John Daly-Peoples, ‘New Zealand Photographers Peter Peryer and Fiona Pardington Dazzle in German Debut’, National Business Review, 12 May 1995. Excerpt.
Frankfurt in winter seems a fitting place to see the black-and-white photographs of Peter Peryer, one of New Zealand’s premier photographers.
Mr Peryer’s exhibition Second Nature is a major retrospective of the photographer’s work. That it is being held in Germany says much about his international reputation, which has been growing over the past decade. His photographs are now in many Australian Gallery collections as well as the Biblioteque Nationale in Paris.
Mr Peryer sees this exhibition and the forthcoming Aachen and Berlin shows as a chance for him to expand his reputation and sales in Europe.
Second Nature showing at the Frankfurter Kunstverein together with the other New Zealand exhibition, Cultural Safety, has been made possible by the Arts Council of New Zealand, City Gallery (Wellington), Air New Zealand and the New Zealand Tourism Board.
Mr Peryer’s exhibition features more than 50 of his works, spanning nearly 20 years. They document both a life and a society. They speak about things which are quintessentially New Zealand but they also hint at a viewpoint which sees things from alien perspectives.
David Edding of the Tourist Board said such exhibitions were a great help. ‘They help broaden New Zealand’s image in the marketplace. We know there is a high percentage of German tourists interested in art and museums and culture.’
‘The exhibitions are a means of getting to that group of the German public in a way that we never have never tried before. We are exposing the niche market to another side of New Zealand. This also complements, and rounds out the clean, green image we have—what we are showing is a cultured international side and the values we are talking about are contemporary, innovative and leading edge.’
The poster advertising the show has a dead cow lying on its side at the edge of a country road. The legs jut out in rigor mortis. It could be some large advertising model or something from a fairground. But the horde of flies around the face and the chewed ears attest to it being real.
We could all tell a story about the fate of the steer—the accident, the fall from a truck. We understand the ways of the country. But to the German audience this is about mad-cow disease, even English-cow disease. The cow is seen as a political event, an ecological disaster.
This is not the wry wit of a New Zealander but a serious confrontation of issues.
Peter Weiemair of the Frankfurter Kunstverein believes Peter Peryer is an important photographer.
‘His way of looking at the world and his use of photography is unique. I have been gratified to see and hear people acknowledging the different layers of his work’, he said.
‘There is the sophistication of the image but they also recognize his affection for nature, for simple things. People are also surprised that this is his complete body of work … that a photographer over a 20-year period is taking very few images.
‘For me this makes him a concrete photographer like a concrete poet, someone dealing with a limited vocabulary.’
My Peryer acknowledges the strange quality of his photographs. ‘The photos are ambiguous. There is an illusion which is intensified by them being in black-and-white.
‘If the works were in colour, it would be easy to identify what they were; they would be self-explanatory.’
Mr Peryer withholds information or manipulates information, not to confuse the viewer but rather to heighten and concentrate the image. He disguises the information, as in the picture of the rocks in the crater of One Tree Hill. He changes the scale of a playground map in New Zealand so that we appear to be looking at the land from 10,000m above.
He creates narratives or stories which have no resolution, as in the Alligator striding across a lawn. He plays with our sense of time and history in Engine Leaving Glen Innes Tunnel.
With some of his work, there is a sense that Mr Peryer is photographing the object in another but similar place.
This sense of otherness causes the rift between the two conflicting images we often see—one the photographic image, the other the visual idea conveyed by the image.
In House, the photograph is of a model house set in meticulous scale-model trees and stones. We initially view the photograph as an ordinary two-storyed English country house.
Even when we know the truth of the photograph, we have difficulty comprehending the deception.
This idea of deception links to the idea of the photographer as some sort of magician, the creator of illusions.
We are both delighted by the illusion and at the same time attempt to explain it, to justify the distortion of reality.
It is in the reconciling of the artifice and realism that Mr Peryer captures us.
We begin by thinking he is honest and straightforward and end up convinced that he has duped us. He makes us doubt things.
Gordon Campbell, ‘Art Gets a Bad Steer’, Listener, 10 June 1995.
Should we refuse to screen Once Were Warriors overseas—just in case foreigners might think that we are a nation of wife-beaters? The absurdity of this line of reasoning doesn’t seem to have dawned on Agriculture minister John Falloon or the Meat Board, who have hit the roof over a poster being used to promote an important art exhibition in Germany by New Zealand photographer Peter Peryer. The image of a dead steer on the poster, they have leapt to assume, will create bad associations in German minds with English mad-cow disease and poor animal welfare practices. Our farm trade to Germany could suffer!
