Projects and Research

Form and content

Ruminations on an interview with Alec Soth and Roe Etheridge at ParisPhoto L.A. 2013 – at=0

This conversation, facilitated by ParisPhoto LA and MC’d by Douglas Fogle, seemed to frame much of what is up for debate in contemporary photography today. While Soth makes a plaintive case for fraternity (via facial hair and similar age brackets) it seems clear that Etheridge and Soth are in fact poles apart; underlying schisms revealed in everything from their differing approaches to beards (hipster vs. unkempt), through their presentation prep (PDF vs PowerPoint) to their real motivation for image making. For Soth this is an attempt to push back the overwhelming tide of images that threaten to wash away any sense of specificity; it is a return to the centrality of the narrative. Etheridge, however, plays his cards relatively close to his chest throughout the piece, in contrast to Soths’ thoughtful and soul-baring contributions. For him form, and what he describes as a sort of “synesthesia” seem to be the key dictators of his design.

Etheridge enjoys masking meaning. His juxtapositions seem willfully obtuse, as if the meaning hinted at by their sequencing is there to be read only by those with a special code. He allows that he subscribes to the Jasper Johns mantra of “take a thing, do something to it, do something else to it, then stop”, and tells us that he applies this formula to aspects of design such as the organizing of background colors. Beyond that, any motivation to shape the content, be it personal, political or aesthetic is consciously withheld. Etheridge asserts that a level of frustration with the image-overload may be a motivating force, as could the desire framed by John Gossage to simply make something that annoys people. In an intriguing segment Etheridge talks about the conflicted and co-dependent states of his existence as a commercial and fine-art photographer, and one senses that a level of contempt may also feed the juxtapositions and appropriations in his work.

It may come as no surprise that I rate Soth’s work. I have long been a fan of his ability to make pictures that communicate complex human situations, and that unfold in sequences that layer and complicate meaning without ever obfuscating it. His main direction in this interview, framed as a question he posed Etheridge and that he constantly poses himself, is “why this picture?” Though Etheridge never really furnishes an answer beyond describing editing as the cooking of a good casserole, Soth spends a lot of time elucidating his reasons for making the bodies of work he has made, and one of the points that resonated strongly with me was his need to go out and have a ‘real-life experience’ in the process of making the pictures. This ultimately is what I feel invests Soth’s work with a depth and relevance that Etheridge’s lacks; this desire to connect, to head out into the world and to bring something back that ultimately reaches beyond the self.

July MFA seminar: documentation and artist statement


From the ground up.

The making of this work has relied on a series of visits to a single place and a process of co-authorship; an openness to what has been offered up at each visit.

Drilling back into the timeline of this place reveals a series of excavations, modifications, transgressions and re-purposings.

Verdant valley, consecrated ground, multi-laned highway, stoner retreat, vagrant shelter.

In this place I am at once observer and catalyst, forager and witness.

A leap of faith, the animistic magnetism of the objects themselves, the willingness to use the Force – elements that are all at play in these exchanges.

A second layer of co-authoring occurs when the objects are re-visioned and re-presented. Here these taonga are offered as meditative totems. The book provides some insight into their provenance and the ways in which they orbit and intersect each other.

Fragment (IN)

Fragment (JOHN)

Fragment (Midden I)

Fragment (Midden II )

Fragment (Midden III)

Fragment (Umber-brown)

Inkjet digital prints, various sizes


Becky Nunes, 2013


Fantail Cove

Hash said he’s had a dream telling him to come and live under Grafton Bridge. His first camp was under the big Rimu. He shared it with Allen, and they called it Base Camp One. The Government moved them on so they set up Base Camp Two further down the slope. One evening as they sat visiting with the gang girl in the Penthouse they saw a glow through the trees. Someone had stolen their stuff and set fire to the camp. Now Hash lives down the bottom, at Fantail Cove. His dad wants him to come and stay with him at Snell’s Beach, but Hash reckons that he’s on a mission here, so he’s not going.

