Friday, May 22, 2009

The art of peering at tiny history

This post is where I will probably upset those who organise art exhibitions which include historic images. I may never be invited to an opening ever again after these comments.

I turned up early last night at the Corbans Estate Art Centre in Henderson, a very fortunate location for a gallery, considering its still lovely heritage exterior, and the history tied in with the Corban family. Heading West as the sun's going down gives me a sense of homecoming, even though I'm actually travelling away from home (Avondale). With stacks of time to pick up a meal on the go, and to check the last time I could catch a train out of the township before the track closed down and rail buses took over for the night, I made my way up the Great North Road, across the old Coronation Bridge (formally opened by John Bollard of Avondale, then MHR for Eden, although there's scarce mention of that usually) and over the level crossing to the arts centre.

The floors inside, although polished and varnished, still show the trails of the long-gone wood worm on some of the boards (but not others. Did the beasties only get so far in their voracious foraging, were some of the boards replaced, or was some of the restoration more successful on one half of a board than the other? The zones of munched versus unmunched seem to be spit down the length of the board, almost as if one part of the timber was a favoured meal over another). The floors are quite sound, though -- as I sat, quietly watching people move around in Brian Marsom's Great North Road photo exhibition, I heard the loud staccato tap-tap footsteps of one woman in winklepickers as she headed from one room to another.

A pity that there were no captions or titles or some other kind of word addition beside Brian's photos. The layout relied solely on people coming in one door (two rooms, so two doors), heading straight for the large typed-out reproduction of J. C. Loch's 1861 letter, reading it, I would imagine, with some of the place names (Henderson's Hill, should have been Henderson's Mill, Glengary in the Grey Lynn area, should have been Glengarry, and Rewa Creek, should have been Rewa Rewa Creek, in bold for easier reading). Then, blue arrows on the floor, punctuated by large red spots, indicated in which direction the viewer should walk. There were small, very small, numbers beside each one -- under electric light, and with my wonky vision, I had a hard time making them out for most of the journey around the room's walls. The explanation, the captions Brian had worked very hard to research and put together, were in the second room, in a plastic wall holder, in the middle of the journey, not the beginning. I listened to the viewers' comments while I was there -- many were trying to guess just what was photographed, and where the photographs were taken. Many viewed the photographs out of sequence, perhaps not realising there even was a sequence, as the arrows and spots were hard to see (but the children there noticed),

Brian's photographs are quite good, and many are taken from angles which do much to capture an essense of the road and its surroundings. I just think more emphasis should have been given to them in the way they were displayed, and his words highlighted a little more than they were.

Across the foyer, another exhibition that night: "Love and Food, the Family Photographs of Bob Raw". The blurb on the Arts Centre website says:
"Bob Raw was twelve years old in 1942 when he and his family moved to a house on Golf Road, New Lynn. He lived there for most of the next fifty years. He was a keen amateur photographer with an interest in recording the social and family environments around him. Proudly supported by Waitakere Library and Information Services.Part of the Auckland Festival of Photography."
These were family photographs, and part of West Auckland's social history. The gallery exhibition however did not enlarge the Box Brownie photos -- instead, they were displayed in a large sea of white, dead centre so the viewer had to peer at them to try to make out the details. To be sure, the purpose of the exhibition was to portray the photographs artistically rather than as a view on the past, perhaps -- but that view would have been enhanced if enlargements of the photos were perhaps alongside the originals. That, to me, would have brought out the wonder of seeing images from 50-60 years ago, out of suburban Auckland. Again, no captions, just the explanatory sheets of paper in a holder at the door. But, I had to remind myself as I left the room, disappointed, this is an art gallery, not a heritage museum. I tend to be an explorer though, not just a viewer.

Saying my farewells to Brian, I headed home again. The walk to the station, catching the evening train, and then walk home at the end was just 50 minutes, if that. Not bad for a public transport system in Auckland.

1 comment:

  1. It seems strange that Bob Raw's photos were displayed in the manner you descrtibe. While they were taken to simply preserve family memories, they now comprise a delightful visual social history of life in the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s. They're competently-taken photos rich with detail and nuance that cry to be "let out" by way of decent-sized enlargements. In many, I found the backgrounds as interesting as the main subject.
    Mrs Raw had the good sense to donate her husband's collection for preservation and while we may quibble about this particular exhibition, at least the images are now kept in a safe place. How many similar collections go into the bin when a family member dies, or get stuffed in a box under the house? In decades to come, I'd venture to suggest that these "mundane" family snaps will be widely appreciated as windows into our past, just as we now cherish, say, photos of bush camps in the Henderson area in the 19th century.