Interview:Gregory O'Brien author of See What I Can See: New Zealand Photography for the Young and Curious

Liam Butler

Liam has been reviewing books, movies and music for a bit of light relief since his student days.

Interview Gregory O'Brien author of See What I Can See: New Zealand Photography for the Young and Curious

Auckand University Press $34.99


New Zealand is known for its scenic beauty how do our photographers also celebrate things that are hidden away?

SEE WHAT I CAN SEE surveys the work of some of New Zealand's most exciting and radical photographers. So you won't find a lot of obviously beautiful 'scenic' photography in the book. But you will find images that are beautiful, alluring, puzzling and even at times (pleasurably) bamboozling. Photographers--like other artists--aim to see what lies beneath the surface and beyond the obvious. The book is full of surprises and drama. It's full of life itself, I would say. As an account of growing up and being alive in New Zealand I'd like to think the book is a treasure trove. Certainly, for me, it was an illuminating and immensely pleasurable project to bring together.

When I look at the book, it is more than a book about photography--it is a book about celebrating life through looking, the art of seeing, and paying attention to the world around us in all its wonder and diversity.

Caption: Max Oettli, Department Store, Auckland, 1972

How does photography enable people learn more about culture and heighten interest in other people’s daily lives?

With over 100 photographs featured, the book presents New Zealand culture in all its variety and energy. Younger readers, in particular, will enjoy the way so many of the photographs hint at stories. I'm hoping the book will inspire many readers to write poems or stories. It will also, I hope, inspire people to take interesting photographs themselves, and think about new approaches to taking photos.

There are some very funny images in the book (a girl licks the moving handrail on an escalator; a schoolboy stands, like Elvis, in front of a microphone...) but there are also images that are tender, exhilarating and even tragic. Photography is packed with details from our different cultures, from our history and from our imaginings. The work of the photographer is to make an image of a specific thing or person or event in such a way that it means many things to many people--to bring it to a kind of poetic life.

Through photographs, we stay in touch with our past, yet it also challenges us to see the present in new ways. The act of 'seeing' is at the heart of the book--whether it is the photographer doing the 'seeing', or us, the readers of the book.

Caption: Mary Macpherson, Desks, Auckland 2014

Where would you like to put selfie sticks?

The book highlights and celebrates many ways of taking photographs. We get lost in the beautiful tonality of 100-year-old silver gelatin prints; there's plenty of black and white in the book, as well as some glorious colour. There's traditionally printed as well as digital work. Photography has always been a very broad art form. I think it's great that people make images, however they go about it. There are selfies in the book! There's a recent one of a boy with a missing tooth and a hundred-year old selfie taken by Margaret Matilda White.

The important thing is that we keep looking, curiously and imaginatively, at the world around us and at ourselves as well. I think the 'selfie stick' will, eventually, be used to create some great works of photographic art. On occasion, it can be very annoying if someone pulls out the 'stick'--as it can if someone holds their laptop above their head at a concert. But photography, as an art form has always moved forward as the technology has developed.... I hope SEE WHAT I CAN SEE opens up all sorts of possibilities, rather than limiting photography to working in a particular way.

cp-gregory-obrienSomething About Gregory...

Magpie-minded poet, painter, curator and critic; based in Wellington, he ranges widely.

Gregory O’Brien spent much of his early life in Auckland, where he trained as a journalist and worked as a newspaper reporter in Northland before returning to study art history and English at The University of Auckland. He migrated south to Wellington in 1990, where he still lives with his partner, poet Jenny Bornholdt.

As an artist, O’Brien has held solo exhibitions and participated in group shows in Auckland, Wellington and elsewhere. He has illustrated the work of other New Zealand writers – among them C. K. Stead, Elizabeth Smither, Bill Manhire and Michael King. His artworks can be found on book covers in New Zealand, Australia, England, Germany, Holland and Russia.

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