Hash dreams of developing that lower area. With its fresh water and sloping gully sides he can imagine a fantastic water park, with a flying fox and big swings. He’s going to make a film about it.

“If I continued…

“If I continued with still photography, I would try to be more honest and direct about why I go out there and do it. And I guess the only way I could do it is with writing. I think that’s one of the hardest things to do—combine words and photographs. But I would certainly try it.”
Robert Frank 1977

This quote is referenced by Alec Soth in his latest LBM blog post.

Alec constantly references and is inspired by writers; this post weaves beautifully between the words of about three other writers and those of Soth himself.

There is no road, the road is made by walking

No hay camino, say hace camino el andar

(There is no road, the road is made by walking)

Antonio Machado from “Proverbios y cantares” in Campos de Castilla. 1912

My current investigations are taking me on foot through the centre of the city, something I used to do extensively years back and which, I now realise, I have done less and less as I have got older. As I head into the city I am being confronted by the inaccessibility of some seemingly public urban areas.

While it seems as if traversing the city as a pedestrian should be the easiest and most extensive of modes of transport, our city planning has methodically been removing access for walkers to many areas over the years simply by building roads with no pavements, and fencing off any scrub or wasteland areas. Added to this is the insalubrious nature of some of these areas, leaving a solitary female feeling a little vulnerable at times. These barriers to access heighten awareness of potential political and ecological aspects to civic planning: This planning, overtly or not, emphasises the use of the car and creates an inexorable impetus to move people on and through. A desire to linger, to wander and to walk in these places thus is imbued with a sense of transgression and of resistance, somehow pushing the urban walker to the margins.

Alongside this renewing of my acquaintance with my local neighbourhood I have been extending my reading into the many connections between walking and art, walking and resistance, walking and thinking. Beyond the idea of the derive, so beloved of the Situationists, there is a wealth of writers, poets, painters and lens-based artists for whom walking has been the method and the meditation on which they have based their practise.

W.G Sebald, in his Rings of Saturn, wrote a seminal and circular novel, describing at it’s centre the minutiae of a journey by foot through Suffolk, while at the periphery, and always tangentially, writing really about the horrors of the second WW and the holocaust.

(Sebald, W.G. (1998). The Rings of Saturn. London: New Directions Books. ISBN 978-0-8112-1378-3.)

Robert McFarlane writes in poetic prose of his encounters with the remaining wild places and fringe-dwelling people that he has encountered on foot. In The Old Ways McFarlane charts his encounters with shamen, artists, activists and sailors along the old roads and waterways of England, Scotland and abroad. Simultaneously he pulls together strands of literature from other writers and other times, making explicit a rich seam of connections from pre-history to the present, all acknowledging the centrality of walking the land to human experience.

(McFarlane, R. (2012)The old ways, a journey on foot Penguin Group)

Richard Mabey, 8 years after I was born, published The Unofficial Countryside.

Written over four seasons he charts the myriad ways that flora and fauna adapt and survive in the modified, polluted environment of greater London. He writes endearingly of the problems, both physical and emotional, of walking through inner city streets wearing binoculars, or chasing pigeons so that they would drop their food scraps for inspection, and I have a strong sense of how odd he must have appeared to many; I have felt a similar sensation many times when setting up a camera in the direction of a subject eminently unworthy or bemusing to the general passer-by. His ability to remain non-judgemental and undespairing when confronted by examples on a massive scale of the ecological havoc we were already wreaking on our environment is inspiring. Nothing is black and white when closely examined; gravel-pits and industrial waste-land are colonised by sand martins and grebes, the strafed patches of London post-World War II turn out to be the ideal breeding ground for the previously rare rosebay willowherb.

