Accentuate the positive

Brian Brake was a colossus of photography's negative period.

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Brian Brake was a colossus of photography’s negative period

Magazine layout


A good friend, an art teacher at one of New Zealand’s leading tertiary institutions, told me a story that reveals the gulf between today’s digital age and that quaint, near-forgotten time known as the analogue era. As she was explaining to her students the rudiments of taking and making a photograph using film, she honed in on the magic of the darkroom and the exposure of the negative to chemical, light and paper to make, voila, a photograph.

She thought it was going swimmingly (that is, no more blank stares than usual) until one of the bolder students (on behalf of pretty much all the rest of them, it turned out) piped up and asked, “What’s a negative?”

There, in one innocent question, the yawning generation gap between the emulsion and pixel ages was revealed.

But much more than just technology separates the images captured by a master photographer such as Brian Brake and today’s digital memory-stick jockeys. This divergence is in fact a chasm of idealogy, practice and sensibility. One of course cannot possibly suggest that one is superior to the other— just different.

But, oh, how different. To gaze on the cinematic majesty of an image such as Offerings to the Unknown Dead–Kyoto from 1964 provides a rare opportunity to meditate on the complexity of the job of a photographer who had a limited supply of that most precious commodity: film. For Brake, patience was not just a virtue, but a professional necessity.

In 1957, Brake blazed his name into legend with an epic cycle of images of Picasso at a bullfight. these were the romantic years of the globetrotting photojournalist: Leica, rolls of film and passport at the ready

Today, tomorrow and next week, photographers will shoot literally billions of digital images. Several gazillion more will illuminate the passage of human progress on Facebook as the multitude pick their noses in 50 languages or record their friends playing Scrumpy Hands (Google it). We are, in short, swamped by a tsunami of photographic imagery every hour, whether we like it or not.

I think a Brian Brake photograph could help us cut through the clutter and reconnect with the wonder of photography and more importantly the subject matter of all great photography: life, the universe and everything.

Before I make my case I have to confess to a conflict of interest. Art+Object, where I can be found at the helm when not venting my spleen in the pages of Idealog, is offering at auction over 60 works from the estate of Brian Brake at auction in December of this year. If you don’t want to read what could amount to a none-too-subtle sales pitch, please turn the page. If on the other hand you want to be persuaded to come and see, in the flesh, some of the most alluring, inspiring and compelling photographs created by a New Zealander, read on. If after having fallen prey to my blandishments you decide you might like to own one, you have at least been well and truly warned.

There is every chance you will have already seen a Brian Brake image. Indian Girl in Early Monsoon Rain is without question one of the few images by a New Zealander to have entered the international photographic lexicon.

Brake (1927–1988) first made his name as a young tyro with Magnum Photos, founded by photojournalist titans such as Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1947. In 1957 Brake blazed his name into legend with an epic cycle of images of Picasso at a bullfight. These were the romantic years of the globetrotting photojournalist: Leica, rolls of film and passport at the ready.

Brake’s CV covers India, a nearly sealed China, Thailand and the Middle East. Wherever he went he patiently sought out and captured achingly beautiful and poignant images that some 50 years later glow not just from the saturated colour of the lost Cibachrome process but from the acuity of a potent photographic eye and a sensitive soul that found humanity in the unlikeliest places.

Perhaps Brake’s finest hour was his series of images of Maori Taonga created for the travelling Te Maori exhibition in 1984, possibly the definitive moment that sparked the renaissance in Maori culture that continues to this day.

These images do something that art rarely does: make you feel proud to be a New Zealander. How’s that for a sales pitch?

Hamish Coney is a director of art auction house Art+Object

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