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The activist: Marti Friedlander

15 November 2016

On November 14, one of New Zealand’s most-acclaimed photographers, Marti Friedlander, passed away at the age of 88. We delved into the D-Photo archive to find the article written by Tim Grey that we published about Marti and her career back in  2009. 

When Marti Friedlander is gripped by an idea, there’s no question of coming between her and its execution. Marti moves quickly and with uncommon determination to investigate whatever has aroused her curiosity, which, more often than not, is a person. 

When Marti speaks, she does so with the same unwavering force and direction. People don’t always take it well. 

Marti Friedlander

“I think a lot of it is that I’m an opinionated woman,” she explains. “I’m out there, I’m confident, and they’re not confident.”

Few would argue that she hasn’t earned it. After almost 50 years of making photographs that have helped both define and complicate how New Zealanders see themselves and their land, an acclaimed documentary and a national exhibition, Marti Friedlander is a household name. She’s made portraits of practically every prominent New Zealander and her work on Michael King’s landmark book Moko remains as sharp and vital today as it was in 1972.

This month, a new book by art historian Leonard Bell, Marti Friedlander, will offer unprecedented insight into the photographer and her work. 

Marti Friedlander

Professor Bell’s interest in Marti’s photography dates back to the very beginning of her career.
“I saw totally by chance — and I can’t claim to remember this particularly well — her first exhibition, which was in Symonds Street at a place called the Wynyard Tavern,” says Professor Bell, who recalls the Tavern as “quite a place” that often featured “satirical cabaret”.

Although Professor Bell and Marti have known each other since the mid-1970s, the idea for the book was born after he wrote an article in response to a 2001 Auckland Art Gallery retrospective of her work. In 2006 he began sorting through the vast archive of more than 50,000 of Marti’s images and negatives held by the gallery, and was surprised by what he found.

“So much emerged that I’d never seen. The diversity of her work really struck me,” says Bell, who chose images that were developed and printed by Marti herself, unlike the photographs developed exclusively for the exhibition. “It’s aimed to show a very different Marti photograph.”
At the centre of the book is a close reading of each of the images, discussing them within the context of the photographer’s life. 

Marti Friedlander

“I’ve done it because I’ve got a deep commitment to getting the richness of her work out there into the world,” Bell says. “I hope people look closely.”

Marti appears satisfied with the end result.

“The thing I love about this book that’s coming out from Auckland University Press is that Len understands why I took the photographs,” she says.  “Not many artists can say they’ve got that kind of perceptive understanding and insight; I’m really grateful.”

Marti’s achievement was never a foregone conclusion. Born in London’s East End in 1928, she was placed in an orphanage at the age of three. She’s frank when she discusses her origins, but doesn’t linger over the details.

Marti Friedlander

“I’ve known poverty. I’ve known what it is to be really hungry,” says Marti. “The reason I don’t make a big deal about it is because I believe in getting on with life.”

This resolve was put into action from an early age. She first studied photography as a teenager after being awarded a trade scholarship, and later attended art school. Despite her love of painting, she gaily admits that she “singularly lacks any idea of perspective”. 

Abandoning art school and in need a regular wage, Marti found work in the studio of Douglas Glass and Gordon Crocker, two of London’s leading photographers. The young Marti turned out to be an exceptionally skilled darkroom technician and earned a reputation as one of London’s finest retouchers. Glass observed that she could produce an image from a blank negative.
She loved her work and her bedsit, and she loved London, where she revelled in the vibrant bohemian lifestyle literally at her doorstep. The idea of leaving the darkroom to get behind a camera never occurred to her.

“I had no idea when I was working as their assistant. I used to develop their negatives and enlarge them and I loved the darkroom,” she says. “Never did it cross my mind that I would be a photographer.”

Marti Friedlander

Nor did it cross her mind to leave the UK for New Zealand — at least not until a handsome young Kiwi dentist turned up at her door. Gerrard Friedlander, whom Marti had only ever spied in a photograph taken by a friend, dropped in unannounced while visiting London for the first time. The bolshy move was prescient, as the two were soon married and setting out across Europe on the back of a scooter.