(Mabey, R (1973) The Unofficial Countryside. Little Toller Books)

Rebecca Solnit has written extensively on walking, and its engagement with politics, gender, art and history. I have recently begun to read Wanderlust-a history of walking. In this book Solnit flags the myriad threats and barriers to walking in 21st century life, counting the architectures of fear and commerce and the dictatorship of the automobile as among the worst.

Her thoughts underline and reinforce my own half-articulated feelings when walking the Auckland city streets recently.

When writing of these problems she states that “in some places it is no longer possible to be out in public, a crisis both for the private epiphanies of the solitary stroller and for public spaces democratic functions”

(Solnit, R. (2001)Wanderlust-a history of walking. Verso)

At times it seems like a strange kind of self-inflicted torture, reading books about walking when in fact I can only really get out and address my work in this way one day a week; a pilgrimage of any distance is a pipe-dream at present. Finding my material closer at hand is thus a part of the criteria for this work, necessitated by the realities of my life at present.

In strange ways however this circumscription puts me directly in contact with some of the themes I am coming to understand as important in the work.

Dealing with the local is becoming key, and so are questions of access and its attendant issues as well as a more careful and layered sense of “seeing”.

The derive, the pilgrimage, the meditative “mind at three miles an hour” (Solnit, R as above) All are aspects of pre-production and process, and are also bound up in the outcomes.

“I do the art only for myself.”…

“..I’m not doing it for an audience. I’m doing it to learn more about my own interior. That’s the only purpose. It’s my own journey into my own life. But if we take that as one point, and then look at the other point: what is the purpose of art for the third party? What do I want my art to do for the other person? To me, art should be making people delve inside. It should be a mirror for their own interiors, as I mentioned for myself. It should open them up from one part of their mind to the other part of their mind. It should be something that maybe even scares them, or gives them a jolt or shock.”

Roger Ballen, talking to Jonathan Blaustein, March 2013 on his A Photo Editor blog. It’s a great interview; to read it all, go here.

Dead rivers.

Dead rivers

Dead rivers triptych. April 2013


The pumice-dusty plains of the Rangipo Desert are thought to be sacred; the dust has issued from the heart of the maunga tapu and settled there. The ancient waterways flow from the mountains like blood. The tuna flicks it’s tail in the blue-green currents.


It seems that water has become a commodity; we can even buy tiny numbers of shares in the corporate entity that currently peddles it. Indigenous cultures have a more holistic way of living with the natural resources of the planet. Ideas of tapu and noa, (the sacred and the earthly) and the fluid states in between them imbue the Maori relationship with the whenua. What happens when large-scale corporate deities break covenant with these protocols?


There are 22 waterways currently being diverted out of the Whangaehu river catchment in Ngati Rangi tribal lands, on the flanks of Mt. Ruapehu. These waterways originate in the sacred crater lake of Ruapehu, and once carried the mauri of the tupuna awa from the mountain to the sea. They are now instead gathered into the Tongariro Power Development scheme, mixing with many other such relocated streams and rivers. Below the intakes for the TPD the riverbeds are dry.


Richard Tarnas writes of the “epistemologies of separation”, where the human is subject and the world is object.  The Enlightenment brought with it a rational science, and a “hubristic vision” of the natural world as a set of fixed conditions and immutable laws. At the apex of this thinking is man, sitting atop a pile of natural resources in an excavator. As our new century inches forward it seems clear that this seat at the top of the heap will be fleeting. Meantime the kuia of the many relocated streams and rivers whisper and confer in their enforced hui at Lake Moawhango, while Koro Ruapehu sits wreathed in cloud above them.

Rethinking the landscape in critical terms.

The New Zealand landscape offers blessings and curses in almost equal measure to those who wish to draw upon it for their work.

In particular for a photographer this land sets many challenges: The relentless glaring light, all highlight or all shadow, never both at once. The boundless vistas, constantly reproduced in calendars, postcards, annual reports, Green Party billboards and beer ads. The seeming perfection of its untouched wilderness and the apparent lack of a human history visible upon it. The sheer number of possible visual clichés available.