There is no evidence that any Germans have made a similar leap of logic. Our beef trade to Germany is not large. Moreover, the offending poster features Peryer’s name, but does not mention New Zealand. Undaunted, the Meat Board has lobbied MPs, and written to the show’s New Zealand sponsors to ensure it doesn’t happen again. According to Meat Board spokesperson Eirwen Tulett, the board has received a sympathetic letter from Wellington mayor Fran Wilde—relevant because of the Wellington City Gallery’s role in helping plan the show.
Meanwhile, Falloon wrote a letter of complaint to his colleague, Cultural Affairs minister Doug Graham, and rallied enough Cabinet support to stampede our diplomats overseas into lowering the profile of their support for the exhibition. According to a Ministry of External Relations and Trade spokesperson, the staff at our embassy in Bonn will now merely attend the exhibition at Aachen, but not open it.
Thus, an important cultural showcase, which has been four years in the planning, has been jeopardised. The Arts Council says that evidence of strong government support for the exhibition is crucial to success with key German art promoters such as the Ludwig Forum. As Arts Council chief executive Peter Quin says, the ‘mad cow’ connection is purely a New Zealand response. Given the diplomatic backdown, he adds, the furore may end up creating the very connection in German minds that the Meat Board is dreading.
One can only sympathise with the Tourism Board. The board was trying to inform Germans, says spokesperson Chris Ryan, that there was more to New Zealand than just bungy jumping and other forms of adventure tourism. That is why it chose to support the Peryer show—and also the simultaneous Cultural Safety exhibition that features many exciting young New Zealand artists. The Germans, Ryan repeats, are a sophisticated art audience. ‘That is why we needed to feature a collection of strong images of the debates taking place here on biculturalism and other issues …’
Why, then, did the Ministry of Foreign Relations and Trade behave in such a kneejerk fashion—one bound to make this country look like hicksville in Germany? According to a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs minister Don McKinnon, the decision to have a lower diplomatic presence was not made by McKinnon—but by ‘senior management’ within the ministry, who advised the Bonn Embassy of the concerns held in ‘certain sectors’ at home, and then left it up to them to work out a response.
To date, there has there been a deafening silence from Doug Graham. On the face of it, the Meat Board should have been told to naff off. After all, section 7(i) of the new arts legislation requires the authorities ‘to uphold and promote the rights of artists and the right of persons to freedom in the practice of the arts’.
The Meat Board, Tulett insists, is not anti-art, or anti-photography. It just wishes the poster image had not been used. Beyond that, it seems reluctant to examine its own logic. Let’s suppose that an American artist such as Georgia O’Keefe painted a cow’s skull lying in the Arizona desert. Would any rational person take this as a statement about poor bovine irrigation on US farms? ‘I’m not’, Tulett says, ‘going to get into an argument about this.’
There is a wider issue. Increasingly, the government is backing away from arts funding and leaving it to the business sector. In future, will only the art that creates a positive brand image for New Zealand be acceptable to sponsors and diplomats? There is a tension here, Quin agrees. Art cannot be tailored to fit some export drive or corporate logo. ‘It shouldn’t be reduced to that level. Art is something that transcends those considerations, I think.’
Mike Houlahan, ‘Provocative Images of the Commonplace’, Evening Post, 13 May 1996. Excerpt.
Photographer Peter Peryer says he hasn’t courted controversy. It’s just that his works seem to attract unusual and unexpected reactions. A minor flap arose in 1991 when a nude work, My Torso, a work featuring exactly that, was removed from an exhibition of contemporary New Zealand art at the National Gallery.
Last year, though, Peryer made nationwide headlines when the meat industry felt the image of a very dead cow in Peryer’s photograph Dead Steer, part of the Second Nature exhibition which was on show in Germany at the time, would raise the spectre of mad cow disease in the minds of viewers of the work. The New Zealand Charge D’Affaires was scheduled to open the exhibition in Aachen but was instructed to attend in an unofficial capacity only.
‘I’ve never sought scandal, I’m not that sort of person’, Peryer, who has been selected to represent New Zealand at the 1996 Sydney Biennale, says. ‘I’m actually quite a conciliatory type of person. I certainly wouldn’t do something just to create controversy. What happened with the cow photo was completely unexpected.’
