A wide lens on photobooks

One of the joys of the three day 2022 Photobook/NZ Festival that closed today was the affirmation that in spite of living in an era drowning in phone-held image taking, the artefact of a carefully created, crafted and curated photobook is a wonder to behold.

This fourth edition of the biennial Festival begun in 2016 was again based out of Te Papa with pop-up events and launches held in and around the city. Its last edition in March 2020 just snuck in before Covid, and the timing this year allowed for an enthusiastic gathering of devotees, photobook ingenues and undersung ‘visual artivists’.

Chief amongst the latter was Fiona Clark [link= https://fionaclark.com/ ], as honoured deliverer of the opening night Peter Turner Lecture – which she dedicated to close friend Carmen Rupe and Luit Beiringa.

Afterwards an audience member commented that Fiona deserves the sobriquet of being “a bloody legend”.

Not one for foolish flattery Fiona simply replied, “no, I’m more of a bloody rambler”. And what a glorious ramble it was, from Fiona’s openly stated guilty plea of being “a Treaty partner, a tom boy, a full-time quieer, a person obsessed with my practice and making the private public”.

Fiona’s tale was one that took off between the formative decade of the 1970s and hasn’t really ceased since. Stepping in as early scene setters for Fiona were famous American photographer and pin-up model Linnae Eleanor ‘Bunny’ Yeager – “(appearing) at a time when colour in photography was seen as a fad” – and Amy Maud Bock, NZ’s very own gender-bending confidence trickster.

Fiona showed the artist’s residence she now lives in – the former Tikorangi Dairy Factory in her much loved Taranaki and described “the premeditated way I live… left to play with an archive of longitudinal projects of my own making, spanning 50 years”.

“I always try to keep my intellectual eye on the game,” Fiona shared, before citing the practical attitude to life she took from her parents – namely “if you go down a shithole, come up smiling”. That was certainly required after she was the impact of a road accident in 1977 left her sightless in one ye as well as shattering bones in her face and jaw.

From standout projects prior to the accident such as Fiona’s Dance Party Series, 12 black-and-white photographs (the colour darkroom had yet to be built) taken at a Gay Lib dance in Auckland, an ongoing hallmark subject for Fiona became herself in recovering from her major injuries or other medical adventures.

Her lifelong commitment to “documenting where I live and the community I live in” was equally plain to see – be that confronting the destructiveness of fracking as seen through a photo lens or performative acts of protest and activism, all undertaken without fear.

In the post-presentation exchange of questions Fiona celebrated her choice of creating a lifestyle dedicated to her photographic practice – rebutting the idea that she might ever regret having taken a photo by saying it would be more likely that she’d regret not taking a photo at which point she would be “ok with the memories alone”.

When asked how she discerns the best of her work, Fiona brought forth a great riposte: “As the old saying goes, you wet your pants when you see good artwork. They were good because I made them. However I could get it (I could say) I’ve got it right. I gave it a go. I created a lifestyle to do just that and (that’s something) no one will stop me (doing)”.

A highlight of the 2022 Photobook/NZ Festival described as a “world first” was the opening of an exhibition of photobooks from seven alumni and students of Whiti o Rehua, School of Art, Massey University. Mā Wai Rā: New Māori Photobooks can be viewed at the Photospace Gallery at 1/37 Courtenay Place until 3 September.

Photobook/NZ [link= https://www.photobooknz.com/ ]aims to:

  • build a national and international audience for New Zealand photobooks
  • strengthen connections and the exchange of information within New Zealand’s photographic community nationally and internationally
  • help New Zealand photographers produce innovative and excellent books that will attract international attention
  • help New Zealand photographers make national and international connections.