In simpler times (pre. the billionth upload to Flickr perhaps) a Robin Morrison photograph of a shining wet road, or a Lawrence Aberhart mountain trailing its korowai of cloud could be made; beautiful responses to the impulse to record this landscape via the lens. It is still a hard thing to resist, this framing of the land through the viewfinder, the wait for the good light, that perfect cloud.

The shine’s gone off it though, for me anyway. I still find walking the land in Aotearoa spell-binding, and making images in response to that feeling for editorial stories or for my journal is engaging, rewarding and fun. But it’s not delivering the goods for this project, although the ideas I am working with do inextricably bind me to place and thus necessitate a tussle with these issues.

As a timely signpost to a possible new direction then I have recently been gripped by Emily Apter’s essay titled “The Aesthetics of Critical Habitats”

(October 99, Winter 2002. Pp21-44. © October Magazine Ltd and MIT, herewith referred to as E.A)

It seems to me that in the same way that P.M Lee calls upon artists and art practices to analyse the conveyancing and commodification of art, (P.M Lee, Forgetting the Art World MIT Press 2012) Apter identifies and upholds the “radical pastoral” (John Kinsella, quoted in E.A p22) as a kind of geopoetics. She highlights the morphing of media and environment via globalization, and calls on an “ecologically engaged conceptualism” (E.A p22) that can operate as a “margin of critique inserted in the space where this translation process occurs” (E.A pp23)

Apter defines this critical habitat as “a concept that explores the links between territorial habitat and intellectual habitus; between physical place and ideological force field, between economy and ecology.” (E.A pp23)

I find this proposal hugely powerful and resonant within my own practice; it opens my eyes to the possibility of making work that contains, exploits and critiques the problematic aspects inherent in its own form and content.

Apter goes on to reference William Kentridge, John Kinsella, Andreas Gursky and John Klima in relation to her proposition. Of the four, in relation to this embedding of political critique into the geopoetic, I am most engaged by Kentridge and Gursky.

Kentridge’s works seem to contain the most explicit motifs of political resistance, highlighting as they do the relationship between labour and capital, and pointing out, in his words “the inherent connections between ecology and civil rights” (William Kentridge in William Kentridge London Phaidon Press Ltd 1999 p.108, and extracted from E.A p21) Gursky’s motives seem more opaque; the artist taking a more ambiguous and less overtly critical position in his role as commodity-creator. Gursky’s almost-seamless digital manipulations, Apter suggests, “all serve to intensify the image of nature, and this extreme technological intensification gives nature back an image of itself as visual ideology” (E.A p39)

There are aspects of both positions that I find compelling. While I do not aspire to creating the deadpan poker-face of a Gursky work, I can strongly connect with the way he uses the digital building blocks of the images themselves to subtly subvert their origins, as well as to subvert and mislead the responses of the viewer.

The raw passion and energy in Kentridge’s films are extremely powerful. I enjoy their macabre aspects, the noir palette, the audio and the low-fi aspects of his use of technology. I also relate to the more open and authentic expression of a political position that I think I can access in his works.

I have begun to experiment with some of these ideas and methodologies in my new work. I am already reacting against the more low-fi processes (my slick commercial kneejerk response to anything unresolved getting in the way here) whilst in the other direction I don’t want to disappear into a microcosm of pixel manipulation either. I have a sense that the most useful results will come when I have pushed too far in both directions.

On pilgrimages, road-trips and the states in-between. Or, how a photographer may find the world.

There are many possible pitfalls in undertaking work that pivots on ideas of covenants, faith, visions, and miracles.

Not the least of these is the strong possibility that the work will veer off-course in one direction, and onto the sharp rocks of parody, or another and into the over-soft swampland of piousness. Even writing about these potential disasters can bring about an appalling urge to metaphor.

