Monday, March 12, 2012


Lucien Rizos, A man walks out of a bar... Rim Books, Auckland, in association with PhotoForum Inc., 2011, with essays by Damian Skinner and Ian Wedde, $45.

When encountering an unknown name for the first time, legendary founding editor of the New Yorker, Harold Ross, used to ask "Who he?". The same question might be asked of Lucien Rizos on the appearance of his first body of work between hard covers. His name appears in neither John B Turner & William Main's 1993 New Zealand Photography from the 1840s to the present nor David Eggleton's 2006 Into the Light: a history of New Zealand photography. But he's been around for over thirty years, haunting the margins of the medium's practice, a bit of a pioneer in terms of his approach to photography and film, a photographer's photographer, with not much desire in him to hog any limelight. Pretty fatal these days when ptofile is at least fifty percent of the game.

There's a slight but very telling referent to Rizos in the 1990 Wellington City Gallery's exhibition catalogue for Peter Black's seminal Moving Pictures project. In the acknowledgements Black thanks him "for the inspiration", which, given the nature of the project, is a fairly big deal. And when you come to know more about Rizos' earlier work through this new publication you can see how it dovetails into the origins, framing and scope of Black's seventy-part portrait of the New Zealand of Rogernomics.

Rizos' business takes him around the country, and while travelling he records both obsessively and dispassionately moments of compelling ordinariness, anonymous portraits that add up to something very specific indeed. Between 1979 and 1982 he took around 24,000 photographs throughout New Zealand. Those of us stranded somewhere between late puberty and the Gold Card, and lucky enough to be living in Wellington at the time, may remember a show of some of this work at the PhotoForum Gallery's mini space in Harris Street during the first half of March 1980. It seemed boldly experimental, a mix of prints and - mostly - proof-sheets of these seemingly random, shot-from-the-hip images. Most of us hadn't heard of Cindy Sherman's untitled film stills then (she was still making them at the time), but there was definitely a sense of Rizos' images being cut out of some larger, mysterious narrative. Routine now, but radical back then.

Of course, the presiding genius of this sort of project and the look of these kinds of photographs is the Swiss-born Robert Frank who, on a Guggenheim scholarship, made a road trip through the United States in 1955, resulting in one of the most influential photography books ever, The Americans. First published in Paris in 1958 it had its American debut in January 1960. According to Anthony Lane's Road Show piece in the New Yorker, 14 September 2009, Frank took around 27,000 photographs during the year of his trans-continental journey. After processing the 760-plus rolls of film and printing the contact sheets he made a thousand work prints which he pinned up around the walls of his New York apartment. From these he selected just a hundred, all the while aware of the sequence required for the book that was always envisaged as the project's end-product. In the end, eighty-three photographs made it to publication. Jack Kerouac, who wrote the book's introduction, said Frank had "sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film". By the end of 1960 the book was out of print. According to Lane, the photographer had been paid a total of just $817 "for his pains".

Rizos' road to publication may have been as painful in editing terms but it's certainly taken much longer. His intention had always been for a book too, but either from discouragement or a change of focus he gave up photography at the end of 1983 to concentrate more on his film-making. When the Turnbull Library acquired the negatives in 1988 the photographer put together a number of photocopied "books" where he attempted to herd flocks of his pet sheep into comprehensible pens. Fast forward to 2005 when Wellington City Gallery's Hirschfeld gallery mounted a show of the work: Rizos decided to re-start the publication project, partly driven by the enthusiasm for it by art historian Damian Skinner. Hence, A man walks out of a bar... The size and look of the book consciously apes that of The Americans, with sixty-six images compared to Frank's eighty-three. Rizos' sequencing is just as savvy as Frank's and is one of the real delights of an otherwise rather austere publication. The sharp-eyed photographer is as astute off the road as on it.

What to make of this book appearing thirty years after the images were made? Harold Ross also once asked if Moby Dick was the man or the whale, and in terms of historicity, a similar question might be asked of A man walks out of a bar... Had the book been published, say, in 1983, it would have been seen in a very different context from the one existing now. Is the book's sequence merely a homage to a past project, a tribute to a certain kind of tenacity, or does it have something to say in, and about, 2011?

An interesting comparison might be made between Brian Brake's attempt to portray this country in his 1963 New Zealand: gift of the sea and Rizos' attempt a quarter of a century later. Steichen's Family of Man was clearly an inspiration for Brake - both the exhibition and the publication - but Frank's much grittier, and less optimistic approach seems to have passed him by, perhaps being just too crude for a successful photo-journalist usually beholden to masters with a firm grip on a commercial agenda. Brake's book began as a long, commissioned article for National Geographic, and however much he was dissatisfied by the end result, something of that magazine's house style suffuses the pages of his gift of the sea. There's not a trace of National Geographic in the Rizos book: he's a one-hundred percent card-carrying Frankophile. Brake was a patriot and keen to portray the land of his birth with a missionary zeal that sometimes feels like public relations. Less of a nationalist, Rizos reveal none of this need in the sucking of his sad poem. There's a comprehensiveness about Brake's approach entirely missing from Rizos'. His landscape is more fragmentary, bewildered rather than confident. Brake's writer, Maurice Shadbolt, ends gift of the sea with this observation: "A horizon that knew Polynesian canoe and European sail - her, where New Zealand ends and the world begins, a new race of islanders stands with a wondering, sometimes troubled, seaward gaze". Rizos' subjects also have that "wondering, sometimes troubled" gaze, but this time it's turned landwards.

Making comparisons between two attempts at a nation's portrait is all very well, but, like the Great New Zealand Novel, is it simply a redundant concept? Is the very quest merely a sign of an insecurity that we're gradually getting over? Whose picture do we believe anyway? The one that happens to suit our own established view? Is America of the 1950s the country of National Geographic or the landscape of Robert Frank? Are they compatible as different views of the "same thing"? Can that man walking out of a bar tell us? Brake seemed to be sure there was an answer. Rizos, like Gertrude Stein, asks about the question.

Photography has sometimes had to bear something of a burden as a chronicler of time. (To be fair, though, many photographers have cheerfully shouldered it, irrespective of the consequences.) Oddly for a medium so "realistic", its ability to represent time is often more symbolic than anything. In any of Rizos' sixty-six images it's easy to see what he's photographing. But just what is it he's documenting? Well, you need the whole sequence to get a handle on that. But then, what is the whole book about? It's about a slice of time in New Zealand, and what you make of that all depends on where you were and what your memory of the experience is. Of course, your memory of it is going to be altered, however slightly, be seeing this sequence of images. That's how it works. Or fails to.

Many photographers set out to describe a time, but few have the distinction of defining it. Brian Brake is of the former: Robert Frank the latter. How and why this happens must be the subject of endless debate. And no matter what the consensus may be at any given time, the next generation's view may differ markedly. Opinions and assessments come and go but the images burn on forever.

It's now exactly forty years since the publication of Hardwicke Knight's pioneering but magnificently flawed social and technical history of New Zealand photography. Since that foundation was laid most effort has gone into building the upper floors by the publication of various historical aspects of the medium and, by now, countless individual artist monographs. The significance of Rizos' new book is that it marks the beginnings of some reflection on the nature of this construction. In his mimicking of Frank's The Americans Rizos is, consciously or not, posing a question about the fit to this time and place. One of the godfathers of the whole fitting process, Beaumont Newhall, once said that his housekeeper's shopping list couldn't be mistaken for a poem by Dylan Thomas but in photography we hadn't yet been able to make the distinction. The publication of A man walks out of a bar... is a sign we're starting to get it sorted.

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