History in the Talking: 40 Years of PhotoForum opens at City Gallery on Saturday. I talked to co-founder John B Turner, who is now living in Beijing, about the beginnings of PhotoForum, a creative meeting place for New Zealand’s photographic community since 1973.
1. Can you tell us how you first became interested photography?
JBT: I first took photos with my father’s box brownie camera when I was about 12 or 13. I am a self-taught photographer who learnt from camera clubs, photography magazines and technical books like Ansel Adams’ Basic Photo Series, where I discovered the Zone System of photography, previsualization of the image. It's to do with making technical decisions about exposure and development in terms of how you want your final prints to look.
In retrospect, I can see that making photographs allowed me to say things that a shy young man could not put into words. To express desire and approval, or disapproval, of the things I liked and disliked. Photography gave a sense of empowerment and ownership in an uncertain environment.
2. How did PhotoForum come about?
JBT: In bursts of idealism, I had tried to get the blinkers off camera clubs with their obsession for old-fashioned ideas about pretty pictures, competitions and awards. Their lack of interest in the history of photography and diverse approaches appalled me.
The professional photography group only wanted to talk about money and showed little interest in the exciting dialogue about the meaning of photographs and their value in the fields of reportage, documentary and expressive photography. Or the historic value of photographs.
The majority of amateur and professional photographers, no matter how skilled, were out of touch with the images and ideas I was seeing in Popular Photography, Swiss Camera, Aperture, Creative Camera and Artforum magazines 45 years ago. I was the photographer at the National Museum in Wellington then - writing about photography for New Zealand and Australian magazines and curating exhibitions.
It was obvious that we needed a magazine to show and talk about New Zealand photography. A critical non-commercial magazine. I had met Desmond Kelly, head of Social Studies at Wellington Teachers' College, and we decided it was time to go public to see what interest there was in contemporary photography. With screenings films on Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange, borrowed from the National Film Library, we drew around 200 people to one of the events where we showed some original prints, including my newly acquired works by Dave Heath and Edward Weston. The films were a revelation, showing accomplished independent photographers at work - photographers expressing a personal vision.
The journalist, Bruce Weatherall attended our second film evening at the Museum and was inspired to quickly start Photographic Art & History newsletter, in May 1970. It became more ambitious and was renamed New Zealand Photography.
I had wanted a more professional looking magazine but hadn't worked out how to finance it. By 1973, Bruce couldn't sustain New Zealand Photography but the momentum created the opportunity to start a bi-monthly A4 magazine. With the help of Tom Hutchins and Max Oettli, from the Elam School of Fine Arts, and a few others who had attended our Summer workshops, we cobbled together enough money and enthusiasm to start PhotoForum Inc and a 36-page magazine.
Nina Seja captures the details and zeitgeist exceedingly well in her history, PhotoForum at 40: Counterculture, Clusters, and Debate in New Zealand, and, of course it is reflected in the exhibition.
3. What are some of the highlights from being involved in PhotoForum?
JBT: The philosophy of PhotoForum has been educational - how best to identify, encourage and challenge independent-minded people to make worthwhile bodies of work. Especially, but not exclusively, about life in New Zealand.
Along with my university teaching, PhotoForum was an extremely important vehicle for promoting photography as art, not least because it helped put in place the support structure for graduate students needing to share their photography outside the safe walls of academia. PhotoForum also encouraged photographers to actively engage in the public risk-taking of critical writing and curatorial practice, outside of the universities and polytechnics. Seeing people become fully fledged practitioners, with their own exhibitions and publications is reward in itself.
The growth of photography as an academic subject, and the general acceptance of the practice of serious photography today in New Zealand, are part of PhotoForum's success.
4. What are some of your favourite photographs?
JBT. There are far too many - thousands upon thousands - of all kinds! Photography is such a wonderful, crazy, subversive medium, with trillions of images to sift through and more than enough to grab attention and halt the most cursory search in its tracks.
5. In the 70s, photography wasn’t really considered an art form - now that it is taken more seriously, what role does PhotoForum play today?
JBT. I'm not sure that the buzz created through the pioneering efforts of PhotoForum and PhotoForum Wellington in the early days can be recreated. Part of it was caused by the friction generated by challenging the old guard. Today, quite a few of the people involved with making PhotoForum work are now leaders in the field, so they/we have become part of the new establishment, to carry on what we all started.
PhotoForum has by no means fulfilled all of its aims as well as it might have, but it has made a difference and can still muster support to currently neglected areas. We have helped create a critical environment but failed to produce enough critics and historians to better cover the field.
PhotoForum may not need to create so many exhibitions as it once did, but our role as an independent publisher with a print and web presence will, I think, remain crucial.
Olivia Lacey, Publicist
John B Turner