The exhibition had already shown at one of the venues with no adverse reaction whatsoever.
‘If nothing else, it did serve to show the power of the photograph.’ Second Nature is now on show at the City Gallery, allowing Wellington audiences a retrospective look at the career of an artist described as one of New Zealand’s finest photographers.
Peter Turner, ‘Peryer Transforms Ordinary Subjects’, Evening Post, 29 May 1996.
Exhibition curator Gregory Burke describes Peter Peryer as a “photographer’s photographer”. What Burke signals is a subtlety in the work that might be lost on non-photographers—flourishes, nuances, ways of picturing through the camera that exploit the kinds of idiosyncrasy that artists love. There is another side to a photographer like Peter Peryer: knowing where you come from, a sense of history.
Peryer, who has been photographing for 20 years, is an unashamed modernist. Like some latter-day Edward Weston or August Sander, he involves himself in the act of looking. And he does it with intensity. Peryer makes pictures of ‘things’. They are sometimes animals, sometimes people, sometimes bits of Meccano or landscapes. Whatever the subject matter, when translated into a photograph and objectified, these ‘things’ become monumental. They are transformed from their everydayness into specimens subject to scrutiny and evaluation.
Being a photographer, Peryer knows a thing or two about time—those fractions of a second during which a photograph is made. He suspends it, leaves it dangling, makes it ambiguous. The same is true of his handling space—it’s odd and doesn’t quite add up. Which makes one look even harder at his pictures. They are puzzles constructed from the bits and pieces of a quiet normality which we have forgotten to examine in the race to gain cheap thrills through a multi-media experience.
Peryer’s exhibition is a retrospective. We should nurture and cherish our artists, but this one needs an editor. The show contains some of the best photographs made in New Zealand for many years, but it does have its share of indifferent works. They say little about anything and substitute style for substance. That said the exhibition design is extraordinarily good.
Mike Houlahan, ‘NZ Officials Steer Clear of Dead Beast in Art Show’, Evening Post, 26 May 1995.
New Zealand officials in Germany have declined to open a major Kiwi art exhibition because meat exporters fear a photo of a dead steer would affect trade. The charge d’affaires in Bonn was to have opened the exhibition in Aachen on the Ambassador’s behalf but was instructed to attend in an unofficial capacity only. Such is the sensitivity about the impact on German meat buyers of the dead steer picture, which is the main image on the exhibition catalogue and posters.
The Post understands alarm bells rang when someone suggested the photo raised the spectre of mad cow disease. Photographer Peter Peryer’s picture shows the dead steer in an advanced state of rigor mortis beside a rural road in Waikato.
After representations from the meat industry, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade contacted the New Zealand Embassy in Bonn and said it should consider how it was represented at the exhibition opening.
A German art administrator visiting Wellington this week said New Zealand’s perceptions of Germany was ridiculous.
‘The image is not appalling. People are open minded and the public are educated enough to understand what the work is about’, said Armin Zweite, director of the North Rhine Westphalia Museum.
The Embassy decided to attend the opening but not officiate.
New Zealand Ambassador to Germany Gerry Thompson said no adverse reaction had been brought to the Embassy’s attention, but that was not to say there hadn’t been any. ‘We are very supportive of New Zealand artists. It’s unfortunate that the picture chosen may have been open to misinterpretation by some as reflecting upon New Zealand agricultural produce.’
The Peryer works, along with a show of contemporary video art and Cultural Safety, works by seven New Zealand Artists, are being shown in Frankfurt, Berlin, and Aachen.
Curator Gregory Burke says the exhibitions, a joint venture between the Arts Council of New Zealand Toi Aotearoa, the City Gallery, Air New Zealand and the Tourism Board, are the most significant of contemporary New Zealand art ever staged in Europe and have drawn good attendances and favourable reviews.
Jane Phare, ‘Peryer Perspective’, Herald, 27 May 1995.
There’s a bizarre element to Peter Peryer and his photographs. Not that he would agree. He thinks it’s quite normal to drive along a country lane and see an art image in a bloated dead steer lying feet up.
He’ll be inspired by this carcass waiting to be hauled off to the meat-rendering plant. He’ll spend time peering at it through his camera lens, money having black and white proof sheets developed, more time peering at them through a magnifying glass.
Often Peryer goes through this process and nothing happens. The photograph never sees the light of day; it doesn’t have ‘the X factor’.
The proof sheet has to pass a Peryer test, one that he can’t explain. He describes it as a ‘built-in Geiger counter’.
‘There is some sort of radiation which comes off the right picture.’ The photograph that says ‘Here I am Peter’ hits him in the eye with an intensity that is for Peryer undefinable and inarguable.
In this case the dead-steer photograph appealed. ‘Call me sick if you like but I find that humorous.’
The photograph appealed to the German psyche as well. The dead steer was chosen to grace the front of Second Nature, a publication complementing a solo exhibition of Peryer’s photographs which opens next week at the Ludwig Forum, a major German museum in Aachen, near the Belgian border.
As well the steer was used on a German poster promoting the exhibition, a move which may have been appreciated by the art world but did not go down well in agriculture and trade circles in Wellington. They were appalled at the photograph, claiming it will harm New Zealand’s clean green image and hinder our meat trade with Europe.
The ripples reached the New Zealand Embassy in Bonn. An embassy representative was due to officiate at the opening of Peryer’s exhibition but an instruction from Wellington now means the embassy presence will be more low key.
Peryer can’t understand what all the fuss is about.
Well, he’s a country boy—grew up in the Far North. And he loves animals, including the creepy crawlies—cockroaches and spiders. And rats are okay too. Not the sort of-person to have fifteen cats at home but keen enough to talk of ‘humans and non-humans’.
‘It is true to say I am interested in the outcasts of the animal world … like maggots. They’ve had bad press.’
Peryer’s dark, brooding face creases into laughter at his own joke. But he’s quite serious when he talks about his latest quest, to capture a fiercely strong image of a prize bull. It means hanging about stud farms and walking (carefully) around farm paddocks.
Still serious he says: ‘The only other artist I know who has worked with bulls is Picasso.’
Peryer’s fascination with bulls is evident in a documentary, Peter Peryer: Portrait of a Photographer, which screens this weekend. Producer Trevor Haysom and director Greg Stitt have captured the bizarre element of their subject with some bizarre camera work—distorted black and white images of the giant stud Ragnarok making threatening charges towards the photographer; more distorted images of a bull mounting a cow (which turns out to be a steer), merging with the now famous dead-steer photograph. All this before the viewer is even told what or who they are looking at.
For a photographer, Peryer takes surprisingly few photographs—maybe 10 to 20 rolls of film a year. From those rolls might come half a dozen, maybe 10, images a year selling—to collectors of Peryer’s work—for $2000 a limited-number print.
Peryer is used to the unspoken question, ‘What else do you do?’, evident on friends’ faces when they realise the numbers of Peryer photographs which are produced each year. ‘People would not be at all surprised if I was an artist producing 10 paintings a year.’
They’re even more surprised to discover that he hasn’t covered every waking moment of the lives of his daughter, Amy aged 28, and son Clovis, 26. Family snaps are few and far between. Odd really considering he grew up with a father who took photographs and 8mm home movies constantly.
Odder still, Peryer didn’t even own a camera when he became interested in photography at the mature age of 32. He was teaching in the Bay of Islands and become involved in the school camera club.
Among his first subjects was his wife, Erika. She loved dressing up and being photographed. He needed a willing model.
Back in the 1970s, he took a series of pictures of Erika which are dark and moody. In one, Erika, Winter 1979, she wears black and her face looks cold, her expression grim. In another, taken in 1982, her face is a blur, only one eye visible in a frame of dark hair. Then Peryer lost interest in the human form and has rarely photographed people since.
He made an exception for Erika’s 50th birthday portrait this year. He took her up to the top of Devonport’s Mt Victoria, on a cold and windy day. Those watching this photocall, filmed in the documentary, could be forgiven for thinking the chilly scene is Wellington’s Mt Victoria. But Erika enters into the spirit of the occasion, laughingly trying to control uncontrollable hair while Peryer captures the images with his camera.
Clovis too is used to his father’s creative spirit. The Meccano Bus photograph took18 months to come together and Clovis, a lawyer, got his hands dirty helping to recreate a chunk of his father’s childhood.
Peryer wanted to use the red and green Meccano of his boyhood (even though the photograph is black and white) and, after locating a collector, asked for a bus to be built, just like the one which took him to school each day.
Then he had to find a mound of clay from which to build a hillside and narrow, un-sealed road for the little bus to struggle up. Clovis got down in the dirt with his father, scraping, shoving and patting until Peryer was satisfied.
We see the image which Peryer has carried in his mind for so long take shape in the documentary. Peryer moves in with his camera. The resulting image is among those being shown in Germany, a retrospective exhibition covering20 years of Peryer’s work.
Sometimes his photographs are not so planned. He literally, stumbles across them. A stroll along Muriwai Beach during a sand sculpture competition produced an ominous sand-shark picture. A photograph of an opossum, the front half of its torso, caught in a box trap, is sudden and startling.
It’s Peryer’s preference for black-and-white photography which adds drama to the images. A simple map of New Zealand, painted on the concrete playground of Balmoral Intermediate, takes on the look of satellite photograph taken high above the Earth.
He likes textures, patterns, and uniformity. A 1983 series of photographs shows neat lines of jam doughnuts in one, neenish tarts in another, slices of jam roll in another. The uniform lines of boats at Auckland’s Westhaven marina intrigue him.
An interest in yoga produced a proof sheet of contorted body shapes two years ago but so far the right image has eluded him. Peryer says he has yet to capture through his lens the elegance and beauty of yoga done well. Only a single hand, pressed flat against a wall with the arm bent back at a double-jointed angle, made it beyond the proof stage.
The photograph was chosen to feature on the menu cover for an Auckland restaurant but beyond that Peryer is singularly uncommercial. He knows he should get cracking on this aspect, ‘marketing and all that’. He was astounded to see Anne Geddes merchandise on sale in Germany.
We are never likely to see Peter Peryer gift cards and notepaper but who knows, he shrugs, maybe T-shirts, postcards, posters perhaps.
Patrick Smith, ‘Partners in Art’, Next, n.d.
The portrait of the artist’s wife shows a grim, even tortured woman. Standing before a grey concrete wall, she stares unsmilingly at the viewer, one stark white hand clutching a black jacket to her body.
Dark nights of the soul? Well, no—as Erika Parkinson reveals in a new documentary film about her husband, photographer Peter Peryer, her pose was due more to climate than despair. ‘The angst is just the cold’, she says with a smile. ‘I just wanted to go home. There’s nothing deeper to it than that!’
Fifteen years on, there’s no time for angst. On Boxing Day Erika and Peter celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary; they’ve just moved house; in February a documentary, Peter Peryer: Portrait of an Artist, will show on television; in April Peter has a major one-man exhibition at a prestigious German museum, and the same month Second Nature, a book on his work, will be published in Zurich (an edition in English will be released here later in the year).
Erika, Peter’s one-time model whose striking looks helped establish his artistic credentials, has just left her job as head of the French department at Waitakere College to help market Peter’s photographs to an international audience suddenly hungry for them.
Peter admits those early portraits of Erika said more about his own state of mind than about hers. ‘Someone did say that they’re like stills from some movie I was involved in at the time, some passion play I was enacting’, he laughs. ‘My work is very autobiographical, I’m sure. It’s a kind of photo-therapy. In the Seventies it was quite heavy on angst, quite moody.’
His final choice from the many photographs he’d take at a sitting was rarely Erika’s. ‘I’d think, “can’t we have that one, I look much prettier in that one”’, she says. ‘But no. That was Peter’s choice.’
It was natural, though, that he would want to use her in his pictures—‘because she was available, I thought she was beautiful, we had a good relationship and, above all, she loves being photographed!’
Erika quickly confirms this assessment. ‘I’ve always loved posing, even as a little girl. I’m very keen on dressing up and Peter would say, “Ooh I’d like to photograph you like that”.’
The recent ‘discovery’ of his work by the Frankfurter Kuntstverein museum’s contemporary art curator, Peter Weiermair, confirms Peter as an artist of international standing. For Erika it vindicates the faith she’s shown in his talent over the last 20 years. Long before his pictures began to command today’s high prices (up to $2500 a print), Erika worked at all kinds of jobs so he could focus on his art.
‘I think basically I believed in Peter enough to keep doing it’, she says.
On overseas trips provided by Arts Council grants or a Fullbright Scholarship, the couple would visit galleries and museums looking at art, including great photography. ‘I always felt Peter had something unique to offer; that his point of view, his images, hadn’t been seen before’, Erika says. ‘I’m not at all averse to being married to a famous artist!’