While the couple have been inseparable to this day, Marti admits feeling some trepidation when Gerrard proposed. “I hesitated about marrying Gerrard because I loved my job. I knew that if I married Gerrard and went to New Zealand that it would be hard for me to find that sort of job satisfaction.”

As it turned out, Marti was right to feel hesitant. She remembers her first few years in New Zealand as the unhappiest of her life.

“I had been part of a very bohemian community in London. Imagine what it was like to live in Henderson!” she jovially exclaimed to a recent gathering of photographers. 

While Gerrard ran a dental clinic, the only chance Marti had to ply her craft in the darkroom was as a nurse, developing photographs of teeth. Feeling increasingly isolated, she tried to fit in by playing the model wife, cooking and preserving fruit. In 1963, Marti and Gerrard suffered a miscarriage.

“It was the most traumatic three years of my life,” says Marti. “You have to get on with life, and I’m the sort of person who does. I said to Gerrard after we’d been overseas, ‘When we get back to New Zealand, I’m going to be a photographer.’”

Marti Friedlander

After returning from Israel, Marti was true to her word. She began shooting portraits of her sister-in-law’s children with a simple Voigtlander camera. Photography became a powerful new tool for Marti to perceive and evaluate the unfamiliar world around her.

“My art was a necessity to try to understand why I had been so unhappy,” she says. “I needed to photograph New Zealand to understand why my response to this empty, rather desolate land had affected me so. And to seek out people, because it wasn’t really that empty.”
Professor Bell considers Marti’s position as an outsider to be one of the great strengths of her photography. 

“She’s moved around quite a lot, not just physically but culturally and socially. [Immigrants] often see in ways, and see things in a place, which people who have always lived among it don’t really see,” he explains. “She was coming to her New Zealand subjects with a very astute and different eye to the New Zealand-born.”

Marti agrees that her vantage point was of real benefit photographically.
“People tend to take the country they grow up in for granted. Nothing seems particularly fantastic,” she says, noting that for her, everything New Zealanders thought was ordinary was utterly extraordinary.

In fact, to Kiwis at the time, the camera itself seemed extraordinary, not least with Marti standing behind it. When she first started asking people whether she might take their photograph, her subjects would often enquire whether the picture would go on the television. 
New Zealand’s particular form of cultural cringe also had a bearing on how her images were received. “I think New Zealanders couldn’t bear to see themselves photographed. A lot of them I think felt that I was maybe making fun of them,” she says. “But it wasn’t that. It was the fact everything that I saw in New Zealand was just so amazing.”

Marti Friedlander

A local chemist wondered what this intense young woman was up to.

“She was one of the few woman photographers way back then. She used to come in occasionally and I’d think, ‘What the heck is she doing with photography?’” says Graham Glamuzina, who gave up his own career as a pharmacist to establish photographic store Progear. “It was a man’s game. There wasn’t a single woman, excepting Marti.”

Marti admits that, as a female, people were often uncharitable towards her.

“There were lots of assumptions in those days about me, also from the photographers, who were still struggling. They thought that because I was married to Gerrard and he was a dentist that maybe, you know, my photography was a hobby,” she says. “But Gerrard never had to pay for it. I would never have continued doing it unless I could pay for it myself.”

Undeterred by criticism, she continued exploring New Zealand, photographing everything that caught her eye. Her camera recorded the intimate details of the country’s changing face, beginning with an anti-apartheid protest at Myers Park in 1960, and traversing the sprouting suburbs of Auckland and sheep-infested hills. She describes herself as being in the right place at the right time, capturing the country as it began to metamorphose.

“My feeling was New Zealand just had to change. It was so provincial and so smugly content, and I just knew it was going to change,” she says.

To her mind, artists play a key role during pivotal moments of social upheaval and transformation.

“Behind the scenes of every movement and every change, things are happening and we don’t really have it written down in depth. The writers and the artists are the ones who are observing it and, if I may say so, the photographers,” explains Marti. “Every single photograph I took in New Zealand is an agent for change.”

For Marti, the reason why you take a photograph is its most important element.

“I feel like an activist in myself. Photography is merely an adjunct to my participation,” she says. “Photography is not only about exhibiting. It’s about your philosophy.”

This article was originally published in the October–November 2009 issue of D-Photo (Issue No. 32). Make sure you add a copy of this issue to your bookshelf now: