is blue, twenty-two photographs by Derek Henderson, McNamara Gallery Photography, Whanganui, 2-23 March 2012

The scenario goes something like this: a friendly group of young people from Auckland hang out regularly at a camping site on Great Barrier Island. They have names like Slade, Oscar, Alesha, Daniel, Anneke, Luke, Jesse, Sam, Ruby and Brendon, Jack and Charlotte. No Haydens or Jasons, Sarahs or Angelas: they'll be in their thirties now. Over the past three to four years Derek Henderson has been of the party, photographing these guys semi-naturally: not quite formal portraiture, but not random snapshots either. In only one of the images - Alesha & Slade, 2009, the image used on the show's poster - is it possible to imagine the subjects unaware of being photographed. So, at the heart of this exhibition is a tacit relationship between photographer and campers. The big trees and the blue sky query the nature of this relationship, this freely entered-into exchange.

Anyone not hiding under a rock will know by now that Henderson's a successful fashion photographer, a circumstance central to this sequence of images and illuminating for the unfolding account of photography socially and historically. Histories of photography based on the art model have been very coy, until recently, about acknowledging fashion photography. According to the high-minded Modernist model, fashion was too frivolous to be taken seriously, and its brazenly commercial focus had something of the tradesman's entrance about it. Never mind that Modernism itself kept a close eye on its own catwalks and that the sound of money tinkled audibly and continuously in the background like a waterfall at EuroDisney. Fashion photographers such as Cecil Beaton, Edward Steichen and Richard Avedon were more likely to be represented in these history books by their "straight" portraits than by spreads of their commercial work. A seasoned professional of thirty years' experience, Avedon wasn't taken seriously as an artist until the publication of his influential Portraits book in 1976. And, in Naomi Rosenblum's 700-page A World History of Photography of 1997, for instance, there are just fourteen pages devoted to the genre of fashion.

This situation is changing. As usual, for a raft of reasons. The contemporary art world is much less sniffy about noticing the fashion industry. They have, after all, finally owned up to what they have in common. Fashion's become a sexy topic: to study, to write about, to exhibit, to collect. In the past decade it's not hard to see the influence of fashion and style magazines on the look of a great deal of contemporary photography. But the traffic hasn't been entirely one way. Hamish Tocher's two photographic series from 2004 and 2005, Resemblances Parlante I & II (also shown at McNamara Gallery Photography), presenting a range of Renaissance images that echo tellingly in contemporary fashion advertising, is a good example. One of Modernism's beefs with fashion was its apparent shallowness. Like a Good Shepherd, Tocher's gone after the lost sheep and has rounded up quite a flock, revealing an historical whakapapa having more roots than Ellsworth Kelly.

Henderson's faux portraiture isn't one way trafficking either. The exhibition's juice stems from its feed from fashion to art and vice versa. Any of these unsmiling, semi-staunch and very self-aware kids could be advertising the clothes they're wearing, their camping masquerading convincingly as a fashion shoot. That's not a criticism, just an observation. There's a moral neutrality about these images that draws you in: any romantic attempt to "express the real personality" is bypassed in favour of simply depicting the figures as they are, devoid of any effort on both sides to enforce content; either projection by the subjects or imposition by the photographer. What are we left with? A bunch of attractive young people who look good being photographed. It may not be "deep" but it's honest. They're at ease with themselves and with being photographed; Henderson's at ease with them and with his camera. If this scenario's advertising anything - and it's a big "if" - it could be the singular virtues of photography - a medium, interestingly, not welcomed at the Adam Portraiture Award.

There's a spooky but revealing coincidence in this Henderson show's timing with the latest Adam Award at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery, located at Shed 11 on the Wellington waterfront. It would be churlish to attach bad motives to those driving the Portrait Gallery project, but one can surely wish that the notion might've been thought through perhaps a little more rigorously. Nor can the generosity of the donors who sponsor this bi-annual competition be fairly questioned. But to compare the present earnest and cliche-ridden contents of the Shed to what Henderson's doing is indeed an instructive exercise. The metre upon metre of the Adam's clunky attempts to "capture the essence" of the sitter have all the vivacity of waxworks at Madame Tussaud's, the only success involved being that of convincing viewers this may be a worthwhile enterprise. For Henderson there's no essence to be sought, only an image. It's the difference between looking back and looking forward. As Shakespeare posed at the end of Love's Labour's Lost: "The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo. You that way, we this way".

Dominating the show is a single, large format landscape photograph, Mount Hikurangi, Great Barrier Island, 2011. It depicts rough, slightly forbidding terrain receding into the distance under a glowering sky, anchoring the series of portraits in place, and offering a contrast too: the craggy, worn features of the landscape the direct opposite of the smooth, fresh faces of Henderson's twenty-something subjects. And, photography being photography, this landscape image anchors, as well, the show in time. The portraits are two-dimensional: literally, and in their depicting lives that, in terms of experience, are largely tabulae rasae. Of course, the landscape image is also literally two-dimensional, but what it demonstrates is the third dimension of history. The big trees and the blue sky measure the distance between the two.

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