Gentle satire may in fact be the desired intention for the work, such as is the bass note in Swandown. (Fly Film/Channel 4 2012) In this film, made by Andrew Kotting and Ian Sinclair, a mock-Homerian voyage is undertaken from Hastings to London in a swan-shaped pedalo. Although there are undoubtedly elements of real difficulty to overcome in the journey, one reoccurring impression is of a self-conscious mockery; both of the “epic’ voyage undertaken, and of the 2012 Olympic hubris happening in London and the U.K at the time. In addition to these political elements there are quiet revelations of the landscape and poetic juxtapositions played out via the cinematography and the chance encounters along the way. The film balances any propensity to pompous political critique or overly sentimental odes to the English landscape by using the visual elements of surreal silliness in a beautifully poised way.

Without this level of self-awareness at play, there is a real risk that a project can sink beneath a weight of condescension, self-righteousness or didactic irrelevance. These are risks faced by photographers working in a post-documentary world. How can stories be told that are engaging, empathetic and complex, without reverting to the conventional triangulated relationship of artist-subject-viewer and the inferred and problematic hierarchies contained within those positions?

Photographers who go out into the world to find and tell these stories are increasingly looking at ways to combine still images, text and moving image. These combinations can more accurately mirror the complexities of our relationship to the material, and offer multiple levels of representation.

An example of the utilisation of some of these combinations can be found in Alec Soth’s recent work, made in North Dakota at the height of the current oil boom, and commissioned by the NY Times. file://localhost/(http/

Soth’s set of stark and rich B&W images are presented with detailed captions and quotes from the subjects, and they were made in tandem with a short video, produced by Soth but shot and directed by Isaac Gale. (

In reading the credits it becomes clear that there was a deep level of collaboration between the two artists, as Soth is also the interviewer for the video work. Indeed the two bodies of work combine to create a more extended work once both have been viewed. Soth’s stills are amplified and given a cinematic richness of backstory once the video has been viewed. This does not impoverish the experience of viewing the still images; they stand alone as crisply rendered photographic moments, containing an unflinching level of detail and depth-of-field that delivers a textural subtext of its own around the black oil, the white snow and all the tones in-between.

Making work that incorporates elements of a search or the visual tracking of a series of clues in the landscape within its process also runs the risk of devolving into something more opportunistic and potentially shallow, lazy or exploitative; the road-trip-with-camera formula.

This methodology is occasioned in part by a rich tradition in photography from its earliest days. Since Ansel Adams packed a darkroom onto the back of a mule and headed into Yosemite, the urge to head into the wilderness with a camera and record the wonders of the world is one that many photographers have succumbed to. This is not to deny that such urges have resulted in brilliant and breathtaking bodies of work. The trajectory of contemporary photography has been propelled along lines traversed by Eggleston, Friedlander, Stephen Shore, Robert Adams and many more. Each of these photographers have combined in varying degrees a need to tell a human story with the desire to find it in a world beyond their own. In the current world of the contemporary Stephen Gill inserts the ephemera of his travels into his cameras and images, staining and burying the prints in the land he photographs. Ryan McGinley seamlessly slides between the worlds of fashion, commerce and art with his staged and semi-staged large-scale photographs of an idealised American youth in the landscape.  Christian Patterson plays the role of detective, following in the footsteps of a notorious couple of murderers in the American mid-west, finding and photographing clues along the way. All these practitioners have a strong and clearly articulated intention for the work, and if only one thing exists before the journey begins it is this.

To guard against the potential problems for my project outlined above then, it seems then that the notions of intention & self-awareness become central tenets of the process, and can perhaps be best described collectively as the integrity of the work.

It seems useful therefore to begin making a list of ingredients that might go to make up this elusive integrity.

Ideas around globalisation, the contemporary and the ways in which an artist can hope to be disruptive, brought to the fore in the January seminar, are a good place to start when thinking about intentionality.

Self-awareness is a more slippery proposition. The position of the self as author of the work informs every process and decision, albeit often in only partially articulated ways. This position is a complex one; social and humanist ideals sit uneasily alongside the history of representation in documentary practice, and rub shoulders awkwardly with ambition and academic achievement.

