Iconic and unseen early photographs of Christchurch by Laurence Aberhart
Aberhart started here. Between 1975 and 1983, when the internationally-renowned New Zealand artist lived in and around Christchurch, he began to photograph the everyday world around him. Christchurch is where Aberhart developed his eye for the things that later brought his work to international prominence: his interest in the vanishing past, vernacular histories, and typological series, all emerged over this period. Aberhart’s early photographs, some of them now iconic but many unseen or little known, reveal a city – and a way of life – that no longer exists. Long-gone fast food joints, masonic lodges, lonely monuments and cemeteries are brought together with stucco houses, weird domestic scenes and haunting family groups.
- Curator: Lara Strongman
- Exhibition number: 1040
Kamala, Astral and Charlotte, Lyttelton, March 1983
Laurence Aberhart's 1983 photograph of Lyttelton children is displayed on our Gloucester Street billboard.
Laurence Aberhart: Nature Morte
Nature Morte is an exhibition of 105 photographs, taken between 1971 and 1989 by New Zealand photographer Laurence Aberhart.
Over 200 key works by an artist described as 'the essential visual poet of New Zealand's past'.
However cold or wet it is as I write this (and certainly it’s raining at present), our September Bulletin heralds the coming of spring, and with it, the promise of growth, renewal and hope.
New Zealand artist Laurence Aberhart is internationally regarded for his photographs of unpeopled landscapes and interiors. He photographs places redolent with the weight of time, which he captures with his century-old large-format camera and careful framing. But he’s always taken more spontaneous photographs of people too, particularly in the years he lived in Christchurch and Lyttelton (1975–83) when he photographed his young family, his friends and occasionally groups of strangers. ‘If I lived in a city again,’ he says, ‘I would photograph people. One of the issues is that I even find it difficult to ask people whether I can photograph a building, so to ask to photograph them – I’m very reticent. I also know that after a number of minutes of waiting for me to set cameras up and take exposure readings and so on, people can get rather annoyed. So it’s not a conscious thing, it’s more just an accident of the way I photograph.’
Laurence Aberhart took this photograph in March 1983, just before he left his home in Lyttelton to move to Russell in the Far North with his family. It depicts his daughters and a small family friend, framed by a niche in the wall of the cold store in a Lyttelton fish and chip shop. (The building later became the Lava Bar attached to the Volcano Café, and was demolished following the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010 and 2011.) Because he knew he was leaving, Aberhart took photographs of local places – houses, shops, old commercial signs – that he'd previously noted when driving around Christchurch and Lyttelton. ‘They were, in the main, sites that weren’t enough as a straight photograph,’ he commented. ‘And so I put people into them.’
The girls sit in a compressed space that’s too small for adults for enter. Kamala and Charlotte gaze steadily and coolly at the camera while little Astral looks off to the side, one finger in her mouth. They are serene, yet fiercely present and full of life. The recessed composition of the figures brings to mind statues placed in niches in Gothic cathedrals: it is as if they are three putti or cherubs come to life in the modern, secular world. Aberhart has described himself as a recorder of ‘a world that can’t stand long’ – the phrase comes from the song of the same name recorded by American country and gospel singer Roy Acuff in 1948. Before entering his darkroom, he often plays it. ‘This world can't stand long / Be ready and don't be late…’ A chronicler of the New Zealand vernacular, Aberhart’s world is the overlooked and the outmoded, which he continues to photograph with the same century-old view camera he bought second-hand in the late 1970s.
Taken inside a tomb in France, this photograph might seem to support the idea that Laurence Aberhart is a photographer of dark and gloomy subjects. But in fact the reverse is true. Aberhart discovers unexpected signs of life – and light – inside a space of death. The light outside the tomb projects the face of its inhabitant onto the stone wall – echoing the process that took place inside Aberhart's camera while he made this photograph. A further optical event occurs at the bottom of the window, where a single red pane of glass has turned the view of the graveyard outside into its own negative. (Brought to Light, November 2009)
This photograph belongs to a series that Laurence Aberhart began in the 1970s in which he focussed on sites of commemoration, such as war memorials, and structures associated with ritual. He looked at the significance of Masonic Lodges in small New Zealand communities where they served as a place of bonding for men. Women were excluded and membership involved elaborate rituals. Using an old-fashioned, large format Korona camera, the style here is that of an historical documentary photograph, a scene as a simple record, but the strange poses of the children and the eerie light create a sense of mystery. Aberhart’s evocative images reinforce the importance of the photograph as a recorder of history and culture. Aberhart began his photographic career in the late 1960s. His work is represented in all major New Zealand public collections, the Australian National Gallery in Canberra and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney.
As part of the recent Word Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival, Christchurch Art Gallery was a partner in the presentation of 'Remembering Anzac', a session which paired photographic artist Laurence Aberhart with historian Jock Phillips.
This article first appeared in The Press on 9 July 2008
It is adapted from an essay in the book Laurence Aberhart, published by Victoria University Press in partnership with City Gallery, Wellington.
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Te Puna o Waiwhetu Christchurch Art Gallery has a long-standing tradition of curating exhibitions of emerging and early-career artists. We do this in order to contribute to the ecology of the local art world, as well as because – quite straightforwardly – we’re interested in the practices of artists at all stages of their careers, and would like to bring the work of outstanding younger artists to wider public attention. The Devil’s Blind Spot is the latest in this ongoing series, but unlike earlier exhibitions, it’s concerned with a single medium – photography.
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Of landscape itself as artefact and artifice; as the ground for the inscribing hand of culture and technology; as no clean slate.
— Joanna Paul
The residential Red Zone is mostly green. After each house is demolished, contractors sweep up what is left, cover the section with a layer of soil and plant grass seed. Almost overnight, driveway, yard, porch, garage, shed and house become a little paddock; the border of plants and trees outlining it the only remaining sign that there was once a house there.
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In the strange, stunned afterlife that ticked slowly by in the first few years following Christchurch’s February 2011 earthquake, a curious note of recognition sounded through the shock and loss. As a massive programme of demolitions relentlessly hollowed out the city, many buildings were incompletely removed and lingered on for months as melancholy remains – stumps abandoned in a forlorn urban forest. Hideous, sculptural, beautiful; they bore compelling resemblance to a body of paintings created in the city more than three decades earlier.
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Selwyn Toogood, Levin
I spent much of my adolescence in hospital, confined to bed due to a chronic illness. With a 14" TV beside me, I’d travel to imaginary places via the controller of my Nintendo games console. At the time, I couldn’t imagine walking to the letterbox, let alone experiencing the more exotic places of the world.
A generous, multimedia selection of animal-themed works, both lively and thoughtful.
Te Rua o te Moko
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Cross-cultural encounter in the Pacific shows whaling as central to the local story.