It’s not easy being married to any artist, though, as Peter admits: ‘I would have been difficult to live with in those days. I was a hot-head. I had quite a temper, I’d bang things, throw things, shout …’
‘And I was so committed to my work that I would pursue it regardless of any financial reward; often at financial cost! I had a single-mindedness about my photography when there was really no market or anything.’
Money has been tight throughout their marriage but, more than that, Erika has watched Peter’s absorption in his work while struggling to find her own creative voice.
‘It was sort of at the rise of feminism and people would turn to me and say severely, “and what do you do?”, and I’d feel inadequate because I didn’t feel that I had anything in particular that I could call my own’, she says, sitting on the bed in the room she now keeps as her own.
‘And that went on for years—me feeling bad about that side of things. I thought, bugger, why couldn’t I marry someone who was rich?’
Erika has vivid memories of the first time she saw Peter. She was barely 18. ‘It was in the cloisters at university. I saw this man coming towards me and I thought, ‘wow’! At the time I was reading The Brothers Karamazov and he reminded me of the brother who was the monk because he had very zealous eyes—burning eyes.’
‘We were like magnets right from the very beginning’, Peter agrees. ‘And really we’ve been like that ever since. In fact our relationship’s got deeper and deeper as the time’s gone by.’
When they finally met, ‘by the lockers outside the library’, they talked non-stop. ‘It must have been an hour’, Erika laughs. ‘A lecture went in and out while we kept talking.’ They were married two years later, on Boxing Day, 1964.
After university Erika went to teachers college and Peter worked as a labourer to pay off a section they’d bought on Auckland’s North Shore, where they soon built a house. Their daughter, Amy—now an occupational therapist—was born in 1967, followed 17 months later by son Clovis (who is now a lawyer).
Peter eventually completed a master’s degree in education. Relief teaching, which was plentiful in those days, sustained them for many years as they sampled the country lifestyle in the Hokianga and at Russell in the Bay of Islands. While Erika looked after the children, Peter taught at nearby schools—until one day, feeling dissatisfied with his life, he called for a change of roles.
‘I remember Peter saying “I haven’t got a clue what I want to do but I want you to make the money for a while”’, says Erika. ‘I thought, “oh dear”, but I couldn’t think of a rational reason why not.’
She now looks back on that move as a decisive moment. ‘Peter pushed me into independence. I’m grateful for that.’
She taught at Kawakawa and Moerewa schools while Peter stayed home and looked after the children. And became involved in photography, a passion he discovered through a chance meeting with Feilding-born photographer Paul Hewson. He went on a photographic workshop and, at 32, experienced something akin to a religious conversion.
While they were at Russell the opportunity came up to live on a Fijian island. They packed up the kids and the wok and headed off, but they soon discovered their new home was not the island paradise they’d expected. ‘It was completely uninhabited, infested with mosquitoes and surrounded by sea snakes’, laughs Erika. ‘We lasted 24 hours.’
They stayed on in Fijian villages for a couple of months, then returned to Auckland. On the way out of Fiji, Peter bought his first camera, duty-free.
Back in New Zealand, their marriage was going through a stormy period and they became part of the burgeoning human potential movement. They joined intensive encounter groups and generally put themselves and their relationship under the microscope.
‘I think that period was immensely helpful for us, although it was often very painful at the time’, Erika says. ‘Finding out you’re not the perfect person you thought you were. Ooh. Dear.’
They moved to Devonport, where they bought a big house divided into four flats. ‘The idea was that the rent from the other three flats would be part of Peter’s income so that he could continue to explore photography while I kept on doing relieving work’, says Erika.
It was during that time that Peter took a series of portraits of Erika. He built a darkroom. Prints lay around the house and hung from the walls. With evidence of his creative obsession all around her, Erika was looking for something to satisfy her own creative juices.
‘I became very involved with my own development and I made everyone else take turns with the cooking and cleaning while I took off every Saturday to tai-chi, mime or drama, painting or whatever it was I was doing at the time.’
She continued to work, taking a clerical job at Elam art school and then becoming a librarian at Auckland Central Library. Her search for the artist within, meanwhile, wasn’t getting far, while Peter’s work was beginning to attract critical attention.
‘I remember being with our friends (Wellington curators) Jim and Mary Barr and them saying to me, “it must be quite hard for you when you see work of this quality to say f..k you, I’m going to take time off now,”’ she says. ‘And it was, because I didn’t really have anything to put in its place that I was burning to do.’