At best perhaps these two themes can be further developed and investigated, offering themselves as a compass along the way to measure how far off course my process is taking me.

A review of “Forgetting the Art World” by P.M Lee (MIT Press, 2012)

There is something a little un-nerving in reviewing only the introduction of a book; a small internal voice whispers that you have missed the central platform of the argument and thus are making an ass of yourself; if you had only read the entire book you would have understood all.

This anxious feeling is lessened somewhat by the exhaustive nature of P.M. Lee’s dense introduction to her book: “Forgetting the Art World”. And exhaustive it is. My powers of literary cognisance are admittedly a little rusty, and so it took me quite a while to come to grips with the historical and philosophical frameworks that Lee puts in place in the first 22 pages of her introduction. Here she delineates her themes of the “art world” and the “world of the work of art”. She painstakingly sets up a progression of ideas surrounding these concepts, from Danto’s rarefied, heavenly art world floating above the 60’s, through Lawrence Alloway’s writing on art as a system propagated via networks, and on to George Yudice, who describes the fall from Paradise as the “culturalisation of the economy”, a process whereby culture becomes a crucial part of capital. Once she has arrived at this point in art history and in a reversal of Danto’s image Lee appeals for a closer look at the underbelly of the “work of art’s world” from our position below it.

My uptake of Lee’s ideas really takes off from this point on, as she begins to mediate her theories of globalization and art via specific artists and their work.

Lee laces her evocative critical descriptions of Steve McQueen’s films Gravesend and Unexploded with coherent and compelling arguments for their indissolubility from the phenomenon that they themselves interrogate. This, she says, is the crux of the process of art in a globalized “world of the work of art”.

Lee goes on to outline a series of chapters, each utilizing an artist or collective of artists as the prism through which to view these Mobius-like ideas of art as both product and instigator of globalization. At the heart of these themes there is a challenge for any artist engaged with the process of making art, to consider their own place in this endless circularity and co-dependency. Lee asks me to complicate and worry about the relationship between these worlds, and in this introduction extends an invitation to play an active role both as viewer and maker.

In this heightened state of complication and worry I came across a short piece in the February Vanity Fair magazine. (Surely the perfect example of the conflation of culture and capital, and a guilty monthly pleasure.) In this piece, entitled The Diplomacy of Art, and written by Hillary Clinton, we learn about “art as a tool of diplomacy”. The article describes the creation of the Art in Embassies program, initiated by MoMA in 1953 and formalized by J.F.K in 1963. Since then the work of more than 4,000 primarily American artists has been showcased in U.S Embassies and Consulates around the world. Mrs. Clinton’s final remarks are illuminating in the context of cultural capital and the slippery political nature of globalization.  She says:

“Just think about what an exhibition of American and local artists means to someone across the world yearning to express himself or herself.”

This fervent expression of a desire, one that most non-Americans would describe as nostalgic at best, to march metaphorically and artistically into the hearts and minds of the global community, sits somewhat uncomfortably alongside the double-page spread group portrait that accompanies it. From the balcony of the U.S State Department in Washington, with a backdrop of a dusky twilight and the Great Seal of the U.S.A, stare out a group of superstar artists; all adorned with gold medals hanging from blue ribbons around their necks, and expressions that range from the severe and the smug to the ecstatic. These artists look like nothing less than war heroes, wearing their spoils from the battle.

An additional layer of frisson is added by the knowledge that this group portrait has been made by Todd Eberle, he who regularly photographs the homes of the uber-wealthy for the same magazine.

In conclusion, I do think it is a bridge too far to stop reading Vanity Fair over breakfast. However P.M Lee has prevented me from doing so in future in quite such a state of blissful mindlessness. Now I think I shall have to read the rest of the book.

Vanity Fair. Feb 2013
Vanity Fair. Feb 2013