John B. Turner: ‘Q and A’, blog.
John B. Turner was one of the founders of PhotoForum back in 1973. Now he lives in Beijing.
Olivia Lacey: How did you become interested in photography?
John B. Turner: I first took photos with my father’s box brownie when I was about 12 or 13. I’m a self-taught photographer, who learnt from camera clubs, photography magazines, and technical books, like Ansel Adams’s Basic Photo Series, where I discovered the Zone System and previsualisation (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 of things, or disapproval. Photography gave a sense of empowerment and ownership in an uncertain environment.
How did PhotoForum come about?
In bursts of idealism. Forty-five years ago, 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. I wanted to get the blinkers off camera clubs, with their obsession with old-fashioned ideas about pretty pictures, competitions, and awards. Their lack of interest in the history of photography and diverse approaches appalled me. Meanwhile, 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 in the historic value of photography.
I was the Photographer at the National Museum in Wellington then, and writing about photography for New Zealand and Australian magazines and curating exhibitions. It was obvious that we needed a critical, non-commercial magazine to show and talk about New Zealand photography. I’d 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 screening of 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 also 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 and was inspired to quickly start the Photographic Art and History newsletter in May 1970. It became more ambitious and was renamed New Zealand Photography. I 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.
What were some of the highlights of being involved in PhotoForum?
PhotoForum’s mission was educational: to identify, encourage, and challenge independent-minded people to make worthwhile bodies of photographic work, especially, but not exclusively, about life in New Zealand. Along with my university teaching, PhotoForum was an 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. It also encouraged photographers to actively engage in the public risk-taking of critical writing and curatorial practice outside the universities and polytechnics. Seeing people become fully fledged practitioners, with their own exhibitions and publications, was a 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.
In the 1970s, photography wasn’t really considered an art form. Today, as it is taken more seriously, what role does PhotoForum play?
I’m not sure that the buzz created through the pioneering efforts of PhotoForum 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 in making PhotoForum work are now leaders in the field, so we have become part of the new establishment. PhotoForum has by no means fulfilled all its aims as well as it might have, but it has made a difference and can still muster support to neglected areas. We have helped create a critical environment but failed to produce enough critics and historians to cover the field. PhotoForum may not need to create as many exhibitions as it once did, but our role as an independent publisher with a print and web presence will, I think, remain crucial.
‘Lucien Rizos: Q and A’, blog.
Wellington photographer and NZSO violinist Lucien Rizos has been looking through the lens since his teens. His work features in our show History in the Taking.
Olivia Lacey: What inspired you to take up photography?
Lucien Rizos: I was fortunate to grow up in an environment that encouraged all kinds of mucking about with art materials. And that naturally flowed into looking at art. In my teens, my uncle Gerald O’Brien, passed onto me the enlarger he had made for himself as a young man, out of a camera lens and bits and pieces of tape and wood. That, along with a Leica in the family, was a bonus! As for inspiration, the usual suspect—Henri Cartier-Bresson.
When did you first hear about PhotoForum?
I can’t remember, but I have wonderful memories of one or two workshops in the mid-1970s with people who became life-long friends. Also, in the late 1970s, when the NZSO was in Auckland, I would connect with John B. Turner, and be on the receiving end of his sharp intelligence, commenting on my photos. He was generous with his time. Singlehandedly, he made me feel I was doing something worthwhile.
What does PhotoForum mean to you ?
In the early 1970s, PhotoForum Wellington was a place to find idealistic, like-minded people who felt that photography was a relevant medium to give form to our feelings on life. Now PhotoForum means reconnecting with a wonderful community of mature artists.
Your iconic photograph of a boy with a camera, Wellington, 1974 (1974), features in History in the Taking. What’s the story behind the it?
It was made over forty years ago, as I was getting into photography. Back then, the obvious places to find ‘easy’ subject matter was at fairs and parades, as with this picture. I suppose it tells a couple of stories. One is about the nightmare of any photographer: everybody sees exciting and interesting things, except me! Another is about everybody looking around, alert, preoccupied by something else, but the boy is focused on me. Because I was a beginner at this game, I saw myself in the kid and maybe he found something of himself in me.