On her 40th birthday, she changed her name back from Peryer to her maiden Parkinson. ‘Peter had given me a printing set—I was interested in typography—and I sat down and made my name: Erika Jane Parkinson. I thought, “my goodness, I’ve written Parkinson instead of Peryer”.’
Peter was encouraging. ‘I thought it was more sexy going to bed with Ms Parkinson than Mrs Peryer’, he laughs.
Five years ago, after landing a relieving job teaching French at Waitakere College, Erika found her passion at last—the French language. It was a subject she’d taken at university, rekindled after a trip to New Caledonia and now developed until finally she became head of department. A couple of years ago she visited Paris for the first time and found ‘one of the most beautiful places I’d ever been to’.
Now she’s put that part of her life on hold for a year while she invests her energies in Peter’s international career—and their new life on Herald Island. It will be a chance, too, she says, ‘to see who I am without my job; it’s been very much me for the past five years’.
And to travel. After Germany, five of Peter’s works will be touring Australia during the year and negotiations are underway for a new show in Barcelona.
Meanwhile, Peter put Erika back in front of the camera for her 50th birthday. It was another cold day, this time on Devonport’s Mt Victoria—and this time in colour—20 years since he’d last photographed her in the same spot.
‘I felt really inspired’, he says. ‘And I’d like to do more. I feel ready to do some serious colour portraits of Erika. I’m starting to see some photographs which will only work in colour.’
Tim Heron, ‘A True Picture’, Pacific Way, [March, n.d.]. Excerpt.
Peryer’s childhood experiences have played no small part in his view of the world seen through his photographs. Born in South Auckland on a dairy farm, by the age of four he had shifted north to the Hokianga, where his parents had bought the Taheke Hotel. After a few years the family moved to another country pub at Ohaeawai in the Bay of Islands.
Those were the days before motels, when anyone needing accommodation in the area put up at the local pub. A procession of characters stayed under their roof, from commercial travellers to district judges and Catholic priests. ‘We always had guests,’ he says. ‘We had some very vivid characters, some rascals of commercial travellers; it was never dull.’ One regular visitor was the Great Benyon, a travelling magician with a small troupe of performers who delighted the young Peter by sawing his sister in half.
Country pubs usually had land attached to them and Peryer grew up around a menagerie of animals—dogs, horses, ducks, geese, chickens, cows, turkeys—and it is obvious from his photographs that he is still fascinated by them. ‘It’s been quite significant, my country upbringing’, he reflects. ‘I’ve certainly been exposed to animals a lot. I love other species—spiders, rats, cockroaches …’
And all kinds of creatures have featured in his pictures over the years: roosters, deer, kangaroos, dead fish, penguins, dogs, bulls, a steer (dead and stiff beside a Waikato road), alligators, a sea elephant photographed during a trip to Campbell Island …
But whether his subjects are people, animals, plants or inanimate objects, they are all treated with an objective respect: in his photographs, at least, Peryer is no sentimentalist. His approach is scientific rather than romantic (at university he began a medical degree before switching to English and later taking a master’s in education). Photography, he now reasons, was the perfect medium of expression for someone like him, because ‘in many ways photography has a science father and an art mother; it’s a combination of the two’.
The pictures which first attracted attention, however, were taken with a very primitive piece of technology: a cheap plastic camera called a Diana, which sold in toy shops for a couple of dollars. It produced moody, expressionistic pictures that suited Peryer’s style of the period, which was, he says now, ‘heavy on the angst’.
Among those early photographs were portraits of Erika, his wife, whom he married 30 years ago and who has never lost faith in his work, despite lean times and the need to work during most of their life together to help support his talent. Today, Peryer considers those early Diana works ‘crucial’ to his career but admits he quickly felt restricted by the limited scope of the camera. ‘I felt it became a mannerism and I had to get away from it’, he says. ‘Now I take photographs with a very expensive German camera—but they don’t look too different.’
Don’t ask Peter Peryer what his work is about. As he says in the documentary: ‘I just don’t think that question computes. It’s liking asking what your breakfast is about; it’s like asking what the sunset is about. In many ways I think it’s a left-brain question, whereas art is largely a right-brain activity. It just does not compute.’
Better, perhaps, to ask what his work is not about. ‘My work is nonpolitical. It’s not really about any issues. It’s not about conservation, it’s not about feminism. My work just does not have a political basis.’ Perhaps that’s why it is so effective. Truth has nothing to do with politics—and its language can be understood anywhere in the world.