Book review: Marti Friedlander

New Zealand didn’t immediately understand Marti Friedlander—so she found another way.

Just on hand is yet another tale of the miraculous: the life and talent of London-born, Kiwi-domiciled photographer Marti Friedlander, whose conversation with New Zealand continues to fascinate courtesy of this compelling and beautifully-produced work. Leonard Bell tracks Friendlander’s life and work through a selection of her photographs and an account of a career spanning 50 years.

As the parallel documentary account of her life, Marti: The Passionate Eye by Shirley Horocks (2004) also explains, Marti Friedlander was born in 1928 in the east end of London to Russian immigrants, but aged three, along with her sister, moved to the Ben Jonson Home, and then in 1933, to the Norwood Orphan Aid Asylum.

Friedlander’s account of this time in the documentary is extraordinary—she talks of love and security. Others, in turn, talk of her bravery when as a sick wee girl she sometimes struggled to stay around, although, as she tells it, survival was never any doubt—there was too much to see and do. Looking back on her life’s work, you could be forgiven the temptation to see all of this as an early precursor of the extraordinary purpose that inhabits every single photograph in the book.

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In her teens she took the first step to her subsequent career by enrolling in a trade scholarship at the Camberwell School of Art in South London, and then becoming an assistant to London photographers Douglas Glass and Gordon Crocker. There she honed her technical ability, especially as a negative re-toucher—so much so, Bell attests, that in later years Glass famously observed that she could produce an image from a blank negative. Outside the studio she threw herself into 1950s London life.

And so we have this superb picture of a talented and totally grounded young London Jewish woman who gave it all up to marry her lifetime partner Gerard Friedlander, whose parents had migrated to New Zealand in 1937, from Berlin via the Mandate of Palestine.

In April 1957 the couple embarked on their honeymoon by Lambretta through Europe and Israel and then left for New Zealand. On arriving here, as she recently put it, “I fell off the edge of the world. In London I had made my own sort of life, living in a bedsit, able to make my own decisions. I felt I had returned to the classroom. You had to put up your hand to do anything.”

Others have been even more critical of that time, like Gordon McLaughlin in his Passionless People: “The outstanding characteristics of the New Zealander are his drab sameness and his emotional numbness, his inability to relate one to another with warmth, and his fear, even horror, of change.”

The subtext is an easy one—Friedlander almost smothered in the double fold of conformity and cultural silence. Her initial response? By all accounts, feisty, loud and irrepressible. But when that didn’t work she looked for another way to engage and famously found it at the other end of her camera, where  she started a conversation with New Zealand that has lasted for over a century.

The fruits of this conversation are everywhere in this book. This includes Leonard Bell’s text which, though I originally I found it a little staid, after I had spent time with the photographs I realised that his commentary mirrors the gaze of the photographer: sympathetic, sometimes argumentative, but always allowing the subject to come through and speak to us from the frame.

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People will find their own examples of this. I love some of the early European work which I hadn’t seen before: the little girl in Marseille peaking out of the door in 1973; Toss and Edith Wollaston from 1969; Rita Angus, 1969; and of course the wonderful portraits of Maori kuia from her collaboration with the late Michael King, Moko: Maori Tattooing in the Twentieth Century (Buy@Fishpond) in 1972.

Earlier there are tougher works like the pictures of Negev, Tel Aviv and the West Bank of 1963. There are also works from the Pacific in the late 1970s and some occasional colour, especially the recent Rajasthan, 2005, where an Indian woman looks away into her own distance, while across the page in Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, 1989 a street scene with washing underscores a shared world of domesticity.

And you will also find the familiar and the famous, including the Eglinton Valley of 1970, where the sheep look back up the lane staring centre stage at the viewer. It’s as if they’re saying of New Zealand just what Marti Friedlander discovered: it’s worth taking a step forward, make an effort, and look for another meaning.

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