Chief Curator Robert Leonard remembers Peter Peryer.
‘I’m asked often: what are my pictures about? I just don’t think the question computes. It’s like asking what your breakfast is about. It’s like asking what a sunset is about. It’s a left-brain question, whereas art is largely a right-brain activity.’ So explained Peter Peryer, in Greg Stitt’s 1994 documentary Peter Peryer: Portrait of a Photographer.
Peter Peryer died on Sunday, aged 77.
Picking up a camera in the early 1970s, Peryer rapidly became New Zealand’s most important artist-photographer. His work played a key role in the recognition of the medium in the New Zealand art world and particularly in the New Zealand art market.
Peryer was famously ‘directorial’, often previsualising and setting up his images, even though it looked like he could have stumbled across them. His 1991 photo Trap, showing a possum caught in a trap, was based on a found image he thought he could better. He had to kill several possums in order to get it. With the first few, the tail just wasn’t right.
Peryer seldom worked in series, preferring to make unique images of specific subjects—his definitive image of this or that. Despite their eccentricity, his images spoke to one another through rhymes of topic and treatment. He said his images resembled one another like family members. They all fitted into an overall vision, a Peryer-verse.
An autodidact with an obsessive turn of mind, Peryer often seemed in thrall to his subject matter, which was odd because his work was so him. He may have jettisoned self portraiture early, but his work was always a kind of diary, a mind map, with himself as its ultimate reference point.
Peryer’s work regularly featured in City Gallery’s programme. He was a key figure in Greg Burke’s game-changing show Imposing Narratives: Beyond the Documentary in Recent New Zealand Photography in 1989. With Peter Weiermair, Burke curated Peryer’s 1995 touring survey show Second Nature, co-produced by City Gallery and Frankfurter Kunstverein. Its catalogue remains one of the most beautiful photo books ever. Its controversial cover image of a dead steer was included in our show This Is New Zealand, earlier this year.
Today, we join with everyone else to recognise Peter Peryer—to claim our place in his story, his place in ours.
—Robert Leonard, Chief Curator