Things to do or think about now

Helena Hughes - Untitled
Helena Hughes, Untitled


The pictures in See What I Can See tell a story about New Zealand. They record how the country has changed over the past two centuries. Some photographs might inspire you to explore New Zealand history. Which photos in the book do you think could only have been taken in New Zealand? Which photos in this book could have been taken anywhere in the world?

We all take family photographs. What makes a family photograph different from an art photograph? In the chapter ‘One of the family’ (pages 45–63), we see images which are simultaneously family photographs and artistic photographs. Maybe a family photograph becomes an art photograph when it is interesting to people who don’t personally know the subjects of the photo?

In ‘A thing or two’ (pages 37–44) we looked at how a photograph can be a ‘conversation’ between two things that you would not normally place together. This is also the case with Peter Black’s ‘conversation’ between a spider and a tiny globe in the photograph below.

Peter Black - NZ Spider
Peter Black, NZ Spider, 2010

Looking through the photos in See What I Can See, see how many of these visual ‘conversations’ you can find – between people, animals, objects, between a volcano and a rock, the stony texture of gravel and a soft, yellow curtain, between this and that . . . Bringing unlikely things together is also one of the great tricks of painting and writing poetry – the art of juxtaposition.

In ‘Dream machine’ we looked at how photographs can be large-scale productions, involving studios, assistants and often models. (Elsewhere in the book, there’s a particularly theatrical photo on page 105.) On the other hand, photos can also be a kind of miniature or puppet theatre – in that regard, have a look at photos by Anne Noble and Marie Shannon (page 82) and Ronnie van Hout (page 91). Photography might be holding a mirror up to the world, but it is also a way of inventing worlds – big and small.

New Zealand painting is famous for having lots of words in it. Think of the works of Colin McCahon or Ralph Hotere. Words can be a vital and fascinating ingredient in photography as well. As soon as words appear, we start reading as well as looking. Usually photographs ‘show’ what’s going on, but as soon as there are words then you are being ‘told’ something as well. Look through See What I Can See, and see how many words you can find within the images. Think of the different ways words are introduced: printed, scrawled on a blackboard, written on a hand, impressed into a cake of soap or a biscuit, on the outside of a shop . . . And to add to the images in the book, here are two word-photos by Mark Smith.

Mark Smith - Tasmania
Mark Smith, Tasmania, 2004

In Mark Smith’s photo above, the hefty forms that make up the word T R E E contrast with the spindly ‘real’ trees behind. Words talk to real things, and real things talk back.

Mark Smith - The Naming of Names
Mark Smith, The Naming of Names, 2007

Photographers often like to explore the act of taking photographs. If you go through See What I Can See you should be able to spot at least a dozen images in which a person is wielding a camera; you’ll also encounter a machine the shape of a person designed to take tourist-photos (not to mention a sky filled with Frisbee-cameras).

Peter Black - Christchurch
Peter Black, Christchurch, 1992

In this photograph, a monkey at the zoo has managed to wrestle a camera from Peter’s photographer-friend Bruce Foster (whose photos you’ll also find in See What I Can See). Peter says the camera was recovered without any damage, although maybe the mischievous monkey was able to take a shot or two before the equipment was wrangled back off it.

See What I Can See includes many photographs with photographs inside them – worlds within worlds. Look at Harvey Benge’s images on page 7, Lucien Rizos’s on page 59, and Deb Smith’s photos on pages 57 and 94. Not only do photos tell us a lot about the camera, they also have much to say about what photography is.

Light and shade are at the heart of all photography – both colour and black and white. Look at the photos in See What I Can See and think about how light is being used. Do we see the light-source (sun or lightbulb) in the image itself? Is the photo lit from the side or from the direction where the photographer is standing? Does the photographer use ‘available light’ or a flash? Does it feel natural or theatrical? In Mary Macpherson’s Desks (pages 96–7) light is reflected off a mirror-glass building creating very complicated effects of light and shadow, distance and nearness

Colour adds a range of emotional/visual qualities to a photo – whether it is the washed-out swimming pool blueness of Deb Smith’s photo (page 54) or the technicolour hats in Glenn Jowitt’s photo on page 109. On page 34 Greta Anderson uses vivid blocks of colour which complement and contrast with each other. Imagine how plain these and other colour images in the book would look if they were shot in black and white? And then try to imagine the black and white photos in colour...

Looking at the images in See What I Can See, pay attention to where the edges of the photograph are and how the subject fits (or doesn’t fit) inside them. Framing can change the feeling as well as the meaning of a picture. The American photographic writer Peter Szarkowsky wrote that the fundamental challenge for the photographer was deciding what to put in and what to leave out of the image: ‘While the draughtsman starts with the middle of the sheet, the photographer starts with the frame... The photograph’s edge defines content... The edge of the photograph dissects familiar forms, and shows their unfamiliar fragment. It creates the shapes that surround objects.’

Photographer Dorothea Lange was right when she stated that ‘the camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera’. Look at the world around you; see the many possible fragments of what you see that could become a picture. When he was a small boy, the French photographer Jacque Henri Lartigue practised taking pictures using an ‘eye trap’ instead of a camera. He would look at a view or scene, then close his eyes and freeze the image inside his head before opening his eyes again. By his own account, he became very good at this.

Looking at the portraits in See What I Can See, work out which ones are posed and which ones are informal. In the photograph of the children with an elephant on page 2, everyone is posing for a photograph, but not for the photograph we see here (which was taken by an onlooker, standing off to the side). In some portraits, people do not even know they are being photographed (this is often the case when photographers like Julian Ward are working). Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether people know what’s going on or not – as is the case in Julian’s photo below:

Julian Ward - Girl on ferry deck, Wellington Harbour 2013
Julian Ward, Girl on ferry deck, Wellington Harbour, 2013

Looking at Yvonne Todd’s three-part portrait of a girl called Chelsea, with a guinea pig and mushrooms on either side, ask yourself what items – living or not – you would have yourself photographed alongside. And what would the things you chose say about who you are?

Deborah Smith - At Sea
Deborah Smith, At Sea, 2004

Deborah Smith’s photograph of Pieta (above) could be a visual statement about a young woman navigating her way through the world of emotions, identity and growing up. When you find out, however, that Pieta’s father was a fisherman who spent most of his life in boats, the photograph starts to say something about her family – where she is coming from and how she fits in.

‘A picture is worth a thousand words.’ That’s an old saying and, mostly, it’s true. Photographs have all sorts of stories to tell. Alongside true stories (as in the ‘Making history’ chapter), they can also make up things. Looking at the photos in the book, find the images that hint at dreams or imaginings rather than real life events. Often pictures from real life can be a great place to begin if you are writing a story or a poem (as is the case with the swimming girl on page 53).

These days, most of the photographs we encounter are on computer or television screens. But photos can have a further dimension when you encounter them in a book, and even more so when you see an original print. There is something special about photographic prints – particularly those made using traditional techniques. A printed photograph can be like a drawing or a painting – an alluring, precious thing. Looking at ‘the real thing’, you realise how big the photographer intended the picture to be (and the character of an image can change hugely when the size of the print changes).

Photography doesn’t end here. In fact this is just the beginning. There are all kinds of other ways photography can be approached and thought about: scenic photography, sports photography, fashion photography, commercial photography, collage. These days there are even three-dimensional imaging systems, which are a kind of three-dimensional photography...

 A photograph speeds by on the back of the bus; a newspaper blows along the footpath. Photographs are never far from us. The world is always going places. Photography is one way of keeping up.